I step off the bus, and Ulaanbaatar unfurls before me like a burning rug. It is late. All day the coal plants breath black on the horizon, and at night their discharge blots out the bright fabric of the city in the distance. The wind off the steppe breezes past naked earth. It is cold.
I am going home. My arms full of cookie moog, a gift for the children, I cut across the ruddy, washed out plain that separates the ger camp from the road and dip into Yarmag proper, a district on the outskirts of the city. We are far from Ulaanbaatar and yet still inside it. There is a nothing here like no nothing I have ever known. If I walk west I will keep walking and I will see no one and I will die tonight, but if I cross the ruddy plain I will be home. Ulaanbaatar does not end: it thins out into nothingness. We are near its edge.
I am staying with Sabina, her husband, and their two sons. They are poor and live poorly. Their lives are rough, they are moody, and they are concerned with me if I bring dinner and not concerned with me if I do not. I am on some wild adventure, two and a half weeks in Mongolia, beginning here in the city (if you can call it that), before taking a caravan west to Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur, the White Lake of Arkhangai aimag, and I feel constantly at the edge of safety and at odds with nature. For them, this is life.
I pass the school, two concrete stories holding three languages: traditional Mongolian script (unused in modern Mongolia, a trace of the pride of the brutal Genghis, the Conqueror, shaper of the Khanate. Here, his name is spelled Chinggis, and it is comically everywhere: the name of the airport, the namesake of statues, the brand of vodka most popular in a land where vodka flows freely), Cyrillic Mongolian (the national language, a trace of the brutal communist will of Soviet occupation, who forced an alphabet, an architecture, and so much more on Mongolia), and English (spoken by some, especially the younger generation, a trace of the hope of the future).
I pass the school and then the store, now closed for the evening. Inside: firewood, pasta, washing soap, chocolate, vodka. Outside: the pump, feeding water sold by the liter like gasoline, filling plastic drums which thirst every three days, more if there are guests, or the animals lie sick.
There is no indoor plumbing in the ger camp, and I will take my turn filling the waist high plastic drums eventually. This far outside the city, near where the buses end, there is no heating, no television. There is a rock that rises a few feet off the skin of the earth, meaning: your bus stops here. There is a mountain in the distance that will kill you before you see it near, meaning: go home, save the night photography for another night.
The wind is moving but static, in the same way that white noise ceases to be noise and becomes a constant. The wind is eternal, forever squalling along the steppe, forever above the rock that just barely breaks through the skin of the earth. It is I that am blowing past, disrupting life. Or so it feels.
I have never been somewhere where so much of existence is wrapped up in the simple process of surviving. Outside the city, it is not uncommon to travel for a day, whether by horse or by car, and see no signs of human life. Yet, more than a fourth of the population is nomadic, working a web of shared, state-owned land and relying on a sparse humanity that stretches across a vast country for information, commerce, and companionship.
I will hire a driver in a few days, Mishka, and he will take a group of us (two young, gorgeous Swedes, two conservative, friendly Finns, and me) across the countryside, driving across fields where there is no track, let alone road, seemingly navigating by some innate Mongolian sense. Mishka will drive straight across a field for hours, and suddenly take a sharp turn toward the hills, stopping at ger that will appear out of nowhere. He purchases airag, fermented mare’s milk, from people who are either dear friends or complete strangers, I could never tell which. The drink is sour and fizzy, but it is such a part of the culture here, the communal struggle to eke out an existence together and remain a people, descendents of Chinggis. To drink it is to share in the cycle of the seasons and the meager bounty the land provides.
Mongolian pleasantries are all based around this bounty, the concept of survival. “Are your sheep fattening well?” passes for hello among nomads. Upon entering a ger, Mongolians shout, “Nokhoi Khori!” (“Hold the dogs!”). If no one answers, you are allowed to enter, eat a fair amount of what is around, and leave. Imagine, a country where it is custom to walk into anyone’s home and take your fill? There are powerful forces conspiring against life here, and so much of the sense of community seems based around combating these forces together, one large, extended family stretched across the steppe.
It is night, and the high walls of the ger sites block out the lights of the capitol in the distance. A little past the store, I am plunged into a strange darkness: a tunnel shaped void just taller than a man, walled on either side, with its ceiling the shining, impenetrable dome of the night sky. It is a glowing blue-black sky, cloudless and clear, except for its white mole moon.
The street lamps, a surprising luxury, work on the next gudamzj but not on mine. I lose my feet in the darkness, catching only occasional glimpses from light thrown through breaks in the slotted fences. Dogs seem to bark from everywhere, from behind walls and beneath the desiccated earth, and I ride their ululating crest down the road, trying to keep their voices behind me. Near running, passing another wave of sound from time to time, passing others? unseen but for the crunch of pebbles beneath their feet and the dog calls that follow them back from where I’ve just come.
I push back the bolt to the gate, its rime stinging my fingers, and walk toward the dimly lit house’s three rooms: a kitchen, a front room, and the family room, where the four sleep together, huddled for warmth. I am outside, in one of two ger.
As I approach, the larger boy is fetching water from the cistern by the door, his red cheeks scuffed with dirt, his eyes bright, brown, and happy to see me. He runs off with a moog from my bag, and I scold him for eating cookies before finishing his supper: pasta with sour curds and freshly boiled horse meat. He tries to ply me with horse milk, owing to the same provenance as the meat, owing to a neighbor whose plow will now be pulled not so easily, or not at all.
There is an exchange rate in Mongolia that has been passed down unchanged through the generations: a camel is worth one and half horses, a horse is worth a little more than a well fattened cow, and a cow worth five to seven sheep or seven to ten goats. There is even a game, shagai, played with sheep ankle bones as dice, equal parts friendly pastime and powerful source of divination.
The boy looks at me, cookie crumbs freckling his cheeks. I put down my things and try again. We settle on him eating nothing and running around the small kitchen, all elbows. I try to help his mother figure out why the coal stove is smoking again.
The sallow moon: a speck of marbled fat, a tallow dot. It lights the walk from the house to my ger, and I sleep.
This is a video of an incredibly stupid thing I did because I wanted see what Yarmeg looked like from above. I had been eying the decrepit concrete exhaust tower every day on my way home…it was calling me…