At last, my long-awaited meal came to me as I listened to a sultry Lily Marlene playing over the loudspeakers. The booth next to me was filled with loud and exuberant young, Russian males regaling each other with tall tales. The impressive bratwurst and mountain of sauerkraut before me was nicely paired with a towering, Mongolian Tiger Beer and my early afternoon was simply perfect at this point in time. At any moment, I expected Indiana Jones and his entourage to come through the door and for all of us to be transported back to a time in the 1930s. The music… was I in pre-war Berlin?
There is something alluring in traveling to the far ends of this planet; places not yet made comfortable for tourists. Thankfully, many still exist for the lone traveller, those of us whose souls hail from the Black Sheep, those of us who yearn to break free from the bright lights and vexing stimuli of our ever rushing world.
Ulaanbaatar was still such a place in the Fall of 2012.
Early that same morning, in the intimate restaurant of the Hotel Kempinski, my wife and I enjoyed an unhurried breakfast. Subtle pleasures come from quietly observing the other visitors. Slowly streaming in were mostly geotechnical and other types of engineers on assignment to Mongolia to consult with those running the country’s mineral extraction industry. Building was booming in town and the young people were enjoying the long reach of western fashion and style that was now finding a foothold in this place. Oh, and there were a few travelers as well, mostly fit and healthy retirees dressed in khaki and kerchiefs; quiet, assured, though ever so slightly betrayed with their eagerness to explore. Their studied look was otherwise, impeccable.
Bidding my hard-working wife “adieu” that morning as she went off to inspect operations in Mongolia, I took a long walk through town, to the outskirts at the base of the mountains in the south. With no real idea of what I was about to discover, I simply walked for hours, crossing the main rail line cutting through town, then over the long bridge with the gentle flowing Tuul Gol River below, and then finally up into the foothills.
I desperately wanted to climb the conical mountain I had spied earlier that morning and so I simply walked in that general direction. A taxi would have been easier, but I find that there is no substitute for what we encounter on foot. Suffering a bit makes the end of a day’s (first) beverage that much tastier. And so I continued along, at times on well designed sidewalks, but more often on deeply rutted, hardened muddy surfaces.
Over the bridge and I was almost there until I realized that this part of Ulaanbaatar was ringed with a tall, barbed wire fence. “Merdes, alors! Vraimant?” Searching and searching in vain for an outlet to the mountain, I decided to enter the gates of a military compound. There was no guard, so I continued.
“Haaallo. You!”, turning around, I saw the massive, Mongolian soldier approach, but he was smiling. Decades of hard-won instinct commanded my subconscious brain as I became strangely calm. Returning his warm and curious smile, I asked. “Please, I am interested in climbing to the top of that mountain. Is there a way?” I must have seemed quite odd to him.
His burly and rather large hand was generously extended and I shook it. After all, how often do we in our pampered environments ever have a chance to visit with a Mongolian on his land? Looking back years later, this was the day’s finest moment. I just did not know it at the time.
“I have had much to drink, my friend. Japanese soldiers visit and we drink until sun comes up.”, confides G. Khan’s modern variant. Brilliant, I thought. So now I have this impressive soldier confessing to me of his excessive drinking. Brain blank, I respond, “Very nice, very nice” as I continue to smile. All instinct at this point in life, eh? Placing his very heavy hand on my shoulder, now leaning a bit looking up to him, he points to some yurts about three blocks to the southeast, high octane breath explaining, “There. But many hungry dogs.”
Parting ways with my new friend, I shake his hand, grinning at the wonderful super-collision of unlikely cultures and bid him a warm farewell. Life is unpredictable that way, thank goodness.
But now another sense, one not so safe, begins to infiltrate my mind. Dogs, many dogs. And desperately I continue through the mud streets with the sad looking concrete homes and battered doors, the lace draperies hanging lifelessly inside the small windows. Past the old people casting their defeated eyes upon the stranger, clothes hanging on the line to dry, swaying in the gentle breeze.
Oh, why must there be hungry dogs? Explains why I saw no one hiking up the vertical path up to the top of the mountain that morning.
Reminded me of places behind the Iron Curtain where I had grown up in the 60s and 70s. Grim, Soviet Era housing constructed in haste, but devoid of song and color. And around the last house on the street, there they were, a group of three dogs as promised; not the friendly ones either. Small, but they had a certain desperate look. And in these quick moments of truth, I’ve learned a certain way to walk and look. No eye contact, stride with purpose, intensity. Intensity, impatience; that’s it… and be prepared to bluff at a moment’s notice, for this is today’s crux. Hope my animal smell of desperation does not betray me now.
Through the opening to where the soldier had pointed, I found my escape! Making haste deliberately, I finally found my way to the other side, to the sea of light brown grasses that lay upon the steep mountainside, to the one path that I could see that led straight up to the summit. Up I went, looking back occasionally to see the three dogs scavenging through trash, over the bunker-like workers’ homes and yurts. Now, halfway up, I could begin to make the landscape of the city, the smokestacks belching out their toxic fumes all of which remained captured in the larger valley below. I saw this vividly as well, when we lived in Ankara in the mid 1970s.
And then, finally to the summit. A massive rock cairn contained the one leaning, wooden pole on which were tied many colorful streams of cloth fluttering in the breeze; a gift to the mountain gods? All alone, I enjoyed the expansive view and the thought that I was half-way around this planet and in a place so unfamiliar but fascinating.
From the mountaintop, I looked for another path, one that might take me to another opening… one without hungry dogs. Over there. Yes. Another trail led to another opening through one of the city’s vocational colleges.
It is a comforting feeling when we can relax to the idea that we’d now likely see another day.
“Is there anything more for your, sir?”, asked the slender waiter with the quiet voice.
“Another of your Mongolian Tiger Beers, please. And the check when you can. Thank you.”
On the coaster was inscribed an old Mongolian proverb,
“There are men who walk through the woods and see no trees.” Oh my, how true that is.
And as I savored my exotic beverage in this land so far away from home, a quiet feeling came over me that though the streets were at times quite grim, there were plenty of trees if only we would bother to open our eyes to see.