Outside magazine, April 1996
After years of government oppression, the country that gave us Genghis Khan, the Attilla the Hun Show, and possibly the first Americans is rolling out the welcome mat. On an archaeological tress-hunt in the land of beneficent horsemen.By Tim Cahill
There were a dozen of us, riding the immense central Asian grassland on sturdy Mongolian horses. When I glanced back for a view of the glacier and the sacred mountain we had just come from, I saw two tiny specks inching down the steep, windswept hillside. I turned in my saddle and glassed the hill with a small Russian telescope. The riders were coming toward us at a stiff trot. They were at least two miles back and about 1,000 feet above us. Each man held something in his right hand. I could plainly see the glint of metal.
"They carrying?" one of the Americans asked.
"Yeah," I said, "both of them."
Bayaraa Sanjaasuren, our translator, conveyed the information to the Mongolian wranglers. This was serious: We had yogurt riders on our tail.
"Tchoo," half a dozen men shouted at once.
"Tchoo" is the Mongolian equivalent of "giddyup." Mongolian horses respond smartly to "tchoo," no matter who says it. Guy next to you says "tchoo," you're off at a gallop. We were riding 12 abreast because Mongols do not ride in single file. A defeated army, they say, rides in single file. And now, with the dreaded yogurt riders in pursuit, our little party sounded like the whole first grade trying to imitate a locomotive.
"Tchoo, tchoo, tchoo..."
Significantly, there is no Mongolian word for "whoa."
We'd been riding eight to 12 hours a day, every day, for a week, and I was fairly comfortable in the old Russian cavalry saddle I'd been given, made from a pair of metal hoops on a wooden frame covered in peeling leather stuffed with horsehair. The stirrups were metal hoops connected to the frame with rawhide straps. The Mongols rode ornate, hand-carved wooden saddles, the best of them festooned with beaten silver medallions.
"Tchoo," I said, and stood up a bit in the saddle so my horse could stretch into a gallop.
The ground we were approaching, however, was humped up in marshy tussocks characteristic of soil that is permanently frozen a few feet below the surface. We were only at about 48 degrees north--the latitude of Seattle--but cold fronts originating in Siberia flow down the great Yenisey River, northern Asia's Amazon, and funnel into Mongolia. Nowhere else in the hemisphere does permafrost extend so far south.
Trees cannot grow in permafrost, and here, in the shadow of the mountain called Otgon Tenger, with bare hills rising to 10,000 feet on all sides, we were sitting ducks. We could run, but we couldn't hide. There were no fences, no trees, no telephone poles, no buildings, no cattle or livestock of any kind. It was just us: 11 men and one woman, along with several packhorses and a string of remounts, all of us dwarfed under the immense vault of the sky.
Had we all been Mongolian, we might have had a chance. But there were seven Americans in our group, and with one exception we couldn't outpace a pair of determined Mongolian horsemen with only a two-mile lead.
As we hit the marshland, our horses settled into a short, hammering trot, which is the gait favored by Mongol riders who want to make time. Mongol herdsmen churn butter by strapping a jug of milk to the saddle and trotting for ten minutes. This is the truth. I had a bottle of aspirin in my saddle kit, and it had long ago been reduced to powder.
Every night, as I tried to massage whatever it was that was sore and measured out my dose of powdered aspirin, I thought about this: Mongols have a reputation as the best horsemen on earth, while their horses have what must be the world's most punishing gait. It was, I concluded, the nature of the land itself--swampy, studded with grassy hummocks and pocked with marmot holes--that produced this jackhammer trot.
The horses knew the land, and they made their way over it in a jouncing, weaving sort of way. The short punishing gait--I wasn't the only American who called it the Mongolian Death Trot--fit the terrain perfectly. A horse that extended, that stretched out his trot or gallop, was a horse that was going to break a leg, which is to say it was a dead horse. Mongolia is a harsh land, and only the fittest survive.
Our Mongol companions, raised in the saddle, simply stood up in their stirrups on legs made of steel springs and pneumatic shock absorbers. The trot was too bouncy for me to raise and lower myself in the saddle, as Western riders do. I could stand, like the Mongols, but for only a few minutes at a time. Sitting, I had the sensation of internal organs shaking loose. When I looked back after an hour, the yogurt riders had halved the distance between us.
Mongolia, sometimes called outer Mongolia, is an independent country. Inner Mongolia, which borders Mongolia on the east, is part of China, and it was the Chinese who coined what has become a hated term: Inner Mongolia is closer to Beijing; Outer Mongolia is farther away.
In fact, the country isn't outer to anywhere. It's set square in the center of Asia and lies between Russian Siberia to the north and China to the south. It is protected by impressive natural boundaries: The Altai Mountains rise to 14,000 feet in the west; to the north are the dense forests of the Siberian taiga; to the south and east is the Gobi Desert, the coldest, most northerly desert on earth, a place where trekkers still find dinosaur bones scattered across the gravel-like sands. The average altitude is a mile above sea level, making Mongolia one of the highest countries in the world.
Landlocked, mountainous, and far from the moderating influence of any ocean, Mongolia offers some truly operatic weather: 90-degree summer days, 60-below winter nights, and 24-hour temperature swings of more than 80 degrees. John of Plano Carpini, an Italian friar who visited Mongolia in 1245, called the weather "astonishingly irregular." He experienced "fierce thunder and lightning" that "caused the death of many men, and at the same time...heavy falls of snow." Carpini lived through an absurdly fierce hailstorm, which was followed by such warm weather that the resultant flash flood killed 160 people. He thought the country "more wretched than I could possibly say."
There was a time when geographers, expressing a kind of universal medieval dread, called Mongolia "the dead heart of Asia." The people who survived there were supposedly barbarians, nomadic herdsmen with no culture and no interest in agriculture. Every few centuries, these "uncivilized" Mongols came bursting out of their high, cold plateau on horseback to conquer anyone who stood in their way. Once, in the thirteenth century, they ruled the known world.
Mongols, like many people who live in cold climates, tend to be physically bigger than their southern neighbors, and I imagined them pouring down on, say, the smaller Chinese: armies of huge men on fast horses wearing boiled-leather armor, their faces smeared with sheep fat against the cold and wind and sun.
So thundering across the steppes on a Mongolian horse in company with Mongol horsemen carried a certain savage hormonal rush, like tearing up the highway on a Harley with a pack of Hell's Angels.
But the horses, when I first saw them, didn't inspire confidence. They were small and ratty, with big, gawky heads. No animal was of any single color. They were all half-wild, and there was a rodeo every morning when we tried to saddle them up. Flapping rain jackets spooked them. Shadows cast by the campfire set them bucking. A sneeze could start a stampede.
On the other hand, they were fast and by far the toughest horses I'd ever ridden. They could survive in conditions that would kill any other horse. The animals grazed on their own--they were never fed--and yet endured 60-below winter nights, cutting through snow and ice with their hooves for something to eat. Our horses routinely put in 30-mile days, unshod, racking up as much as 8,000 feet of altitude change. And they did it day after tireless day.
The herdsmen inspected their horses for sores or bruises, doctored them when it was necessary, and rested them when they were tired. They knew each horse intimately--probably saw it born, probably broke it--but they were never sentimental. Mongols name their horses about as often as Americans name their cars.
The horses served the same function as cars. They were transportation devices, meant to be kept in superb running condition. Out on the roadless grassland, a horse was the essential link to the outside world: to the market, to the nearest town or school or hospital.
Mongols in the countryside learn to ride at about the time they learn to walk. Not one of them has ever attended Miss Prissy's Academy of Equine Etiquette. They gallop right up behind you and give your horse a smart swat on the backside if they want to race. And in my experience, they always want to race.
For what it's worth, I thought the American contingent was a fairly impressive group. Arlene Burns, a well-known river guide, had been Meryl Streep's rowing coach for the movie The River Wild and, I believe, the model for Streep's character. I recognized the confidence, the athletic swagger, even the hairstyle.
Christoph Schork was a pilot and ski instructor in Idaho. He rode his own horse in marathon 100-mile mountain races and was the only one of us who might have had a chance against the yogurt riders.
Dave Edwards was working on a photography book about men who hunted with eagles in the Altai Mountains. He guided horse trips out of northern Mongolia to pay his expenses. Jackson Frishman, 18, was the son of a woman Dave had guided with when he worked the Grand Canyon. Jackson had a lot of whitewater experience and wanted to be a river guide himself. Michael Abbot, a computer networking expert, was an avid fly fisherman who'd spent a good deal of time camping along salmon and steelhead streams in Alaska.
Kent Madin, of Boojum Expeditions, was our guide. We were all getting a break on the price of the trip because it was an exploratory. Kent had never been to this area of Mongolia before and couldn't vouch for the quality of the horses we'd ride or the wranglers who'd ride with us. There were no guarantees. Whatever happened, happened.
What happened was yogurt riders, not to mention a certain carefree esprit in the giddy realm of you-cut hairstyling.
In my saddle kit I had eight plastic bags full of human hair, cut from the heads of Mongol men and women. It was what I had traveled to Mongolia to get. I am a member of the advisory board of the Center for the Study of the First Americans, located at Oregon State University, where they fervently believe that the earth is a giant hairball.
Although no one knows how much, humans shed an enormous amount of hair. Cosmeticians figure 170 strands a day. If that's correct, the average human being sheds a little more than 3.5 million hairs over a 60-year life span. The figure is significant to the cutting edge of archaeology.
Not far from my home in south-central Montana, there are several "early man" sites; one was populated by humans as early as 14,000 years ago. There's a lot of naturally shed hair buried at those sites. Previously archaeologists discarded hair in their digs, instead focusing on bone fragments and stone artifacts. But there were problems with this approach. The first was cultural: Some Native American groups saw the exhumation of bone fragments as a kind of grave robbing. And though stone artifacts, such as Clovis points, could be dated by standard techniques, that shed very little light on the identity of the people who made them. If Clovis points were effective, wouldn't various groups have used them, humans being human? Is someone who drives a Honda Japanese or American, African or Latin?
The study of human hair at prehistoric campsites does not desecrate graves and provides important information about the people buried there. Race can be accurately determined by DNA analysis, which is the work being done at the Center for the Study of the First Americans. Field and lab research are focused on the single question, Who were the first Americans?
The theory, of course, is that during the last ice age, when great volumes of water were concentrated at the poles and in various glaciers, the sea level was perhaps 400 feet lower than it is today. The Bering Strait, now a 53-mile-wide waterway separating Asia and North America, was left high and dry. The people who crossed it were probably Asian. My mission for the Center for the Study of the First Americans was to collect samples of Mongolian hair, bring them back through customs, and send them to Oregon State University, where they could be compared with 10,000-year old strands dug up outside Melville, Montana. It is possible that the ancestors of the people who today call themselves Mongols--the ancestors of the men I was riding with, of the men pursuing us with pails of yogurt--were "the first Americans."
The air route to Mongolia required A three-day layover in Beijing. There I hired a taxi and drove two hours through the countryside to visit a section of the Great Wall, the largest construction project in the history of the world. The wall is some 3,947 miles long and 30 feet high, and its existence has everything to do with Mongols and the fear of Mongols. In the fourth century B.C., the Chinese suffered the first of what would be many attacks by fierce, nomadic herdsmen living to the north and west. Almost immediately, they began building the wall.
The ramparts I saw ran along the razored ridgetops of mountains rising several thousand feet above the rich agricultural lands to the east. There were guard towers every hundred yards or so and slit windows for archers. The land to the west, terrain that attackers would have to traverse, was little more than a steep talus slope. No way could enemies on horseback breach that wall.
Those ancient marauding horsemen, the Hsiung-nu, are thought to be ancestors of the people who were to call themselves Mongols. The Hsiung-nu, sometimes called Huns, would be the same folks who brought Europe the Attila the Hun Show in the fifth century A.D.
At the time, the Hsiung-nu was a fairly diverse group of warring tribes living rather like the American Plains Indians. Superb horsemen and archers, they believed that everything--mountains, rivers, rocks, hillsides--possessed a spirit. They particularly worshiped the sky, which they called Tenger, a brilliant blue dome that arches over the rolling grasslands of the steppes. It is a felt presence: Asian Big Sky Country with a vengeance.
It was Genghis Khan, born in 1167, who unified the feuding tribes--the hunter-gatherers of the northern forests, the camel breeders of the Gobi Desert, the herdsmen of the grasslands. In 1206, after years of warfare, a triumphant Khan declared himself "the ruler of all those who live in felt tents."
The people who lived in felt tents probably numbered two million. The great Khan, directing a Mongol army of only 130,000, conquered the known world and established the largest empire that ever was and probably ever will be. Genghis, his sons, and his grandsons ruled from southern Siberia to Syria and from the Pacific all the way to the Adriatic.
Mongol horsemen sometimes rode 80 miles a day over deserts or mountains that others thought to be impassable. In Europe, they were known as "Hell's Horsemen." To the east, the Great Wall was little more than a speed bump on the way to Beijing, where Kublai Khan, Genghis's grandson, built his Xanadu. He said, "A wall is only as good as those who defend it."
Probably because of the harsh, irregular climate, Mongolia, the fifth-largest country in Asia, is also the least populated. Only 2.3 million people inhabit an area larger than England, France, Germany, and Italy combined. About a third of them live in the capital city, Ulan Bator.
This was a little hard for me to fathom, because Ulan Bator did not sing sweetly to the soul. It was a town of rectangular cement buildings--Soviet style apartment blocks--with peeling, pockmarked facades that appeared to be bleeding, the result, I saw on closer inspection, of rusting fire escapes. Packs of starving dogs slunk about in the alleys, cringing and snarling.
Our group had been picked up at the airport by the director of the Mongolian Democratic Party Travel Company, the estimable Batchuluun ("call me Baagi") Sanjaasuren, 37, a big, hearty man with big, round muscles. He looked remarkably like a Crow Indian artist I know in Montana.
Our translator, Bayaraa Sanjaasuren, was a few years younger, slender, elegant, and highly educated. One of the first things these men taught us how to say was--I render this phonetically--"mee Mer-ee-koon," which means "I'm an American." Caucasian people, Baagi explained, were often taken for Russians and sometimes had the snot kicked out of them on the street by roving gangs of unemployed and angry young Mongolians. Americans, on the other hand, were highly welcome for a variety of reasons.
To wit: After the long reign of the Khans, Mongolia fell under Chinese domination. By 1911, Inner Mongolia was annexed to China. Just after the Russian Revolution in 1917, defeated anticommunist forces in Outer Mongolia, led by the "Mad Baron" Roman von Unger-Sternberg, took Ulan Bator, then called Urga. The Mad Baron specialized in citywide arson and mass executions. Mongolian freedom fighters, notably a man known only as Sukhebaatar, thwarted the remnant Chinese warlords in Urga and eventually captured the Mad Baron, who was promptly executed. The capital was renamed Ulan Bator ("Red Hero"), and in 1921 Mongolia declared itself a communist state, the second country in the world to do so.
Very quickly, Mongolia became a Soviet client, marching in lockstep with the USSR. It had its own secret service, its own purges, and its own little Stalin, a mass murderer named Choybalsan. Buddhism was seen as a threat to the state. Soldiers burst into lamaseries, shot the monks, and buried the corpses in mass graves. Nomadic herdsmen found themselves members of collectives. They were encouraged to move to towns, where they could become industrial workers, striving for progress. Mongolian script was replaced with the Cyrillic alphabet. Discussions of Mongol heritage were ill-advised. The very mention of Genghis Khan was an embarrassment to Moscow, in that the great Khan and his descendants had ruled large parts of Russia for more than 300 years. Politically correct thinking was the order of the day. Here, from the 1987 book Modern Mongolian Poetry, is the celebrated poet Tsevegmidyn Gaitav with a stirring effort titled "Our Party":
Illuminating our road
And so it went, until the people got pretty damn sick and tired of all that sagacious illumination. The first demonstrations started in the spring of 1990. Many people carried signs reading MURINDOO, which means "mount up" and had been the battle cry of Genghis and his warriors. The Mongolian Communist Party, perceiving that it was riding a razor edge on the arc of history, voted to dissolve itself.
Soviet soldiers pulled out of the country, and Russia cut its subsidies. By 1992, Mongolia was in a poor way, unable to feed itself or employ its workers.
Baagi, driving down the muddy streets on the outskirts of Ulan Bator, said the country was grateful for an influx of foreign aid from the United States, among others. "We know," Baagi said, "that the money comes from taxes American people pay. Mongolians want to thank the American people."
We passed Sukhebaatar Square, where the demonstrations had begun. Baagi and Bayaraa had both been active early-on in the Mongolian National Democratic Party, which advocated social reform, a free-market economy, and, inexplicably I thought at the time, a national diet that included more vegetables.
Looking out at the street scene, it was clear that the times had changed. Robed Buddhist monks strolled across the square, a vast stone expanse where a statue of Stalin had once stood. I could hear the tinny sound of someone playing "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" on a boom box. The Beatles were very popular in Ulan Bator. Huge hawks buzzed the statue of Sukhebaatar, and men with ancient cameras took black-and-white souvenir photos of herdsmen in town for what might be a once-in-a-lifetime visit.
At dinner in a new hotel, one of several springing up around town, Baagi explained how he'd fallen into the travel business. In 1993, as an early member of the Mongolian National Democratic Party, he'd visited the United States on an international goodwill trip. One of the stops was Bozeman, Montana, where he met Kent Madin and Linda Svendsen, whose company, Boojum Expeditions, had been running horseback trips in Inner Mongolia for more than a decade. The couple had even been married there in a Mongolian ceremony. International goodwill led to a business arrangement: Boojum provided the paying clients, and Baagi provided in-country logistics.
Before, during, and after dinner, we drank toasts to the American taxpayer, to free speech, to a free-market economy, to the Mongolian National Democratic Party, to the American Republican Party (which was advising the MNDP on grassroots organizing), and to the new Mongolia, a country finally free to consume more vegetables. The vodka was Mongolian, a popular new brand called Genghis Khan.
The next day, we took a Mongolian airlines jet from Ulan Bator to a town called Uliastai. At the airport there, one of seven in the country with a paved runway, a young Mongolian fellow walked toward me, dropped a shoulder into my chest, knocked me back a step or two, and kept right on going. Five paces later, he turned and started toward me again. It was a going to be a series of slow-motion assaults.
"He thinks you're Russian," Bayaraa explained.
"Hey," I said, "mee Mer-ee-koon."
"Ah!" The young man stopped and smiled. "Sain bainuu?" he asked politely. How are you?
" Sain bainaa," I said. Fine. "Sain bainuu?"
And then there was a lot of Mongolian-style handshaking, in which you grab each other's elbows and nod and smile like mad. The guy ended up helping us load our luggage into a dilapidated, slick-tired bus. He was glad to help. We weren't Russians. We were Mer-ee-koons.
Soon the bus was bashing its way into the mountains along a narrow, rutted dirt road. We drove through herds of sheep and goats and yaks, which looked to me like fringed Herefords. There are 25 million head of livestock in Mongolia, about ten times the human population, and according to my Mongolian language tapes, the third thing a polite person says to another--after How are you? and How's your family?--is, Mal sureg targan tavtaiyuu? How's your livestock?
In the pasture lands rising from the road, men on horseback worked the yaks very much the way Montana ranchers work cattle. But instead of ropes, they used rawhide loops set on the end of long poles. The poles, Bayaraa told me, serve a double purpose. Stick one upright in the ground anywhere and no one will approach. In this treeless grassland, it was one way for a man and woman to ensure themselves a little privacy. It was also a symbol of virility.
Fifty miles east of Uliastai, the cruel joke of a road ended in an attempt at a hot springs resort, a series of whacked-together wooden buildings originally put up for Communist Party bigwigs. The place looked embarrassed, like a man in a tux at a beer party. All the other structures in the countryside, without exception, were round felt tents, basically unchanged since the time Genghis declared himself "ruler of all those who live in felt tents." They looked like white puffball mushrooms and were called gers. Don't say "yurt." Russians say "yurt."
The wranglers watched as we set up our American tents. They thought our gers were flimsy, but they liked the portability; it took several hours to take down a Mongolian ger.
The wranglers seemed shy, and they smiled constantly, nervously. In the saddle, though, these same men laughed and sang unselfconsciously, utterly at home. In Montana, we'd call them "can-do cowboys." Our head wrangler, Lhagra, a lean, unflappable man in his fifties, took it upon himself to coach me in matters Mongolian. The wraparound jackets all the men wore were called dels. The sleeves could be rolled down to warm the hands in cold weather, and the sash that held the garment together was a handy place to stash a knife. The oversize boots with turned-up toes were called gutuls. For 70 years, children had been taught in school that gutuls were a symbol of Mongolian subservience to religion. You can drop to your knees so much easier in boots with turned-up toes. Actually, Lhagra explained, the boots are designed to slip easily into the stirrups and to show respect for the earth: Turned-up toes don't tear into the ground.
I learned a Mongolian saddle song about a young camel in the Gobi Desert, just starting off on his first caravan. It is late in the day, and the shadows fall long across the sands. The camel is leaving his mother for the first time. Here the song breaks into a lot of mournful ululation that is fairly easy to do, given the jouncing gait of a Mongolian horse. The singer then expresses a similar love for his own mother. Mongolian songs never concern death, divorce, or unrequited love. Life is hard enough.
We were circumnavigating Otgon Tenger--"Young Sky"--which is, at 12,982 feet, the highest point in Mongolia's Hangay Range. The peak itself was hidden behind other, smaller mountains, and we got our first clear glimpse of it when we topped out on a pass at 10,300 feet. Tradition required that we stop and pay our respects to the mountain at an elaborate oorchlokh, a construction of sticks and poles built tepee-like on an altar of stones. Tattered blue prayer flags tied to the poles snapped in the wind. There were cigarettes and bank notes and pieces of hard cheese piled on the stones. We walked three times around the oorchlokh, tied hairs from our horses' manes to the poles, and left our offerings.
We led the horses down a steep talus slope above an enormous river valley. It was impossible to estimate distance or to figure the size of the river below, because their were no trees or gers or livestock to measure against the immensity of the land. Lhagra said he saw riders moving along the bank. I couldn't even spot them with my pocket telescope.
The riders, two men in their early twenties, joined us for a short time, which in Mongolian terms meant two days. We nicknamed them for their looks: the Movie Star and Bad Hair Day, who had about a dozen swirling cowlicks on his head. The strange style made him look perpetually startled.
The men were out marmot hunting and would sell the skins for a good price at a market in Uliastai. The Movie Star carried a Russian .22-caliber rifle and a bipod strapped to his back. He wore a white sheet over his del and a kind of white do-rag hat topped with ludicrous rodent ears. Marmots, I was given to understand, stay close to their burrows and disappear into them at the slightest hint of danger. They are curious, however, and might stand still for a moment when faced with the eerie specter of a man dressed like the marmot angel of death.
In a book of mongolian folktales, I found this cautionary narrative:
A hungry wolf comes upon a horse mired in the mud. The wolf prepares for a feast, but the horse asks him whether he shouldn't pull his meal out of the mud first. So the wolf performs this chore and prepares, once again, to eat. But shouldn't the wolf first clean his food? the horse argues. The wolf acknowledges that this might be a good idea and licks the mud off the horse. The wolf is finally ready to dig in when the horse says, "Hey, there's some writing on the hoof of my hind leg. Before you eat me, read that, please." The curious wolf walks around the horse, who lifts one of his hind legs and easily bashes in the wolf's skull with a single kick.It seemed to me that much of the etiquette I was learning had to do with never having to tell yourself, "I'm stupid and now I am dying." The Mongolian handshake, for instance, the grabbing of elbows, assured each person that neither was carrying a concealed weapon. In a ger, a man took his knife out of his sash and let it hang on a long cord, out of arm's reach. Snuff bottles were accepted in the right hand, while the left hand was placed on the right elbow.
And then there was the matter of the dogs. When approaching a ger, it was polite to yell, "Tie up your dogs!" There were always several around any ger, snarling and snapping at the horses' hooves. These dogs, called "brown eyes" for the golden eyebrows most of them had, were big, German shepherd-like animals with enormous heads and deep chests. These were not the cringing dogs of Ulan Bator. They were well fed, powerful, and protective--dogs that guarded livestock and sometimes fought off wolves. A couple of them could easily kill a man. It was stupid not to yell, "Tie up your dogs."
Our friend Bad Hair Day, it turned out, had been mauled by a dog when he was younger. I felt a little bad about the name we'd assigned him when he let me examine his scalp, which was a twisted mass of angry scars.
Mongolia is one of the most sparsely populated countries on earth, and we sometimes rode days between gers. The ones we did see were usually clustered in groups of four to eight. There was always a single wooden pole out front, a hitching post brought from somewhere else where trees grew. A saddled horse was tethered to every pole I saw: the Mongolian equivalent of leaving the car running.
Bayaraa and Baagi, mindful of what they'd learned from representatives of the GOP, stopped at each of the gers and talked about the Mongolian National Democratic Party. They used the term "grassroots organizing," which seemed particularly appropriate.
Each ger was windowless and had a single low door, always facing south. About 18 feet in diameter, it was supported by a latticework wood frame that folded up like an accordian. Woven rugs, always red, covered the floor, and all the gers were arranged in precisely the same manner. The man kept his saddle and tack to the right of the door. To the left were cooking utensils and children's things. The entire family slept in the bed against the left wall, children at the parents' feet. The bed on the right was for guests. Against the wall opposite the door were two low chests of drawers, painted orange. On the chests were framed black-and-white photos: the children at school, the man in his army uniform, the family posing stiffly in Sukhebaatar Square.
A tin stove stood in the center of the ger, under a flap at the top of the tent that could be opened or closed. A rope dropped down from the upper framework; it could be fastened to a small boulder beside the hearth to keep the tent from blowing away in the wind.
We Americans tried to observe the household rules of all gers--don't lean against the wall, don't point your feet at the hearth--but Lhagra had reason to criticize one aspect of our manners. We were always saying tand bayarlaa, "thank you," which was unnecessary, almost insulting. Every Mongol has been forced to take refuge in someone else's ger at one time or another. The tradition is one of unthinking generosity. Guests are fed and feted as a matter of course, and there are numerous small niceties in the rituals. The tea, for instance, has to be made in the guests' sight. It contains mare's milk and salt. An acquired taste. The yogurt, on the other hand, is sweet and delicious, the best I've ever had.
Sometimes we drank a liquor of distilled mare's milk and ate salty, rock-hard cheese formed into medallions the size of silver dollars. I was never able to leave a ger without accumulating gifts amounting to several pocketfuls of the stuff. In return, we gave our hosts what we could: extra flashlights, batteries, T-shirts, bandannas, a few spoonfuls of powdered aspirin. After a week we were down to essentials, almost completely out of gifts, but by God we had enough cheese. I could hear it clacking in my jacket and saddle kit when I rode. It was noisy cheese.
And every day, without fail, we consumed two massive meals of boiled mutton.
I can say this: The mutton was always fresh. We'd ride into a ring of gers, buy a sheep, and watch the Mongols slaughter it by slitting the belly and yanking the vena cava. This was said to be the Buddhist way, the most humane way, to kill an animal, and indeed the sheep was generally dead within 30 seconds.
Mongolians eat every part of the sheep. They crack the bones for the marrow. They boil the head and make blood sausage from the intestines. The fat, they say, is the best part. Once, when the American contingent cooked dinner, we cut away the fat. The wranglers gathered up the white and yellow mess, put it in a pot with water, boiled it, and drank the results down like thick tea.
Kent had had the foresight to buy several sacks of potatoes imported from Russia, but most of the wranglers said they tasted "like dirt." There was an enormous prejudice against vegetables of any kind. The idea of farming was disgusting. Being tied to a single plot of land was no life for a herdsman. In any case, the growing season where these men lived was about two months long, and much of the ground was permanently frozen a few feet below the surface anyway. A government pamphlet tried to put the best light on this situation. "Mongolia," it read, "is totally self-sufficient in vegetable production."
Some people, it seemed, thrived on the diet. Herdsmen and their wives led hard, active lives, and we met plenty of folks in their eighties. Still, the life expectancy in Mongolia is below the world average: 64.6 years for men, 66.5 for women. Which is why the Mongolian National Democratic Party platform has a plank that essentially reads, "Eat your vegetables."
There were oorchlokhs everywhere, at every pass or narrow canyon a rider might care to traverse, and I was leaving huge handfuls of hard cheese medallions as offerings. It was a losing proposition. By my calculation, we were still carrying more than 50 pounds of noisy cheese, and we sounded like castanets on horseback.
Michael Abbot, our fly-fishing aficionado, was getting grumpy about angling opportunities. There were grayling in the waters above 8,000 feet, and lennick--an ugly, four- to ten-pound, brown-trout-looking fish--lower down. Wherever we stopped, however, there was usually some religious prohibition against fishing that stretch of the river. A famous lama had once walked the banks, our wranglers would say, and we don't fish there out of respect. Or the river here provides water for cooking and washing and drinking, so we don't fish as a way of showing our gratitude.
In point of fact, we never saw anyone from the gers fishing anywhere. Mongolians don't enjoy fishing as a sport, and they don't eat fish. They eat boiled mutton and yogurt and noisy cheese. Michael thought the sacred fishing regulations were a fairly low-rent form of religious sacrifice, like giving up Limburger for Lent.
He had good luck fishing on the banks of remote rivers in unsanctified places, but even there, miles from the nearest habitation, there were sometimes restrictive rules. On the backside of Otgon Tenger, for instance, we camped at a sacred lake called Doot Nuur. It was set in a grassy basin and surrounded by snow-covered hills rising to 10,000 feet. In the spring, people gathered around the lake and listened to the ice break up. Sounds echoed in the basin, and sometimes you could hear voices, often the voices of your ancestors.
So you could drink from the waters of Doot Nur, sure, but you couldn't bathe there, and you certainly couldn't fish.
The lake was large, maybe five square miles. Christoph pointed out several dozen tiny specks moving slowly on the opposite bank and handed me his binoculars. The specks were camels, huge, shaggy, double-humped beasts used as pack animals when families moved their gers. They climbed through the green grasses and looked exceedingly strange trudging across the snowy hillside. I rode around the lake, cut out the lead animal, and spent 15 minutes frustrating his instinct to get back to the herd. I thought, Well, here I am in Mongolia, cutting camels in the snow. Arlene said it looked like a cigarette ad.
We rode and walked the horses up a steep rocky slope to another lake at the base of the glacier on Otgon Tenger. There were mini-oorchlokhs every ten feet: a small cairn, a couple of twigs, each worth one, maybe two pieces of noisy cheese. Lhagra advised us to drink from the lake for our health. The water came from the glacier, which was everlasting. Drink from the lake, he said, and live forever.
A heavy wind rolled down the glacier, swirling and whistling over the lake. I could hear the sound of distant muttering voices, which came, I realized, from a series of small waterfalls on the far shore. The sun was setting, and the place seemed just a bit spooky to me. One man's spooky, I supposed, is another man's sacred.
That night it snowed, and in the morning the sky was crisp and blue, and the sun glittered on the glacier above. The light was very nearly blinding. The wranglers said we must have done OK by the mountain, shown proper respect. Otgon Tenger had washed its face for us.
We began retracing our route, riding endlessly and wailing in the saddle about lonely camels. The plan was to top another pass, dump some noisy cheese at the oorchlokh there, and ride down through the Ider River Valley to the town of Tosontsengel, where we'd catch a flight back to Ulan Bator. Just below the headwaters of the Ider was a ring of about eight gers, where we stopped to talk with the people about hairstyling matters. Bayaraa explained the scientific nature of my request, which was greeted with much intense murmuring. The Mongols didn't want me to touch their heads. Their concerns were a complicated amalgam of Buddhist and shamanistic beliefs that I didn't fully understand.
But hey, Bayaraa told them, no problem. I didn't want to touch their heads anyway. I wanted them to cut a few strands of their hair themselves, using their own knives. Bayaraa said that I feared DNA contamination, which he attempted to explain. The Mongols regarded me tolerantly, as if to say, Well, there's no accounting for other folks' religion.
So the people cut strands of their hair and placed them in separate plastic bags. One of the families gave us a 30-pound tub of noisy cheese as a gift. The tradition was to give back the tub, filled with our own gifts. We sorted through what was left of our dwindling gear. Give 'em a couple of rain jackets, we reasoned; we only had a few more days, and the weather might hold. Give 'em a few flashlights; we would be able to set up our camps by moonlight.
We rode off, my mission accomplished and our packs considerably lighter. Unfortunately, all up and down the Ider River Valley, the word was out about the strange Mer-ee-koons who worshiped hair. People rode out to visit with us, and they never came empty-handed. Generally they carried metal dairy pails full of yogurt. We stopped, ate the yogurt, rinsed the pails, and returned them full of fleece jackets. If it got cold, we'd wrap ourselves in sleeping bags.
And then, just outside Tosontsengel, when we were completely out of anything at all that might be construed as an appropriate gift, I saw the yogurt riders who would do us in. We fled, thundering over the grassland. We fled in a deafening clatter of noisy cheese. We fled the smiling beneficence of Mongolian generosity.
When the yogurt riders caught us, as they surely would, we'd give them the shirts off our backs.
Tim Cahill, Outside editor-at-large, is the author of, Jaguars Ripped My Flesh, A Wolverine Is Chewing My Leg, and, Pecked to Death by Ducks.