Once the greatest empire in history, Mongolia is a land dominated by hip-hop, rural poverty, and serious hospitality. today, the conquerors—and a few brave tourists—are getting crocked on fermented mare’s milk.
(Details, November 2002. Photos: Jimmy Shum)
THE HONDA XR SCREAMS as its rear tire spits dirt into the night. The damn thing is crippled, its bull-chested gas tank pinning my ankle against a rock. It’s cold, pitch-black, one in the morning, and here we are, my brother and I lost, lost on a mountain pass in Mongolia.
We plowed into this moonscape while outrunning a pair of summer storms, now 25 miles behind us. In our adrenaline dash along the unmarked switchbacks of the Arkhangai province, we missed a turn. After fording rivers and crossing meadows where wild horses raced home, we’ve bottomed out. And now everything is dark. The engine dies and the top of the world silence rushes in. Wet, tired, disoriented, we’re both about to crack.
Tim and I have come to Mongolia to ride dirt bikes along the same paths used by the conquering hordes of Chinggis (the local spelling for Ghengis) Khan some eight centuries ago. Ever since 1990, when Mongolia, sandwiched between China and Russia’s Siberia, opened its doors to the west after 66 years of Soviet control, a steady trickle of fearless tourists have found their way here. With the mountains of Nepal packed—even Everest is tangled with guy lines—Mongolia is the last universal byword for way the fuck out there.
Picture an underpopulated, landlocked mass of grassland, forest steppes, and spectacular mountains. It’s an adventure traveler’s wet dream. Tourism hit a record high last year, meaning 33,000 people got their passports stamped. They dropped 10 percent of the country’s GDP for moonlit camel rides, dinosaur-fossil digs, and postcard views of Mongolia’s northern nomads hunting with eagles. Many of them paid upwards of $2,500 to hire commercial outfits that offer a chance to “rough it” with the help of drivers and guides.
But few visitors travel this country twice the size of Texas on their own. The ones who do are a weird breed. Tim had trekked in Thailand, gotten ripped off by St. Petersburg police in Russia, dodged bulls in Pamploma. Now he wanted a taste of Mongolia. We both loved bikes. And we both wanted to visit Khan’s descendants in their gers (felt tents) and get blasted on airag (fermented mare’s milk).
Right now, though, we’re shivering inside two layers of Gore-Tex and high-tech Sierra Designs jackets. Our bikes have no headlights. We’ve been warned about bears. Tim wants to sit, light a fire, wait for the sun to come up. I say we should backtrack to a group of gers we spotted by a small river.
“It’s stupid,” Tim says, but I hear a younger brother’s acquiescence to rank. So we go. He’s 50 yards ahead, speeding to the top of a slope, when I realize something’s wrong. I race after him, shouting but he can’t hear me. I nail the gas and finally pull alongside, grabbing his shirt. “What?” he bellows, strangling the brake and glaring at me, sick of my orders.
“That’s a fucking cliff on the other side.”
We head down a hill until we’ve wound our way 100 feet below the crest. Above us is sheer rock, just beneath the spot where Tim stopped.
We flew from Chicago to Beijing, fourteen hours nonstop, in the first week of June. Two days later, we hopped a 1940s diesel on the Trans-Siberian Railway for a 30-hour trip across the Gobi to the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar.
Flying would have been faster, but then we wouldn’t have shared a four-man sleeper with two Kazakhs who sell equipment to Mongolia’s struggling copper mines. In Ulaanbaatar (the locals call it UB), we’re greeted on the sun scorched platform by a clutch of tour operators and owners of $4-a-night guest houses that sleep six or eight to a room. Tim and I push our way through the crowd, looking for the 19-year old from the city’s Russian Language University whom I located via e-mail with help of an American University professor. The air is sandy and polluted. It’s 95 degrees.
Painfully shy, Ider has on Diesel jeans, Allen Iverson DMX sneakers, and a Georgia Bulldogs T-Shirt. Tim and I exchange what the fuck? looks as we hop into Ider’s mother’s Daewoo. “You like ‘N Sync?” he asks, cranking the CD player.
More than half of the 2.5 million Mongolians still scratch an impoverished living from the land herding sheep or goats, from which they produce world-class cashmere. But nearly a million people live in the capital, inside crumbling Soviet apartment housing or ramshackle ger camps ringed by rotting wood fences, where feral dogs sniff at overflowing garbage. Ider, whose mother is an attorney enjoying Mongolia’s newly opened democracy, is among the first of his generation to feed on Western culture. His buddies surf the Net, watch Snoop on MTV Russian, and awkwardly ape the gangsta flava.
As Ider lip-synchs, we cruise Peace Avenue, past shirtless young men playing pool in rubble-strewn lots and fashionable women in heels and surgical masks picking their way through shards of trash. UB is a magnet for thousands of panhandling kids who have fled abusive rural families. During the brutal winters, they burrow underground, cuddling up against the city’s warren of hot-water pipes amid rats, roaches, and garbage.
“Yo, nigga. Whassup?” asks a beefy teen in wraparound Terminator shades. The kid can’t speak another word of English, but he throws some comic gang signs. “I feel like I’m in a Western starring a Mongolian Jay-Z,” Tim whispers.
We spend three frustrating days trying to find a pair of Russian motorcycles that have long since replaced horses as the Mongolian ride of choice. Our plan is to head west to Kharkhorin, Chinggis K’s ancient capital, then north to Khövsgöl Nuur, the world’s second-oldest glacial lake. There, is the larch- and pine-covered southern reaches of the Siberian wild, we’ll rent horses and fish for sturgeon. The 1,020-mile trip should take eleven days.
We’re told it will cost approximately $800 for a used motorcycle. We search the city’s sprawling black market, a chaotic jumble near the tracks where thousands of vendors sell everything from potatoes to knockoff Tommy jeans and used TV remotes. With Linkin Park blasting from Ider’s mom’s four-door, we finally locate a gas station on the eastern edge of town. The bikes, a Yamaha YZ250 and a Honda XR400, are a mess, but anxious to move, we agree to rent them for 25,000 tugriks a day, about $25—just below the average Mongolian’s monthly income.
That night, we celebrate at the UB Palace, a cavernous techno club set on a construction site. We chug Chinggis beer as fellow backpackers dance to Kylie Minogue. At midnight, a giant gold pig descends from the ceiling. A trap door in its stomach opens and releases balloons full of gum, lighters, and hair clips. Two stunning Mongolian women in their early twenties have been letting us buy them drinks all night. Suddenly, Ider breaks through the language barrier: “They are ‘pros,’ you say, no?”
Picking up the bikes the next day, I’m hung over from the cheap beer (50 cents a bottle) and cheaper Russian cigarettes (30 cents a pack). It’s 8 A.M. and already 90 degrees and I start to feel queasy. Three cups of instant coffee, four cigarettes, and the stench of exhaust are churning my bowels. A spindly, gap-toothed grease monkey with pinup tattoos on his biceps points toward a cardboard hovel 100 yards across a rocky field teeming with scavenging dogs.
“Dude,” Tim says. “Don’t do it.”
The outhouse turns out to be a discarded refrigerator box. The toilet is ragged wound in the dirt, caked black with the desperation and humiliation of others before me. I realize when it’s too late that I haven’t brought any paper. Cringing, I reach into my jeans pull out a crisp, pink 100-tugrik note, with Chinggis Khan’s Manchu mustache curling across his stern and knowing face. I feel ashamed. It’s worth about ten cents.
“I can’t fucking believe you,” Tim says as my face tightens with renewed pain. “Do you realize the next Mongolian who walks in there is gonna say, ‘Those fucking Americans-they’re so rich they wipe their asses with money’?”
The Mongolian highways, little more than kidney-busting braided dirt paths, are lonesome. But the sky is big and blue. As we drive, shoeless children rush from tents and wave at us. Boys at young as 8, corralling yaks, stop their horses to stare. Entire families of six or seven, ridding Russian Ural motorcycles with sidecars, flag us down and touch our strange dirt bikes, stare at our blue eyes, smoke our cigarettes, and offer us airag. It looks like 2-percent milk, tastes tart, and produces a champagne buzz. We gladly trade and drink.
We make it to Lun, a wooden town straight out of an old Western, just before a massive thunderstorm, and camp next to large family of horse herders by a wide bend in the Tuul River. Like many Mongolians, they are almost alarmingly friendly, offering us food and lodgings in their gers. An iron-plated stove stands in the middle of the tent, heated with dried horse dung. The smoke helps keep away black flies, but rather than sleep with eight Mongolians in one room, we choose to stay in our own tent. The flies bite every exposed part of our bodies.
For breakfast, the herder family feeds us chai (a horse-milk tea with herbs and salt) and mutton stew, which is tough, fatty, and tastes like the end of a leather belt. But it’s rude to decline. In fact, etiquette requires that Tim and I spend hours inside dozens of tents during our trip, answering the same questions, eating the same food, smiling the same smiles.
The Mongolians all own Russian motorcycles and, since garages are sometimes a day’s ride away, rely on bits of wire and metal scraps to repair them. They handily fix Tim’s leaky tank with epoxy. For kicks, Tim challenges the village wrestling champ to a match—and nearly dislocates his right shoulder. As thanks for their mechanical help (and for whupping Tim), I hand out warm Chinggis beer and we drink until noon before moving on to Kharkhorin.
In the thirteenth century, Kharkorin was the capital of Khan’s empire, which stretched from Korea to Hungary. Today it’s an impoverished town of 10,000 people. Tim’s chain breaks while we’re there, and it takes us four hours to find the replacement link we needed at the flea market, a tangle of metal shipping crates holding everything from rice and beer to rope and—yes—motorcycle parts.
Our next stop, Tsetserleg, lies at the foot of the Khangai Nuruu mountains, the country’s second highest peaks. The road there will take us past ancient grave sites that predate Chinggis Khan, and past some spectacular ovoo—sacred piles of stone festooned with empty liquor bottles, loose tugrik, socks, and blue ribbons that are meant to be good luck for travelers who circle them three times. When we finally set out, it is 6 P.M. In summer it says light until 11, so we figure we have enough to make it despite the clouds gathered on the horizon.
The Mongolian sky is a terrible thing when storm systems collide. As two hammerhead clouds begin to converge, Tim and I—already drained from the repair, the hard off-road riding, and the increasing cold—tear toward them, hoping to dart like running backs through the middle. As we continue down the narrow pass, the moon peeks out and shines on the river, which we follow to the camp we saw earlier. Three hundred yards from the tents, we shut off the bikes and push them so we won’t wake anyone. Just then, my clutch cable breaks. It’s jammed in second gear and I can’t kick it into neutral.
“Fuck it,” I say. “We’re staying here.”
As we unload our equipment, we hear dogs barking. The clouds are breaking fast now, and the moon lights the valley like some sci-fi landscape. We begin to whisper, partly to keep from attracting attention, partly out of reverence and awe. Suddenly we see a figure move from one tent to another. We call out “Sain baina uu,” Mongolian for “hello.” The dogs bark louder. We tell again, this time calling “Nokhoikhor,” a traditional greeting when approaching a ger, which literally means “Hold the dog.” There’s no answer. We start kicking horse turds from the pastureland to make a smooth surface for the tent. The two-man sleeper is halfway up when we hear a woman whispering from what sounds like inches way. We both freeze, but see nothing. “Do you have your knife?” Tim asks, meaning the pathetically small Leatherman we’ve been carrying.
It’s the low sound of approaching horse hooves. We rise. Eight Mongolians on horseback arrive at our tent. They are dressed in traditional robes, their sleeves hanging to their knees, rough faces beneath their pointed loovuz hats. Tim and I mumble greetings as they silently dismount. There are no smiles. They circle us and point at the tent. We are on their grazing land. We do not have permission. At least, that’s what we guess. Our grasp of the language is so rudimentary, so pitiful that we can only mouth the Mongolians words for broken pointing at our bikes, and sleep, motioning to the tent. We stare at them and they at us. They look, in this surreal and silent world, like menacing Star Trek extras. But we most look equally alien with our domed tent and silver jackets.
The men approach my bike. I slowly squeeze the clutch, letting it drop loose. And then, just like that, they all laugh and start squeezing the clutch too.
It’s almost freezing in the mountains, but Tim, believe the Summer would be a scorcher, didn’t bring a sleeping bag. We both huddle beneath mine, our bodies aching from the cold. In the morning, we’re awakened by a violent shaking of the tent. Tim springs out of the front flap and is eye to eye with an enormous yak, its black hair hanging to the ground, nose pressed to the screen.
After a breakfast of cigarettes and airag, we fix the clutch cable with epoxy. A dozen children have come out to help us pack, rolling our tent, our sleep bag, a wrapping cloth straps around the entire mess piled in the narrow seats. We have little left to give as a gift, so we hand over a lumpy bag of peanuts.
Light-headed, sleep-deprived, demoralized, we head back the way we came, retreating, just as Chinggis did centuries before. We squandered several days finding these awful bikes, breaking down, getting lost. At an old Communist hotel in Tsetserleg, we stare out at the foothills, discarding our collapsible fishing pole and our plans to eat sturgeon caviar on the shore of Khövsgöl nuur. We’ve barely completed a quarter of our trip.
There are three days left before we fly back to Beijing. I try to convince Tim we can make it to the mountains and still return in time, but he’s not buying it. Though the Mongolians are accommodating, their fascination with us and our bikes, the ritual communal drink and eating each time we stop, have frayed our city-tempered instincts for privacy and anonymity.
Tim sighs. He doesn’t want to disappoint me, but he can’t go on. He wants, I realize, to ho home. He launches our return trip with a joke. “Look,” he says, lighting a cigarette and daring me to disagree, “I just can’t take another day of drinking out of the same bowl that every Mongol in the ger has drooled into.”