Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Nomadic days

Carrie and I are bouncing across Mongolia in a very rugged Russian minivan whose design probably hasn’t changed since Soviet times. Ogi, our driver, has added a second fuel tank, some Buddhist religious devices and a lot of cigarette-lighter sockets for the convenience of passengers with the right adapters. I got out my computer because we’re now on a paved road, but that doesn’t make it smooth. Yesterday we spent many hours on dirt roads in the Hustai National Park. We saw some small wild horses, the ancestors of today’s horses, and we visited a field of stone monuments left by the Turks who occupied Mongolia before the time of Genghis Khan.

These interesting details were the things of guidebooks but we experienced much more. Fragrances, for example. We walked on aromatic herbs that perfumed the air as we traveled, and we slept in a ger breathing the aroma of the horse-milk yogurt brewing at the foot of my bed. We picnicked in a sunny field with mountains ahead of us, cashmere goats and Turkish relics to one side and tree-dappled foothills to the other. Many people brightened our day: Meg, the guide; her precocious and enthusiastic five-year-old daughter Termulin; Ogi the driver and even the most-amazing Altaa, who owns the ger and maintains a Buddhist temple originally built by her ancestors, destroyed by the Soviets and restored by her mother.

We hiked up this morning to visit the ruins of many other Buddhist temples in the hills behind the ger where we slept. Persecution drove Buddhists farther and farther into the hills, and when they got driven out their temples began to decay. Near one temple, we found a bush particularly filled with the delicious little red berries we started sampling yesterday. We feasted on them until Meg reminded us that we still had places to go and things to see. That’s why I’m writing in the car. I don’t expect to have much down time, and I’ll want to be on my feet in this beautiful land as much as possible once we stop.

The last time we stopped, Meg gave us camel rides. I’d heard stories about camels being cantankerous creatures, but ours cooperated nicely. They got down onto their knees so we could mount, and then stood up gracefully to walk. We sat on blankets between the humps, cushioned by the camels’ thick and rich fur. I wove the fingers of my left hand into the oily wool on my camel’s front hump, and rested my other hand on the smoother hairs of her flank.

Now we’re approaching a monastery. A young monk in red robes runs towards us on the road. It’s time to get out.

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