Ulaanbaatar, May 24th.—The vehicle is green like a pimento olive. The front exterior lights are circles and arranged around the grill in such a way that the car has expression. UAZ-452 is the assembly line and manual name. Bukhanka is the people’s name. “Loaf.” Its wheels are thick. Treads as deep as hammocks. Inside is a stick shift and absence of safety features. Seat-belts, airbags, and forward lock breaks are, as they say, net. The vehicle is familiar in this hemisphere and useful for Siberian excursions with Little Igor, Lenny, and Olga. Pack a nice lunch of smoked herrings, roe, vodka, and black bread, and you’ll be nibbling on Lake Baikal ice in no time. Truth be told, it is a hippie van with Soviet leanings.
Buggy, whose name I must “[sic]” for the duration, leans against Loaf and smokes. His blue jeans are dirty, his t-shirt is dirty. Hair thin, white scalp. I don’t know what to make of him. He looks at me and blinks. For a while, I think of him as stern, quiet, and I have a slight apprehension about him. He is shorter than me—all Mongolians are thus far—but broad and tightly built with far more sinew and muscle that I have hope for.
Tess and Vans are not yet outside. Inside, in a brightly yellow office, I pay a woman who tells me my guide is by the truck. I see the reference is not to Buggy. Outside, a young man introduces himself as Tuvshin. Buggy is the driver as it happens.
Tuvshin is quite hip: a Mongolian cross of James Dean and Indiana Jones. He has caramel cargo pants. It’d be lucky if they weren’t tailored. The cuffs snuggle neatly behind the tongues of hiking boots that are stylishly untied. He wears a ball cap and mirrored aviators. A supple leather jacket will make appearances on cool or cold days. He is young as well, which is a multiplier to his hipness.
I ask him what he does.
Tuvshin’s voice is equal parts boyish and deep. His small smile barely affects the curve of his face, and his lips are close together. “Study hospitality and English.”
“What would you like to do with those?”
“Maybe go to Korea.”
“Feels random,” I say.
“Korea is popular destination for Mongolians. Many TV shows come from there. And some from California. So if you are Mongolian and you leave, you go either to Korea or California.”
Tess and Vans are out, so is the heat. Tess is in runners and workout clothes. Vans, kind of the same except has club master sunnies as well. Vans is the taller one, and a mesomorph with gym time in his arms.
I toss my luggage into the boot and am the first inside the cab. What we have are a sliding door and a little compartment. Dusty mats on the floor, blue and orange curtains across the windows, and two cushioned rows facing one another. I take the rear one to face forward. Tess lumbers to my side. Vans groans, “Dammit, I won’t be able to see out front.”
I, not going to relinquish my seat, never-the-less play nice and offer a mid-way switch. Tess, cooing, says, “Babe, I can switch with you.” Vans stays put.
We’re on our way and in traffic. Transportation within the city is a penal sentence. We unwind forward aside a public bus. A child inside watches me curiously, then another does. When they’ve completed their study they smile and wave. My first attention! In China, attention was all. I was subsumed by it. Saddled under the height of my white celebrity.
Ulaanbaatar’s topography puts a high hill on our right. It is like a cuddling person, supine next to the city, the city’s half-embrace covering its body. Though there’s some density, I feel the outskirts. We stop for supplies. Tuvshin leads the way, saying if we come to bring our backpacks and keep close hold of them. Again nurturing my backpack like it is a baby koala, I follow into a hall with shop stalls or one-room, walk-in stores. I purchase Colgate toothpaste from a shelf stocked with make-up, soap, toothpaste, scrounge pads, and bathroom bric-a-bracs. With this purchase, I’m acquiring quite the diverse toiletry kit: suds and ointments from here and there, Australia, New Zealand, China. I’ll have more countries by the end. The adventure will be over when these toiletries are no longer a part of my routine.
Tuvshin hauls a sack of potatoes by me and I lose my way. I find help after ten minutes when I see Vans inside a shop trying on hats. “You don’t need anymore,” Tess protests.
“But it is so cool, it has Ghengis on it, look.”
Returning to the car, Vans and I spend a serious few moments debating splitting a bottle of Chinggis Khan branded vodka that’s about three dollars. “Please don’t go blind,” Tess says.
We drive out to a promontory, some clicks away. As we near the top, without warning, Buggy jerks the wheel and we all move right. Transitioning from road to shoulder is not seamless. A gully has cleaved off parts of the asphalt, and we toss around in the rear, anchoring ourselves by way of pushing hard on the ceiling. We park, and Tuvshin yells, “Everyone out.”
This is my desired peak. Below is a narrow burn with heaps of ruddy sediment cushioning its banks. Grassland expands from both sides, and smooth hills with low elevations rise in calm gradient. A stone’s toss from the Loaf is something similar to a cairn: a pile of small stones with a single wood pole protruding from the center. The wood is hardly visible because it’s wrapped in colored cloth pieces, enrobed like some cool weather bedouin. Tuvshin instructs us to pick up three stones, move clockwise around the pile, and toss the stones onto the pile at the start of each rotation. “It is traditional Mongolian practice for getting good luck and safety before a long journey.”
We indulge this custom and return to our car which has neither airbags nor seatbelts.
We aim to arrive in Karakoram, Mongolia’s ancient capital, by evening.
Tess and Vans are happy to be out of China. Tess is a cute charmer. Smiling, pleasing, never a word that might put our hosts off or offend. Her profession is marketing and she is her chief client. She has expensive hardware (camera), and the skills to make use of it. She runs the social media for a make-up brand, so one of her Instagram handles is a “tell-all”, “day in the life of” type of accounts: so posts and stories about waking up with a pimple and her process to remedy it. Her other, personal, account is the millennial expectation: life and travel. Her photo framing is exquisite, her saturation levels acceptable. She educates as well. Vans is her sole pupil. She guides him through her shots, explains her vision and how it might be executed. Vans follows up with questions and often leaves the photo taking to her. I quickly learn to do the same.
Vans takes an immediate and intense liking to Mongolia. “Beauty in the desolate vastness,” he says. He points out what Mongolia lacks: people, power lines, fences, the contrails of airplanes in the sky. “Is this what the world was like before people?” He wonders.
A New Zealander is not apt to love Mongolia. The simple emptiness of the country cannot rely on tricks of nostalgic. In Mongolia, I see the American southwest and so I love it. They have the same aspect ratio: curvature in the sky, a ruler of horizon, land scaling upwards. And similar events: corpses bleached by sun, raptors overhead, rare brooms of rain sweeping across dust plains. New Zealand does not have such barrenness, except in a one hour stretch in Otago, west of Dunedin. Vans is from North Island and now in Wellington, so his awe is newborn. A piece of him he did not know existed has been found.
I ask Vans if he’s Maori. I’d picked up a Maori tinge at the inflected end of his words. Tess laughed while Vans sighed. I’d inadvertently casted the determining vote in a long debate. “I told you,” she says to him. “He doesn’t believe he does,” she says to me.
“It’s great,” I say, “Nothing to sigh over.” It is though, I suppose, a quick identifier. An able way for others to ascribe a loyalty or assume a type of rearing.
Vans went to Auckland University. It is ranked in world lists and is New Zealand’s best. Within his cadre of friends and classmates are likely future Prime Ministers, cabinet appointees, and Supreme Court judges. With Vans, there is a sense he doesn’t count himself among those privileged. Even if he were to attain a certain rank in his life, I suspect that feeling would remain. Why is in the numbers. Within New Zealand’s ruling elite, Maoris are a minuscule minority. I researched and could not confirm that New Zealand’s Supreme Court has ever had a Maori member, and New Zealand waits for its first Maori PM. Vans is not wholly Maori in blood, but he’s educated in Maori history and speaks the language.
Vans laws as well and is a solicitor for the government. Because of this, and because of his enchantment with Mongolia and history, few silent hours pass with him. Call it a travel quirk that you learn about the countries of your companions more than the country you’re in.
Still, though, Mongolian steppe is a strange place to learn about the Treaty of Waitingi. In all legal history, no treaty is more of an anomaly: a treaty with legal authority, entered into by an invading European people and an indigenous population to govern their coexistence, that has survived and remains in effect. Part of the survival (this is Vans educating me) is because of this quirk: it is written in both English and Maori. English concepts do not have Maori equivalents and vice versa. Think, for a moment, of the precision with which English approaches land ownership. Specific legal terms of art have evolved to encapsulate broad in scope but limited in meaning concepts: conveyance, lien, quitclaim, block, lot, section. Now consider the Maori, a people who call themselves Tangata whenua, “people of the land”, where whenua means both “land” and “placenta.” What “deed” is there to a Maori? How does one convey title in fee simple when to split whenua from tangata is as violent, wrong, and literal as splitting a child from its mother? What Maori sovereignty could possibly have been passed to the British crown if the concept of sovereignty is one that the Maori language could not capture?
“So what did they do?” I ask.
Vans shrugs. “Both sides went to their people and said read this, we got the best deal.”
We have five hours in the car. I am reading Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. Buggy has poor taste in music, and we smile at everything he does. It is an affirmation and an unintended “yes” answer to whatever question he asks that we do not understand. It is from such a smile that he raises the radio volume. The subwoofer, its skeletal remains, is by us. Tess wedges her bag over it. We all dedicate luggage for this cause. We are glad when we’ve muffled it to near silence. Buggy, next to his speaker, is deaf to ours.
The highway is two lanes with fast traffic coming at us. We pass three overturned vehicles. Two are recent. One is long abandoned, and the undersides are rusted. The interior stuff—cups, hats, shoes, trash, tools—is sprayed out like the innards of a squashed tomato across a cutting board.
Until then, I had my legs stretched out and propped on the row in front of me. I consider the physics of an accident, especially a head-on collision: my body would rush towards my feet, my legs would crumple, and my knee would javelin right through my crotch. I put my feet on the ground and stay this way.
The Loaf takes fuel with an octane rating down to 80. Because of this, the engine knocks frequently. Starting the car is with a twist of the key and a prayer. Buggy must enjoy the engine sounds, as he searches gas stations specifically with this 80 rating—one I’ve never seen. I wind up trusting him entirely when I learn he drove transport trucks for the Mongolian army. When we do need gas, I discover a complication: gas stations promise neither supply nor attendant. Since all stations have old-style pumps, there’s no way to pay unless an attendant is on duty. Three times we stop at a station, just for Buggy to return and continue the search. An attendant is often in a toll-boll type building watching TV on a portable screen. Hardly peering up when Buggy approaches, he just shakes his head. When we do find a station—adequately staffed and stocked—it takes twenty minutes to fill up.
It is a slow evening. Merchants are in a parking lot sitting on foldable chairs. In front of them are tables covered with cloth and strange antiques. Broad swords. Jewels encrusted tin tea kettles. Heavy bowls that are surely made with lead. One merchant sits aside a massive eagle, handcuffed to a wood branch by leather straps. Mongolian pop music plays on a radio. Across is a white wall made of bricks. Ruins.
This is Karakorum, home of the Khans.