Noises are heard in the tent. The cold invites to stay in our sleeping bags, but Bayna hurries the troupe to continue with the journey. Outside, the frost lies on the grass. The day is long, but there is still a long way to go, and the itinerary drawn up to tour Mongolia is 25 days. We cannot lose time. From the next tent we can hear the Hebrew complaints of our three traveling companions: Tiki, Chen and Munit. We beat the lack of sleep, and have Turkish coffee full of dregs and damp cookies or whatever it is in the lunch-box, take down the tents and get on the Soviet truck, year 83 Ulyanov model (Lenin’s real name). Once again, as always, we are on the road. This is the daily morning routine in a country I never imagined I was going to visit. We arrived in Ulan Bator, Mongolian capital, with the idea of touring the place for a couple of weeks before leaving for China. In fact, we did not know much about it. But after meeting two graceful blondes at the hostel, who invited us to share the adventure of traveling all the country in a van, the two weeks became a month. Decision was taken after a meeting at a Korean food restaurant (our favorite) around the hostel´s corner. Why should we lie? It wasn´t at all a difficult decision to take.Three days later we met Bayna, our sublime Mongolian pilot. A man that perfectly blends the weather-beaten maturity of his work in the Gobi desert and his amazing playful childishness. Tracks tamer, rivers surfer, wells enthusiast, he appeared one day at full speed through the parking of a Buddhist monastery. He got off the truck wearing military trousers and a fisherman’s hat on his head and smiling. “He is a manija,” we all thought. He was already wearing that blue jacket he would never take off.Tiki, birth Libyan and Israeli by choice, was the experience, the mother of the group. With little more than 50 years she embarked on the Mongolian adventure to accompany the twins, Chen and Munit –the persuasive- also Israelis, but with only 21 years old. Self-confident, convincing, but at the same time relaxed and willing to wait for what this life has to give her. She met the girls a few years ago and since then she shares with them a harmonious and timeless relationship, as mother and sister, only broken by the vegetarianism of the youngest. In that matter, Tiki is another Argentinean.
The twins, of strong Jewish character – perhaps due to the strict education of their Rabbi father-, skillful in the kitchen and addicted to cabbage, achieved in the group that very typical love-hate relationship of the coexistence. Passionate, mandatory, plaintiff, experts and inexperienced in the same measure, innocent and guilty, but caring and devoted, they turned the trip into a religious experience. The only condition was to celebrate the Sabbath. In our Christian terms, make egg (do nothing) on Saturdays and this didn’t bother us at all.
Immersion in Mongol lands became -as fast as imperceptible- a unique adventure in our trip. In a record so exhausting as amazing. In an unveiling and educational expedition. As the morning light that seeps between the wrinkles of an old shutter and fills the room with a natural and hypnotic atmosphere, Mongolia rays were dazzling us with the everyday things, every step we took left us perplexed.
For nearly a week we abandoned Bayna and entrusted ourselves to the wisdom of Naranju, a lively rider, a singer who led us to a lost village to see some reindeers with horns of enormous miscellaneous forms. Man instructed by nature, inseparable from his suit, his hat and his horse, Naranju was our godfather for a few days. He received us as children, educated us with wisdom, let us grow while we rode and was happy to see our maturity as days passed on. At night he slept under rocks and storm; in the morning he got us up with tea. The only thing we could give him was a short-lived fanaticism for Spinetta. He even dedicated us a song.
We rode for three days to get to Taiga, where a frozen river bathed two forgotten huts in the mountains. We had tea, ate fish, fight – a kind of judo, main pastime in these lands- and we were very cold. In winter, as they told us, days are reduced to sit around the fire and throw anything within reach as long as it stays on, ensuring that the cold, in the form of death, don´t strain through the trunks of the huts. A cold that doesn´t give up neither in summer, which you feel on your skin with desperation, and that frosts even your willings.
Thus, complaining of the summer cold, we met the interior of the Mongolian interior. We went back riding, we said goodbye to Naranju and tried to lessen the sadness of the farewell meeting again with Bayna, although it was not enough. Anyway, there was no time. We were again in the arena.
For 25 days we move forward almost without a break, except for Saturdays (Shabbat). Erdenet, Hoobsgol, Moron, Tsagaan Nuur, Tsetserleg, Zungovi, Urgnoor, Taban Bogd, Ölgii, Khovd, Tavantulguil. Names that in the real world only represented some houses lost in the middle of desolated mountains, or simply served to my registration, while we slept outdoors, in the middle of the steppe. Those names only appeared in maps written in Cyrillic and did not take human form. Mongolia as a whole, impossible to shred, and the core of that whole only lives in the imagination.
We were traveling from place to place without knowing why, sleeping in tents in the middle of nowhere or in the gers, the tents of the nomadic families (40 percent of the population moves their cattle, their horses and their houses each year) scattered throughout the territory. In a way, we were not going anywhere. Or yes, to everywhere. And one day we began to understand the logic of that blindly incursion. The adventure in Mongolia is not being in a place, but to go to that place. The important thing in Mongolia is to be on the road, travel their tracks. What it is enjoyed, as Drexler would say, is the plot and not the outcome.
And so, without understanding it, Mongolia, a country that does not exist even on the board of the TEG game, transfigured itself in our consciousness. Now, Mongolia was a horseman with a juice name. It was Bayna or Bayna´s model 83 Ulyanov truck. Mongolia was the broken lock of the window that every day gave us a wit game to fix it. Mongolia was also the cups and the dirty dishes jumping in the pot, also dirty. The constant hammering of that dance. The Pringles package officiating as an ashtray.
Mongolia was also the frozen lakes in which we bathed. The cigarettes armed with newspaper sheets because I didn´t have more cigarette papers. The gers where we were received every night. The salted tea – made with goat’s milk – that everybody offered us but that I could never drink with pleasure. Mongolia was also the goats which we slaughter in the way, or the excrements that we pick up in the afternoon to cook these goats (there are no trees for lighting fires, therefore you light a fire using excrements). Mongolia was the skinner in motorbike, the cheap vodka. Mongolia was the village mobilized against the wolf that killed 80 sheep. Mongolia was also the loose wolf. Mongolia was those naked kids on their mothers’ arms, the cold of the mountain, the heat of the plateau, the rainbow that was never painted.
More than 700 years ago, Ghenghis Khan went through all the country conquering lands, without stopping to found cities because he believed that it was a waste of time against the extension of his empire, the largest in the world. Today, after traveling Mongolia for almost a month, we did not meet Ghenghis Khan. Only on the banknotes (tugriks), but some of his spirit is preserved in the essence of the Mongolian. The movement is reflected in nomadism, the bravery in the character, and the warrior spirit in his main hobby: the fight. I don’t know why the historical reference, perhaps I´m just trying to decipher if we crossed Mongolia or Mongolia crossed us. Or maybe I´m just looking for a closure to this Chronicle, which will remain unfinished until the next chapter. The “Mongolia” adventure deserves a second part.
The most beautiful of Mongolia appeared as from the very first day: freedom. The freedom of walking, sleeping, cooking where you want. Living where you want. Freedom to cook next to a lake or in a valley. Freedom to sleep next to a river or under a rainbow. In a country of 3 million people and 40 million heads of cattle, 40% of the population is nomadic. Lands division did not reach the interior of Mongolia. Everything is loose until sunset, time when motorized skinners gathered their animals. Bata, a Mongol who speaks English, tells us that State agents in motorbikes charged taxes according to the number of cattle families have. He confirms what we asked to ourselves, each family can choose where to live. They just set up a tent in the middle of nowhere and pay some taxes.
About half of the population lives in Ullán Bator, the capital, with a boom of growth and migration that makes the city completely collapsed. The contradiction is that during the weekends many of them return to nomadism, return to their GERS.
In Ullán Bator we meet a Cuban who has been living in Mongolia for 20 years and who tells us that the future of the Mongols is in the reserves of gold and other minerals that are in Gobi. The Koreans are investing a lot of money in this, he says. So do the Japanese, who are planning to build a futuristic refuge for retirees in the middle of Mongolia, something like Florida for the Americans.
Mongolia seems to be just starting; everything has to be done yet. Most roads were opened by cars and trucks crossing valleys and mountains. They mark a trace and, every so often, the rain and the mud suggests the driver to make a new one a few meters aside. So you go from one city to another and see at least up to 10 traces all over the place, so you have ten alternatives to choose.
The essence of the Mongol is a box of survival. Bayna shows us a new trick every day. He protects us and teaches us from how to chop wood with no ax to how to assemble a cooking burner only with sticks.
Mongolia is that. It is the recognition of the everyday life. Get up with the sun, care for livestock, cook sweets, prepare salty tea and raise the kids. The rest are just details.
Chronicle: Gastón Bourdieu
Column: Hipólito Giménez Blanco
Video: Expreso a Oriente
Música: Una canción me trajo hasta aquí, Jorge Drexler / Inter – En Annunakilandia, Calle 13