Bayna squints. He looks both ways a little nervous as looking for something. He touches his lip with his right hand index finger. He closes his eyes a little more. While more closed, better he sees. And then he turns round, looks at us, and with both hands towards the sky he bursts out a powerful laughing indicating us at the same time that we are lost and how fun is to be lost: lost in Mongolia. He keeps laughing and tries to tell us that he doesn´t find the mountain shown in the map. And that if he doesn´t find the mountain he will not know where to go. Because he can go anywhere, the Soviet van can put up with this. But what to do with such a freedom, where to go? Which way? What for? … He goes back to the van, he heads for a lake he surely saw when he was squinting his eyes. And Bayna keeps laughing; Bayna, the Mongol we will never forget.
Already at the lake we practice our daily routine: carry water, wash the dishes, some clothes, and have a bath. To bath in a Mongolian lake is paradoxical because it´s not a bath, is an exchange of a stale dirt, already very human, for a dirt of algae and mud that for practical purposes does not change things much, one remains dirty, but it’s so different that it would be pointless to explain it. Bathing in Mongolia is like starting all over again.
Then we eat some pasta and continue the tour. Again, before it gets dark, we have to find a place to sleep. And I ask for a Ger. I say that today I don´t want to sleep in a tent because today it’s my 27th birthday. So Bayna, who understands everything, accelerates the van and yet lost tries to find a Ger where to sleep. A Ger, my little Mongolian luxury… And finds it in the middle of a steppe, with an orange color that announces one of the best sunsets I ´ve ever seen in my life. He gets out of the van and asks if we can stay that night. As if someone suddenly rings the bell at your home in Cochabamba and San Juan (Buenos Aires downtown) and asks you to stay with 6 travelers. And you would say yes, of course, and invite them with tea and pastries. And those six travelers are us: the dRummer, Tito, the three Israelis who have joined us and me, turning 27th, and who expects to be the guest of honor. And I put a grumpy face as someone I know…
Again Mongolia surprises me and smothers me with attentions. Tito asks if I want to eat meat for my birthday, and as I agree, we negotiate a few dollars and in less than twenty minutes they are slaughtering a goat that will be the banquet to share with the great family of Mongolia and with father Bayna, that of course are the same thing.
The next day they wake us up with homemade vodka. They serve so much to Tito, that surely he will get drunk and will laugh nearly as much as Bayna.
Some days later, we are reaching the west. In this part of the country there are less Gers so we spend several nights in the tent. A few days the tent breaks in the middle of the night with the dRummer and Tito inside of it. And we keep going. We go to the west just because it is there. Landscape is more or less the same as the previous ones but bigger, with snow, and is near the border with Russia and Kazakhstan. Along the way we see camels and horses crossing Mongolia like us. Camels seem to be mocking, but don´t know of what. And horses make their own. We are all part of the same tribe.
There are many rivers. I get down to make a shot of the van crossing one but I realize that the van is already on the other side, that I have no way to cross. And I am with the camera, and stones are heard in the river. And Tiki, the eldest Israeli gets down and helps me, extending her hand which doesn´t reach me. And the dRummer and Tito are still in the van, probably thinking about how heavy I am, and for a moment I fantasize I am taken downstream just to make those motherfuckers feel guilty… but it´s not worth the revenge. At that same moment, the dRummer appears trotting, and looks at me and raises his two hands … and takes the camera (which I gave previously to Tiki with a stick), and starts shooting … Tiki tells him to release the camera, to help her, but the dRummer, a real reporter, knows what he has to do. And I, on the other hand, realize that the river was not so dangerous.
Finally we reached the triple border. We get rid of the heavy stuff and study the map (as if we were studying a treatise on the fusion of protons written in Aramaic), and when we were getting ready to climb the snowy peak to see the three countries, suddenly an evicted French shows up; he was coming down with his eyes popping out of his head. When we ask him what the hell was happening he burst into tears. He doesn´t stop crying and asks us for food. We give him something to eat, and the Israelis hug him. He explains that he was attacked by two Kazakhs who traveled the border on horseback, and threatened with a stick so he ran away and did not eat for two days. And the girls still hug him and he seems to get calmer. And we invite him to come with us, and he accepts, and we start walking and I start talking to him. He says he survives thanks to what people gives him and that when he finished his university he went to look for the profound nature.
And then I walk away and tell Tito that most probably this French guy must have “eaten” the “Into the Wild” film. Many –myself included- have eaten the Into the Wild film, but this guy much more. And that was it. The following day, he –who turned out to have food hidden- starts to talk about the movie … Anyway, we slept sleep at the foot of the mountain but the next day comes bathed in white. Too much snow, even for the pigeon Alexander Supertramp.
So we decide to return the same way under the white storm that lasts for hours. When we reach the camp we meet Bayna and get calmer. We hug him and he invites us with vodka. We sleep in the border´s keepers Ger. In the middle of the night we ask to turn off an awful music that does not allow us to sleep. The refuse to do that, God knows why, but we insist, and finally they accept to turn it off. When we wake up, the family is desperate; the father is on horseback with a shotgun over his shoulder and Bayna doesn´t laugh. Someone explains that a wolf appeared at night, murdered a couple of goats and injured several others. Apparently, the awful music at night keeps the wolves away and thus goats are saved. And that night … there was no music.
We leave the place feeling a bit guilty. The father was still looking for the wolf with a neighbor. Once they find it, Tito says, they will celebrate slaughtering a goat.
And now we meet again with Bayna´s laugh, bouncing between the glasses because the dRummer pronounces the six like sex. And Bayna finds the sex funny, and makes a gesture with his hands (palm to palm), which means that remote activity of which we have such good memories. And Bayna laughs and says Gasto, Gasto (instead of Gastón), and then says sex, sex, and hits his palms, and laughs, and Gasto who would love to enjoy it, and Tito (Papi for Bayna) and me (Coqui for Bayna) … and we stop at another Ger, we are going back, and we have already said goodbye to the Israelis, who have left for Russia, and Bayna prepares meat pies with another goat´s meat, and as we are less in the van he proposes to lift some hitchhikers, he lifts three, then another three, then three more. Some of them sing, others are excited with a little blue speaker I have, some speak of God knows what … And in the end there are only three left, a mother, a daughter and a grandmother. Grandma is tipsy and has a vodka already to open, granddaughter looks weird, the daughter seems resigned to the generations that surround her.
And Grandma offers me her granddaughter, who at the same time offers me vodka, and Bayna laughs and strikes palms, and the granddaughter should not be more than 15, and the grandmother now is flirting dRummer. The bizarre of the situation exceeds me and I overcome this thanks to the cheap vodka. Bayna arranges for us to stay to sleep at this family´s Ger. Finally the granddaughter changes me for one of my peers and I feel free. And now the victim is pulled through the field by a teenager and my peer tries to escape difficulty. And it gets dark, and neither Tito nor I can sleep, because the moon shines on our faces through the upper hole of the Ger, the Grandma snores like anyone, worse than Tito, and at about 4 am the father, the mother and the daughter show up and start to play with the lights of lamps while the say strange things, and suddenly they violently take away the Grandma who stops snoring and now yells, lamp lights surround us while dRummer sleeps. Tito and I pretend to be sleeping but we see all, a kind of ritual that could well end by cooking our bodies in a pot of hot stones.
But it doesn´t happen, and nearly at 5 and a half the first sun light shows up (not even a glimmer, just a hint), and we break camp, wake the dRummer and we tell Bayna to run away, that he can laugh all what he wants but just run away, and the granddaughter stands there with rigid face and claiming for the palm strike that none of the three Argentineans dared to give her.
And Mongolia is over. Ulan Bator will arrive that same day. Bayna promises that. He doesn´t want it but he promises. And we are a little anxious to get to the city but at the same time we don´t want that. And the van moves forward and suddenly, factory chimneys and a row of houses appear from behind a mountain. Ulan Baton outskirts. And Bayna looks but no longer laughs, I’m next to him, I’m watching him. The way Bayna looks to the city called Ulan Bator is devastating. And he looks at us and points and says, there, there is Ulan Bator. And we don´t celebrate, although we want to arrive we don´t celebrate because we know that we will leave Mongolia, but mostly we will leave him, our friend and our father, the man who managed to turn Mongolia into an excuse to meet him. He squints again, Ulan Bator, he says, and stays in the ugliest of silences.
His eyes drop a tear which he cannot rescue. He dissimulates but we all know that the tear is there, falling slowly from his eyes to his pants of war or his hand on the gear lever. And there, while the tear evaporates in the Ulan Bator heat, I leave my tear, the guys their tears, and we separate ourselves with a hug so deep, so beautiful, that I understand again that it’s all about people.
Text: Joaquín Sánchez Mariño
Video: Expreso a Oriente
Music: El Idolo, Babasónicos / Ondar Mongun-Ool , Sygyt, Tuvinian Singers & Musicians