Monday, September 25, 2006

The Pied Piper

Three days out of Ulaanbataar, we had the only major crises of our trip. We began driving around 10 am, and around 1, we stopped, as usual, for lunch. While our guide prepared one of her ingenious variations on potatoes, onions, sausage, and carrots, our group split into individuals and wandered around, some on the steppe, and I along the river running through it.

After eating and lazing about for a bit longer while our guide washed and packed the dishes and our driver fitted everything into the back of the van, we set out again. We only had about three hours until our destination, Lake Khovsgol.

My seat was on the left side of the van, and because we were heading north, that meant I got a lot of afternoon sun; I've ended up with quite a tan, if only on my hands and face. I was always hot at that time of day, so I noticed with pleasure an unusual, cool breeze circulating. I wondered about it for a moment, and then dismissed the thought in favor of enjoying the sensation.

About 10 minutes later, Gamba braked and turned around. His eyes narrowed with concern and he got out and went around to the back of the van; the door was open, and one bag was missing. Harry was asleep in her seat, but Rob, Sara and I were fully alert and each, I'm sure, silently hoping that it wasn't our own bag. Rob quickly realized that it was Harry's pack that had fallen out, but as we turned around to retrace our route back to the river, we agreed with our eyes not to wake her. Hopefully, we would find the bag and spare her the alarm.

We drove all the way back to our lunch spot without seeing the bag, and Harry woke up about halfway through the search. As we headed north, again along the same road, we all scanned the grasses and brush. Harry's alarm was palpably building, but through will and words she remained optimistic. We stopped every passing herder, on horse and on motorcycle, to ask if they had seen the bag.

tiny town gate

Not finding it, we went a little further along the route we had been traveling until we reached a tiny town. There was a school, three tiny shops selling assorted candies, sewing supplies, clothing and alcohol, among a variety of things, a few fenced in gers or houses, a public outhouse, a police station, and several other dilapidated buildings that appeared to have outlived whatever function they may once have served.


Aside from the presence of functioning public buildings, the place wasn't even what I think of as a town; it was a cluster of buildings erected in the middle of nowhere, with nothing to define where the business of people ended and the business of nature began.

building and birches

We drove through a lot of places like this one on the way. I often wanted to stop and look around at the marvelously decrepit buildings; so, I was glad for the delay. While Harry and Sophda were in the police station, for what turned into nearly two hours, I got out of the van for a look.

mesmerized children

At first, the dirt square and main street were empty, but soon enough children began to appear as if from the cracks in the walls, until I had a band of at least 15 following me. When they spotted me taking pictures of buildings, they became bold. They were enamored with my digital camera, and I spent a lot of time taking their pictures and showing them. The sight of their own images produced glowing and hysterical giggles.

boys full of beans

My camera had this effect on children all over Mongolia, but one young lady was really fired up. In a central provincial capital, where I had hunted down an establishment with both tables and passable coffee, she came to my table and simply sat there. I drank my coffee, and she ate her pine nuts, drawing them from the pocket of her uniform and cracking their shells with her teeth. This went on for a while in companionable silence until I took out my camera for a picture of a passing dog. She immediately signaled that I should take her picture and she proceeded to strike a number of alluring poses that she must have stored in her mind from magazines and billboards.

Eventually, she got tired of this and demanded, again through pantomime, that I should pose and she should take the pictures. Normally, I wouldn't hand my camera to a stranger, but this girl had spunk. She figured out how to use the camera, and remarkably, some of the digital options, quickly, so I struck poses, under her direction, and she proudly showed me her work, which I deleted later.

striking a pose

After back-tracking for the bag and filing the police report, it was too late to make it all the way to Lake Khovsgol that day, so we drove another 45 minutes or so to the provincial capital, Moron.

By the time we arrived, it was about 7pm, an hour until the sun began to set. I was in the habit, during the whole tour, of taking an evening walk, so I set out for a ramble.

main street sunset in Moron

Moron turned out to be the most menacing place I went in Mongolia. All the streets are dirt and rows upon rows of houses and gers are fenced in, creating long, dirt alleys lined with boards. Piles of trash line the alleys, and a constant wind kicks up the dust, causing one's throat to sting and the skulking dogs to look even dirtier. Drunk men, old and young,reel along the main street and sometimes veered directly into my path, presumably for amusement.

store by day, box by night

The streets were indistinguishable, and I ended up lost in the dark, which was frightening. Despite the general tone of the town, I'm glad I took that walk. As the sun set over the gaudily painted shacks of main street the sky, for a few minutes, showed the same pink and blue hues as some of the buildings. It's hard to call anyone poor who lives under such a sky.

Russian soldier

I found this Russian soldier in the dirt, and I set him to guard our room while we slept. We left Moron the following morning. Harry's bag never resurfaced.


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