Chapter 15 – Central Mongolia – May 2006
Wood and metal. Two basic elements, one complex sound.
Jordan tapped the metal Tibetan singing bowl with the wood handle. A hum traveled into the low lit desert before her. She struck again harder, the sound louder.
It hummed and vibrated, and on those sound waves she imagined her insecurity was carried off. The bowl hummed deep, low and long, and with it went her anger. She skimmed the edge, melding a crisp sound into the low hum, letting fear melt away with it. The sound faded, her heart feeling lighter.
She stopped playing and set the bowl in the sand.
It was early in the Gobi. The rings of sound traveled past two camels. Their ankles bound together by a short rope, they shuffled forward. One camel turned towards her and stared. Jordan noticed a wooden shard forced through its nose.
The camels wandered out of sight, seeking more food. With her bowl, she walked back towards the two yurts. They were the only sign of human habitation for a hundred miles.
Back at the yurts, Jordan sat in the dirt and watched their Mongolian host. She was young, perhaps in her mid-twenties, with long hair kept back in a braid. Well worn leather boots slouched down around her calves. Her purple cotton pants and pink shirt popped against the beige desert. Her disinterest in the traditional diel clothing was a growing trend. It reflected a country emerging from isolation, the youth pushing for change and modernization as hard as they could.
A camel was attempting to assert itself against the young woman. The camel refused to lie down. She yanked hard on the rope and yelled. The camel barked, bleated, snorted and shook its head. Its big, floppy upper lip curled back. Jordan was scared the woman was about to get spat at. Jordan could never handle an animal of that size and power with such confidence. The host yelled louder. The camel ceded and knelt down in the sand. Jordan was in awe.
The host motioned for Jordan to come over. Jordan pointed to herself to confirm she was the person in question. The host smiled and nodded. Jordan blushed. There was no one else in view from horizon to horizon. Of course she was the person in question.
She took a small step forward. The camel looked at her and growled. The host motioned again. Jordan wanted to decline but did not have the words. The host lifted her hand and mimed taking a picture. Jordan took out her point and shoot camera. She took a picture of the woman and the camel kneeling beside her. The Mongol woman laughed and motioned for Jordan to come closer.
Jordan took a few more steps. A wood shard in the camel’s nose was attached to the rope. The camel curled its lip up. Jordan inched close enough to see the fibers of the blanket across the camel’s back. Atop the blanket was a saddle. The host pointed to Jordan and then to the saddle.
“No no no, oh my gosh, no, I couldn’t.” Jordan took a step back. The camel’s head jerked down and then back up. “Please, they scare me. I’ll just take your picture.”
The host put her hand out. She pointed to the camera and then curled her fingers forward, palm up. Jordan set her camera to automatic and then handed it over as if under a spell. The host pointed to the saddle.
Jordan came up to it and put her hands on the stiff leather. The host smiled and nodded. Jordan put her foot into the stirrup. The blanket beneath was woven of colorful wool. Dirt caked up in clumps on it. She stepped up but didn’t get her leg over. Her foot hit the back hump and she stepped down, petrified she’d angered the camel. It sat cool and calm and the host laughed as Jordan stumbled on the ground. She put her foot back in and this time she got on. The host let go of the rope.
“Wait!” Jordan put her hands out as the camel started to stand up. It lurched forward, its hind legs going up first. She wrapped her arms around the front hump. The front legs came up and she felt like she was catapulted a thousand feet into the air. She leaned forward and hugged tighter. Looking down she saw it was only about seven feet. Her eyes went to the ankles, which were not bound with rope. This camel was free to sprint off at any moment with her on its back.
The host stepped backwards. She took a picture and then motioned for Jordan to smile. Jordan leaned back, trying to look at ease, and put a big smile on her face. The host circled the camel, enjoying being photographer. She laughed a few times as Jordan got a taste of being put on the spot, the camera lens staring her down. Nobody came to Jordan’s hometown and took pictures of the locals, and this was perhaps the only time she would ever be on the other side of the camera. She just wasn’t that interesting, except to this woman who lived as a nomad in the desert.
The camel’s calm demeanor was replaced by its earlier defiance. The Mongol woman was pulling the rope again. The camel’s head lurched back and hit Jordan’s leg. Jordan leaned back and gasped, she didn’t know it could turn its neck that far. The host yanked and the curling and snarling lips were pulled away. The camel barked louder and Jordan gripped the mangy tan fur.
The host continued to yank and yell something that sounded like “Sit-uh! Sit-uh!” The camel bared its teeth but did not budge down an inch. It took a few steps and Jordan pulled her feet out of the stirrups. She jumped off into the dirt. Her landing was awkward and she ended up flat on her back, looking up at blue sky. The host laughed as she came over. She put her hand out and helped Jordan to her feet. No words were exchanged between them, only curious glances. The host returned the camera to Jordan.
Inside the tent her travel mates had awoken but were still in their sleeping bags. Aviva was writing in her journal, something she would probably do many more times that day. The couple from France was chatting quietly. Jordan helped herself to a cup of tea and went back outside. A few moments later Aviva stepped out of the tent and stretched her arms up. She held her journal in one hand.
“Good morning,” Aviva said. “I heard you up early, what were you doing?”
“I went for a walk,” Jordan said. She wiped her back, hoping it wasn’t covered with dirt.
“Breakfast?” asked Aviva.
They returned to the warmth of the tent’s inner circle. The French girl was up and getting tea. Her name was Adeline and she had small hazel eyes and wavy copper hair. The door hadn’t been shut tight and swung back open. Jordan looked out to see the Mongolian host talking to their driver Baila. The host was laughing and miming taking pictures.
“I wonder what they talk about?” asked Adeline.
“The infinity of it all,” said Jordan. She scrolled through the pictures of herself on the camel. “This country seems like it never ends. The open land is a weird illusion.”
“I could not imagine being her and going through a winter here,” said Jean-Paul. “All she has is a tent made of camel skin. That’s hardcore.”
Jordan turned around and looked at the wall of the yurt. She hadn’t noticed before they were made of tanned camel hide. She knew there were many layers to it, and it was a well insulated structure, but also flimsy, purposefully made so that it could be torn down and moved at any time. When the animals had fully grazed an area everything was packed up and moved. The Mongolians were fully aware of the Earth, their lives impacted in every way by the slightest change in climate or landscape. Jordan figured that the giant rock suspended from the top was to keep the tent from blowing away. And if the outside was camel hide, then perhaps that insulation was camel hair. It was all so efficient that she wanted her own yurt to travel with.
“Oui,” said Adeline, spreading thick red goo across a cookie. “Especially considering what happened. I would not be so calm.”
“What happened?” said Jordan. She watched Aviva grab her journal and walk out. Aviva stood outside drinking her tea and staring at the desert.
“So sad,” said Jean-Paul.
“I never heard this,” said Jordan. “What happened?”
“Her husband was a truck driver,” said Jean-Paul, putting on a pair of jeans. “He was driving a load of supplies to one of the little grocery stores. You know those little stores we stop at in the middle of nowhere? Well, he’s one of the people who delivered to them. He had to drive all over, all year.”
“Even in winter,” said Adeline.
“People need supplies,” said Jean-Paul. “So he was driving, in winter, and his truck broke down. Baila said when your vehicle breaks down you have to get out and fix it because no help will come. It’s too desolate. While he was working on the engine he froze to death.”
“Oh my God.” Jordan helped herself to more tea while listening to Jean-Paul. Her cup overflowed. “Crap.”
She dabbed at the table with one of her t-shirts. She pictured the husband standing before his truck, looking at the miles of white nothing. The nothing that was his land, his home, his everything. He knew how alone he was. Jordan pictured him working on his engine, getting colder every minute, feeling his life slipping away. Aware in every sense that this was how he would die. There was no reason to hope for anything. Maybe he crawled back into the truck bed for the end of it. Maybe he died standing before his engine, never giving up. She imagined he fell to his side in a gentle slump, the snow blanketing him for eternal sleep.
“I wonder if Mongolians remarry?” asked Adeline. “Do you think she’ll find another husband? How do you date when your closest neighbor is 200 miles away?”
Jean-Paul shrugged. Adeline took a sip of her tea and set it down. She began speaking in French, and Jean-Paul responded in the same. They continued speaking their native language, but Jordan felt no distance from them.
Jordan leaned her head back. She looked up through the small hole in the top of the tent where the stove pipe shot out, pointing to the infinity beyond Earth. There was so much chaos out there, creation and destruction occurring on a grand scale. Jordan felt like a microscopic dot in a desert, the desert a dot on a planet, the planet a dot amongst other dots, which were amongst something vast that nobody understood.
God? What’s out there?
Jordan looked through the door at the Mongolian widow leading a camel. Jordan was curious where it would be taken. She stepped out and watched the widow mount without hesitation. Aviva was watching also. She stood further away, looking as if she’d started to take a walk and then changed her mind. Sand kicked up as the camel galloped away.
She’s out here alone. How can she feel safe? There’s nothing to protect her. Why do I automatically think she must be protected? I have to stop worrying about the worst that can happen. Relax. Be at peace. Be like her.
Jordan looked back at Aviva. She was scrawling in her journal again. Her tea cup sat in the dirt. Jordan had considered that Aviva looked like the Mongol widow, but Jordan never said it. She wasn’t sure what she could say to Aviva, what was safe to talk about. It hardly seemed to matter though, since Aviva wasn’t saying much. She clearly had a lot to say, but it was all going down on paper. Jordan felt an urge to go stand behind Aviva and see what she was writing. She felt even more strongly that there was something Aviva wasn’t telling her. Jordan had suspected it involved herself, but she couldn’t connect the dots as to why. If Aviva was bothered by Jordan, then Jordan didn’t understand why Aviva was there. And if it didn’t have to do with Jordan, then Jordan didn’t understand why Aviva was a vault of feelings. Jordan grabbed her bowl and went for a walk. Aviva closed her journal and walked the other way.
The next day they changed locations. Baila drove northeast for hours, the sand dunes of the Gobi shrinking behind them. Their new location was as remote as the first, but the landscape was different. It was rockier, with more shrubbery and several creeks around.
Jordan followed a winding path down into a canyon. As she wandered around a motorcycle roared to a stop over her. She looked up as two young men hopped off the bike. They pointed at her and shouted. They wore the traditional clothing, the caftan like coat cinched at the waist with a silk belt. They hustled down the rocky path, sliding and nearly falling at times, coming down at twice the rate Jordan had.
Jordan looked around. She shouldn’t have come down here by herself. Weren’t Mongolians famous for being violent crusaders?
That was like a thousand years ago. Don’t be stupid. Mongolians are Buddhists. Relax. Nothing bad is going to happen.
The young men ran up to Jordan. They spoke in excited tones, saying things Jordan didn’t understand. She nodded a lot. They pointed to her camera. She clutched it up to her chest, and then became afraid to not give them what they wanted. She held it out.
After it was taken she stepped back. One of the young men jumped beside her. He put his arm around her shoulder and smiled. The other boy took their picture, and then laughed hysterically after he saw it. More pictures were taken, and Jordan spoke in English in response to their Mongolian chatter.
The boys lost interest in her and said their goodbyes. At least she assumed they were goodbyes. Near a cave she found a place to sit and took a book out of her back pocket. She laughed, thinking how funny and strange she would have seemed to them.
Her attention returned to the Jung book, something she had picked up in the last hostel. Carl Jung’s exploration of the unconscious was giving her a lot to consider. A particular passage on the fear of the unconscious was her favorite. She closed the book and then her eyes too. Without notice she fell asleep, no one on Earth besides the two boys knowing where she was.
Hours later Jordan began her ascent out of the shallow canyon. There was a feeling in the air. A familiar feeling.
This is just like what I felt in Bali.
She looked up to see Aviva standing at the head of the trail. Aviva’s face was expressionless. She clutched her journal in one hand. Jordan gave her a small wave. Aviva’s forehead wrinkled up. There was a noise in the canyon. Jordan looked back and saw a large bird, it looked to be an eagle, flying out. When she turned back Aviva was gone. Jordan ran to the top of the trail, but she saw Aviva was already far ahead and walking fast.
Jordan returned to the yurt. The new host family had a little girl, and she followed Jordan. Jordan took off her necklace and knelt down. She held it out, and the girl’s eyes sparkled with delight. She put it on and ran to her tent. Jordan looked in and stole a glimpse. The mother stepped out. She was older than the last host, her hair shorn short, her face more serene. She invited Jordan in for tea.
The suutei tsai, which was made of yak’s milk, salt and black tea scraps, went down smooth. The mother stirred rice, spices and beans in a bowl over the stove. Inside the tent was the perfect complimentary invert to the outside. Inside exploded with color and life, every inch decorated. A shrine to Buddha was the main focal point. There were two beds, one for the couple and one for the grandmother. Jordan had a lot of curiosities about how people had sex, arguments, cries of sadness, or any such personal moment in such conditions. Perhaps privacy wasn’t a concern, and it was all out there, comfort with one’s self and surroundings integrated into their lives from the beginning.
She liked the feeling inside the tent. She wondered if it was because it was round. The energy would never stagnate in a corner, free to flow in and out as it pleased. She also considered the fact that the yurts were always being moved. Being portable they only had what they needed in them. They were the ultimate symbol of freedom, making no permanent mark on the land. One day they were there, the next they could be gone. The Mongolians were attached to nothing. When their Chinese neighbors introduced them to Buddhism it was a natural fit.
Along with a southern border of China, Mongolia had a large northern border with Russia. A pile of empty vodka bottles in the back came from the Russian influence. Mongolia was a strange conglomeration of its neighbors. The homages to Genghis Khan everywhere pointed out that Mongolia had its own history and customs, and that although it adopted things from its neighbors, it refused to be anything but itself. It held strong to its values and heritage. Jordan thought about this, and about what she took in and what would always be her core self. Perhaps her interest in Buddhism could work out after all. It had always seemed so stark and empty to her. She didn’t understand the point of self-denial, it seemed boring as well as missing the point of enjoying life. She didn’t have to give up everything in order to find peace though. She could still be herself and enjoy the teachings of Gotama.
After finishing her tea she thanked the host and left. She wandered up a hill. From the peak she took in a full circle view. In the distance a heard of camels were heading south. She figured they were fifty feet away. Or maybe five miles. There was nothing between her and the camels to give a sense of perspective. As the camels walked large slabs of shade passed over them. Clouds made their own migration between Earth and Sun.
Jordan went down the hill, heading further away from the tent. Far off in the distance she saw a man riding a horse. It seemed this land had changed little in the last century. Time seemed to be different here. It’s meaning was different, and it made everything seem bigger and more open.
Beyond a few towns no road system existed. Driving through mud, rivers and meadows was painstaking, hours required to cover a short distance. Jordan never understood how Baila knew how to get from one point to another. The only indicators of location were rivers, trees, rocks and bigger rocks.
Bayanzag Canyon came into view. The group stopped here to rest and check out the site. Wandering away from the others, Jordan came to the edge of a cliff. The tan and red walls glowed in the setting sunlight. The canyon was famous for being plentiful with dinosaur fossils.
Their driver had said the bones of Velociraptor were discovered there. She tried to wrap her mind around how old the history here was. This wasn’t Rome old. Or even Mesopotamia old. This was before humans existed old.
Millions of years of erosion created Bayanzag. As the wind and water carved up the landscape it began to reveal things, spectacular and fascinating things, from a lost world.
Jordan often felt she too had a canyon inside herself. Abrasions and crevices lined her heart, the result of the years of anger, depression and self-hatred. And if she doubted it affected her, she need only look in a mirror. She touched her cheeks, which were getting worse in the dry climate. She was a peeling, red mess.
What would Buddha think of how little I think of myself? He would tell me to not be so judgmental. He would ask me how I could see Bayanzag, carved up, worn down, open, gaping, bones poking out, rocks crumbling, lizards crawling on it, as something spectacular… and myself, evolving and changing over time in my own way, as ugly? Why the hypocrisy? Why do I think the lines and patterns of tree bark are perfect and my wrinkles are hideous? How can I see hills, those big curves on land, as something unquestionably right, and my own curves as unquestionably wrong? Why can’t I give myself the same appreciation I give the world around me?
Jordan stood wishing they could’ve spent more time with the Mongol widow. It seemed she knew everything, she was Gotama without trying to be, she was the person who could teach Jordan everything she yearned to understand. What was the Mongolian widow doing right then? How did she pass her time? Was she thinking about her life and connection to the Earth also? Did she wonder about the Universe, or merely look around and feel acceptance?
Jordan tried to stand as still as possible. She locked her knees, held her chin perfectly still, tried not to waver a fraction of an inch, all while her planet rotated at 1,000 miles per hour. No matter how still she made herself, she was constantly in motion.
In grade school she’d memorized a series of numbers about the Universe. It was the beginning of her fascination with the cosmos.
Earth orbits the sun at 66,000 miles per hour.
Meanwhile, the widow would be feeding her camels, unsure if any of them would make it through another winter.
The solar system flies along the edge of the Milky Way at 480,000 miles per hour. What do I do in an hour?
In an hour the widow would go to the river and gather up water. Water to cook with, water to drink, water for survival. She would survive so long as the creek running between the sand dunes half a mile away continued to flow. Her life would revolve around that river, back and forth, at a rate of 2 miles per hour.
And… what’s the last part? How fast does the Milky Way move? It’s something like a million miles per hour. More. Over a million. Life is so weird. God, can you hear me thinking? Hellooooooooo.
She looked down into Bayanzag and listened. There were no sounds. There was no time. In Mongolia, there was only existence.
God? Finally. Tell me everything.
What is the purpose of it all?
“Are you ready?”
She turned around to see Aviva calling h
“Oh, it’s you.”
“Are you ready to go?”
Jordan jogged up to the van. She took a rock out of her pocket and gave it to Aviva.
“Do you see how it’s two kinds together?” asked Jordan. “It’s two different types of rock, but they’ve bonded and are inseparable, despite being so different. They make the rock more interesting than if it was just one kind. It’s like us.”
“Thank you,” said Aviva.
Inside the van Aviva left the rock on her knee. She scribbled in her journal. Jordan stared out the window as a herd of horses galloped in the opposite direction.