Karakorum, May 24th—There was a silver tree here. The Khan conscripted a Parisian jeweler to craft it. Poor guy trekked from actual Paris to come to a city the size of Tuileries garden on the desert steppe. Karakorum was as cosmopolitan as it could be back then. Mongols had forced religious tolerance on its empire, so Monks, rabbis, imams, bhikkus, and their most devout disciples were able to flee here to escape the violent persecution of elsewhere. And, since the Silk Road lay a mite south, the wealth and exhibition of foreign goods was resplendent.
The jeweler completed his art piece and rooted it into a stone square adjacent to the Khan’s palace. The end product was entirely silver. Four silver lions rest on the roots, and a conduit ran through them, up the trunk, and into and out of a trumpet place into the mouth of an angel, which was in turn perched in the tree’s crown. Palace servants would pour barrels of clarified mare’s milk, rice mead, or wine into vats that fed this conduit, and the drink would rise through the tree and spew from the angel’s trumpet.
Today, we are some of the only visitors: us and a group of school children. The walls are white stone, and along the perimeter are monuments that resemble upturned thumbtacks with gold statuettes on their tips. There’s little to enclose: temples, a well, a dirt path. The wind is dry and hard. Grass is all that is movable, and there’s a limit on how far its slight shuffle is visible. Slightly beyond the walls, not even up the hills to the west and far plains to the east, there is just still distance. Near the cornerstone of a monastery is a giant stone turtle, which is a Mongol symbol of eternity.
Beginning in the 13th century, the Mongolian empire grew like mold on bread. Until their withdrawal from Europe in 1242 and until turning back from India’s sweltering heat in the 14th century, their empire could not meet an end.
I learn this at a museum. There’s a timeline of succession on the wall, displaying the length each Khan ruled. Paragraphs along different date points give abridged histories of memorable events or phases. One explains how Genghis allied disparate tribes of little relation to destroy the northern Chinese kingdoms that would have had the tribes war with one another instead. The description is near to: “He gathered neighboring tribes into an army and within fifteen years had conquered the northern portion of modern China.”
I read this and think I can barely get five friends together for brunch.
Our first night, we hear a man throat singing. “Traditional Mongolian way of singing,” Tuvshin explains. The singing is done from the man’s larynx. The reverberations and quality are those of a human didgeridoo.
Mongolian Steppe, May 25th—Tuvshin seems pleased. He’s just finished explaining our itinerary with “…but first we will see the stone penis.” The rest of us are perplexed. Perhaps this is a translation issue. Like butt and but. That inflection in “the” though, said as if we have such an abundance of stone penises on our itinerary that Tuvshin needed to clarify the best.
No clarifications needed. Literally a stone penis.
We drive past a geological cleft called Vaginal Slope. This is true. The parking lot is empty. A Mongolian man sits behind a table, on which antiques are displayed. We ascend stone stairs and halt at a short black fence, funerary in dimension. There’s the stone penis. It’s titled like a cannon so its balls are on the ground and the head rests over a stone bowl. The girth is worrisome if in replica. The tip has just the essential details, nothing more crude or tacky than a stone penis is to begin with. “To help with fertility, people would come and rub it.” Tuvshin says.
There is a bit of polish on the shaft.
“Hands are staying in pockets babe,” Vans says to Tess.
We stop at the Little Gobi for a while and ride camels. The owner looks like he’s never been indoors. My camel and Vans’s are hyperbolically flatulent. An hour between the humps and my body feels crimped. A trek across Asia in this is impossible to imagine.
It is late in the afternoon. We’ve been driving on a highway for two hours, and Buggy turns off the road and accelerates. Bouncing over unpaved hills for fifteen minutes, sensing just the bare assumption of car tracks ahead, I see our end: a gur on a hill.
We park, and a mother and her young daughter emerge from the home. The daughter is six. She has no place to hide but for behind her mother’s leg, so that is where she goes. We’re told the father is herding sheep and will return before sundown.
I poke about. The outhouse is up a hill, and the ground is rocky. I see no water. There’s a truck parked behind the stable, and on the bed is a clear plastic tankard a quarter filled with water. I see a wood stable and a landscape with no trees. Life here is a bit of an apparition.
The gur is intensely warm. A sheet metal stove is in the center, a box of sheep dung next to it. The burner is a round iron insert that the woman removes with tongs so she can toss in a few clumps of dried turd. She returns the insert and places a bowl of water atop it to make milk tea. “Traditional Mongolian way of welcoming guests,” Tuvshin explains.
Gurs are round. The outer fabric is wool and the floor is wood with wool carpets on top. The gur itself is a parchment yellow. The roof is pitched with its apex over center, held so with sloping wood poles that are thin and numerous so they resemble bicycle spokes. This one is unpretentious and colorful. All furnishings are pressed against the sides, so the middle is open and spacious enough for us to stand. These furnishing are flat benches, a table with chairs, and four cupboards. The cupboards are the most detailed: the panels are painted with orange, red, and green floral wreaths and blue-mustachioed dragons. Ceramic horse figurines and the black and white photos of deceased elders are on the shelves. “Traditional Mongolian gur,” Tuvshin explains.
There is a TV. I saw solar panels on the gur roof. Buggy becomes a still life in front of it, mesmerized like a child and sitting cross legged. There’s a Korean historical drama on. It’s popular in Mongolia and has dozens of episodes. It is on in every gur we come to, and Buggy cobbles the story line together to make sense of it.
The little girl is no longer shy. She drags Tess outside to climb a hill. Vans and I follow. The girl says, “Korek” a lot, which I can’t spell but can guess means “run.” The process is this: the girl holds Tess’s hand and lines up her own right foot with Tess’s left and then yells “Korek!”, darting forward and pulling Tess’s arm like a tug line. They spring in tandem until the girl stops and repeats the process.
Eventually, Tess upsets her somehow. By virtue of the girl being upset with Tess, the girl is upset with all of us. She screams and cries and runs away. We try to make amends, but she runs harder away. Her face is a wetland of tears. Half an hour of this, the sun stretching our shadows, we return to the gur. The girl stalks us at a distance the way a wolf would. We can hear her sobs. The father is home. We relate to Tuvshin who relates to him our story. The father laughs and returns thirty minutes later with the girl tucked under his arm. She doesn’t make eye contact with us and is soon napping on a bench.
The father sits on one side of the gur, watching us with that special weariness and curiosity with which kittens consider puppies. He is in a blue tunic that goes below his knees. (“Traditional Mongolian outfit,” Tuvshin says.) The sleeves are wide, and he’s flipped them to be around his wrists. His boots are shin covering black leather and every bit of him is filthy. The dirt is packed into the fabric of his tunic and into his fingernails.
At dusk, we herd goats. I, with the longest arms, stand next to the stable’s open gate to be sure no goat overshoots it. Vans shoos them in. The father stands behind Vans, sizing him up. The man tackles Vans. Vans, reacting fast, twists the man down and pins him. This hurts the man’s pride. Back in the gur, while the wife prepares dinner, the man takes off his shirt, slaps his chest, and drags a table in front of him. He props an elbow on it and puts his palm in the air, grunting towards it and indicating to Vans to sit.
Vans looks at Tess and me. “The hell is going on?” He asks.
Tuvshin says, “He wants to challenge you.”
“No way,” Vans says, more in a tone of disbelief than rejection.
“Oh my god,” Tess says and takes her phone out.
Vans flips his hat backward and sits down.
The father does not handle his loss well. He does smile and laugh, slapping Vans’s muscles after defeat, but then he begins an exaggerated show of masculinity: sitting an obscene upright with his boot feet planted firm, legs spread. He slaps his knees heartily at every story, makes loud grunts, slurps his soup with incredible force and puts items down on the table with a top-shaking rattle. The evening carries on with this pageantry.
Before bed, Tess and Vans ask if water can be boiled. They prepare a thermos of green tea and offer it to our hosts. The woman takes a sip. Her eyebrows jump in surprise and she smiles. She gives the cup to her husband who has the same reaction. “They like it very much,” Tuvshin says, translating.
“Where did you get it?” The woman asks.
“China,” Tess responds. She promises to leave half their bundle behind.
Tuvshin says the family is discussing how to get more when the bundle runs out.
This is a fascination, seeing the sort of longing that on a grand scale makes history.
We prepare for bed. What this means is we cushion our benches. Tess and Vans fuss over how they’ll make theirs. I have a mattress pad I’m heaving air into. The family has a wide bench, and they’re arranging pillows and stacking blankets. Tuvshin is in his corner, laying out a light sleeping mattress. Buggy is nonplussed on his back on the bare floor. His boots are still on, toes up, laces bunny eared. He is still in his dirty clothes, his hands are behind his head. He does not have a pillow, yet feigns sleep. We all poke fun of him. The mother offers a blanket, which Buggy refuses.
Tuvshin says, “Buggy has simple tastes.”
We are about settled. Tess and Vans are in symbiosis, the little girl is splayed between her parents, Tuvshin is in a sleeping bag on the floor next to the family, Buggy next to him, me next to Buggy. When it is quiet and feels like sleep is about to hit all of us, Buggy hops up like he’s heard a gunshot. He pulls a wool rucksack near his feet and deftly unties its straps. Aiming the sack towards the gur wall, he unfurls it. What spreads out is a plush and immaculate bed, double the size of anyone else’s with a built-in down comforter, plush wool sheets, and a sewed on pillow. He takes off his shirt and dives in.
Everyone is in tears laughing.
Mongolian Steppe, May 26th — Sunrise at this latitude makes uninterrupted sleep far-fetched. Dawn comes before 4am. I’m up before that to urinate. The inside of the gur is cool since the stove has gone cold. The gur walls insulate us from a brisk wind that’s beating the sides. Stars hide the night. Sagittarius is pinned high, Lyra is at the highest she will be, and her star Vega is also the sky’s boldest. I urinate long enough to enter a new solstice. I return to this piss spot a few hours later. Only Vega has had the fortitude to remain. Incoming day has wiped all the others to a barren blue.
About all we do today is drive. We’ve traveled a quarter of Mongolia. Tourism here is that: driving. The road is a poignant memory. The trip a collection of landscapes and remote life still lives: single gur tents propped in the immensity of grass sea, empty sky, carrion birds. I feel the distance in my joints.
A Kazakh family is at the end of day. The town they’re near is empty and poor. Buggy spent his youth here in the military. We pass a white-facade restaurant, which looks clean and out place. A stop with flat whites and cinnamon. Tess and I twist back to see if it was just a mirage. A gravel factory comes into view and Tuvshin interrupts to explain that China is buying Mongolia’s earth. Angled conveyor belts emerge from the ground, excavating Mongolia’s core for shipment.
Every member of the Kazakh family—mother, father, and three children—have perfect orbed eyes—blue as sky—and pale skin. The youngest child is a girl who can hardly walk, and when she does she prefers a pair of glittery high-heels. She adores her two brothers—ages eleven and thirteen. She cannot be away from their attention long without screaming for them. The father is unsentimental and indifferent, which would be cruel if wielded across a wide domain. We discuss world leaders with him. The conversation is simple: say a leader, he gives thumbs up or down. “Ping,” I say. Up. “Trump,” I say. Down. “Putin?” Two thumbs up. “King Jong Il”. Up. Fear is a wolf, and sheep need the strongest shepherd.
The boys want to play soccer. Vans and I beat them so mercilessly we may have forever soured the concept of competition for them. We batter their flatted basketball across the dirt field and score a point a minute. I think these boys had anticipated and relished this showdown: they’d set up the arena before we arrived, demarcated the field corners with stones, and built the goal posts with piles of rock and cow shit paddies. They have their revenge, in a way. The air is thin and I am unfit. My heart gallops. When the game is over, in my worsened and exhausted state, I walk inside the gur, smell goat tallow, and throw up in the foyer.
At night, Tess, Vans, Tuvshin and me sit around a fire. “I’d kill for a S’more”, I say.
“What is S’more?” Tuvshin asks.
“Traditional American dessert.”
Gorkhi Terelji, May 27th—In open defiance of spring, it snows today. I do not have the right clothing so I layer myself with a t-shirt base, a long sleeve shirt, a half-zip, and a wool half-zip. I look like a tire.
We go horseback riding. Mongolian horses are small; the one I’m on is ten hands with an over-large head. I feel constantly on the verge of teetering off. Our guide’s horse keeps stopping and he keeps whipping it. Eventually the guide relents and let’s the horse have its moment. It stretches out and uncaps about twenty gallons of piss.
Tsonjin Boldog, May 28th—Tuvshin and Buggy are moving slower than I’d like. I have a train to catch at noon. I’ve seen Buggy start the Loaf before, and a time buffer is necessary for essential engagements. Arguably the first engagement is the most essential. Seeing Genghis.
Genghis Khan is Chinggis Khan in Mongolia. Until two decades ago, he was not celebrated. The Soviet Era saw to it. Stalinists engaged in a type of cultural genocide, fearing that even a whiff of Chinggis Khan would stir Mongolian nationalism. Texts and images were destroyed, historians were murdered, monuments and historic sites were raised or made too perilous to visit. We are going to one such place today.
The exact location of Genghis’s burial location is unknown. The vicinity is known, and the Soviets turned it into a bombing range and air-force base. Since reclaimed, it is part of a vast hilly area, with elderly grasses and crops of scattered woodland. There is a monumental piece of platinum here now. A 131 foot Genghis on a muscular stead, posing on top of a circular rotunda. It is an intense nationalism that built this, but it is hard to leave it.