mongolia: 5 vignettes

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bayan-ölgii, mongolia: somewhere near the altai mountains

it’s been a year since my trip to mongolia, and i promised myself that i would write it down, and i wouldn’t forget my experiences. well, i procrastinated … for a year. still, the impressions mongolia has left on me are indelible, and here are some of them – memorable and wonderful, even a year on.

i present to you – mongolia: 5 vignettes, not in chronological order.

// one.

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in the minibus, our faithful companion

we are driving through deep uninterrupted darkness. outside of the city of ölgii, the few street lamps have disappeared, and paved roads give way to wide dirt tracks winding through the mountain range. i clutch the edge of my seat, trying not to slam into my friends sitting beside me, as the minibus – a sturdy grey-green Soviet-era vehicle – trundles over every rock in our path.

there is no road. the driver, askhat, is driving in the general direction where our guide’s, huandak’s, village lay. it’s a mystery what points them in the right direction; the jagged mountains have melted into the darkness and the sandy, rocky land is covered by night.

i wonder if we might have to sleep in the minibus and await daylight.

out of the pitch darkness, a lopsided wooden fence blooms into existence, illuminated by headlights – the neighbour’s front yard. we are already in the village, the darkness and emptiness still unbroken.

where are the houses, i think. there should be some lights, right? where’s everything?

in the land of nomads, there are few large-scale permanent settlements. it is approaching winter, so the mongolians move from their summer homes to their winter places. small villages of brick houses are more occupied in the winter, and usually permanently settled by the elderly and the children who go to the village school. other villages are like huandak’s mother’s – families bringing their gers together, scattered across the same flat valley.

on the first night in the aimag (province) of bayan-ölgii, the land and sky and mountains are too vast for me to comprehend.

it feels lonely.

// two.

we live with the locals: eating at their tables and sleeping on their floors. it’s like airbnb, except one where there is only one room and no bathrooms. but we are sharing their homes (ger means home in mongolian).

the mongolians are eminent hosts. they offer us the few chairs they have while they take the stools. they lay out snacks – baursak (fried bread), goat cheese curds, sweets – and pour out cups of steaming hot milky tea (warning: more milk than tea).

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at khametjan’s ger

but still, we are tourists. while we eat at the same table, we eat different meals prepared by huandak from the food we paid for as part of the tour package. it does feel a little awkward. we eye each other curiously across the table, smiling but unable to make verbal connection. children come in to gawk at the strangers.

tonight, we are staying with khametjan, a skinny hawk-nosed old man with a newsboy cap, and his family. they are kazakhs, an ethnic minority in mongolia whose dominant religion is islam. bayan-ölgii is the only muslim and kazakh-majority aimag in mongolia. people use the kazakh language on a daily basis, although they speak mongolian as well and the older folk know a smattering of russian due to mongolia’s communist past and close ties with the former soviet union.

huandak, who is an english teacher, speaks english, kazakh, mongolian, turkish, and “a little” russian. she joins us at the table, and now, the conversation flows around both sides.

they want to know where we are from. singapore? but we look chinese. i’m not sure how well “multiethnic society” translates, or if they understand how we are both singaporean and chinese. they want to know what singapore looks like, but alas, no data and no pre-loaded photos on our phones. between the three of us singaporeans, we show them a few narrow slices of our lives in singapore. just as they have shown us how they live, we want to share where we come from.

for a moment, there is a glimmer of connection.

// three.

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the toilet, seen in the light of day

“huandak, where’s the toilet?”

“outside, behind the big rock.”

toilet paper and torch in hand, bundled up in coat, scarf and beanie, we trundle out into the darkness. the “big rock” makes for a fairly unmistakeable landmark, and a short distance away from the ger. we round the edge of the rock.

“wait, where’s the toilet?”

we scan the ground with our torches. nothing, but goat poop pellets.

“uhhh … i think this is the toilet. it’s ‘behind the big rock’.”

“what?! no lah … huh wait what?!”

“… yah, i think this is the toilet.”

“okay, okay, we faster pee then go back in. very cold sia.”

“can you all point the torch in the general direction so i can see where i’m peeing?”

“eh, do i just throw the toilet paper … here? leave it out in the open?”

“nowhere else to throw, just do it.”

“guys, don’t look but there are a lot of goats over there.”

“huh, where?”

i point my torch to the darkness on the right, and thousands of white eyes glow out of the unholy darkness. “HOLY SHIT THEY ARE ALL LOOKING AT US.”

“i told you not to look what!”

“ohmygod.”

then: “eh, what if they eat our toilet paper?”

going to the toilet is always an adventure in mongolia.

// four.

we are once more in the minibus, on a 6-hour journey to the next location.

i watch the land roll past the window, listening to the one mongolian song being played for the thousandth time. “a love song,” huandak says.

the vastness of the land still baffles. the size of the mountains awes: we drive for hours seemingly towards those mountains, but the mountains do not get any bigger. and the sky: the great blue sky with masses of bright white clouds. at night, the swaths of stars are so dense and the sky so wide, i feel myself shrinking into a tiny speck of human existence.

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it always feels as if the land would never end

it still feels lonely, but i don’t feel alone.

the world is huge, and so much of it unimaginable, but isn’t it amazing that i can be here, born in a time where exploration is possible?

no, i don’t feel alone.

// five.

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at altai tavan bogd national park with a tuvan family

a morning in the altai tavan bogd national park, it is cold enough for snow to fall, even in early winter.

snow falls light and quiet, landing on beanies and gloves, melting against our skin and turning into rain. the mountains, dark sides covered in patches of snow, loom in the distance, half-covered by mist.

a child watches the strangers pack up and leave, cheeks ruddy and nose runny from the cold and pricks of white in her hair. she holds a polaroid we took for her and her family out here in the mountains, on a frigid morning when the snow falls lightly.

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