Africa, Russia, Mongolia and China
It Feels Like Genghis Khan Could Still Be in Mongolia
The feared and mighty Mongolian empire once stretched from Beijing to the Caspian Sea.
The largest empire ever known has now been reduced to a place twice the size of Texas. One of the most famous warriors history has ever known, Genghis Khan, created an empire and culture 800 years ago that is still felt today.
To walk across the sands of the Gobi desert of Mongolia is to walk in a place where time has changed little.
The countryside offers a rare chance to feel history not so different from what it once was. Certain expressions of life are still practiced and are within the opportunity of experience.
Creating a life in the middle of the Gobi desert is a testament to the Mongolian people. The Gobi is one of the most bleak, bone-dry landscapes in the world. It is also one of the most beautiful.
I think the open endless landscape speaks to the nature of our own endless and open spirit. It serves as a mirror to give us a glimpse of our own internal eternity.
“How long to the destination?” asks one of my companions.
Seven of us bounce down the empty road in a gray Russian van that probably hasn’t changed in design since the 1960s.
“It will take nine hours,” says Erkhemee, our driver. Erkhemee doesn’t speak much English, but he constantly smiles and laughs.
Frequently in the middle of nowhere the road forks into two different directions. I never see a signpost and occasionally wonder how Erkhemee ever knows where he is going. A couple of times he doesn’t. He drives where there is no road until he finds a house to stop and ask.
Perched outside our window during the day we see on a distant horizon double humped brown fury camels, large herds of antelope and shaggy Mongolian horses with long tails.
This is the beginning of a trip into the heart of the Gobi, the largest desert in Asia and fourth largest in the world. For 12 days and 2,000 miles we follow roads that are basically two parallel lines that weave into the endless brown grass and gravel horizon of the outback of Mongolia. Occasional mountain ranges and buttes offer a change of scenery. Often several sets of lines run next to each other as past drivers searched for smoother rides. My traveling companions are from Portugal, Norway and Holland. These situations can be a little risky. Basically we are stuck together 24-7 for the duration. If friction occurs between people, there is no place to escape, not even at night, as we all share the same room. The majority of our stays are in round, one-room traditional Mongolian houses called a Ger. They are made of felt and wooden lattice frames. Superstitions are still a part of the Mongolian culture and there is a whole list of things you cannot do in a Ger. A lesson I learn on the first night.
“Stop whistling,” says one my Holland companions in a direct tone. The old woman we are visiting stops what she is doing in mid-stride and stares at me.
“Because they believe when you whistle it invites evil spirits into the home.”
Some of the other dos and don’ts for Ger life:
* Don’t touch another person’s hat.
* If you have stepped on someone or kicked their feet, shake their hand immediately.
* Do not turn your back to the house altar.
* Don’t point a knife at someone.
Bathrooms are outside, which isn’t a big thing except it is winter and at night often extremely cold, 30 degrees below zero.
Keeping a Ger warm is another challenge. In the center of the Ger is a small wood-burning stove that has a chimney, which shoots up through the roof. Generally we burn dried manure unless wood is available. We try to keep the fire stoked all night, adding more fuel every three hours or so. But sometimes we sleep too long and wake to a freezing cold room. Several mornings we watch the breath shoot from our mouths in clouds of white smoke and agonize over the thought of leaving a warm sleeping bag for breakfast.
Funny thing though, people living here never complain. They just smile whenever we walk in the door. A genuine smile that says welcome. And offer the same smile with a wave as we leave.