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18 Nights in Mongolia

This is an excerpt from a larger story I’m writing. This chapter’s titled:

18 Nights in Mongolia

4/18/11

To My Ancestors:

The Korean bloodline is said to have originated from Mongolian roots. Though I’m not sure of my heritage, whenever I read my US history books in school I couldn’t really identify with the stories because I always felt like I was from elsewhere. I’d imagine myself on horseback roaming through some plains alone. I don’t know where these images came from but I had them ever since I was young. And, because of this, on a whim I have decided to go to Mongolia.

Two other factors have come to play in my decision. One is my friend, Jake, from childhood. He told me around this time last year that he wanted to go backpacking alone in Mongolia. He was planning on going without bringing any cash and just seeing if he could survive. He is not much of the adventurous or rugged type so I was very surprised. The other individual that has motivated me to go is Kettik. I haven’t seen her in months but she just invited me today to go on a picnic. When I think of her I remember her Mongolia trip. She went there by herself a few years ago. The only person I know who’s ever gone there. Again, I believe in synchronicity. Because of this I am very comfortable in my decision to go to Mongolia even though it was decided less than ten minutes ago. Like this entire story, I am just writing as I go. Where I place all the chapters will fit later. When you don’t believe in time, why write chronologically? Just write. There is no time like the present.

Jake has yet to go to Mongolia. If he ever reads this story, with any luck, it’ll motivate him to go. I am planning on buying a one-way ticket to there for around May 8th. Hopefully, the next excerpt of this story will be me in Mongolia writing. We shall see.

5/10

I just read the above. Wow, it’s already been three weeks. I have yet to buy my ticket. I am a procrastinator to the extreme. My date of departure is now rescheduled for May 14th. I was rethinking my trip and under the impression that I might as well visit two countries instead of one. I immediately thought of going to Kazakhstan but they require a visa, so do China and Russia. I don’t have time for the process. I’m looking at a map on Wikipedia that discloses locations worldwide that accept US passports without a visa. I have no clue where else I want to go…

I’ve been searching online for an hour now and still have no clue. The weather’s rainy in both Nepal and Bangladesh and it’s too hot in Oman. I don’t want to go to Europe and I plan on going to Africa and South America next year so would rather wait. Where else do I want to go?…

Fuck it. It’s been two hours now. I’m just going to go to Mongolia and play it by ear. I’m getting too drunk for this.

5/10 (A couple hours later)

This is another thing I realized. When I was younger I had hundreds of friends. Now that I’m 29 I’m thinking of calling someone to get travel opinions and I can’t think of a single person to call. As you age, the number of friends you have dwindles as well. They turn into contacts. Nothing negative. Just a process in life I guess.

5/11

Finally got my ticket. Going to Mongolia on the 13th and will head to Turkey after. Want to check out Istanbul and chill at the beaches of Bodrum. But first it’s off to Lake Khövsgöl in Mongolia.

Catch me on horseback biatch.

I went on Kayak.com to book my ticket. Wanted to go from Korea—> Mongolia—> Turkey—>Korea. The cost is $2300. However, I then entered how much just a round-trip Mongolia ticket from Korea costs. It’s $680. A round-trip Turkey ticket from Korea costs $800. That’s a combined $1480. I save over $800 by booking two separate round-trip flights but this means I’m going to have to come back to Korea after Mongolia then head up past Mongolia to catch a transfer flight in Russia to Turkey. I’m traveling many more miles yet spending much less cash. Strange this world is. Whatever.

Catch me on horseback biatch!

 I’m drunk again.

5/12

My plans keep changing. A friend, Nate, just called and told me he can join me in Mongolia on the 23rd. I just canceled my Turkey ticket and rearranged my Mongolia ticket to stay until the 30th now. He told me a couple weeks ago that he wanted to join me, but he didn’t get back to me so I naturally thought he wasn’t coming anymore. Because of this I purchased my Turkey ticket. Before, when others would change their plans on me I’d get very upset. I get irate easily. Now I’ve learned to accept it. It’s not like Nate was trying to purposely cause me stress. Live and let be. I’m now heading out to a club to see a friend perform. I’ll pack and do all that stuff later.

Catch me at the club biatch!

I’m drunk again.

5/13

I am not ready for my trip. I had a binge of a weekend and haven’t packed a single thing. Will leave on Monday, May 14th now. Here’s some advice to my fellow backpackers. When you have to make changes to your flight plans, call an operator. For tickets it may say on the website that there’re cancellation fees or penalties. However, an operator can waive these fees or sometimes they may not even mention them. I’ve changed two of my flights and canceled my Turkey trip yet this process has cost me only $11 total. Also, if you see that the price of your fare dropped online after you booked your ticket, many operators will allow you to cancel your previous ticket and book the cheaper rate. It all depends on the operator, not always company policy. Operators wield more power than you’d expect. Most operators aren’t trying to be assholes, they like helping you. This can end up saving you hundreds of dollars. If the operator you are speaking to is an ass, hang up and speak to a different one. This doesn’t just work with airlines; it works with pretty much any company such as banks and retailors as well.

It’s now 1:30AM and I’m heading out again to join some friends. I feel like I’m twenty-two again. Lately I haven’t been going out much at all. I spend my afternoons going to yoga classes everyday then head to a local park to read. Or at least try to read. My mind always wanders. I’ve bought over ten books in the past year but have yet to read a single one.

5/14

I am now finally on the plane to Mongolia. We had to take off later than expected due to bad weather. I’ll fly in at past midnight and have no idea where I’m staying or what I’m going to do. When I travel, I plan nothing but the destination in mind: Horse backing at Lake Khövsgöl.

5/15

It turns out I finished all the pages on my passport so a customs official has just set me aside from the line. What a burn.

I should’ve known. The guy was working the slowest line out of all of them. Most customs officials I’ve encountered stamp my passport quite randomly and don’t care about my pages. This guy takes his job too seriously. He’s being a prick. Though I know there is a time and place for them, overall, I dislike anal motherfuckers.

The airport is quite small. There is only one destination foreigners can fly into in Mongolia and that’s its capital, Ulaanbaatar. Now that I’ve arrived it’s finally hit me that I’m here. After all the other passengers had entered into the country, the customs official finally speaks to a coworker and the coworker tells him to just let me in. I can’t tell by their words (they’re speaking Mongolian, which sounds oddly like Russian to me) but I can read their body language.

After finally passing the customs gate and entering into the actual airport I realize everything’s closed and many of the passengers who were on the plane had already departed. It’s well past midnight. I was hoping to see a tourist booth or something open. There are very few airport employees and I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do. When I’m in these types of situations the first thing I look for are other backpackers. Most backpackers are the adventurous and friendly type so they don’t mind if you join them. However, it does not look like there are many tourists here left. I see a bright-eyed young German female who catches my eye and we strike up a conversation. She’s from Munich. I’ve been to Oktoberfest before so we develop an instant rapport. She has no clue what to do either but she traveled with a group and they have a hotel and cabdriver prearranged. It turns out she’s here for work purposes (to attend a convention), not travelling. For whatever the reason, I was a bit disappointed upon hearing this and decided to head to the second-floor to exchange some money. While doing this, there is a cabdriver that follows me. I tell him it’s okay but he’s on me like a leash. Currency exchange is the only thing that’s still open in the airport. The rate is around 1300.00 tugriks for each US dollar. The whole process takes over twenty minutes. I don’t know what took so long, but the lady at the counter had a long discussion with the one customer in the room that came before me. When I head back downstairs I realize I am the only tourist left besides a small group of six other people. Excluding them, there are about thirty locals hanging around the airport, including the one that’s still following me.

I approach the group and strike up a conversation with an American in his mid-thirties. He looks a tad like a skinhead to be honest but I have little choice in whom to talk to at this late hour. He tells me he’s been working here for nine months at a mining company. His group has prearranged transportation and hotel accommodations as well. I ask him if it’s okay to trust the cabdrivers hanging around at the airport. He replies that Ulaanbaatar is very dangerous and he wouldn’t trust them. He goes on to tell me stories about people being kidnapped once in a cab, then robbed and abandoned afterwards in some alley. He says he doesn’t even go out at night. And he’s one rather tough-looking guy with a goatee, tattoos and all. This isn’t really the type of thing you want to hear when you just landed in a foreign country late at night and have no clue what you’re going to do. I asked his group’s travel coordinator, a local Mongolian, if I could hitch a ride with them and that I’m willing to pay. She acts like a complete bitch and shrugs me off. So far, my trip isn’t working out quite well. This group leaves within minutes and now I am the only person left in the airport that’s a foreigner.

A group of eight cabdrivers surrounds me like vultures and I’m not quite sure what they’re talking about. They’re yelling and fighting amongst each other for me, the foreigner.  As I’m going through this situation, I flip out my Lonely Planet to read about airport procedures. It says do not ride in any unmarked cabs. I head outside and now there is a larger group, about seventeen cabdrivers, fighting for me. To me, all the cars look unmarked. The vehicles all look a bit ragged, like they have over a 100,000 miles on them. I tell the original person who followed me that I will ride with him. He looks a bit shady however and gets into an argument with another cabdriver as I’m about to get in his car. Maybe it’s just my apprehension, but I don’t know what to do at this point so I head back into the airport instead. It seems safer. The crowd follows me in. Oddly, there are also a few locals here dressed up in suits that look straight out of some eighties B-rated gangster flick. They’re in their twenties. Some of them have dyed blonde hair and definitely look shady. I have no idea why they’re here. They seem out of place in the airport. They keep their eyes on me as well. I look around for some airport security or staff, but there really aren’t many people in here. This was the last flight in and everyone seems to have left except the cabdrivers, eighties gangsters, and me. What an odd situation to find oneself in.

One cabdriver hands me a business card and offers a smile. He looked amiable enough and I decide to take off with him. He drives an unmarked vehicle as well but I have little options at this point. It’s past 2AM. He asked me where I wanted to go. I didn’t really know myself. I told him just take me into town. I reached into my backpack and took out my flashlight so I could read the Lonely Planet’s recommendations for accommodations.

When going abroad, there are two types of trips one can arrange: a vacation or an experience. A vacation is a trip in which everything is prearranged, one stays at luxury hotels, and travels with loved ones or some friends for a few days. An experience is the opposite. It is a trip in which one travels independently, makes few plans, travels for a bit longer, stays at cheaper places, and his main goal is to experience local culture. Of the two, experiences are far more noteworthy and impactful. They really make you question your preconceived notions and challenge you to find your way around a country when you don’t speak the native tongue. Vacations are merely exercises of the ego.

I find a hostel in the Lonely Planet that’s recommended as one of the top choices, Zaya Hostel, and tell the cabdriver to take me there. It’s around 3AM and I’m not certain if there are any rooms or if Zaya is still open. The cabdriver doesn’t know where it is so I ask if he can call them. The Lonely Planet lists phone numbers as well. Fortunately, someone picks up on the other line and there are rooms left. This brings me a sigh of relief but I’m still a bit on edge. The drive into town is dark and I look back every minute or so to make sure there are no other vehicles trailing us. I don’t want to end up a statistic. Before I took off for Ulaanbaatar, a friend of mine told me he heard from a Mongolian that there are plenty of robberies out here. This (plus what the American miner had said earlier) really put me on edge. My countenance remained stoic however. When in uncertain circumstances I’ve learned never show fear.

Once we pull into Zaya, the place looks sketchy. It’s in a dark alley and is located on the third floor of a building. I look for a sign of the place but don’t see any. I get out of the cab with the cabdriver and we walk around an open gate. Soon, a young female opens a coded door on the bottom floor and she greets me with a smile. I finally feel relief.

I’m now in my room as we speak. It’s a single. The place is better than I expected and very clean. They recently renovated. The room costs 33,000 tugriks per night. A part of me realizes I need to plan my trips a bit more. Yet another part of me relishes these random moments of panic and “What the fuck am I gonna do now?” thoughts. They provide a rush different from any physical activity. When doing activities like dirt biking or snowboarding you’re still in control. When backpacking alone in a country you know very little about, you really have no idea how events may play out. You’re body is still, but mentally, you’ve never felt so alive. You’re absorbing the entire scene knowing that some of the people you encounter are out to fuck you while most are just trying to make a living. It’s a unique experience.

In life, I believe one must always engage in new experiences. Novelty sustains brain activity and keeps you mentally sharp. I think a factor behind why some old people get Alzheimer’s or Dementia is because they stopped engaging in new pursuits. They probably lived decades of routine, thus setting their brain on autopilot and leading to atrophy. I travel a lot. The most tiring day out of any when I’m in a new country is always the first full day. This experience isn’t so much physically draining as it is mentally. You experience mental fatigue because you’re constantly absorbing new information. You’re learning the layout of a city, what the customs are, what the language is, who to trust, where to go, eat, shop, etc. Your senses literally pulsate from the constant wave of stimuli never before experienced: new sights, smells, voices and tastes. It’s a dopamine rush. I feel like I learn more in a day of travelling than I can learn in a month back home. The more exotic the destination the better, places where there are not too many foreigners.

To keep your mind sharp, travel alone and use a tour guide only when necessary. Tour guides put your brain on autopilot. Figure out where you want to go and you can always make your way, even if you don’t speak the native tongue. It’s more interesting when you don’t speak it. This leads to interesting experiences and new friendships. More than anything, you’re really challenging your mind.

5/15 8:40PM

After a night’s rest I spent my first day in Ulaanbaatar. Upon checking my bag in the morning I realize I lost my headphones. Spent $300 on them. I was looking forward to listening to some good music while riding horses around Lake Khövsgöl.  Oh well. Fuck it. Don’t worry about the trivial matters in life. They mean nothing.

I read about a place near here called the Tsergiin Khuree Shooting Range in my Lonely Planet that allows individuals to drive Russian tanks and shoot RPG’s and AK-47’s. I’ve never driven a tank before. Have you? I was very dismayed to hear that the place no longer operates however. Oh well. Again, fuck it. No point in getting bent up about things you can’t control.

I spent my day walking around the city for several hours and stopped by a travel agency to book my ticket to Mörön. Mörön is the closest airport to Lake Khövsgöl. It is about a two-hour plane ride away. I am leaving tomorrow early in the afternoon. In the downtown of the city, Sükhbaatar Square, there are several teenagers roaming around on bikes and rollerblades performing tricks as tourists watch in bemusement and take photos of the Chinggis Khaan statue and parliamentary buildings.

Statue of Damdin Sükhbaatar, who declared Mongolia’s independence from China in 1921

Statue of Damdin Sükhbaatar, who declared Mongolia’s independence from China in 1921

Sükhbaatar Square

East of the square is a large Louis Vuitton store which seems out of place here. The most notable event that occurred today was when I happened to walk by the National Theater and Opera House. I saw a performance of traditional Mongolian dance and music, albeit briefly. The doors to the theater were open so I just walked in. It’s a large pink building that one cannot miss if he is walking by Sükhbaatar Square. The most appealing thing about the performance was the clothing: very bright and colorful, a sharp contrast to Mongolia’s long winters of ice and frigidity. It is mid-May and still quite cold.

I met a man in his late thirties there who was ushering a few businessmen into the building that looked like they were arriving late. I struck up a conversation with him because I wasn’t quite sure what the whole procedure was about entering the performance and if I had to pay. He was very cordial and invited me to tag along with him to watch, but I went against it. I felt it was wrong if I did not pay. I have a kind of twisted sense of morality. I could care less if poor individuals steal from places like Wal-Mart. I know it’s still wrong but I honestly could care less. On the other hand, I believe the arts deserve all the funding they can get. I was more interested in chatting with the local man anyway. His name is Gegeen. He is a manager at LG Electronics, a conglomerate from Korea. It turns out the businessmen I saw him usher in a few minutes ago are executives of the company, including the president. Gegeen told me that LG has just entered the Mongolian market. I was surprised because I thought LG would have already been in Mongolia by now. Something may have been lost in translation and maybe they are entering a submarket today. Not quite certain. The executives are here to sign some papers and do a meet-and-greet for publicity’s sake. The performance today is thrown, in part, for their sake. They don’t do shows here everyday or even every week as is common in other international theaters. I ask Gegeen how long the executives are staying in Mongolia for. He responds, “They flew in today and are flying out tonight.” My goodness. Though I try to withhold judgment, this is no way for any individual to travel: purely for business’ sake.

I ask him if he knows where I can exchange some cash and he tells me that he has to exchange some money as well and knows the best place in town. We head out of the theater to a currency exchange center a few blocks away. As I exchanged less than $200, I see Gegeen bust out a good-sized wad of $100’s. Straight cash. Something base in me felt an instant compulsion to rob him. I get these types of thoughts sometimes. I would never do stuff like that but I’ll be the first to admit these thoughts run through my mind. I’m sure they run through yours as well if you’re honest enough.

Afterwards, we head out to a café. He asks what type of coffee I want to drink and, as I was about to place an order, I see they serve beer here as well. Instinctively, my mind pulls me in this direction and I ask Gegeen, “What’s the best Mongolian beer here?” He orders it for me. I forget the name. We then talked about family for a moment and he shows me a photo of his two kids as I ask him various questions about Mongolia. For a businessman on his working hours, Gegeen is surprisingly friendly in demeanor and looks like your typical middle-aged Asian businessman. He is a few inches shorter than me and has a slender build. His countenance is youthful and he sports thin gold-rimmed glasses that give him the nerdy vibe. I ask him if Mongolia is dangerous at night. He replies that for a young man like me it shouldn’t be any problem. This put my apprehensions at ease because I enjoy taking long walks at night. Note that his opinions are in stark contrast to the American miner I had met last night. That miner really had me shook last night as I was walking through the airport. I believe that most human fears are self-created. We naturally fear the unknown. Indeed, the greatest restrictions in life are self-imposed.

From my travels, I’ve noticed that much of the world is less dangerous than we presume. Many still doubt me however. I believe a few bad seeds taint the whole batch. And then these bad seeds get played over and over again on our evening news and in our papers.  I have a saying, “Don’t fear the unknown; embrace it.” For it is only by doing what we don’t know we allow ourselves to grow.

After Gegeen and I parted ways, I walked around downtown looking for a place to eat. The food here is quite good. I’ve only had one meal but judging by what everyone else was eating too, the food looks delicious. I’m not just talking about Mongolian cuisine; I’m talking about foreign food too. In Ulaanbaatar, at least, it’s quite cosmopolitan and hard to tell the difference between a decent restaurant here compared to anywhere else in the world. But just as how Ulaanbaatar is becoming international as anywhere else, I noticed the places here play the same shit on TV as anywhere else too. As I was eating, what was playing was a music video of Justin Bieber. I came out here to leave behind all that bullshit. My goodness. In a decade I sense this whole downtown center is going to change. Money is flowing into Mongolia due to mining for its rich natural resources. Multinational corporations, like LG, are invading. Ulaanbaatar, and the rest of Mongolia, are undergoing a rapid period of development as we speak. My only hope is that they don’t lose their cultural values along the way. As I feel Korea already has.

5/16 12:30AM

I just came back to the hostel after a walk out. There’s always an exhilarating feeling when you walk alone for the first time in a city at night. Cities have two distinct personalities: One in the day, the other at night. In the daytime the city shows the world the view of it that it wants you to see. At night all the other elements come into play. The daytime is persona whilst the shadow is night. If you’re into Jungian psychology, you can infer what I mean.

Disappointingly, I walked around for two hours and could not find a single decent bar to drink at. Surprisingly, most of them were closed by midnight. This is a bit unusual because many Asian cities have the latest closing hours in the world when it comes to serving alcohol. I’ve been walking east-west through Ulaanbaatar rather than north-south (the major streets are just structured that way). I think I just wasn’t walking around in the right places. No way can any city be this quiet at night. The only odd observance I had all night was when I saw a group of around eight men engaging in a scuffle. One of them took off his shirt while coaxing another into fighting. They’re part of the same group. I have no idea what they’re arguing about, but you can easily see they’re drunk. After watching for a few minutes it looked like it was going to mount to nothing so I continued walking.

The only other thing I did all night was call a hostel in Khatgal since I plan on heading there tomorrow and wasn’t certain if I had a place to stay. Khatgal is a two-hour drive north from Mörön and is located at the base of Lake Khövsgöl. The owner of the hostel, Garage 24, was very polite when I spoke to her and she told me she’d send one of her staff to pick me up from the airport for free. I thought about it for a second, but instinctively, I went against it. I feel that an adventure should be just that: An Adventure. If everything is planned there’s little room for self-discovery. My favorite memories in life are those I did not plan at all but just lived.

5/16 10:20AM

I am at the airport now heading for Mörön. The drive to the airport was not a scenic one. It was my first real look at the city since I arrived here late at night in the dark. There is lots of dust, small houses scattered everywhere, and in between all of this you’ll see a huge development either under construction or recently built. It’s such a marked contrast between past and present. The houses have odd-colored rooftops, some pink and blue, others green and red. The colors belie the shabbiness and plainness these individuals reside in.

While getting nearer the airport, I saw a local on horseback. Then it hit me. That’s going to be me soon. I’m not just traveling to another city to go sightseeing; I’m going to go horseback and live in gers for two weeks. And just like how I landed in Ulaanbaatar, I have no idea what to expect. I’m fucking excited, a tranquil excitement. I love the unknown.

5/16 11:10PM

View of Mongolian steppes from plane ride heading to Mörön

I am finally in Khatgal. I landed in Mörön at 12:30PM. Thought there would be taxi’s there but it was the smallest airport I’ve ever been to. They have only a handful of flights operating per day, with only one airstrip. For some odd reason, it felt like I was more at an empty hospital or a vacant governmental office than I was at an airport. I’m used to flying into major cities. After I grabbed my luggage I walked out the airport and had no clue what I was going to do. As I mentioned previously, my first instinct is to look for backpackers. There are none here. My second instinct is to look for someone who looks like they may understand a bit of English. Not sure if this is going to work out either. The plane I flew in on only fits 35 people. There were less than thirty of us on it. I don’t have many options at this point and I don’t want to walk into town. It doesn’t look far but it would definitely take over an hour. In these situations you have to act quickly before everyone leaves. If everyone leaves, you’re going to be alone. And that’s a shitty feeling. I see two girls waiting in the parking lot and I approach them. They speak very little English but are friendly. They giggle as they talk to me. It’s very hard to communicate with others when you two don’t speak the same language. Oddly, one of them is Japanese. They call one of their friends who can speak English and they hand me the phone. I try to explain my situation but the line isn’t very clear. After our exchange, the person on the phone tells me that her two friends will drop me off at the bus stop so I can catch a ride to Khatgal. I thanked her for her help.

Something must’ve got lost in translation because I did not end up at the bus stop. Instead, a young man and female, plus a kid around the age of ten, came to the airport in a car. They exchanged greetings with the two girls and we all got in the vehicle and went back to the guy’s ger. This was a very unique experience. The first time I’ve ever stepped into a ger in my life. It’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime things and I will forever remember the details vividly. A ger looks like a tepee but is more dome-shaped than triangular. It appears small from the outside but is pretty spacious once you’re inside. There are three beds located at the outskirts of the ger while near the center is a fire pit, or chamber I should say, that allows the smoke to ventilate out the ger so none of it remains inside. It’s a simple invention but quite ingenious. I’ve slept inside East African huts before and they just have an open pit. All the smoke gets in your eyes while you’re trying to sleep and you wake up with phlegm trapped in your nose and throat. Without a fire the alternative is being cold, but it doesn’t get that cold in East Africa. That’s why I’m guessing they haven’t made anything like this out there yet. They don’t have as much of a need for it as they do in Mongolia where temperatures can reach -49 degrees Fahrenheit during winter. Crazy. Mongolia has the frosty distinction of having the coldest capital in the world.

The girls started making lunch while I just soaked in the scene. I stepped out for a bit to walk around the neighborhood. It’s a pretty rundown looking place with dirt roads. I’m in the housing area of Mörön where each unit is divided by wooden fences. Some homes are more modern and built like cabins while other residents just live in gers. There really isn’t much to look at but I can’t believe I’m here right now. Here I am with a few strangers who don’t speak the same language I do in a place I’ve never been or heard of in my life. Very strange.

For lunch, the ladies, who I found out are in there mid-thirties (we used our hands to tell each other our ages), made a type of beef soup with noodles and a few vegetables. It’s very plain but doesn’t taste too bad. I kindly remind the ladies that I wish to make my way to Khatgal and they tell me they’ll drop me off at the bus stop around 3:30PM. Meanwhile, the guy, who is a bit younger, packs up some stuff in a bag and heads off. He’s a university student and has to go back to school. At least this is what I gathered from our conversation. When there is a group of people that don’t speak the same language, it takes about two minutes to understand something that could be said in less than ten seconds. Body language is key in these types of circumstances.

At 3:30PM, the Mongolian girl I met at the airport walks out of the ger with me and we take a taxi. The taxi’s here are basically locals who drive around their home vehicles for a living. This town is covered in dirt, very few roads. She drops me off in front of what looks like a very old-school Volkswagen minibus and she speaks with the driver. She tells me he’s heading to Khatgal. I thank her for her help and head into the minibus thinking we’re taking off soon. This wasn’t the case. The guy’s constantly loading and unloading stuff into and on top of the minibus. Finally, the driver leaves after an hour, only to drive around town, pick up some odd stuff like a bicycle and a few boxes, and then head back to the same spot we were originally at. We can’t speak to each other and I have no idea what’s going on. Shit was getting very frustrating. After another hour, we finally make our way to Khatgal. We left at 5:30PM and there were seventeen of us total in the minibus. The back of the minibus is divided into two columns with four rows of seats. You’re basically sitting directly opposite another person facing you. I was sitting across from a lady in her late forties I presume. We exchanged an awkward smile as we tried several times to figure out how we’re going to position our feet. The grandma sitting next to me sees our awkward exchange and immediately grabs my right leg and thrusts it forward. She adjusts our feet quite expertly as if she’s done this several times before. With age comes wisdom.

In the minibus

On our drive the minibus breaks down twice. Each time it did the guys immediately got out to take a piss and smoke a cigarette while the girls remained inside. All but one female came out both times. The guys take a piss on the right side of the bus while the female heads left to relieve herself. They act so routine while I’m just befuddled by what’s going on. Meanwhile, the driver climbs on top of the minibus to grab some tools while the man riding shotgun, his father, lays out a blanket underneath the minibus (the road is made up of a bunch of broken gravel in some parts). His son lies on the blanket and starts working on fixing the vehicle.

Second time it broke down on us

After about twenty minutes, we’re on our way again. What is a ride that takes under two hours in a normal vehicle, took us more than double the time. I was getting very frustrated. In the first couple hours of my ride I was regretting not taking the owner of Garage 24’s advice and just having one of her staff take me into town. Being in the minibus, it’s hot, I can’t move, the ride’s bumpy, the vehicle sucks, I don’t know what these people are saying, it smells a bit, and I’m getting irritated. Nothing about this ride is pleasant. Honestly speaking, I probably make more than double in income that of the other sixteen passengers in here combined. I could easily afford to hire a private driver to take me into town. As I was riding, my frustrations grew and I started having dehumanizing thoughts about my fellow passengers, forgetting that they are just like me as well. We’re all human. So often people like throwing money at a situation to provide them ease, thinking little about what others go through on a daily basis.

Though this ride lasted only a few hours, from my travels, I’ve endured many random obstacles and difficulties since I like to travel alone and try as much as possible to live the life of a local. In hindsight, I’m grateful for these types of experiences because they always teach me humility. Another important lesson I learn from such instances is the importance of gaining an education and a hard work ethic. Without these two attributes, regardless of whatever country you live in, you’re going to live a life stuck just like any of the passengers in this vehicle. In life, there is only one way to get to wherever it is you want to go. And that path is through intelligence and work. In the long run, shortcuts become detours. Learn from your mistakes and never lose sight of your visions. Nothing can stop you if you stay focused and are willing to work your ass off, not for money, but to pursue your dreams.

To become materially successful, you must develop a skill greater than that of any other. For the things you’re not good at, hire other people to do them. Don’t focus on the things your bad at. That’s what others are for. Focus on developing your skill. It doesn’t matter what career you choose, you just have to become the very best at it. And, again, it all derives from intelligence and work. Nothing easy. The dumbest thing to do is develop a skill in a career you’re not passionate about. Why devote your life to doing something you don’t want to do? So many people do this. It’s absolutely stupid. Don’t follow the crowd. Follow your heart. In your heart, you know what you want to do. It’s just that so few people ever listen to themselves. They get scared.

I arrived in Khatgal past 9PM. Instead of staying at Garage 24, I decided to stay at a place called MS Guesthouse. Don’t know why, just chose it randomly from Lonely Planet. It says it’s the only place open year-round. MS Guesthouse is situated near the southern end of Khatgal. Upon driving up to it, there’s a cabin with two gers nearby. Inside the cabin, on the left side, lives the hostel owner (Batbayer) with his wife (Bayarmaa) and their daughter. To the right side is the dining area. The cabin isn’t large nor is it cramped. While in the dining area, I met a young professor of Mongolian history, Bagsh, who has studied at Cambridge. Pretty random. Another person I meet is a young female, Enkhtuyaa. They both work as guides. They’re the guides for what appears to be a French couple. The French man is interested in shamanism out here. He wants to become a shaman. Okay, whatever floats your boat I guess. I didn’t speak much with the French couple, but the two Mongolians were cool and both a bit younger than me I believe. They both speak English fluently and also came with their driver, an older man who doesn’t speak English at all. In his younger days he was a kick boxer. He’s pretty tall and you’ll see him shadowboxing from the corner of your eye.

Now I’m currently lying in bed inside one of the gers. The kick boxer/driver asked if he could sleep in my ger as well. Each ger has three beds. I didn’t see any reason to refuse. I bought a bottle of vodka from him that he had in his car. He charged me 8,000 tugriks. I know he overcharged, just not quite sure how much. The four of us drank some shots until it was time for everyone to go to sleep. I think the two Mongolian guides are going to be hooking up tonight; guessing that’s why the kick boxer/driver asked to sleep in my ger instead of sleeping in theirs.

Inside my ger at MS Guesthouse

5/16 11:45PM

I’ve been reading something while lying down opposite the kick boxer/driver. I have great difficulty sleeping before 3AM. My circadian rhythm is that of an owl. There’s a light in the ger so it’s not too bad. He’s saying some stuff in his dreams while sleeping in his boxers. I’m in my boxers too. I put a good number of logs into the fire chamber. It’s hot.

There is what looks like either mosquitos or thin flies falling onto me from the top of this ger. I’m using my sunscreen spray to kill them. My life is one strange trip.

5/18 11:10AM

I didn’t write in my journal at all yesterday. I’m still new to this type of thing. This is the first journal I’ve ever written in my life. In the daytime, yesterday, I hung out with Bagsh and Enkhtuyaa. After they departed, Batbayer graciously drove me to the top of Khatgal’s nearest mountain. Here, one can get a view of the entire town to the south and see the lake in the north. On the north side, the lake is colored blue at its shores but mostly still white since the ice hasn’t melted yet. To the south, all one sees is the brown of the town. Khatgal isn’t very picturesque to look at from above. You see the outline of various homes and that’s about it. I can’t believe there’re around 4,000 people living down there. It looks like under a 1000 if no one had told me.

View of Khatgal

At the mountain’s peak is an ovoo. An ovoo is a shamanistic collection of stones, wood and offerings to the gods. This ovoo reaches about eight feet in height and is adorned with blue ribbons. I don’t know what the blue ribbons signify but it’s a unique sight, adding a bit of color to an otherwise leaden mountaintop.

Ovoo

Later in the evening I met an Italian named Retta. I met him while sitting adjacent to him and Batbayer in the dining room. Retta wants to head to Chandman-Öndör and Bulnai Hot Springs, which are a three-hour ride east then two-hour drive north respectively. Batbayer says there isn’t much to see there, which upsets Retta. Their conversation was turning a bit confrontational so I joined in to ease the tension. I told Retta if he wants to go there he should go. Batbayer’s rates are a bit upsetting to Retta. The cost is 80,000 tugriks per day for driver and another 80,000 tugriks per day for gas. Nothing ridiculous but Retta figures he’s getting overcharged and refuses the deal. He heads out of the hostel only to return about a half hour later. You can see he drives a real hard bargain. He’s a bit dark from being out in the Gobi desert and his nose is slightly crooked from who knows what. He sports a beanie along with a dark red rainproof jacket and dark green pants. Not the most stylish guy but who is out here? Underneath his beanie lies a crumpled mound of brown hair that’s been slicked back from the pressure of wearing a beanie for a few weeks. He looks like he hasn’t showered or shaved in that timespan. His sleight beard matches well with his new tan and he stands around 5’9”. Batbayer, on the other hand, looks more gracious and is a few inches shorter. He’s genial but not overly friendly. They’re both rather on the quiet side. Batbayer’s built stocky and his face is a bit doughy. He has what some would term a baby face.

Once Retta returns, I chat with him and he tells me he has found a driver that is willing to take him for 50,000 tugriks per day. The gas Retta will pay for separately. He asks if I want to join him.

Why not?

I canceled my horseback trip for tomorrow (which is now today) and decided to join him instead. I’m not quite certain what I’m in for. When I travel, I don’t care too much for the places I see or go to. I only have a couple destinations in mind that I pick out haphazardly. Why I travel is to meet people. I enjoy the company of new individuals while doing new things. And Retta is a bit of a curiosity to me. He’s introverted, detached, aloof, and a tad serious; socially awkward as well. From my travels, I’ve tended to notice that people who backpack alone are a bit strange in one way or another. After all, has the thought of backpacking alone for a few weeks in Mongolia ever seriously crossed your mind? It takes a certain type of character to do these types of things: A strange one. This must mean I’m quite strange too. I’m not socially awkward though. My eccentricities lurk beneath the surface.

We have a slight problem. The driver that Retta met yesterday didn’t pick up his phone last night when I tried calling him to arrange plans and, today, his phone is now dead. Strangely, at around 8AM this morning (while I was still sleeping), a different man arrived at MS Guesthouse to talk to Retta about our trip.  His English isn’t as good as the person Retta met yesterday so both Retta and I don’t quite know what’s going on. The guy from this morning said he’d be back but didn’t give Retta a time. It’s past 11AM now. It doesn’t seem likely he’s coming back.

This is how my trip has been going so far: a waiting game. On another note, let me share some travel advice. If you plan on travelling to some faraway destination, always give yourself more days than less to enjoy there. After all, if you’re going to spend, say, a thousand dollars on a ticket, might as well make the most of your money right? This allows you the opportunity to waste a day here and there doing nothing. Having too tight of an itinerary causes stress. The result of what happens when you try to jam pack too many activities within a span of a few days. I say this because this is how I travelled when I was younger, sometimes cutting across three continents within less than two weeks. Though I wouldn’t change my experiences for anything, if I had to plan similar trips in the future, I’d give myself more time. A trip should be enjoyed and done at the pace of the locals. Something western tourists have difficulty understanding. In developing nations, the people there don’t operate on the same timeline we do. It’s not up to them to adapt. It’s up to you.

Moreover, when I reflect about the previous countries I’ve travelled to, the ones that have left the strongest imprints in my mind are those that I stayed in longest. Memories take time to form. Without time, all you’re left with are fleeting impressions that mean very little; your trips turn into obscure dreams as the years pass. If you’re an employee of a company, I understand there are always work pressures to deal with and your employer may not be willing to grant you a long vacation. If you’re competent at what you do, however, you’ll get what you want. If not, demand it. Demands usually work as long as they are justifiable. If your boss doesn’t allow you a few weeks here and there to live your life, fuck him. Ultimately, you have only yourself to get mad at. On the other hand, if you’re an employer, give yourself a break every now and then from making money. Money is like any drug. It can become an addiction with hazardous consequences if that’s all you are concerned about. Take a break every now and then to refresh your spirits and remember what living truly means.

Anyways, back to the waiting game. Retta took off a few minutes ago to go to the Mongolian driver’s house from yesterday. I didn’t know he knew where he lived. I told him I’ll stay back just in case the guy from this morning returns.

5/18 5:40PM

The mystery of what happened to our driver has been solved. It turns out he got stabbed last night. The man who came here in the morning was his brother, Naiz. Naiz came to MS Guesthouse a few minutes after I finished my previous journal entry. I got in his Toyota Land Cruiser to head out to look for Retta. Besides Naiz in the car is his wife breastfeeding an infant. I ask how old the baby is. She replies, “Twenty days.” Wow. The ride is bumpy, a marked contrast to the silence of the toddler. After finding Retta we all headed out to the hospital.

I don’t know what Mongolian etiquette is so, at first, I waited outside the room of the victim that got stabbed last night. You can’t tell it’s a hospital by the appearance of this place from outside. Nothing about it is notable, very plain. Inside, there are about eight rooms and, as I’m pacing, I peep through each door window to see what’s going on. Most of the rooms are vacant with a patient here and there lying next to a few family members. I’m a very curious individual, the type who turns every door handle that warns Do Not Enter. It’s just my nature.

Within a few minutes, Naiz ushers Retta and me into the room. We have no idea what to say or do. The victim is surrounded by what appears to be his mother, grandmother, and about three other people. I ask the victim if he’s okay and he tells me he’s fine. He’s a good-looking guy, around his young twenties. His English is much better than what I had preconceived. He looks healthy as he shows us the area where he got stabbed. Shockingly, as he uncovers his blanket, the bandages are right where his heart is, on the upper-left side and everything. I’m guessing if the knife had punctured him any deeper we might not be having this conversation. What a lucky guy. I’m befuddled at this point. Here we are trying to negotiate a deal to take a trip with his older brother who speaks little English. The stabbed victim is acting as our translator. This conversation seems so inappropriate in terms of the gravity of his current predicament. Every other minute he’s screaming in agony from pain while his mother feeds him some tea. I don’t bullshit. He’s writhing in pain while we’re by his bedside trying to negotiate a price for our trip. I’ve engaged in many random negotiations in my travels before but none like this. It feels like we’re filming a documentary or something. What a unique experience. I cup a hand over my mouth as I stare at Retta while trying to suppress my laughter. I’m not laughing at the victim, this whole situation is just bizarre. I don’t know how else to respond. And, as I’m about to let out a chuckle, the victim shrieks in pain, silencing everyone. Then, after a few seconds, our negotiations continue. Life goes on I guess.

We reach a settlement fairly easily, or at least this is how Retta and me think it to be. Out of respect, we leave the patient’s room after our settlement and leave the young man with his family. We talked to him for about a total of fifteen minutes. While outside, Retta and I have a moment to ourselves in which we laugh in absurdity at the entire situation. When I woke up this morning I was not expecting this.

Naiz soon comes out, runs a few errands, drops off his wife and baby at home, and then we head out to a gas station. On the way to the gas station we pick up one of his friends. We weren’t expecting him to invite anyone. Our original plan was to pay for Naiz’s meals and accommodations only, not for anyone else’s too. On top of this, we are to pay him 50,000 tugriks per day, spanning over three days. Naiz tells us, “Don’t worry. Friend, no pay.” And we leave it at that. At the gas station we run into our first problem concerning money. Retta’s plan is to fill their tank, and whatever gas is left after our return, we deduct from the 150,000 tugriks we owe Naiz. I tell him this isn’t smart since we’re not sure they’ve agreed to these terms. We tried to explain it to the stabbed victim but I doubt he understood what Retta or I was saying fully. A knife will do that to an individual. Retta then gets out a piece of paper to try and explain the plan to Naiz and his friend. They nod in agreement but I can tell by their eyes they have little idea what he’s writing. Retta, meanwhile, thinks everything’s settled. Regardless, we take off.

Naiz is built stockier than the average Mongolian. He’s a miner out here. He stands around 5’9” and looks a bit more refined than the other locals I’ve come across in Khatgal. Just judging by his vehicle, a Toyota Land Cruiser, you can tell he’s wealthier than most townspeople. Judging by his younger brother’s English ability as well, I’m guessing their family may be a bit more upper-class.

Khatgal is a small town. A place that’s very barren in May, with little tourists or anything to do. Seriously, you take a walk for half an hour and might only come across five people. Everyone stays indoors. Naiz’s friend, Khulan, is very skinny, tanned, and stands around 5’5”. He wears a beat-up brown beret, a stained purple shirt and blue jeans. He doesn’t look as wealthy as Naiz and has a ruffled complexion.

On our drive we came across numerous yaks, lambs, goats, and gers dotting the landscape. It was a very bumpy ride but enjoyable. There are no paved roads and only dirt trails you follow from previous drivers. There isn’t much scenery to see currently. There are mountains in the horizon and everything is brown. The trees have yet to turn green and there are little to no patches of grass yet. In the summer, or when the leaves change color in autumn, I imagine this place looks majestic. Currently, however, the path to Chandman-Öndör is barren. We stopped by a random ger on the way there. This is my first time seeing that these gers have solar panels and satellite dishes attached to them.

Hi-tech and eco-friendly

Wow. I sneak a peak into the ger and see a few people watching television as they go about their daily lives. My mind is filled with curiosity. I look around me. There’s nothing for miles but this family’s herd of goats and sheep — numbering in the hundreds — and mounds of animal shit everywhere. Retta is filming the scene. He records everything. What a curious place to live.

Out and about

Out and about

As we drive further east, after an hour, we come across a huge fire across the horizon, the biggest I’ve ever seen in my life. I open my window and it smells like scorched earth. There are surges of smoke arising from the mountains, mingling with the clouds. If I hadn’t known otherwise, I’d have thought a volcano just exploded.

5/18 8:50PM

We have now reached our destination. And what a beautiful one it is. I have no idea what Batbayer is talking about. This place is serene. More green as well.

The people here are friendly yet aloof. No one’s trying to con you into buying souvenirs or overcharging you. There aren’t even any souvenir shops. The simplest word I can use to describe this town is quaint. Very quaint. Retta and I took a walk around the whole town that lasted about an hour. Children are playing nearby, occasionally glancing over at us to see who we are. They have a horse field thirty yards from us as well.

Horses

Horses

Mongolians I’ve noticed tend to be quite free. They seem to live and let be. Take Naiz for example. On the way to Chandman, he stopped by every car or motorcyclist’s path we came across. They chat for a minute and then go on their way. Once we arrived in Chandman, Naiz and Khulan immediately took off without telling us. We had no idea where they went. They just left after we checked into the only tourist cabins here. We then saw him driving around two hours later as we’re walking through town. I asked him where he’s going and he replies to a friend’s place. I then asked if we could join him and open the door. I tell Retta, “Let’s get in.” Naiz doesn’t understand my intentions however. We drive in every which direction, sometimes going straight, other times reversing, then after ten-fifteen minutes, he drops Retta and me back off at the cabin we’re staying at. It was an exercise in futility. We get out and he soon leaves again, to where I do not know. He drives his car like how I imagine a Mongolian would ride his horse; just wandering around in every which direction to see what’s around with no particular destination in mind. When he’s driving, you can totally tell he has no idea where he’s going. He just drives. Though this may mean very little to most people, to me it left a strong impression. Just by the way he drives you can tell he thinks completely different from any American I’ve come across.

5/19 12:04PM

I woke up around 8AM cold. I don’t have a sleeping bag or anything. Just the two thin blankets the lady of the cabin handed to us. Our beds are very interesting, just a slab of mattress over a wire-mesh with some pieces of wood to stabilize the bottom of the frame. Retta’s in the fetal position with his sleeping bag and two blankets covering him. You can’t see his face. Just by looking at the way he’s curled up you can tell he’s cold. It’s very hard to sleep once the fire burns out. You wake up in the middle of the night freezing, yet you don’t want to get up to remake the fire cause it’s a crappy feeling. After two hours of back-and-forth napping and waking up cold, I finally went outside to gather some wood and restarted the fire in the kitchen. It’s too damn cold. In our room there’s nothing but two makeshift beds, a table, and two wooden chairs. Outside of our cabin is a random dog. He just chills around by the door.

This gives me time to tell you about last night. It was the most beautiful yet. Just as I think I’m getting used to being in Mongolia, events that transpire suggest otherwise.

Retta and I heard music playing in the ger next to our cabin last night so I walked near the entrance of the ger and followed a five-year-old in. There was a lady in her forties inside and I gave her a smile and a wave to show we meant no offense. She invited us in and a feeling of immense warmth filtered through the ger. Retta’s videotaping everything as we move. Two females, both around the age of thirteen to my guess, were playing traditional string instruments: one that looks like a guitar made from snakeskin, the other was violin-shaped. There’s a group of around six girls total, ranging from ages 5-13.

Jamming

Soon after, the lady takes the violin-shaped instrument and starts playing as the girl who was playing that instrument starts throat singing (a traditional Mongolian form of singing). While doing so, another girl grabs Retta’s camera and starts videotaping the whole scene. Instinctively, she has a great eye for the camera and understands how to direct scenes with stability. When the other girls grab the camera, they shake it too much and don’t understand how to properly utilize it. Their talents lie elsewhere. Meanwhile, one of the younger girls, a very spritely one, reaches over a drawer and puts on a traditional Mongolian dress to display for the camera.

These girls are reflective of one of the major themes of my story. From a young age, you can already see these children’s natural proclivities and talents. Each one is doing something that shows their capabilities, whether it is playing instruments, singing, dancing, directing, acting, joking around, or just being observant of the actions of us two foreigners. In life there is no such thing as a hidden talent. The problem is we sometimes fail to see talents within others and, ultimately, within ourselves. If we follow our cues, however, they will lead us to making the most of our abilities.

Later, the lady shows me how they make their dresses and the different garments they use. Very little of our interaction is verbal; we just use body language and facial expressions. Then, a few of the girls guided Retta and me to their music room which was only a few yards walk away. Inside, it felt like I was at a museum of traditional Mongolian music.

Girls messing around

After a few hours, Retta and I returned to our cabin. Words can’t quite express the enchantment of the scene we just experienced. Imagine being in Mongolia for the first time, walking into a stranger’s ger because you heard some instruments playing, getting a live show, and seeing these children engage in their summer activities. If you’re into culture, this type of experience is once-in-a-lifetime. What made it beautiful is that it was so unexpected. From what I gathered, they are practicing for the summer fest­ival, ­called Naadam, which takes place every August. The dresses are for that occasion as well. I read about Naadam in the Lonely Planet. Basically, every year, to celebrate the summer, Mongolians hold an annual festival whereby all the citizens of each town gather to engage in traditional rituals. The males engage in horseback and wrestling whereas the women dance and sing amongst other activities.

When we got back to our room, Retta and I reminisced about the night we just had and, to my delight, Retta busts out a bottle of whiskey he has been carrying with him on his entire trip since Italy. It’s still quite full. Immediately my eyes lighted up. We cracked open some beers we had bought earlier and I take several shots. In another beautiful twist, the room we are staying in is adjacent to the communal kitchen and we had made sure to leave the door unlocked so we can have access to the kitchen (technically we’re not supposed to). We need access to the kitchen, not for food but for warmth. It’s freaking cold out here. And the fire chamber is in the kitchen. After finishing the bottle, Retta starts loosening up a bit and we engage in an animated conversation. He tells me that tomorrow he wants to go back to the school (he had wondered there earlier without me) and playback today’s recordings to the students. In regions without much modern development, kids love to see themselves on camera. For many it’s their first time. Do you remember the first time you ever saw yourself on video? For children it’s a thrilling experience. They have a couple computers in the classroom and Retta is sure he can display the video onto one of the monitors. I encouraged him and thought it would be a great idea.

We went to sleep last night with that thought in our minds.

5/19 3:30PM

Retta woke up a bit later than me, around the afternoon. I think he was a bit hungover but I didn’t ask. After he spent an hour making breakfast, I asked him if he’s ready to go to the school to show the students the video. Surprisingly, Retta shrugs me off and doesn’t really say anything. I didn’t really want to go either (we drank quite a bit last night), but I’m the type of person who feels that if he says he’s going to do something then he has to do it. Otherwise, your words are meaningless. I asked him again later and he gave me the same lack of response.

We ended up not going to the school.

As I reflect about Retta’s actions, or lack of action, I think he represents a fundamental dilemma we all face as people. At heart, I believe most of us want to do kind acts for others and be generous, yet when it comes time to act, we stall and make up excuses, eventually pushing these thoughts out of our conscious minds. It is much easier to be lazy than it is to act. I was a bit dismayed, just as much for the students as for Retta. Last night he was genuinely excited to show the students his video. He discussed his plan and the kids’ reactions for over half-an-hour while we were drinking. It was my first time seeing him so animated. Maybe it was the alcohol speaking, but that type of goodwill doesn’t just spring from drunkenness. There was a genuine quality to his attitude. And now, that the moment has arrived, he let it slip.

In life, what leads to regret aren’t the missteps we take in our journey. It’s the steps we don’t take at all.

We drove to our next destination, Bulnai, around 2PM. It’s about an hour’s drive north of Chandman-Öndör. There are hot springs located here at Bulnai but the place itself is very small. Only a few cabins dot the area and there are currently only four people here total. There’s an old lady plus three men. They all work here in one capacity or another from what I gather. Retta and I are the only foreigners. Some of the cabins are shaped like gers but they are meant for tourists. The most luxurious gers I’ve seen in my trip by far, but knowing they are meant for tourists kind of takes the adventure out of it.

Smoke from the fires in the background

If you like seclusion this is the place to be. Rolling hills surround us and everything is colored a wheat-brown, with pockets of greenery — that is everything that is not smoky. The fires are still ongoing and we drove across burnt terrain for several miles as we made our way to Bulnai. The ground was parched in blackness and you can see the smoke from several fires still burning throughout the area. Before driving through the burnt lands, we passed hundreds of yaks, lambs, and horses. It’s an awesome road trip.

Scorched earth

Random grandpa chillin’ on our drive

5/19 11:20PM

After eating lunch the old lady had made for us (it consisted of noodles without broth and some chopped vegetables in a unique bright purple dressing), we went to take a bath in the Bulnai springs. There are about fourteen little huts that serve as individual bathhouses near the gers. You’re basically taking a bath in a dark wooden pit. You see bubbles rising from the dirt as you’re sitting waist high in sulfurous water that is 4’x4’ feet in area. It smells like you’d expect and all four of us soak ourselves for about twenty minutes. Retta is the last to exit his private hut. Coming from the Gobi desert I think he hasn’t showered in over ten days. He at least looked like he hadn’t.

No matter where you are in the world, there’s nothing so invigorating as the feeling of a clean shower after you’re dirty. It’s damn refreshing.

Retta and I then had to decide whether to stay here for the night or go back to Chandman-Öndör. I wouldn’t have minded staying here to relax for a day, but Retta was insistent that we head back to Chandman so we took off after our showers. Naiz was a bit confused by this because he thought we were staying here for the night. I’m assuming he thought we were strange for wanting to head all the way up to Bulnai just so we can take a quick bath then head back down to Chandman. Regardless, we left.

When we got back into Chandman, tonight’s pace was much slower. I’m getting used to the deliberateness of life here and I wandered a bit by myself. I noticed more children out today. They stare at you in bemusement but rarely approach. The girls weren’t playing instruments tonight in their ger.

Riding around

Riding around too

Just hanging

Town bank on left with, I’m presuming, the owner’s ger to the right

On a separate note, I met a Mongolian mixed martial artist today. I met him back at the same lodge we stayed at last night. He’s staying in the room across from us. A pretty heavy-set guy but not in the overweight way, he’s built strong. He speaks English quite well and, surprisingly, he works in Korea as a police officer. He’s here vacationing and what not. A very gracious individual. Without asking us, his wife brought Retta and me dinner. It was what Mongolians typically eat: a soup-based dish with noodles, bits of meat and vegetables.

As I’m reflecting about my trip thus far, I feel excited. I can’t wait to go horseback: horseback at Lake Khövsgöl.

5/20 7:10PM

Today was another long day. I woke up around 10AM and visited the town dormitory and school. It was a very nice experience.

Dormitory

Kids messing around outside the dormitory. The guy up in the stairs must be a tad more shy.

All grade levels are housed in one big dormitory-looking structure and the classrooms are pretty well kept with desks, chairs, books, and the like. I looked at some of the material that the high school students were learning and they were doing mathematical equations I have no idea of solving so I’m pretty sure they’re getting a decent education. They’re well groomed as well. If you stuck these kids in an American high school, of course they’d stand out a bit, but nothing too unusual.

Inside a classroom. Blending right in.

It’s the older generation — the over forty crowd — that stands out more. Many men still wear the traditional Mongolian garb of a del, which is a brownish or grayish one-piece garment that is tied at the waist by another piece of cloth (usually orange or something bright to contrast with the drab color of the del). Most men wear varying hats and gray boots as well. These individuals would definitely stand out back at home. Strangely, I ran across very few older women in the town. They must spend much more time indoors than men I’m assuming.

In the town center

After my stroll through town I returned to the lodge to see Retta engaging in a heated discussion with Naiz and Khulan about the price of our trip. This is supposed to be our last day in town before we all head back to Khatgal. Retta wants to stay behind in Chandman so he wanted to figure out the bill today before the rest of us leave. I knew that whole incident about paying for their gas, then deducting the remaining gas left in their tank from the 150,000 tugriks we owe Naiz was going to bite us back in the ass. Retta’s trying to explain to Naiz the terms, but Naiz’s English isn’t good enough to comprehend the situation. All three of them are pissed off. A local English teacher tries to translate but it’s unnecessary. You can easily read that Naiz and Khulan think its bullshit that the remaining gas gets deducted from their 150,000 tugriks. Honestly, I can understand their point. I’d be upset if I were them too. Retta’s a good guy but he’s not seeing what he’s doing. He thinks we’re being cheated when he never negotiated the price to Naiz clearly beforehand. We filled up their gas tank before we took off and Retta tried to explain how he wished to pay Naiz, but it was clear that Naiz never clearly understood from the get-go. Naiz had nodded his head in agreement at the time, but by observing his eyes, you could clearly see he was very confused. In my opinion, he was just nodding to be polite. Basically, the only place Retta ever had this clear agreement was in his own head, not in reality. I was confused by the way he was explaining everything to Naiz beforehand as well — by using a piece of paper and drawing a bunch of crap — so how the hell is Naiz going to understand anything? I try to explain this to Retta but he’s one stubborn guy.

This example is very telling about the human condition and how disputes start in general. What I’ve realized is that most life arguments occur over miscommunication or a lack of communication, whether it is with business partners or with friends. Rarely are people purposely trying to be complete assholes and fuck others over. Due to this, always be levelheaded and try to view conditions from the position of the other side. Confrontations in life are usually unnecessary. One must be careful. Words lead to actions. Actions lead to deeds. Deeds we may regret committing. Communication is key.

I don’t know how long they were arguing about the money before I arrived on the scene, but it took another forty-five minutes to finally resolve matters. It got to a point where the Mongolian mixed martial artist from last night offered to just drive me back with him to Khatgal, saying he’d do it for free. We were all getting annoyed by their dispute.

I tried to get Retta to reason and tell him we should just pay the man 150,000 tugriks, but he was so adamant about not doing so. It eventually was agreed upon that Retta and I would pay Naiz 100,000 tugriks for his services and Naiz gets to keep the remaining gas as payment. Basically, Retta got his way. He’s so introverted and in his own mind that he doesn’t see how he’s the one at fault in this situation. I got sick of the bullshit because it was feeding into my emotions as well. I left for the kitchen to grab a couple shots of Chinggis Gold vodka. Retta basically argued over an hour for what amounts to $30. Is this really worth arguing about when you’re on vacation? It’s ridiculous.

After the payment gets settled, I tried to ease Naiz and Khulan’s tension by pouring them some shots of Chinggis in the kitchen (I had bought a bottle last night and still had over half remaining). I’m great at dealing with people who are upset. I’m naturally easy-going and I love to have fun. We get to drinking and we start fucking around in the kitchen, laughing about the whole situation and what a cheap-ass Retta is. I tell them not to take it personally.

The thing about Retta is that he’s a good guy, but in my opinion, he travels too much like a tourist. What’s the point of backpacking alone if you don’t befriend a single local? More abstractly, what’s the point of travelling to foreign destinations and absorbing all the sights such as the Gobi Desert or Lake Khövsgöl if you don’t avail yourself to making friends with the people living there? They provide context to your journey and add to your breadth of human knowledge. This is what I believe true travelling is about. Gaining insights into humanity and discovering a bit more about who we are. Maybe Retta is on his own journey and has his own reasons of which I can’t comprehend. I try to be nonjudgmental. In an ironic twist, Retta says he wants to return here next year so he can help the villagers of Chandman out. He wants to be helpful yet he’s not helping the two individuals that have provided us the most assistance thus far. He’s clearly not seeing what’s right in front of him. Yes, we’re paying them for their services but they’ve done a commendable job at a bargain rate. We were even supposed to pay for their lodgings but I think they slept in their car instead. They provided for their own meals as well for the most part.

Before Retta went on his own way I asked him to give me some cash for tip. He responded, “Yea,” but he ended up giving me nothing. I implied he’s being cheap. He replied that he’s a businessman and he knows business. Often times, I’ve noticed people use the term ‘doing business’ as an excuse for treating others like jackasses. Here’s some advice: Don’t treat people like means to an end, instead, treat them like people. In doing so, they will give you the world.

I know not all Italians are like Retta. But through his actions he’s giving Italians a terrible name out here. This is how racism starts. Naiz and Khulan have met few Italians so they now subconsciously have a negative bias instilled in them about future Italians they meet. When you travel, remember you are a guest in another country. As such, act graciously. I have one simple rule I abide by: Never be an individual that brings disrepute to your family, your friends, your community, or to that of humanity in general. We’re all in this together. Regardless of wherever you find yourself in this world, always be a source of pride to the communities you represent and to the people you know. This is how one must think. It leads to much less hostility in the world and to performing actions that lead to courage.

As we continued drinking shots, the atmosphere got really festive. The lady who runs the lodge also started taking some shots as well. We finished the bottle and whatever beers we had remaining. We all then hop in Naiz’s car and he stops by a local store. I didn’t know what he wanted to buy. He asked me for a bit of cash, around 15,000 tugriks. I hand him the money and he comes back within minutes carrying a case of 24 sixteen-ounce beers over his right shoulder. I’m drunk at this point and started laughing hysterically as I honked his steering wheel in approval.

This is the thing about being giving. Since I gave him shots and beers in the kitchen earlier, he now goes off and picks up a 24-pack of beers. I’m assuming it costs over 50,000 tugriks. He basically spent almost half the money Retta and I paid him so that he could buy some beers for our return trip. This is the lesson here. A simple one: treat others well and they will return the favor. Most people abide by this principle. It’s human nature. If they do not return the favor, cut them out of your life.

It’s amazing to witness the effect that one person can have on a group. With Retta staying in Chandam, the atmosphere between Naiz, Khulan, and me is much more relaxed. Before, our relationship was one of separation: tourists and locals. Now that barrier is nonexistent. As we set off to Khatgal, I ask Naiz if I can drive back. He says, “Sure! Go! Fuuckk!…” and starts laughing. I take over and we start blasting the stereo while I’m driving off road, past herds of sheep and goats. A fantastic drive I will never forget. We’re having fun, drinking beers, and just jamming to some Mongolian pop music. I don’t even know if it’s Mongolian. A song Naiz kept replaying repeated a chorus of, “One way ticket.” That’s the only line I remember because the rest of the song was in a different language. I found this song fitting because that’s how I like to travel. No plans. Just a one way ticket.

In the back of my mind, I couldn’t stop thinking, however, that in less than ten years this road is likely going to be paved. Though I’m sure the locals will appreciate it, this is a very unfortunate situation for us backpackers. For us, the best paths are those least traveled.

With Khulan

After driving for around forty minutes, we take a pit stop for a piss. When Khulan opens the door, he immediately falls out on his face. Literally. He’s fucked up. I’ve never seen someone open a car door and fall out face first and hit the ground like that. I started laughing hysterically. He’s covered in dust but doesn’t appear to be in pain. He then takes a few steps forward, unzips his pants, and starts pissing, but not in a very controlled fashion. He’s flailing left to right making his piss fly everywhere. Then he looks over in my direction, turning his body towards me as he’s urinating. From this I learned that Mongolians don’t circumcise. Naiz is nowhere near as drunk. I’m guessing Khulan drinks much less than we do.

One of our many pitstops. Naiz on the right.

As for myself

Khulan then tells Naiz that he wants to drive. Naiz doesn’t care and neither do I so he takes over and I go sit in the rear right seat. After about twenty minutes of drinking and chilling as we’re cruising, listening to some Mongolian beats, I see two dogs running at us from twenty yards away. One is ahead of the other, and before I can blurt anything out, I hear a “Bumph..” followed by a rollick. Khulan just keeps driving. I’m thinking in my head, “Did we just hit a fuckin’ dog??” I’m drunk so I don’t really know. I got about eight sixteen-ounce beers in me and at least seven shots. I turn my head around and don’t see anything. No dogs running or bodies on the ground. The only dog I see is the one in our car.

Before we left Chandman, Naiz took the dog that was chilling at the lodge and put it in his car. I asked him, “Whose dog is this?” He answered with a smile, “Mine.” I’m pretty sure it’s not his dog, yet here the dog is in our car. What happened to the other two dogs? I can’t make sense of this entire situation. Soon after, there’s a sound coming from the right side of Naiz’s fender, the sound of wind dragging against something. Khulan eventually stops and Naiz goes out to investigate. I’m sitting in the backseat and I can only see Naiz using both hands to yank something off. What he yanks off is a piece of his fender. He shows it to Khulan and me happily and throws it about twenty yards to his right. I thought that was pretty badass. Coming from developed nations, we would get so bent out of shape if something like that happened to our vehicles. He really put shit in perspective for me. At the same time, I’m thinking, “Was that one of the dogs that caused that?” I felt terrible. Khulan’s too drunk so I take over to drive again. My pace isn’t as frenetic like earlier but we’re still enjoying ourselves.

Khulan passed out with Naiz’s new dog

A half hour later, Khulan awakens and says some stuff to Naiz. He has this plastic sack that he’s brought with him on this trip. Khulan can’t speak any English. Basically, Naiz says to me that Khulan brought special tea for us to drink and that we’re going to make it by a stream that we’ll eventually bypass. Once we got to this stream, Khulan makes a small fire and lights it to heat a silver pail full of water from the stream. When the water boils, he puts in the tea. It honestly didn’t look like anything special but it was fun to be off-roading with two Mongolians and stopping by a stream to brew some tea. It felt like real man shit. Its moments like these I enjoy most when travelling: just chilling with local people and having a good time in nature. No matter what I do in the future I know I’ll never be able to relive this experience. It’s unique.

Brewing tea

When the tea finished brewing, Khulan went over to lift the pail with a piece of cloth in his hand. As he reaches down to lift it, he accidentally kicks the pail over into the stream. There goes our fucking tea! I see the tea strands floating downstream as Khulan retrieves the silver pail from the water. This shit was hilarious. He was hyping that tea for a while and I was anxious to try it. Khulan was so frustrated after what had occurred he just started cursing while Naiz and I couldn’t stop laughing. Naiz cusses a lot too. He just points at Khulan and repeats, “Ahh… Fucker..” He’s not being serious. We’re just a bunch of guys messing around.

Afterwards, we got back in the car and, while we’re driving, Naiz offers me to sleep at his house for the rest of my stay in Khatgal. I was really honored by this and he says it’s not a problem, that I shouldn’t waste my money on lodgings. I thought about his wife though. I don’t think she’d be happy. It would be awesome to stay with locals though. The next thought I had was of horse backing. Naiz tells me no worries and that he can get a couple horses for us. I started getting excited as we chugged down our beers.

When we finally made our way back into Khatgal, Naiz directs me to his house. I was surprised. We all got out of the car, including Naiz’s new dog, and stepped into his home. His house is very nice and clean, definitely cleaner than my place back in Korea. The furnishings were nice as well. He doesn’t live in a ger. Most young Mongolians prefer wooden homes now, similar to log cabins. After visiting his home, his wife looked quite serious. We only stayed for a few minutes then made our way to the hospital. Once there, the festive mood from earlier immediately evaporated. Naiz’s brother is now in critical condition. He’s hooked up to some breathing apparatus and is not conscious from what it looks like. I felt awkward being there. I have no idea what the customs are but I felt it’s best to give them privacy. I thanked Naiz for the ride, tell him I’ll call him soon, and now here I am in the kitchen writing in my journal back at MS Guesthouse. Next to me are a French man and a lady who appear in their forties. They look very worn, tan, and like they’ve been here for months.

5/20 11:40PM

About two hours earlier, a group of four Americans arrived to MS Guesthouse. They are studying abroad in Ulaanbaatar and just arrived in Khatgal from backpacking and hiking. They had a few days earlier gone on a 55-hour road trip using public transport. I immediately took a liking to them. This is the way to travel when you’re young. You can learn a lot by just observing the customs of others when on a bus. For example, when I was in a Tanzanian minibus that took me from the Masai village into town, I saw a local pay for his fare by handing the driver a live chicken. I was surprised, thinking to myself, “Did that guy just pay his $5 fare by giving the driver a chicken?” It makes sense if you think about it but you just don’t expect to see stuff like that.

I forget what colleges these four Americans are from, but I strongly recommend any young individuals to study abroad. I could not emphasize that enough. The classroom experience won’t be all that different. It’s the stuff that you do outside of class and all the little adventures you go on that leave a marked impression in your life, even when looking back upon these experiences years later. They’ll leave a permanent imprint in your mind and you’ll begin to see how they’ve shaped your perspective as the years pass. If you’re reflective enough, you’ll gain the greatest knowledge an individual can ever possess: you’ll discover who you are. You can’t obtain this type of knowledge in the classroom nor in the workplace. If you share my type of mindset, you must travel far and go alone. You’ll never return home the same person. It’s a revelation.

You won’t notice this type of stuff immediately though. You’ll be too busy processing all the new sensations and having fun, doing stupid stuff like going on 55-hour road trips on a public bus with three friends you just met a month ago. You’d think they’d be grumpy or upset after that kind of road trip right? Not at all. It’s these types of experiences you cherish most when you reminisce about your backpacking days. It’s very difficult to travel this way as a forty-year-old. You don’t have the energy for that kind of stuff as you age. I see this in myself as well. The older I get the more comfortable I want to travel, staying at nicer hotels and stuff rather than in shitty hostels where I’m sleeping adjacent to ten other people. I can’t do that kind of crap anymore. But I’d strongly recommend it to any college student.

5/21 12:40AM

It’s snowing outside. I just took a shit. Have you ever shit outside of a ger while it’s snowing past midnight? It’s quite the experience. There’s a public toilet here but I don’t like the smell of it. It’s basically a pit with a toilet on top. I’d rather just shit on the ground. Find two sizable rocks, pad them with some toilet paper, and do my thing as I gaze up at the stars. It’s the first time I’ve noticed the stars all trip. They’re quite vivid and there’re no obstacles to hinder your view from the night sky. This is why I like travelling alone. I have an entire ger to myself and I can just sit for hours in silent contemplation as I engage in some self-reflection.

After taking a shit of course…

5/21 2:50AM

Coming to Mongolia has been a bit different from my other travels. This is because everyone here looks like me. Mongolians and Koreans look very similar. It seems like our genes skipped China. With Mongolians, there are certain aspects of their personality I see myself in as well. For example, they have a very loose concept of time and they may take several hours to do something. Like how Naiz drives, they seem a bit aimless in their movements, yet ultimately, get to where they need to be. This is how I view myself. I believe, in the West, there is too much focus on the clock. We think minding the time makes us more productive when it actually does the opposite. Think about the moments when you’ve really been into a task. Do you ever look at the clock? No. You’re too absorbed in whatever it is you’re doing. You only look at the clock when you’re bored or antsy.

Time, when broken down to minutes, leads to anxiety and short sightedness. In thinking about the seconds we lose sight of the days. Days turn into years yet we’re too busy counting down the minutes waiting for the subway to arrive, class to finish, work to end, the TV show to start. It’s frivolous. Be patient. Run on your own clock and schedule. Shut out the outside interference. Travelling has taught me this.

It’s good to be a bit aimless and wonder. All you have to do is get up and go. While others spend their time planning stuff — stuff they never end up actually doing — I just get up and do them. From my travels, what I’ve realized is making specific, concrete plans for your future is a waste of time usually. This is because the ‘reality’ we face will be much different from what we envisioned. Because of this, plan as you go. Move. Move. Move.

Those who think most, act least.

Those who act rarely have time to think. They’re too busy living.

Move. Move. Move. Reflect. Adjust. Then move again.

5/21 3:40PM

I was supposed to spend this week with Naiz horse backing, camping, and taking a return trip to Chandman-Öndör once Nate arrives. Looks like this won’t happen. I went to Naiz’s house twenty minutes ago and received news that his brother has just died. At least this is what I’m pretty certain of hearing. There is always the language barrier. Naiz and his wife weren’t home. There were two other adults in his house and they made a phone call once they saw me. I believe Naiz’s wife picked up. All she said was, “My brother died.” She repeated it twice. I didn’t know what to say except to offer my condolences and hang up immediately. I thanked the two adults that were there and left their home. I stopped by the local store to pick up a bottle and am now writing. Though I didn’t know Naiz’s brother very well and only spoke to him once, I feel a bit despondent. I didn’t think he’d die. He was a good guy and looked a bit mischievous; he had that look of the type of person you want to meet in your travels. And, just like that, he’s dead. Got stabbed over trivial bullshit.

As human beings, there are some things about us I will fail to ever understand. Now I’m thinking about the dog from yesterday. Though I can’t be for certain, I’m pretty sure we hit one of them. It’s snowing today. If the dog is still alive, what an agonizing death awaits it. Like the drastic change in weather from yesterday’s sun to today’s snow, life takes its turns as well.

I wanted to go out to the lake today and spend some time walking around its frigid shores. Maybe I still will. Right now I just don’t feel right.

5/22 12:29AM

I took a walk into town. I stopped by the town school and interacted with many children.

Khatgal classroom

The school here is smaller than the one in Chandman-Öndör, which is odd since Khatgal is supposed to be a bigger town from what I heard. Regardless, this refreshed my energy and I proceeded to take a three-hour walk by the lake.

On my walk

It began snowing a bit and was cold. I enjoyed the walk though. There wasn’t much to look at. By the shore it feels like a ghost town. None of the places are operating yet because the tourist season hasn’t hit. You just see a bunch of empty buildings. The only people I saw were a group of four adult men fixing the tire of a broken down jeep.

Harbored in the lake I saw three very old shipping vessels that are no longer operational. Seeing nothing much in the horizon but the lake stretch endlessly, with mountains to my left serving as a backdrop, I thought it best to head back into town. On the way back to my hostel I flagged down a local and hopped on his motorcycle. What took me three hours to walk took him less than ten minutes to drive. Upon returning to my hostel I met another Italian traveler. He was a bit serious but not in the uppity way. Something about him I liked immediately, just a feeling of intuition. I trust my instincts. He had arrived from India and is on his way to Japan next. He’s a well-groomed man for travelling so long and very easygoing. Kind of silent though. I could tell him and I share a similar mindset but possess opposing personalities. He’s quiet and proper whereas I’m anything but. He plans on horse backing tomorrow as well. I talked to Batbayer earlier today and told him I wanted to start my trip tomorrow too. Though the Italian and I are both horse backing tomorrow, I could tell that we would both prefer travelling alone. We had a nice conversation and I wished him goodnight.

Now I’m in my ger. I built a huge fire.  It’s getting really cold. I shoved eight logs into the two-foot in diameter pit. Now the whole room is hot. It feels like a sauna. The whole day I’ve been cold. It feels good.

There’s a dog outside my ger whimpering. I gave it some snacks and it took a piss right after to thank me. I wonder how these dogs survive in the winter?

5/22 1:17AM

I just woke up choking, my throat burning and feeling asphyxiated. Due to my huge fire, a piece of cloth nearby the pit had caught fire. The whole ger got filled with smoke and I choked on the fumes. My eyes were stinging. I couldn’t see shit when I woke up. I just ran with my hands out and aimed straight for the door to get some fresh air. I left the door open for several minutes as billows of smoke came ventilating out. It took awhile to clear up. Batbayer woke up to investigate as well. I don’t know if he heard my coughs or saw the smoke but he came running out. He shouted, “Kim! (He calls me by my last name. Don’t know why.) Kim! What happened? Are you okay?” I told him I’m fine and no worries.

I feel dizzy from the alcohol and the smoke. I feel like passing out.

5/22 8:17PM

After speaking with Batbayer earlier today I found out it wasn’t Naiz’s brother that died. It was actually his wife’s brother. This made more sense because yesterday when I spoke to her she said, “My brother died.” I thought I may just have misinterpreted her words or their customs. Either way, it’s an awful tragedy.

Today, I left for horse backing at noon. They had a satellite dish at MS Guesthouse and I was watching a bit of the NBA playoffs in Batbayer’s living room when my guide came with his horses. I honestly didn’t want to miss the game but then I realized its just basketball. If you spend too much time watching television all you’ll end up seeing is your own life pass you by.

It was a beautiful day. The horses are smaller than you’d imagine. The one I rode was pretty easy to control, but is a fast one according to my guide. My guide, Sükh, speaks a bit of English and has a pleasant demeanor. He’s around thirty-three and is married with kids. His complexion is tan, eyes small, jaw strong, and he has a goofy laugh. He’s a bit introverted as well. It seems like everyone I’ve been meeting is on the quiet side. He sports a Mongolian del, tied with an orange scarf, and sports a crooked and dusty cap. My first impression of him was a bit ambivalent. The Italian’s guide came at the same time as Sükh. His guide had a much more lively personality and he sported a cowboy hat. Sükh looks very plain and complacent. Time will tell but he’s got a pleasant laugh.

On our trip are Sükh, myself, and three horses (one’s a pack horse). We are to make our way eastward for three days then head back so I can meet Nate in Mörön. We’re not travelling far. As we rode, we passed by the usual herds of animals around the lake, which is to the left of us.

Riding lakeside

Crossing the bridge heading to the eastside

The first thing you notice is the solitude. The whole day we did not run into a single other rider. We had the eastside to ourselves. The scene is tranquil and very brown with few patches of greenery. Since it’s a small town I asked my guide if he had heard about the stabbing. Sükh replied that he did. He explained that the two were friends but had gotten themselves into a drunken altercation. This led to the stabbing. The assaulter is now in prison and Sükh expects him to get a jail sentence of 25 years. Since Naiz’s brother-in-law wasn’t wholly innocent in the matter, the assaulter will most likely avoid the death penalty. I didn’t even know they had the death penalty here. I was a bit surprised by how systematic it is here. Due to my ignorance I almost half-thought they didn’t even have a prison in Khatgal.

The lake is still frozen, at least the majority of it is. The breeze is quite chilly. I wasn’t expecting this at all to be honest. I thought Mongolia would be green by now and that I would be able to kayak in the lake. Man was I wrong. I was a bit disappointed but, at the same time, it’s kind of nice that no one’s here. Honestly speaking, the purpose of my trips when I was younger was to party at clubs with locals. I’ve been to a lot of clubs in my life, spanning across four continents. Now I feel less of a desire to do that kind of stuff. Maybe it’s because I’m turning thirty in a few months but there’s more to it than that. This past year has been one of transformation for me personally. I still love to party but it doesn’t consume me like it did in the past. I’ve realized there’s a lot in life I want to get done before my time expires.

I asked Sükh if the horses have names. He told me they’re named after their color. My horse is called Yellow. Simple enough I guess. It’s his wife’s and is nine-years-old. His wife has entered Yellow in Naadam festivals in years past because it’s quite fast.

Yellow and me

The last time I’ve been on a horse was in Egypt while riding through the pyramids. The two experiences are vastly different. The ride is bumpier in Mongolia as you cross through streams, forests, and ditches. In Egypt, you’re just riding through rolling hills of sand. There were more people in Egypt as well. Here, there’s nobody.

We stopped by a ger after riding for a couple hours. Sükh didn’t even knock on the ger’s door. He just opened it, went inside, and plopped down on the ground. We ate some salty milk tea and bread with the locals. I then took a brief rest.

Ger chillin’

Afterwards, we rode out for another hour or so till we came across around twelve cabins by the eastside of the lake. They’re very old and rustic.

The only people here are a Mongolian mother and her son. I’m guessing they rent these out during the summer to tourists. Her son is about four-years-old and he’s a wild one. He climbs cabins and is a spark plug of animation and noise. Upon meeting him the first thing he did was whip out his thing and take a piss to greet me.

8:36…

Speak of the devil. As I was writing in my cabin, I hear someone trying to open my door. I knew it was him. He then knocked. When I opened it, he spoke gibberish for a few minutes and had a few tears streaming down his eyes. He wasn’t crying. He was in a good mood so I’m not sure what the tears signify. I’d say something to him and he just repeats it in the same tone. When I spit, he spits. I pick up a stick, he picks one up. What an interesting fellow. When I rode into these cabins I saw him from afar wielding around a five-foot stick and he looked like a Shaolin monk. He has a shaved head and a similar Shaolin-like garment to match. He’s a good-looking kid and very active. Good-natured but might become a bully if he’s not careful. He’s going to get laid a lot in the future. I can already see it.

Wild child. Love this kid

When it comes to people, I have this uncanny ability to see into their futures and read their pasts. I’ve had it ever since I was young. When I was younger I thought my ability to be nonsense and didn’t trust my intuition. As I’ve aged I’ve realized this is one of my strengths and my travels have honed this ability of mine. I meet many strangers when I backpack. Some have tried screwing me over while others have been of great service. In either case, in the first split-second you meet someone, we all get a feeling for what type of person he or she is. I used to ignore this voice in my mind when I was younger and would just follow my logic. Logic doesn’t work when you have to make quick decisions based on little information however. In these circumstances you have to trust your gut. Here’s a bit of advice. If you’re out travelling and you meet an individual or group that makes you feel uneasy, this is a cue telling you that this person or group may not have the best of intentions. I doubt they are going to do anything crazy to you, but they may try to rip you off. When you’re around good people, you feel this tension much less. Follow that feeling. Also, be aware of your own feelings as well. Are you unnecessarily paranoid for no reason? So many people lead this type of life.

More often man lives in fear of his own shadow than he does of any clear and present danger. Perception becomes reality.

What is it that you fear? Is it really necessary? It’s like how I felt at the airport when I first arrived here. I was on edge but have now realized I didn’t need to be. Other people’s fears had fed into mine about how dangerous this place is. I’m sure horror stories happen here but they happen everywhere in the world. This begets the question: Are we to live behind closets? I think not.

The easiest way to read someone is to block out what they say. Observe their actions and mannerisms; their gestures and the little furtive expressions their words do not express. Children are much easier to read than adults because they’re not trying to hide anything from you. They show you who they are. As we age, we become better at creating the persona we wish others to see of ourselves, but the cues that reveal our true nature are always there if one is observant enough to watch for them.

While I had dinner with Sükh, the boy, and his mother, the TV was on in their cabin. We’re watching an American Idol type show except that it’s a Mongolian version. The contestants are caked in makeup and have very colorful outfits. Though I can understand the appeal of these types of shows, I came to Mongolia to get away from this pop culture bullshit. First it was the Justin Bieber video I saw when I was in Ulaanbaatar, now it’s young Mongolians singing remixes of American songs. The more time passes, the less we’re going to be able to escape this nonsense. As Americans, it seems our major global export is pop culture. Is this all we have to offer to the world? Vanity? There’s nothing else American-made out here.

5/22 10:13PM

I spent the past hour gathering firewood. The lady offered me some but it wasn’t going to be enough to last through the night and, besides, she’ll probably need some as well. It sucks waking up cold in the middle of the night. I don’t have a sleeping bag or anything so it gets really cold. Pretty much everywhere I’ve been around Khatgal so far I’ve seen a pile of logs about ten feet high near people’s cabins. Not here. The lady only had a small bundle. It seems like I do much more manual labor when on vacation than when I am actually working. I don’t mind though.

Sükh has been up since 3:30AM. He had to wake up early this morning to tend to his herd of sheep, horses and yaks. Mongolians are the most industrious workers I’ve ever met in my life. What I appreciate about them is that they don’t complain or expect any gratitude in return. They just do it as if it’s second nature.

I’m alone in my cabin and I got the fire going. In the daytime the cabins look shabby, but at night it’s quite beautiful being inside one with the fire glowing against the walls. The golden sheen of the walls really shines out. It’s cold. On nights like this there’s not much to do. I moved the table in my cabin near the fire and just got lost in my thoughts. The hours pass as I tend to the fire and drink my Chinggis Gold Vodka. I’ve been drinking this brand for the majority of my trip. It’s quite smooth and the buzz isn’t dirty.

Writing this journal

Mongolian fire chambers are a very clever and simple invention. All the smoke ventilates out from the chimney so you get all the warmth without the smoke. When I stayed with the Masai, they just have an open pit in the boma (hut). Your room gets filled with smoke. There are a shitload of bugs in Tanzania as well. Mongolia, at least in May, is quite free of bedbugs, ticks, or mosquitos. Those things are a pain in the ass in Africa. I feel like I’m at a resort compared to there.

It’s cold out here though. The fire chamber is small, as I have mentioned previously, so I just left the ‘door’ to it open and shoved in huge sticks. Some were around four feet in length and are too thick to break in half to fit into the chamber so you have to leave the handle open. This is probably not the safest thing to do and I’m still cognizant of what happened last night when I woke up choking but I don’t really care to be honest. I know I’ll be fine.

My fire

The reason why Mongolian’s are so hardworking is because of the weather I surmise. Nine months out of the year it’s cold and snowy. This is a difficult lifestyle and the only way you can survive is through manual labor. Today is the start of summer and its still cold. Yesterday was 30 degrees Fahrenheit in the daytime, not to mention the wind chill factor. I asked Sükh earlier about the difficulties of life and how he manages. Does he ever want to live in the city? He replied that he used to be a bus driver for several years. However, he didn’t enjoy it. He’d much rather tend to his herd and be a guide during the summer than go back to being a bus driver. I was pretty surprised by this. In winter, he wakes up around, I’d assume, 5AM daily (taking weekly turns with his father) to watch the herd all day. It’s freezing out here. I guess this job provides more purpose than driving a bus however.

5/23 10:34AM

I got up an hour earlier and saw the boy again. He was trying to open my door all morning but I left it locked. I didn’t want to be bothered. This time he’s here with his father. His father’s a large man and walks with a wide gait. He grunts a lot. Without asking, his father walks into my cabin, looks around, sees my vodka on the table, his eyes glimmer, and he grabs it. Then he looks over at me, gives me a nod, and swigs it. He took a large swig. I see where the boy gets his animated personality from. Ten minutes later, the man came back. By this time I had packed everything into my backpack. He searches the room, giving me a confused look. He doesn’t speak any English. I know what he wants. I grab the bottle from my backpack and hand it to him. His eyes light up again as he takes another huge chug. I take one too. I had saved over a third of the bottle for tonight but now there are only like two shots left. He sees a two-liter water bottle and reaches for it. I pulled it away from him and tell him not to drink it, signaling to him with a sway of my hand, “No.” I didn’t explain why. I just told him not to drink it.

It was really cold last night. This cabin has a bunch of air pockets in it and there’s a large draft that comes in from the right side. There are gaps between the wooden logs allowing in fresh air. It was so cold that, when I awoke in the middle of the night, I didn’t want to go outside to take a piss so I just used an empty water bottle. The boy’s father would have drunk this if I hadn’t taken the bottle away from him. I’ve been drinking a lot of water and vodka on my trip so my urine is coming out clear. What a way to start your morning.

5/23 11:15AM

You can always tell where the boy is because he’s always screaming as he plays. While boys raised in the city play with their friends on concrete streets, this kid is playing with some deer now, about six of them. He’s feeding them as he’s yelling at them from behind a fence. There are reindeer housed here as well. An ethnic group called the Tsaatan living north of the lake is known for their reindeer. The boy’s family isn’t part of the same ethnic group I don’t think but they keep the deer here for tourists during summer. They charge 3,000 tugriks for you to take a picture next to them, another 3,000 if you want to feed them. I didn’t do either. It’s only 6,000 tugriks but I felt like it was a rip-off for some reason. It cost 10,000 tugriks to stay here all night. Feels like a waste if I have to pay 6 just to hang out with some reindeer.

5/23 4:26PM

From the lake, we headed eastward along the same path I had taken to reach Chandman-Öndör. I didn’t think a few days after I drove this path I’d be horse backing it now. To get to the path we rode by a forest for two hours. I’m getting the hang of horse backing now. I guided my horse through narrow trees and up and down some hills. Though the lake ride was more scenic, the ride today was more fun. Riding a horse is like riding a motorbike or scooter. You want to keep your balance loose and tug a little to the left or right and the horse will follow. Make sure to keep your legs relaxed. Go with the flow of the horse. It knows what it’s doing. After riding all day, we did not see a single car or any tourists. The eastside of the lake is known for being much less touristy. All I saw were trees and a bunch of brown mixed in with little islands of white snow.

We stopped by a ger to take a break, eat bread, and drink some milk tea. In the ger are three kids. Two older boys and their baby sister who is tied around the waist by a piece of cloth to the bed. This is to ensure that she does not fall off the bed. She’s very cute and she has what looks like chocolate all over her mouth.

Mongolian childcare

A one-hour old newborn sheep is in here as well. Seeing the newborn sheep was fascinating. The umbilical cord was still attached to it and it would urinate sporadically in the ger. If you petted it, it was still wet from its mother’s womb. It was crying loudly but no one in the ger seemed to mind. Meanwhile, the two boys are running around while two men and Sükh are drinking milk tea. The mother of the ger is cooking.

Petting the newborn

The two boys, around the age of nine and twelve in my estimation, are quite adventurous. They kept making snowballs outside and aiming them at empty vodka bottles. The kids have a lot of freedom to roam. They repeatedly wanted me to take picture after picture of their actions. I played back videos for them of what they were doing and they really enjoyed it. They seem to get along very well. I asked Sükh if brothers fight a lot and he asked me, “Why? Why would they fight?” He said that siblings don’t fight much at all. This shocked me a bit as I immediately thought of my own childhood and how much my brothers and I used to squabble. Being the youngest one, it was more like I just got picked on. I guess it makes sense that they don’t fight here as much. There aren’t many other kids around. Basically, your siblings are the only friends you have if you live in a ger outside of town. It was good to see that the two brothers got along so well and now they have a younger sister that has entered their lives.

Brotherhood

Good-natured fellow

Sükh and I rode off for another hour and a half until we came across a ger that had a herd of over fifty baby sheep, yaks, and goats. It makes for quite the memory. Once I got off the horse and close to these newborns, the bold ones came up to me and bit me at the knees. I’m guessing they think I have some milk to offer. The baby goats are really cute with their little horns sticking out.

Baby goats

They jump at your knees incessantly

I just found out we’re sleeping here. Every new ger you come across, the first thing the female of the ger does is offer you some milk tea and bread. You might then eat some gureltai shol (I’m butchering the spelling), which is a Mongolian meat and vegetable broth they eat everyday. I’ve already had it several times now. It tastes pretty much the same at every ger. It doesn’t taste bad, and being of Korean heritage, I would compare it to a Seolleong-tang. If you’re a westerner it might take a bit longer to get used to the flavor but it’s nothing exotic. Every ger I go to is the same pattern. There are a few kids, a female cooking, and there’s even a baby sheep in this ger as well. This sheep is much quieter. It’s amazing what routine does to you. I’m getting used to visiting gers and nothing surprises me anymore. Rural Mongolians all seem to live quite uniform lives.

Each ger has a television and is usually powered by solar panels. As I’m writing, the people living in this ger are watching a Korean movie. Sükh asked if I had seen the movie before and I replied that I haven’t. He was shocked and told me that the movie is very popular. I have no idea. I don’t have a television at home and the last movie I’ve seen in a theater is Avatar. If I were a child raised here, it would be quit odd to live in a ger when I see all these different lifestyles and materialistic images on television. They must view me as quite an exotic traveller. Probably much more exotic than I view them.

Every culture has its own rules of etiquette. For instance, in Korea, one is supposed to take off his shoes when entering someone’s home and he is to pour out and receive alcohol with two hands as a sign of mutual respect. In America, one is to greet others with a handshake and make eye contact when conversing. In Mongolia, I’m still not quite certain what the rules of etiquette are here. Observing Sükh for the past two days, we’ve gone to four or five gers and he walks into every single one like it’s his. He’ll lie on the ground, smoke a cigarette, drink his tea, eat, and watch some TV. One does not even knock when entering another’s home. He just opens the door every time. Traditionally, the entire family is to live together until the children are eighteen. Some children might live in a dormitory if their ger is too far away from school. Sükh told me forty years ago there was a ger that housed eighteen children. The parents had a child every year pretty much. All of them were housed in one ger, which is a single room basically. Every ger is shaped like a circle and there’s no sense of privacy. I think because of such close proximity to each other, rural Mongolians grow up quite comfortable in their own skin. For men, you basically urinate wherever you want once you step out, at least this is how Sükh behaves. Nothing about it seems awkward or strange however. I think it’s one of those things you just have to experience to understand maybe.

I just felt some bug crawling up my jeans. I squeezed the right side of my jeans — thigh level — and heard the snap of a dead insect. I am now going outside to see what I find.

5/23 6:00PM

I went out to take a piss. About twenty baby goats and sheep came following me. While I’m trying to dodge them as I urinate, flailing around like Khulan, they’re nipping at my jeans.

5/23 7:47PM

I took a nap for about thirty minutes and awoke to find myself alone in the ger. I stepped out and saw literally hundreds of adult goats and sheep. The adult flock had returned.

Some of the herd

I asked Sükh how many total there are and he responded over 450. It’s a stunning sight to wake up to. I then asked him how much territory does the average family own in these rural areas. He said around 5 to 50 kilometers. This family owns around 25 kilometers according to his estimate. I found this quite surprising. They own 25 kilometers of land yet all live in a home the size of your average bedroom in suburban California. One reason why is because they live a nomadic lifestyle. They move with the seasons, from the mountain to the countryside and back to town. I asked Sükh if the herd has any predators and he told me wolves. A few wolves attacked and killed a young horse yesterday from the ger we visited earlier today. That and winter are the biggest enemies. They use guns to kill the wolves.

Randomly, this orange, black and white spotted cat has just walked into our ger. It’s purring as it encircles my left leg and I’m writing. Though the pace of life here is slow, I still experience these moments of surprise. This is the first cat I’ve seen in Mongolia.

During the summer, the rural Mongolians living by Lake Khövsgöl eat goats and sheep. In autumn, they kill cows and horses so they have something to eat during winter.

5/23 9:46PM

I just spent the past hour outside. Three teenage girls and another that looks like she’s about ten are separating the flock of over 400 animals along with a man who appears in his thirties. I had no idea what was going on. They’re just running around, grabbing animals and separating them into two pens while another group of animals is left in the field. They’re not separated by type of animal however. The procedure looks pretty random. After watching this chase go on for about a half hour, I walked over to Sükh to ask him what was going on. It turns out that the flock is a mixture of two separate herds. Two of the teenage girls were supposed to tend to the flocks — keeping them separate — but they got caught up in conversation. Girls will be girls I guess. It was interesting watching them now trying to separate the two herds. Sükh told me they could tell which animal belongs to which herd just by looking at them, his finger pointing to the herd as if to show me. I would’ve liked to help but they all look the same to me. Though it was troublesome for the girls, it was fun watching them pursue after sprinting animals, dragging goats by the horns and lifting sheep to throw into the pens. Even the ten-year-old was in on the action. I thought about California teenage girls doing something similar and I couldn’t fathom it. These girls are awesome.

Herding. She picks them up and throws them into a pen

5/23 10:14PM

These girls don’t stop working. They were up all day herding until past 9PM. They then went out to collect firewood. Now they’re kneading dough and making food. The most remarkable thing about all of this is that they look happy. They don’t appear upset at all. I think its because there’s such a strong sense of community out here. As two of the teenagers are cooking, the other teenager is holding and playing with the ten-year-old. Though I don’t think they’re all blood-related, I have yet to see any siblings fight. They help each other out. For such difficult living, what beautiful people.

The blood runs deep

5/23 11:46PM

There really is no sense of privacy. I’m sleeping on the ground now. A few inches to my right is the guy who lives here. He’s up on a bed, sleeping shirtless. A foot to my left is one of the teenage girls. We all change in front of each other, albeit a bit inconspicuously. In between the girl and me is the baby sheep I mentioned from earlier and directly south of me is the cat. There are seven of us total sleeping in this ger.  Sükh offered me a bed but I thought one of the girls should sleep on it. Sükh ended up sleeping on the bed instead.

5/24 4:17PM

I just got done with a shower and had some breakfast. All I had in the morning was a slice of bread. I’m back at MS Guesthouse now. I took a shower in the same place I ate: in the dining room. There is no one else staying here but me. I showered in a silver pail of water about two feet in diameter that was warmed by Batbayer’s wife. The water was heated by placing it over the fire chamber. It felt odd showering in a dining room naked, but not really. I’m getting used to life out here.

Today was a long day. This morning I awoke at a little past 9AM to see Sükh with a bloody left hand and holding a knife with his right. He shouted, “Danny!” to cajole me out of my slumber. I knew exactly what he meant and I came running out. I had asked last night about how they kill animals here and if it was possible for me to see them slaughter one. Sükh asked the man in his thirties and he said they’re going to kill a goat in the morning. So I immediately ran outside when I saw his bloody hand and the knife.

How they kill a goat is by first smashing its head with what looks like a metal dumbbell. After it collapses, they then stab it right in the middle of the belly, as they proceed to cut off the fur. This part took the longest. I helped out a bit and you hear the goat’s skin tear as you’re ripping it apart. You curl one hand into a fist and knead the under layer of skin as you pull the fur off with your other hand. It gets tiring after awhile. The only parts that are snapped off are the hooves. Sükh grabs a hoof and snaps it like how you would twist off a metal cap on a bottle of Soju. You hear a similar sound as well, the sound of bones cracking. Once the entire coat is cut off what lies before you is the carcass of the goat enwrapped cleanly in its under skin. There’s not much blood at all. Just a goat without any fur. Sükh then gets his knife and cuts through the belly. Blood now starts gushing out. The man in his thirties uses a bowl to scoop out the blood. He then hands the internal organs one by one to two of the teenage girls who proceed to wash them.

Afterwards, he starts cutting out the legs and ribs, putting these prime pieces into an empty rice sack. The only parts that are not cut up but still covered in fur are the hooves and the head. The head is all that remains visible to identify this animal. It’s odd staring at the head of an animal you just cut up. The goat’s eyes were still open. Being a goat’s head, it reminded me of religious ramifications. Mongolians will eat the head as well. Sükh says it’s delicious in stew. No part of the goat is wasted. They eat everything pretty much.

As I was watching the guys cut up the goat, I saw to my left two of the girls grab what I believe is the intestine and start squeezing it from opposite ends. Some fecal matter comes draining out and the intestine looks like a very long piece of precooked sausage.

The whole process of carving up the goat took about an hour. When they were finished, the man in his thirties handed the head and four feet of the goat to me and told me to put them in the ger. I grab the goat by one of its horns as I carry its four hooves in my other hand. The whole time I couldn’t stop staring at the goat’s face. It’s eyes were still open. Once I was inside the ger I asked one of the girls where I should put these parts and she pointed to the firewood stack. And that was the end of it.

Afterwards, Sükh told me why the animal was killed. The man in his thirties is a cousin of Naiz’s wife. He put the best parts in that rice sack so he could deliver them to Naiz’s wife’s family. Indeed, when we were finished with everything he immediately took off on his motorbike and headed to Khatgal. Sükh and I followed from behind later on horseback. The trip back to Khatgal took us about a little over three hours.

It seems like the story of the young adult who got stabbed is following me wherever I go during this trip. Khatgal is a small town of around 4000 people so it’s not very surprising. At the same time, when you go on a journey, it is up to you to find the meaning in your trip. Like life, the story will go wherever you wish to take it. Earlier I had asked Sükh what’s the quickest way to head back to Mörön. I had planned to party with Enkhtuyaa and her friends tonight and tomorrow while I wait for Nate to arrive Saturday. However, Sükh told me that the funeral will be held tomorrow morning. I asked if I can come and he tells me yes. In my mind, I immediately canceled the Mörön trip so that I can attend. We will be visiting the father’s home later today at 5PM so we can pay our respects.

On the way back to Khatgal we rode a bit faster so we would not be late to see Naiz’s family. The ride back was a bit bumpy on my ass but pleasant. In the past few days, we’ve rode through snow, forests, rocks, hills, and by the lake. Of these trails, my favorite is riding through the forest. Its fun careening through trees as you guide your horse. I’ve never had an experience quite like this before where my main transport is a horse. For miles around you, you see nothing but nature, with an occasional herder and his flock every hour or so. On the way back into town, we saw a dust tornado hovering over Khatgal. It was thousands of feet into the air, colliding with the blue skies serving as a backdrop. It’s a beautiful scene. Majestic. On my way back, this time, I kept my gaze more towards the horizon, observing clouds floating above endlessly as we approached to see the lake from below.

My hands are getting worn from horse backing and I can feel them tearing, even though we only rode for around four-five hours a day. I didn’t bring any gloves (thought I could purchase some here but there aren’t any). As I was riding I stared down at my hands momentarily, realizing they’re getting tanned from the sun, have been burnt from making fires, and have splinters due to collecting wood. Some of the ends of my nails have chipped off. Even after showering and staring at my hands now, I see there are still bits of grime left under a few of my nails.

It’s almost 5PM now. I don’t know if Sükh is arriving at five standard or on Mongolian time. I’m going to step out real quick to get some vodka.

5/24 6:32PM

I just returned from Naiz’s wife’s parents home. It was a very somber atmosphere as expected. About eight young male adults were hanging around outside by Naiz’s SUV. I passed by them, feeling their eyes staring at me. They must be wondering who’s the new guy. Once I step in the home there were around nine females doing various chores. In terms of sex roles, Mongolians play very distinct roles.

The parent’s cabin is much more rustic and less frills than is Naiz’s home. The Mongolian cabins I’ve been in so far have primarily just one main room. Upon entering, there might be a smaller room you enter first but there’s no door separating it from the main room. At the end of the large room is a picture of their son, standing on top of a drawer. The picture is a close-up of his face and he looks young in it. Next to the picture frame are over a hundred bills of various denominations placed standing. Most of the bills are of 10,000 notes. You can tell by the orange color. Below are over a dozen bottles of oil. I wasn’t aware of it at the time but I found out later that candles are burned for 49 days consecutively when there is a death of a loved one. To the right of the drawer are women of various ages. I’m assuming his mother and grandmother are two of these women. Naiz’s wife is also sitting there, breastfeeding her newborn. Everyone’s staring at me and I feel like I’m invading their privacy. I’m not sure if they’re upset or just curious. Most probably don’t care at all. I won’t disclose how much money I left but it was a fair amount. I took the bills out of my wallet and they were bent. I couldn’t get the bills to stand properly so it was a bit of an awkward moment. Afterwards, I told Sükh let’s step outside. He didn’t look comfortable inside there either. I had a short conversation with Naiz outside when I saw him and he took me to the back of the home where he and a few of his close friends were smoking cigarettes privately. We had an awkward exchange and I soon left right after.

The funeral will be held tomorrow morning at 7AM up in the mountains. I asked Sükh to pick me up on his motorbike and he obliged. He made it sound like he might not wake up. He told me to call him at 6:30AM just in case. Not wake up for a funeral? I was a bit surprised. I’m guessing he’s not too close to the family.

On another note, I logged online a few minutes earlier and went on Facebook. I rarely go on anymore but I sometimes scroll through my homepage to see everyone’s updates. The first update I saw posted was from my oldest brother’s girlfriend. They are getting married today in Hawaii. I had no idea. They have been engaged for a while now so it’s not entirely unexpected. Still, I never thought I’d find out my brother was getting married through Facebook. And, of all places, I’m in Mongolia to hear the news after I just attended a wake. I did the only reasonable thing I thought possible under these circumstances: I clicked the Like button.

In a family of three random boys, you never quite know what the other two are doing. My oldest brother is getting married in Hawaii, I’m attending a funeral in Mongolia, and I wonder what the middle one is up to? My brothers don’t have Facebook. And, coming from a stereotypical family of men, we don’t talk much.

5/24 10:26PM

Life is all about perspective. Coming from my comfortable studio apartment in Seoul, when I spent my first night in Khatgal spraying the flies above me with my sunscreen before I slept, I felt very cramped and dirty. After spending the previous two nights sleeping in a cabin with air pockets everywhere and sleeping in a ger with six other people, being alone in my Khatgal ger feels like paradise now. Indeed, after my shower in the dining room using a pail and eating a good meal cooked by Batbayer’s wife, I feel like I’m staying at a four-star hotel. It’s amazing the impact perspective plays in an individual’s life. You think the lifestyle you’re living is normal when it’s not. There are so many different lifestyles to live in this world of ours that none of them can possibly be normal or mainstream. More than anything, what happens is we just get used to our routines. It’s good to once in awhile step outside of your comfort zone. If you’re open to the experience, you’ll never return home the same person.

5/25 5:06PM

I woke up at 3:30AM this morning and could not fall back asleep. This happens to me sometimes. When I have to wake up early for something the next morning, I end up waking up way too early. Then I can’t stop thinking. My mind constantly wanders. I think about very abstract thoughts, sometimes losing touch of myself. After my random musings this morning, I started thinking about the young man who died and then began pondering about death in general. Later, my thoughts shifted to thinking about the funeral and if I have anything black or formal to wear. I don’t. How others will be dressed was my next thought, in the same clothes or in special outfits? What are their customs and will they think I’m an intrusion? How should I act? I’ve been the only foreigner at celebratory events like weddings in Ethiopia or family birthdays in Morocco, but I’ve never attended a sorrowful event before. I’m sure the customs are to be observed much more strictly.

I often spend my free time like this. My mind constantly wanders, jumping from idea to idea. Though others may not realize it, I’m a very introspective individual and solitude is not something I find discomforting.

Sükh arrived to pick me up at 7AM. I hopped on his motorbike and thought we would head straight to the mountain. Instead, we went to the parent’s home first. Around fifty people were gathered there along with seven vehicles to transport us. I thought we were going to head to the mountain separately but this method of cruising as a convoy makes more sense since not all these people have motor vehicles.

While lingering outside the house, brief chatter is uttered in whispered tones. I have no idea what anyone’s talking about. Then a hush silences the crowd as the family emerges from the house with casket in hand. About eight men carefully lay it into a van that looks like it’s from the 70s. In a land of dust and brown, the casket was a sight to behold. It was embroidered in a bright burgundy silk garment with black stripes running vertically in patches to the sides and on top of the casket. Three flower-shaped silk adornments were placed vertically on top of the casket as well, running down the middle. We all then got in separate vehicles and followed the van. I thought we were heading straight to the mountain but we only drove for about thirty yards. Everyone got out and the casket was then taken inside another building. This building was small and kind of looked like a house. It was very plain on the outside and I had no idea what was going on. People were walking in and out of the place, but I stayed outside with most of the other young people. The women are in tears and I started questioning what I was doing here while at the same time wishing to pay my respects and learn from this experience. While waiting, a local approaches me and he speaks a bit of English. I immediately took a liking to him. He’s the first person to approach me all morning and it felt more comfortable having someone to stand next to. His name is Oktai. He stands around six foot and his build isn’t big but he looks tough. He tells me that he was a friend of the deceased and I found out he came back from Korea recently. He studied something similar to oceanography out there. He works on a vessel in Lake Khövsgöl during the summer.

After waiting around for twenty minutes, the casket is carried out of the building and placed in the van again. I’m guessing now we head to the mountain. As I looked for a car to get in, one of the older lady’s grabs me by the arm and tells the people in the van to let me in. I was a bit surprised but went in the van, the last one to hop in. In the van are seven of us young men in the back and two older individuals up front. There are no seats in the back. The seven of us are sitting surrounding the casket, our arms resting above it from time to time. I was seated on the right side, behind another passenger, sitting in a kneeling position that hurt because I have bad knees. We drove for about an hour in silence, leading the procession of vehicles. The van chugged along slowly, uttering heaving gasps as it crept up the mountain.

I started reflecting about my trip as we were cruising. A few days ago I had met this young man in a hospital to strike a deal so that Retta and I could have a driver to take us to Chandman-Öndör, and now I’m in a van with his kin sitting next to his deceased body as we head to his funeral. What a surreal moment. It gives one time to reflect upon his purpose in this bizarre voyage we call life.

When we finally reached the burial site, I saw the gravestones of other deceased relatives. There was already a pit dug out for his casket to be dropped in. Once we got out of the van, we placed the casket on top of two wooden tiles that were above the pit. While doing so, there was a shaman sitting at the head of the pit, uttering hymns and lighting incense. When everyone had arrived we made a circle around the burial mound and the shaman got up and poured what looked like milk tea around the casket. He then handed the cup to the boy’s father and he did the same. This process, including the hymning, lasted for about fifteen minutes. Afterwards, the young men placed two long pieces of rope beneath the casket and then removed the wooden tiles. Men on both sides carefully loosened the rope as the casket was placed gently underground.

About thirty-to-forty yards away, there was a group of seven men shoveling dirt and mixing gravel with water and another liquid, producing cement. I saw them earlier but had no idea what they were doing. Now I got a clearer idea. As the women wept and the older men stood silent in contemplation, the young men began making their way to the mixed gravel. Being a young man, I made my way as well. There were about thirteen of us total and we stood in a makeshift line with rice sack in hand. A man with a shovel then filled the sacks with wet gravel, then these sacks were carried back to the burial site to cover the mound. We carried over forty sacks easily in my estimation. These sacks are not light by any means. Some men carried them over their shoulder while others dragged them in groups of two. I did a mixture of both. By my third sack, I was really spent. As I waited for another sack to be filled, across some of the men’s hands I saw drops of red. They were bleeding. I looked at my own hands and saw they were bleeding too. Though my nails weren’t long, I had cut into my hands from lifting the sacks. Like everything else in Mongolia, the funeral was a very labor-intensive task.

Once the burial mound was topped with the cement mixture, some of the men grabbed saws and began cutting wood to make more tiles. Soon, the pieces were connected into another casket-shaped rectangular square. This was then placed over the site. It stood above the mound, which I thought a bit odd since the casket was several feet below. More cement was then placed into this rectangular box until it was filled. Then, once the cement had smoothed, boards were placed over the top to cover the gravel. When I looked over at the other tombstones, I did not see any with this rectangular frame over the burial mound. I’m not sure if nature did its thing to cover these boxes already or if this is a newer practice. Afterwards, another smaller wooden box was placed at the head of the burial site. This wooden box was for the gravestone. This gravestone was much larger than the other ones around. It stood up to my thighs and was very thick. Sükh was the man who lifted the gravestone, placing it into the cement. Just by the way he was working today you can tell Sükh’s strong; shorter than me but solid as an ox. I gained a lot of respect for him today and the way he works. In terms of our labor, the whole process took about an hour and a half.

As these events were occurring, I tried to discreetly take some photos to document the experience. I know this would be inappropriate, but the historian in me came out and I felt like I should document these actions. There isn’t much to look at in terms of scenery, but this whole experience I’m certain will leave a marked impression upon me for years to come.

After everything was intact and the site was finished, everyone grabbed a handful of rice and circled the tomb three times, throwing the rice into the air, aiming it above the tomb. I felt that this was very proper. It kind of lightened the atmosphere and was a way to send him off in good spirits into the afterlife, as I felt bits of rice rain on me as well. “So long friend,” is all I could think of.

This is the third funeral I have been to in my life. The first was of a childhood friend, the second was of a close friend’s grandfather, and now I’m here. I would never have thought in high school that the third funeral I would ever attend in my life would be in Mongolia. Meanwhile, my brother just got married hours earlier. This all felt quite surreal. Since I’m a very random individual I never know what to expect, yet it all eventually makes sense in hindsight. I have another saying: Follow your cues. My cues led me to this moment right here. I wasn’t formally invited but I just felt that I should come today. I don’t know why, but again, I know everything eventually will make sense once I reflect upon it.

After throwing the rice in the air, we all proceeded to head in our cars and leave. I sat in the back of the van and, while I had my head turned to get one last glance, a guy grabbed my shoulder and waved his head, “No,” to me. According to Mongolian custom, one is not to look back at the dead. There were now fifteen of us in the van. I don’t know where the other six people came from, but they were mostly older and female. I looked out at the only other window I could, the one to the right of me. There was not a cloud in the sky. I’m not sure if this was because it is still early in the morning, but there was not a single cloud. Just clear blue.

Once we made our way back to the parent’s home, there were several people outside. A group of females handed each of us some clean water to wash our hands with, then we were handed a cube of sugar to eat, and the final thing we did was light a candle right when we stepped into the parent’s home. There were about a 100 candles total. After lighting a candle, a huge feast awaited us. The living room was spare yesterday. Today, the space is covered with benches, in the shape of the letter ‘U’. Over fifty of us were cramped in this single room as we ate. I sat in the upper-right corner of the ‘U’. The first dish served to us was, of course, milk tea. A mixture of sour milk and rice soup was then served. It tastes like you could imagine. Next was some potato salad. This was delicious. The main course was meat stew, similar to what I’ve been eating all trip but much more meaty; there are chunks of it. I wondered if the goat from yesterday that we killed was put in this broth. It’s very possible.  There is a huge bread cake the size of a wedding cake placed in the front of the living room, but I left before I could have some. I ate two servings of the stew and was stuffed. The lady that handed me the stew gave me a smile each time I had asked for some. Something about her looked familiar. She stared at me more intently than is normal for a stranger to do. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

Now, as I reflect, I realize who she is. She’s the same lady I sat across from on the minibus I rode to get to Khatgal, the bus that broke down on us twice. I sat directly across from her and here she is serving me a meal. Wow. What synchronicity. She must have remembered me right away since there aren’t many foreigners in town. Though I only met her once, it’s great to recognize a familiar face. I had thought about who she was for the past two hours. Just something about the smile she gave me was very genuine and warm.

After eating, I felt back to normal again. The mood in the room was still somber but it wasn’t like yesterday’s wake. There’s lots of noise, people eating, babies crying, the usual stuff. It was a packed house, making it easier to blend in. With the delicious meal, I doubt anyone cared who I was anyways. Everyone was eating.

The whole funeral process took us about five-and-a-half hours total. I was expecting it to be much shorter. When I arrived back at the MS Guesthouse dining room I felt a bit strange at first. I was just in a room packed with over fifty people. Now I’m alone again, the only tourist here. I think I’m the only foreigner in this entire town today. The only two tourist camps open currently that I’m aware of are MS Guesthouse and Garage 24. When I had spoken to the manager of Garage 24 a few days ago, she said they weren’t expecting anyone out here but me, and I have yet to meet a single tourist outside of the ones I’ve met at MS. It’s too early in the tourist season.

Today was much hotter compared to previous days. I tried napping but couldn’t sleep. I just sat lying in my ger, then I spoke to Nate. He’s flying in tomorrow to Mörön. We’re going to go horse backing, this time on the west side of the lake. I usually like going on trips alone, but it will be good to see a familiar face. I feel with his arrival tomorrow it will be a marked distinction from my first ten days here. Tomorrow will begin part two of my trip.

God bless the dead.

One thing I noticed about Mongolian children is that they are very free. Even at the parent’s home I ate at today, there was little supervision to monitor their activities. They are very, very adventurous due to this.

5/25 8:54PM

Just got a call from Nate. He’s out partying in Ulaanbaatar with the Korean, Japanese, and Polish people I had met on my first or second night here in Khatgal. I didn’t write about meeting them in my journal. He’s going over to their dormitory for some type of party. I can already feel a change coming.

When it comes to travelling, I have a saying: When you travel alone, it’s an experience. When you travel with others, it’s a vacation.

Neither one is better or worse than the other. It just depends on what you’re looking for. This will end the first part of my trip.

5/26 1:20PM

An hour earlier I had just taken the nicest shower in the past ten days. It was at an actual facility. It’s a half-hour walk away. The shower is operated by a family living next to it. The family lives in a ger. It seems like the family earns their income by operating this small 3-shower facility, with the third shower faucet broken. The cost is 3,000 tugriks. After my shower I felt great. Less than five minutes later, as I’m making my way back to MS Guesthouse, I walked into a huge dust storm. You can’t see anything but brown just ten yards in front of you. I’m not sure the speed of the wind but it was definitely slowing my step. I was dressed in a shirt and shorts because the weather was warm. You can feel pebbles of rock pelting your arms and legs as you take each step and shield your eyes from dust. Everyone had gone indoors, not that there were many people on the road to begin with. The pebbles feel like how rain feels when it hits your sleeveless arms as you’re driving fast on a scooter. At least this is what was going through my mind. This experience reminded me of being in Thailand. On a rainy day a few years ago during monsoon season I was speeding down a hill on a scooter when, all of a sudden, I tripped up against something on the road and lost control of my bike. I immediately let go of the steering wheel and slid for about fifty feet down the wet road. My bike slid for another forty feet after. I wasn’t injured at all. This is the thing I learned about falling. When you have to fall, always roll. Let yourself slide as much as possible. This way you’re spreading the point of impact and creating much less damage to any one area. My shorts were filled with holes but I wasn’t injured.

I learned about this technique from snowboarding. When I was younger, I liked going really, really fast down mountains. I only travelled in one direction: straight. Sometimes I’d eat it hard and slam right into the ground. These falls hurt the most. However, when I fell crazy styles and did flips down the mountain with my snowboard detaching from my boots and everything, these falls hurt much less. Bystanders always stopped to see if I was okay but I wasn’t hurt at all. It’s the falls where I slammed right into the ground with no movement that hurt most. It’s because all the impact is released on one point, not spreading throughout your body. I don’t have any scientific proof to back my assertions but I’ve fallen enough times off of bikes and snowboards in my youth to know what style works best. If there’re no wall or barriers around to hit you, always remember to go with your momentum, not against it, until you come to a complete stop. When you get up, it will be quite the adrenaline rush pumping through your system and you’ll scream, “Whooo!!” cause you’ve never felt so alive. When there was fresh snow around, I’d fall on purpose when I was a teenager. I’d go as fast as I can then do a flip onto my shoulders and just start tumbling down double black diamond slopes in Mammoth. If the snow is powdered, you’re not going to get hurt at all. It’s like falling on pillows.

As the dust and pebbles came pelting at me, the next thought that ran into my mind was about life in Mongolia. I can see why Mongolians are so tough. They don’t have a choice. I just took a shower half an hour ago, and now my body is covered in dust again. Shit’s comedy. And right when I got within two minutes of MS Guesthouse, the damn dust storm ends. I must have done a lot of bad shit in my past life to be going through some nonsense like this.

It’s hot today, but according to the weather forecast, it’s supposed to snow tomorrow. Nate wanted a trip that’s raw. He’s in for a treat.

5/26 11:15PM

I am in a ger with a grandfather and drinking with Nate. The horse ride here was cold. Nate had arrived from Mörön in the late afternoon today and we immediately took off with Sükh to go riding.

The grandfather, Nate, and I have been drinking for the past couple hours. We finished off over a bottle of Chinggis Gold. Sükh doesn’t drink and he went off to sleep at a different ger. Unfortunately, the grandmother here is sick. She’s been sleeping and doesn’t seem to notice our presence. In this ger is a child as well. She’s around four and is a pretty girl. Not as rambunctious as some of the other children her age I’ve seen though. I thought Nate would be a little uncomfortable sleeping in a ger but everything’s worked out perfectly thus far. Grandpa is very drunk. And so are we. He doesn’t speak any English but we’re having a great time. His face is very worn. He has the features of an individual that has lived a very rugged life. An outdoorsman.

5/27 11:25AM

It snowed a few inches overnight. And it’s still falling.

Outside our ger in the morning

Today we will be horse backing through and in snow. Grandpa woke up a tad hungover. He was grunting throughout the morning while sleeping on the ground next to me. He graciously offered Nate the bed. It was cold. It turns out the four-year-old girl is actually a boy. Nate and I saw him urinating in the ger this morning while the boy’s grandfather was helping him. He urinated into a pail. Nate looked over at me surprised and I had the same expression. The whole time I was certain ‘he’ was a ‘she’. He has very long hair and everything. The more I think I’m getting used to these gers, I get surprises here and there that throw me off. It’s like you begin to feel like you know something a bit and are getting comfortable when all of a sudden something throws you off to make you rethink your preconceptions.

5/28 10:35AM

Yesterday’s trek through the snow was the best yet. It was breathtaking horse backing in fresh snow. Today Sükh told me that two men from Khatgal will come to the mountains to hunt wolves. After it snows is a great time to kill them because hunters can see their tracks. It’s a bit disheartening hearing this because wolves need to survive as well, but I can see the reality of this situation.

Two dogs followed us all along yesterday’s trail and they are still with us. One is Sükh’s (which looks like a wild Husky) and the other is a black-and-brown-coated dog that has followed us from the first ger we were at yesterday. I wonder if and when it will go back home.

In the snow

I’m riding the same horse as I was during the first leg of my trip — Yellow.

riding

Yellow’s mane is cut. The manes are used to make rope. We rode yesterday until we reached some cabins. The windows of the cabins here are all double-paned. It can get to -40 degrees Fahrenheit during winter. I can’t imagine being outdoors in that type of weather. The west side has some beautiful trails and we stayed last night at a ger that’s located within thirty yards of the lake. The ger is owned by the same people who live in the cabin. The whole lake is still covered in ice except for about the first twenty yards near the shore in some areas.

lakeside

It makes for an interesting panoramic view as you take in the scene and look out to the mountains in the horizon. There are still very few people here, including locals, so we had the lake to ourselves.

Yet you can still feel that this side of the lake is much more touristy than the east. The cabins here are much nicer and so are the gers. The locals are dressed more Western as well, sporting newer jeans and jackets. They speak English a bit here too. Every ger seems to have a child between the ages of 3-5. If the kids cry, they are mostly left to their own devices. They soon stop crying. Yellow listened to me less when we were riding yesterday. I wanted her to cross the deepest sections of snow whereas she wanted to skirt around.

There are about seven people here total in the cabin we visited. Nate and I slept in a nearby ger the family owns but we spent most of the night with the family in the cabin.

Nate in the red. Dirtier than the locals but in a different kind of way

Fitting right in

The family here owns a herd of animals as well but it’s nowhere near in size as the herds on the east side. There is quite a large yak however. Sükh and this yak were engaged in a back-and-forth struggle as he tried placing a piece of rope in between its nostrils. The yak wasn’t all too happy about this but Sükh eventually prevailed.

Sükh putting a piece of rope in the nostrils of a large yak. You can't see it but he got the rope through

At this point, the yak had given up

After taming the yak, Sükh starts chopping some wood

After taming the yak, Sükh starts chopping some wood. What a badass.

As it got darker, Nate and I spent our evening in the cabin with the family. We ran out of vodka so a local offered to drive into town and pick us up two bottles for a cab fee of 10,000 tugriks. In the cabin are a mother, an aunt, and a few of their children. The children are around their late twenties, with a couple that are much younger. I’m guessing these are grandchildren. I forget. The family does not drink much. Nate and I drink quite a bit. We sat with the eldest son and Sükh on the left side of the cabin. We were sitting on a firm couch. On the other side, the mother of the home and her daughter, Tsolmon, are watching television while seated on the ground. Tsolmon is around twenty-five and is the most attractive girl I’ve seen in Khatgal. She’s not very photogenic in pictures but she’ll hold your glimpse for a second if you were to pass her by on the street. An hour later we saw her carrying two buckets of water from the lake. Nate immediately went outside to help her carry the water in. He was awestruck that a pretty girl like her could be doing manual labor. Meanwhile, trailing behind Tsolmon was her grandmother carrying two buckets of water herself. Nate didn’t see or help the grandmother at all. This shit made me laugh. Guys are fools for attraction. And I’m very guilty as well.

After finishing off the first bottle, I went outside to urinate and came back to see Nate had moved seats and is now lying down next to Tsolmon. This cracked me up too. What made me laugh is that Nate is obviously hitting on her in front of her older brother and mother in the same cabin. While I took the same seat again — next to Sükh and the eldest son — I can hear and see Nate asking Tsolmon to take a walk with him outside. She doesn’t understand English very well so he resorted to using hand gestures. The time was around 11PM by now. Mongolians aren’t quite the type to take midnight walks out in snow. She says it’s too late. Then Nate asked her what time she wakes up at. She responded 6AM. Nate told her they’ll take a walk in the morning. He’s one of my closest friends so it was some funny shit to watch this scene unfold. He’s the type of guy who is completely oblivious of his social surroundings when he gets to drinking. In other words, he’s an awesome guy to drink with.

After it got closer to midnight, we left the family and went back to our ger. Sükh slept elsewhere again so Nate and I had the ger to ourselves. This ger is the first I’ve been in that’s insulated. There’s some fabric between the inner-cloth and outer wooden frame. I asked Sükh what it was this morning and found out it was wool. This kept the ger remarkably warm. He told me it’s a winter ger and they will take off the wool layer soon because the temperature’s expected to get warmer as early as next week.

On another note, Nate went to take a number two at the outhouse, which is basically a pit in the ground with some logs to cover one’s view. There’s no rooftop or anything. While he was taking a shit, a bird flew out from the pit directly below his knees.

5/28 4:25PM

We just arrived back to MS Guesthouse. We took the lakeside trail. It was a great ride today and it was no longer snowing. In some parts of the trail, you’re riding next to cliffs that have a 50 foot drop. To the left side is the lake below. To the right is a mountain. The trail is only a few feet wide for the most part so Sükh led while Nate and I followed from behind.

Riding through

Riding low

View

View

It was a breathtaking view. I had used my camera to videotape some of the scenery while I was riding Yellow. Sükh had told me on my first day riding that abrupt noises can scare horses. I had forgotten about this. When I pushed the playback button on my camera, Yellow was startled by the sound and immediately reared, kicking her two front feet in the air and flinging me off in the process. It happened so fast I don’t remember anything. The last thing I recall is that I was looking down at my camera. Then, all of a sudden, I was lying on the ground against my back, my camera still in my right hand and my eyes still viewing the clip as my feet were up in midair. All I did was yell out a “Whooo!!” because I felt such an instantaneous rush. Luckily, the snow had broken my fall so I didn’t get hurt at all.

We rode for several hours until we made it to Sükh’s ger in Khatgal. He is in the middle of building a cabin for his children. The cabin takes a few months to make. Some can do it within a month if they have the time available. Once I was in Sükh’s ger, I asked him how does a couple engage in intimacy if their children are around. He responded that they just do it in front of the kids when they are sleeping. Then he put up his left hand and pretended to cover his eyes, saying, “Sometimes they will peak.” And we all started laughing.

Nate’s on the toilet again, his third time today. Yesterday, he went four times. Think he has a case of anal anxiety or some shit. He must squat quite well by now.

5/28 5:19PM

Mongolians nap frequently. Sükh would often nap when we stepped into a ger after drinking some milk tea and eating bread. Batbayer’s taking a nap right now. So is Nate. I think it is very important for individuals to take naps, especially for Mongolians. Since they work throughout the day, napping helps restore their energy. As for myself, if there is one thing I am terrible at, it is sleeping. I rarely nap and sleep very, very late at night; often not till past sunrise if my mornings are free. Sometimes, I won’t sleep till 1-2PM in the afternoon. My mind constantly wanders, jumping from thought to thought, idea to idea. It is very difficult to shut off my brain as a result.

I just called Naiz and told him let’s meet for drinks around 9PM. I also called Oktai to tell him to meet up at the same time. I wonder if they’re good friends.

5/28 6:27PM

Nate woke up from his nap while I was drinking. He has to use the toilet again. He has more shit coming out of him than do our politicians.

5/29 9:57AM

We just arrived to Mörön Airport. There’s only one check-in stand and one airstrip for planes. Last night was a great way to end our stay in Khatgal. I met up with Naiz, Oktai, and a few others I had seen at the funeral. We went to a bar but it wasn’t really a bar. It was a large room next to a convenience store. We were the only one’s there. I think this bar operates during the summer for tourists. It’s clean but doesn’t look like anyone’s been in here for a while. It was cold inside. The convenience store lady is a friend of the guys so she let us drink inside and turned on the speakers for us. A fire was lit as well but it did very little to warm the spacious room. Khulan ended up coming out too. It immediately brought a smile to my face seeing him again. He’s one of those guys who’s funny without really meaning to be. Nate and I bought a couple bottles of Chinggis while Oktai bought the beer. We were going to get the beers as well but Oktai insisted. He’s a good guy.

We started getting quite intoxicated and Nate wanted to arm-wrestle everyone.

Nate arm wrestling Chuluun. Haven't done this type of stuff since college

Nate arm wrestling Chuluun. Haven’t done this type of stuff since college

Dropping shots

Dropping shots

With Oktai

With Oktai

I don’t even remember what we talked about but it was a fun night. The lady was closing up shop so I told the guys let’s go back to my ger at MS Guesthouse. There were five of us total. Once we were there, Batbayer wasn’t too happy. I stepped aside and had a talk with him. He reminded me that the way their friend got stabbed was under the pretenses of a similar night. Understanding his perspective, I responded that I would take full responsibility for anything that happens tonight. Batbayer then left, looking quite stern. I think he was overreacting, but after half an hour, I felt a tinge of guilt creep in and I told the guys let’s get out of here. We stepped into Naiz’s car while his friend, Chuluun, drove ahead of us on his new motorcycle. We ended up at someone else’s home. I think it was Chuluun’s. This home wasn’t like the other cabins I’ve been to. There were separate rooms. An older woman (I’m presuming Chuluun’s mother if this was his house) stepped into the room and looked upset. We stayed only for another forty minutes then took off for MS Guesthouse again. I got on Chuluun’s bike and he dropped me off. We called it a night. I can’t recall a specific moment that summed up the night. All I remember are scenes. It’s weird. When I drink alone I can finish a bottle and still be fine for the most part. When I drink with others, I’ll drink half the amount and get tossed up. The more people there are on any given night the drunker I get. What a night. Oktai and Chuluun are around 25. Naiz is 31. They’re all friends of the deceased individual. I have not provided his name because I do not know it. After he died I asked Sükh what his name was and he put his finger over his lips, replying that they don’t utter the names of the dead. I understood the implications and left it at that. He is the unnamed. In that sense, he could be any one of us. I feel like his story has been trailing me during my whole stay in Khatgal and, hanging out with his friends on my last night here, felt like the best way possible to end this trip, providing a sense of closure and optimism.

Some may question our behavior since all we’re doing is drinking and engaging in randomness. To me, that’s the point. Are we to be engaging in philosophical discourse instead? Personally, when I meet someone new I prefer drinking with him or her if they are of the same ilk. In general, people tend to let down their guard when drinking. Hence, the conversations become much more authentic and entertaining. This is just my personal opinion. Men must really stop engaging in violence when they are drunk however. In my mind, alcohol in itself is a neutral substance. It only serves to accentuate the emotions we have residing within. It’s how we use, or abuse, it that leads to problems.

Nate woke me up at 7AM this morning. It’s my first morning waking up feeling hungover. I wanted him to shut up. He kept asking me for the time. I’m the type of sleeper that once I open my eyes, it’s very difficult for me to fall back asleep. The man was persistent.

We packed our things then headed out to Mörön an hour later. The ride back was a bumpy one, a two-hour trip. This trail isn’t one you want to be on when you’re hungover. I could have slept but I wanted to stay awake the entire way, gazing one last time up at the distant skies and roaming hills, reminiscing about my trip thus far and how I originally got into town on a beat-up minibus with sixteen strangers.

I do this often. Whenever I leave a town or a city I may never visit again, I don’t sleep on the way to the airport or train station. Instead, I soak in the scene and take a mental picture as I reflect about what each trip has taught me. When I’m back home and feel hurried or impatient I replay these old scenes, be it me strolling along the street markets of Marrakesh and by the Seine in Paris, sleeping on the streets of Amsterdam and Barcelona, or chilling at the beaches of Zanzibar and Phuket. When feeling anxiety, playing these old clips calms my mind and teaches me patience. Now I have another one to add to my collection: horse backing through the hills of Mongolia. What a beautiful trip.

5/29 10:33AM

Nate messed up. He thought our plane flies out at 11AM. We don’t depart till 12:55PM. Guess I’ll have to replay old memories sooner than I thought. Patience is key.

5/29 12:34PM

There are nineteen of us total on this plane. It was the quickest check-in of my life. Took less than a minute. There is only one plane that flies from Mörön to Ulaanbaatar daily. This is one of the great things about traveling in countries that aren’t as touristy or industrialized. There’s much less bureaucracy. It’s very easy to do what you want quickly.

5/30 1:15PM

Ever since Nate’s arrival, I have spent less time writing. He departed this afternoon at 12PM to catch his flight. When we landed into UB, we stayed at the same hostel I stayed at when I first got here, Zaya. It’s strange. With Nate, I feel like I’ve been playing my whole trip backwards. I first arrived in UB near two weeks ago and stayed at Zaya, then left to go horseback in Khatgal. When Nate arrived, I went to go horseback first and now am back at Zaya. Now he is gone and it’s me alone again. He was supposed to depart with another tourist who was staying here. The hostel had arranged it. Nate ended up hopping in the cab and took off without the other guy. When the staff had heard from me that he left, they looked bewildered. The tourist looked saddened. Haha. Fucking Nate. He had no idea.

Yesterday we didn’t do much. When we landed at the UB airport it felt much more modern and high-tech than when I had first arrived. Again, it’s amazing what perspective can do to an individual. Travelling in the day is so much of a different experience than travelling at night as well. It felt much safer arriving in the afternoon than it did when I came in past midnight. Nate and I had a crazy cabdriver that drove us into town. He was around the age of twenty-five and cut off slower vehicles by driving on the wrong side of the road. This is common practice here. At one point, there were fifteen cars coming in our lane from the opposite side trying to bypass a large truck. Our driver, instead of slowing down to let them pass, sped up and drove with a grimace. I could tell what he was thinking: “This is my lane bitches.” It was a bumpy stop-and-go ride. I was still feeling hungover so it wasn’t pleasant. It’s like I wanted to check out the city through the passenger mirror, but I couldn’t keep my eyes off the road. The driver got us into town a half hour quicker than is usual during afternoon traffic. It wasn’t worth the time saved. When I was younger I used to drive similarly. Now I drive much slower. There’s no need to rush. Young people are always living too fast. Take time to slow down and enjoy the ride.

Once we got into town yesterday all we did was eat and Nate had to do some tourist shopping. We ended up back at our hostel at 6PM. Nate immediately took a nap. I didn’t doze off until around 10PM. We were supposed to go clubbing last night but neither of us woke up in time to go.

Today, I called the Khuree Shooting Range again but it was to no avail. They are indeed closed. I’m not much into guns or anything. Just sounds like an interesting offbeat thing to do when you’re alone in Mongolia and have a day to kill.

5/31 1:07PM

Last night I went out clubbing. There’s a new club here called Vegas but when I got there it was closed for the week so I headed out to a place called Metropolis instead. It’s supposed to be the busiest club in UB from what I heard. As I was talking to the hostel manager about various Mongolian issues before I went clubbing, an Alaskan in his mid-thirties overheard and asked if he could join me. To be honest, I was disappointed when I heard this. When I’m in foreign countries I like clubbing by myself. My nights end up quite random and I wake up in some odd places.

I had no ill feelings toward the Alaskan. He was very polite. I just like roaming alone. Regardless, we headed out to Metropolis and the people there were friendly for the most part. What shocked me was that there were more girls who had tables than guys. This is the first time I’ve ever seen that in a country. Girls usually don’t get tables at clubs due to the bottle fees. The ratio of girls-to-guys was about 4-1. It was crazy. It turned out last night was ladies night. Nate would’ve loved it.

Bar side

Bar side

The night turned into a blur for me but the venue was quite nice and modern. A good showing for a Wednesday. The club closed at 4AM but I heard from some of the locals there is an after-party at this place called River City. I was going to hop into a convoy of four Range Rovers — don’t know why they all drove the same type of vehicle — but I didn’t want to leave without informing the Alaskan. This is why I like clubbing alone. I found the Alaskan soon after and we decided to catch a cab back to Zaya. Once we arrived back I immediately took off for River City. I got in a cab but it was evident after fifteen minutes that the driver had no idea where the place was. I didn’t think to take anyone’s phone number down from Metropolis. I asked various locals as we drove around if they knew where it was. No one knew. We drove around for about fifty minutes and, as the sun was rising, it was obvious that I wasn’t going to find the place. Don’t you hate when you’re out and the sun starts coming up? It’s one of the worst feelings in the world. I ended up back at the hostel at 6AM. Unfortunately, it turns out I lost my room key. The staff didn’t have a spare so I slept on a couch until the manager arrived. He hospitably put me up in another room.

I just had a forty-five minute conversation with him about the development of Mongolia. I read before I had arrived that Mongolia is one of the most democratic countries in Asia, but he told me that the politicians are generally corrupt. Their former president recently was arrested for being involved in numerous scandals and, through graft, he became a part-owner of one of the nicest buildings in the UB skyline: the Blue Sky Tower. It’s the same place where the club Vegas is. I’m not quite certain what the whole backstory behind this situation is but I’m sure there’s a lot of political backstabbing going on for someone of that high authority to get arrested. Guess corruption exists everywhere. Looking through the entertainment magazines in Mongolia, they pretty much look like the same magazines we have in America as well. Just a bunch of egotistical individuals dressed up in nice clothes, handbags and sunglasses. I don’t hate on them. Ultimately, what I’ve realized is that individuals overly concerned with their appearance are, at heart, insecure. That’s why they need all those material things. It’s to mask their insecurities. They really want to be loved and respected but they go about it in a very unhealthy and twisted ‘fashion’. I fear that Mongolians may lose their sense of cultural values — the values I found in the people living in the gers — and become like us Americans overly driven by our materialistic impulses.

I hope this isn’t the case but with that LV store I saw right next to the heart of Sükhbaatar Square, I believe this is the ultimate destination Mongolia is heading. At the nicer restaurants you can see this as well, especially amongst the females. You can tell they’re insecure because it appears they spent hours getting ready when all they’re doing is going out for lunch. Who cares? Meanwhile, Nate and I had just arrived back from Lake Khövsgöl covered in dust. I haven’t shaved in over a week nor do I have a decent haircut. Nate told me at the restaurant that I look homeless. Yet, in that restaurant, if you had to choose, who would you say are the most comfortable and confident people in the room? The most confident individual in any room is always the one who cares least. That’s how confidence works.

I spend a lot of time travelling. People often ask if this is a wise way to spend my income. This is what I tell them. Travelling actually saves you money. Before, as a teenager growing up in Orange County, my desires were to have a big house, nice furniture, and all that other stuff. Now, with the more developing countries I travel to, I realize I don’t need any of that. It’s all bullshit. Ways for individuals to feed their egos. Honestly, take a look around your house and see all the nonsense you buy that is unnecessary. We live in a society in which we can easily rationalize spending $50,000 on a car but will hesitate to spend a couple grand on buying a plane ticket to go on the trip of our dreams, or better yet, spending it on a noble cause. Instead of going to places like China, we spend hundreds of dollars buying porcelain plates from there thinking this makes us cultured. I don’t get it. It does not make logical sense for me to spend thousands of dollars on a nice car or a handbag for a girl I’m dating when I come across individuals such as Sükh who work very hard but make very little. Yet, I’d have to say he’s one of the most authentic individuals I’ve ever met. In the end, like meets like.

I don’t mean to come across as preachy. Ultimately, it’s your life and do whatever you want with it. I try to be nonjudgmental. The only message I hope resonates in anyone who cares to read this story is that you don’t get caught up in the bullshit. Enjoy it but don’t get caught up. You’ll start thinking all the stuff you have is leading you to a life of value when true value can only come from within. Same thing goes for confidence. True confidence doesn’t come from what you have. It comes from who you are. Travelling has taught me this.

6/1 12:14AM

I’m finally on the plane about to takeoff for Seoul. As usual, I was the last person on board. I got me a bottle of Chinggis from duty-free to keep me company once I’m back in Seoul. I’ll take a shot back at home whenever I want to take a trip down memory lane. I walked around town for three hours today quite mindlessly. I later texted Naiz, Oktai, and Sükh farewell. We said our goodbyes and Oktai told me not to forget my nickname: it’s Huvhen. It means drinking. I don’t lead the healthiest of lifestyles but I enjoy every moment. I’ve gotten a lot of nicknames I’ve received from friends throughout my life. As I reflect, each one reveals a certain aspect of my character.

I realize I’m going to be quite busy in the next few months working. Nate told me about his job at the airport yesterday. He works in the renewable energies department of a large American conglomerate in Japan. He says he dislikes it. They sit a team of around ten individuals across from each other at the same table. At the head of the table is the team manager. I thought cubicles were bad. What a shitty work environment. Constant monitoring. Soon, I’ll be working sixty-hour weeks myself. I don’t mind though. I’m actually looking forward to it. I teach a mixture of admissions writing, SAT’s, and psychology. People are surprised when they hear I’m a teacher. I guess I don’t fit the mold exactly but I enjoy my job and there’s nothing I can honestly think to complain about. It provides me zero stress and I realize how fortunate I am. I’m only staying in Korea for around one more year however. I’m heading back to Africa and then to South America around late next year (after a brief stint back in California to see family and friends). Not sure how long I’ll be in either of those continents for but I’m guessing around a year total. I’m just going to buy a one-way ticket to Tanzania. There’s something I have to do there that will take some time. After that I’m going to go where the wind takes me, eventually winding up in Peru. How I get there, when I do, or who I meet I am uncertain of. That’s what makes it an adventure. My immediate goal is to be a writer. From there my goals get more expansive but I have no doubt I will accomplish them. In life, one must have belief.

And, if you fail, who cares? In my mind, the far nobler individual in society is the one who fails at doing what he truly desires than the one who succeeds at doing something merely because he can. What’s the point? Think bigger. Aim higher. For there comes a point in every individual’s journey where taking steps no longer cuts it. You’re going to have to jump. Most fail not because they didn’t jump high enough, it’s because they didn’t have the courage to even take a leap in the first place. I will never allow myself to be that type of individual. And even if I fall, again, who cares? Just get back up.

There’s a lot in life I want to do. In my youth this led to internal pressure and caused me stress. I completely lacked direction. Trips to places like Mongolia, however, ease my mind and give me the space I need to exhale. A trip like this really puts one’s life in perspective. I’ll land in Seoul tomorrow around 4AM. I work tomorrow but forget what time I start at. It’s okay though. I’ll figure it out as I go. Life isn’t meant to be stressed. It’s meant to be lived.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

-This chapter is dedicated to the fallen, to all those who never had a chance to share their stories.

God raise the dead

He could be any one of us.