Readers, I realized that I never gave a good overview of Mongolia. Here it is, late and abbreviated. I must get better about writing immediately, because with the pace of my travels, places and people quickly become a blur.
I arrived early on September 17–6a.m. All I knew was that a young woman named Khongurzul would meet me at the train. I got off the train and she ran up to me immediately, waving enthusiastically. A relief to be sure. “You have….?” she asked. “Just this bag,” I replied, since she couldn’t seem to find the words. “No, you have…. no friends?” she asked, and I affirmed that indeed, I had no friends and was here alone.
I was quickly whisked to her home, where she lives with her parents, brother, aunt, uncle and two cousins. Their home is lovely, if small: two bedrooms, but beautiful hard wood floors, city views, thoughtfully furnished. A breakfast spread of entirely too many meats and milk products awaited me, and I politely ate as much as I could. I tried to make small talk, but none of them really spoke any English. Again, cartoonish faces and lots of huge exaggerated smiles filled the void where any sort of communication might have existed.
I was worried the next week would be the same way, but right as I was climbing into my bed to take a nap, in walked Eba, the brother. “Hey, whats up, how’s it going?” he asked in a disinterested, distracted way. Hooray, an English speaker! Before he left a minute later, he dropped a breezy, “what do you say you come chill with me and my friends tonight?” to which I replied in the over-enthusiastic affirmative.
And chill we did. Ulan Bator, by all counts, isn’t much of a capital city. It’s dusty, cold, drab, trafficky and there isn’t a lot to look at. It might be the worst place on earth. But with Eba, I was taken to swanky lounges, served chilled bottles of vodka, spoken English to by a variety of Mongolian jet-set and shuttled around in taxis. And he wouldn’t let me pay for a cent of it. Khongurzul was there too, quiet and shy, silently texting her secret boyfriend that none of her family knows about. As her brother and his friends chain-smoked and sat back in oversized leather chairs, she fidgeted and struggled to follow the conversation. I felt bad. But I had a great time, and that seemed to please her.
A couple of days later, Eba, Khongorzul and a friend of theirs took me on a roadtrip outside of the capital. Leaving the city was glorious: where previously faded pastel buildings had dominated the horizon, now was the vast Mongolian steppe in all its desolate, dusty glory. We arrived at our ger (yurt) after making a stop at the supermarket to buy an obscene amount of food and drink for the one-night getaway. We arrived at the ger, were served more dubious milk products and mare’s milk tea. They all hungrily gobbled the tea, which seemed more like pure hot milk to me. I did too, to be social and prove I wasn’t a first-world snob. I later learned that the “tea” is really mostly melted mutton fat, unfortunately. Ugh.
We camped, we cooked, we walked to the river, we shivered our tushies off. We had fun. The next day we drove back to the city, stopping off at the massive homage to Genghis Khan on the way.
The next days were filled with muttony meals–mutton dumplings, mutton stir-fry, mutton stew, mutton balls. I visited my first-ever Buddhist temple, wandered the back alleys of the city, and attempted to find gifts suitable for the thank-you I felt I owed them. I cried when I left. They encouraged me to come back next year and bring friends. They were very kind to me, and gave me a ton of gifts. They even made me mutton dumplings for the train ride, despite my protests (“No, really, this banana and some oatmeal will be GREAT…”)
Mongolia. What a place. Unlike China, I don’t feel that I need to go back there to discover more of the country and see more of its sights. The only reason I’d go back would be for the people–Zula and Eba were so kind to me, and their aunt called “I LOOOVEE YOOU!” from her bed the morning I left–probably the only three English words she knows. Who knows, maybe I will go back. Or maybe they’ll become another memory of people, like Lubya, Nadya, Katya and the rest, who have shown me such kindness that I may never have the opportunity to reciprocate.