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Stuck in the mud of central Mongolia

In May 2010 I was graced with the opportunity to accompany a team of scientists to Mongolia for the purpose of finding and studying endangered species of birds. At the time I was eighteen years old and had just completed my freshman year of college, which, quite frankly, I had detested. I nearly chose to forgo this opportunity, as after a year of unwanted change and stressful acclimation, I wanted nothing more than to spend my summer with old friends from home. Thankfully, I realized the foolishness of this in time to sign on to the expedition, realizing that another chance to visit such a remote region of the world would be unlikely to come my way.

Shed, Mongolia

I certainly wasn’t invited on this trip due to any professional qualifications—in fact I had just recently switched my major from environmental studies to philosophy, negating any legitimate purpose for my presence. It was merely a case of nepotism—a relative of mine had worked with a wildlife conservation group for years, and, as I had always been fascinated by animals and ecology, my parents painstakingly convinced him to bring me on one of his trips as soon as I was of age. Considering that the countries under his zoological jurisdiction included Tibet, Iran, and every single country suffixed with –stan, Mongolia seemed the safest bet from a parental perspective.

Nevertheless, any illusion of safety was shattered when I learned that the scientific purpose of the trip was twofold: to observe and conduct a census of the endangered white-naped crane, and to perform a sweeping survey of dead birds of all kinds to test for an extremely deadly strain of high-path avian influenza (spoiler alert: we found some). I had been extensively briefed on the first mission, and had managed to memorize the names and identifying marks of the larger birds in Eastern Mongolia. I even had experience working with white-naped cranes in person; I’d worked at a small zoo in upstate New York that boasted the majestic creatures as one of their few successfully-bred endangered species. But the second part of the trip was not brought to my attention until the first leg of the flight, when I inquired why we had so many medical facemasks packed in our luggage.

080715Mongolia_Road (3)After a ten hour layover at the Beijing airport (my only memory of which is an extremely kind Libyan businessman giving me his entire pack of cigarettes when I only meant to ask for one), and an excruciatingly turbulent flight on MIAT Airlines, battered around the skies by the fierce, ceaseless winds of Mongolian airspace, we arrived. I quickly learned that these breezes were not limited to higher altitudes, and that the extraordinarily flat landscape of the steppe bolstered them so forcefully that it was often nearly impossible to walk in a straight line. A hat was completely out of the question, as the wind wouldn’t merely knock it to the ground like an obnoxious practical jokester, but carry it beyond the horizon and, in my imagination, beyond the curve of the earth.

Although I knew the majority of the three-and-a-half week-long trip would require camping out on the steppe, our first two nights were spent in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar (which can be spelled in a variety of ways, all apparently acceptable). This city was not entirely alien to the Western mind—it was more a case of Mongolian culture emulating a western metropolis. There were corner stores the style of those in New York City; there was nightlife; there was a restaurant called “The California” that served the same type of overpriced, shitty American cuisine you’d find in a restaurant in Los Angeles. Urbanization, as always, had led to the unmistakable presence of urban poverty. This manifested itself in several ways—there were grimy tenements reminiscent of pre-gentrified lower Manhattan, there were peddlers trying to sell useless, cheaply-made knickknacks and crudely-crafted Chinese toys, and there were open sewer covers. When I asked why the manholes all seemed to be pried open or completely absent, I was told that “It’s easier to get back into your house if you leave the door open.”

In the United States, every major metropolis is ringed by an endless sea of suburbs. Just as New York City is encircled by Westchester to the north and Jersey to the south and west, Ulaanbaatar is an enclave within a never-ending sea of yurts. These “yurt slums” serve the same purpose as suburban residential neighborhoods in the west. People living there have access to the city without having to actually live in a stressful, imposing urban environment. Their proximity allows them to take advantage of the power grid, stable supplies of water, and opportunities for employment. What I would later learn from my time on the steppe, however, is that this urbanization comes at the cost of personal freedom, a value that is integral to Mongolia identity.

The non-governmental organization “Freedom House” publishes a yearly report on the status of “freedom” (obviously a term that is open to interpretation) of all nations on the planet. This survey, known as “Freedom in the World,” comes with a map in which each country is colored either green (free), yellow (partly free), or blue (not free). All implicit biases aside, this study shows Mongolia as a little green beacon of hope, wedged between the gargantuan blue masses of China and Russia. In modern history, Mongolia has been occupied by both these countries (direct occupation by China from 1919-1921, and existence as a Soviet puppet state named the “Mongolian People’s Republic” from 1924-1992), and exists now essentially as a buffer state between the two great eastern powers. Yet according to a western worldview, it maintains a much greater level of freedom than either of these more “developed” civilizations. Mongolia has incorporated elements from both these cultures; in Ulaanbaatar a beautifully serene hilltop Buddhist monastery watches over encrustations of pre-fabricated buildings that are surviving testaments to the aesthetic sin of Soviet architecture.

Ulaan Bataar

Nowhere were the vestiges of Soviet engineering more apparent, however, than in the vans we took across the steppe to begin research. These valiant steeds of ours had no seatbelts, nothing even resembling an airbag, and a bizarre shifting system that was designed to help navigate the roadless terrain we traversed. The van’s complete lack of safety features seemed less than immediately horrifying because we were driving through a landscape with almost no obstacles to collide with; however I would later change my opinion about this while riding shotgun as our driver mistakenly drove off a riverbank, careening into the water. Luckily, I would also find that Soviet design prioritized the durability of windshields.

As we left the yurt-slums behind in the rearview mirror, the roads turned from pseudo-pavement to a single-lane set of tracks in the dirt, extending far beyond the horizon, unmarred by trees or changing elevation. Once we had reached the end of this dubious highway, the real adventure began. And by this I mean that the van got stuck in the mud at least once a day. At this point the expedition began to take on a real Indiana Jones motif—I had never thought I’d actually encounter situations involving quicksand or vicious wild dogs in my life. I did, but more than anything, we got stuck in mud. Despite the masterfully crafted Soviet transmissions and tires, at least one of the two vans got stuck every day. Fortunately, our drivers were very skilled professionals, who chain-smoked at a rate even I couldn’t match and used “Limited Too” brand lip-gloss as a substitute for Chapstick. When we found ourselves trapped, they would jerry rig a system of wooden planks to wedge under the tires and giant logs to act as a jack. This method worked well except that the Mongolian steppe is completely, and I mean completely, devoid of trees. Our way to negotiate this was to raid herders’ stockpiles of timber, a precious resource, and hope that we could drive off before being noticed.

Usually this plan was executed well, but once it didn’t quite work out. It should be noted that a substantial percentage of Mongolia’s population lives a semi-nomadic or entirely nomadic lifestyle. This is an extremely difficult population for any government or organization to monitor, but most estimates agree that around 30% of the country’s population follows this ancient lifestyle, rejecting any form of urbanization altogether. Herders live in traditional yurts called “gers,” and, instead of planting crops or keeping pens of animals, allow their livestock to graze freely and simply pack up their homes and follow the herds once they’ve overgrazed a spot. We had found a small wooden pen that a herder might use to keep his daily riding horse, or perhaps any sick or pregnant animals, and we dismantled it entirely for timber. Both our vans had become stuck in a marshy, muddy area full of sinkholes, and our utter desperation left us no choice. As the full team worked together to hoist the van up in order to place boards under the tires for traction, I noticed five men riding toward us on horseback.

This was the kind of sight—albeit a condensed version—that scouts from medieval cities from China to Eastern Europe would glimpse in the distance moments before their walls were ravaged by echoing shots from catapults, their homes burned, and their communities slaughtered like cattle. Having just disassembled the only freestanding structure these men seemed to own, everyone in our group was now a bit on edge.

Van on bridge, Mongolia

The reality was far less terrifying than it appeared: the men simply laughed at us for five straight minutes before using their horses and a rope to do what we with our technological prowess could not. Once the vans were free, we were thankful that the language barrier prevented us from comprehending any possible scolding that these men could give us for destroying their only animal pen. Instead, they simply sat there, encircling us, on their horses, without saying a word. My relative, knowing me all too well, quietly whispered that if I had any liquor or cigarettes with me, I should offer it to them as thanks immediately. While I regretted parting ways with some of my favorite souvenirs, I was elated at the thought that I was saving us all from being butchered and thrown to the dogs, or at the very least being forced to rebuild the fence. I had been useless (and I mean useless) at locating cranes—the only one I found caused me to exclaim “CRANE!” with so much enthusiasm that I scared it off—so I was just glad that my addictions had led me to serve as something other than a burden to this group of professionals.

Content with our gifts, the herders promptly sat down in a circle on the damp earth, smoked the entire pack of cigarettes, and chugged two bottles of vodka before we had even prepared ourselves for departure. As our two groups parted ways, I noticed that one of the nomads had quite a bit of trouble steadying himself on his mount.

Now it should be said that our crew was not averse to drinking either. In fact the complete lawlessness of the steppe encouraged—almost demanded—the consumption of alcohol despite the mission at hand. Lawlessness is not an exaggeration, either. Tiny one-store towns known as “sum-centers” dot the endless sea of grass, and each one has a police officer or two residing in it. But the steppe itself is far too vast and difficult to traverse for anything resembling the police patrols that are so ingrained in the westerner’s mind as normal. Plain and simple, there are no cops on the steppe. But people do live there, and, even though Mongolia is the world’s least-densely populated country, the constant movement of a nomad is going to force him into contact with his peers. So how can a man protect his ger, his family, and his currency in goats, cows, and horses if there’s no formal property protection?

Dogs. Every family has a bunch of dogs. Not pet dogs. Not a pack of happy, tail-wagging, all-American family dogs. They had ger-dogs. And frankly, ger-dogs are the most fucking terrifying things I had ever encountered anywhere.

Mongolian dogsThe problem with having a pack of giant, wolf-like dogs as your security force is that they aren’t always the most discerning creatures in terms of probable guilt. If a family has a close friend who visits their ger every so often, that’s just fine. The dogs will be taught that this outsider poses no danger and has business with the family. But a van full of white foreigners moving through someone’s herding territory, I quickly learned, is not something that a ger-dog will tolerate. At least once a day our trajectory would take us too close to someone’s ger (even if it was far from visible to us), and a bloodcurdling series of howls and barks would presage a whole pack barreling after our van, usually keeping up with it for several hundred yards. The scenario would play out like a pride of lionesses trying to take down an African buffalo—the dogs would run parallel with us, trying to nip at our tires as though they were the legs of a great beast. Several dogs undoubtedly injured themselves trying to jump on this mysterious behemoth before realizing it was made of metal and falling to the ground, stunned, left behind by their pack-mates who were still consumed with the bloodlust. Making eye contact with one of these creatures from the van’s window was a scarring experience—the animal’s eyes conveyed its unmistakable desire to rip me apart limb from limb for trespassing on its turf. When I’d sneak away from the group to go have a smoke by whatever river we managed to camp near, it wasn’t the native wolves that I’d fear creeping toward me through the bramble thickets that grew, in lieu of trees, near the bank. Instead, I was afraid of taking that one tragic misstep, drawing too near to a home and prompting the dogs to unleash their pent-up fury. I feared giving them the excuse they’d been looking for to maul my face off. I can say that nearly every human I met in Mongolia was helpful, if not genuinely kind, but that every dog there wanted to disembowel me for sport.

We did run into one human who wanted to do the same thing, oddly enough. He seemed to be a ger-dog incarnated as man, except he wasn’t offering anyone any kind of protection, he was just shitfaced drunk. But he wasn’t alone in this regard. The field veterinarian for our trip, a man who can be described only as a foul-mouthed, drunken Irish bastard and who was, oddly enough, in charge of the entire bird-flu component of the expedition (all the samples of contaminated bird shit and carcasses were under his watchful protection), referred to every sum-center we’d visit by its proper name: “beer.” Each day or so we’d reach a different beer, and restock precious supplies of water, food, and alcohol. But one particular town drunk took an immediate dislike to our merry band of travelers and, in particular, our Irish field vet as he was pointing to the plastic 40 ounce bottles of grotesque, room-temperature Chinese malt liquor, sitting unrefrigerated and covered with dust on the shelf of a general store. (Personally, I preferred toting around bottles of Chingis Khan brand Mongolian vodka, which, to this day, I still think of as “blackout juice.”) This village ne’er-do-well was suffering an acute case of xenophobia, and began taking drunken swings at our poor, confused field vet, yelling slurs that I doubt we wouldn’t have been able to understand even if we had all been fluent in the language. Living down to his national stereotype, the vet was willing to roll up his sleeves and fight it out once he realized what was going on, retorting with lines such as “The fuck’s this all about?” and “Alright then, ya fuckin’ drunk, have at it!” But the stout, no-nonsense store proprietor was a much more likely candidate to deal with the situation effectively. She dragged the troublemaker out by (and I mean this literally) his ear, tossing him outside as if he had just taken a shit all over her floor. But his vodka-fueled rage knew no bounds, and he would not stop until he had truly proven his incomprehensible point and murdered us all. The store owner was kind enough to lock the door with us inside and explain that “this happened sometimes” and we just needed to “wait him out.”

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Outside, we could hear him screaming like a banshee, launching glass bottle after bottle at the door in his rage. This man’s anger was truly primal, and he began throwing his body at the door, frantically trying to break it down. The door was pretty flimsy, and all of us quickly realized that we might be in for some good ol’ fashion fightin’, as if we were about to reenact a saloon scene from the Old West. With one final exhausting bash, this great warrior among men caused the flimsy locking mechanism to fly off, and in he barged, only to fall face first on the floor directly in front of us. It was only at this point that the town’s two police officers showed up. Their manner of dealing with this man inevitably made him regret his decision to attack: the 6’5” officer grabbed the bewildered drunk, stood him up straight, and proceeded to bitch-slap him as hard as possible, sending him crashing back down to the ground (face-first, again), before dragging him by his feet out of the store. Another officer then went through our passports meticulously before offering us a half-hearted apology that, I’m guessing, translated to “What the fuck did you expect?”

080715Mongolia_Crane1 (3)By the final week of the expedition morale had sunk noticeably. Camping for days on end in an environment with a wind force that mangles your tent by the time you wake up can be trying for even the most outdoorsy among us. What we really needed was something that could bring us all together in the pursuit of a new common goal. By this point we had found a total of 127 white-naped cranes (a number that, I was told, was actually promising and not demoralizing, unlike so many censuses of endangered species). As we slowly meandered our way back to Ulaanbaatar, following rivers across the eastern steppe, this uniting force manifested itself in the form of a cow.

As I mentioned earlier, quicksand is a real thing, and Mongolia is chock-full of it. There’s actual quicksand, and then there’s the sandy muck forming the beach of every Mongolian lake—the same wretched substance that tried to swallow our vans at every possible opportunity. Cows, with long, thin legs and small hooves, can easily become trapped in this filth, unable to free themselves as they either slowly sink or remain stationary, waiting for the next pack of wolves to pass by. We had seen numerous cows, sheep, and horses trapped helplessly and passed them by, but on this one particular day the cow came to the attention of the Hindu scientist on our team. Coming from a culture that regards bovines as symbolic of wealth, life, and abundance, she became quite distraught at the sight before us and urged us to assist the dying animal. Her husband—an impossibly mild-mannered British man who, despite lacking the scientific qualifications, was better at spotting and identifying birds than anyone else on the trip—calmly explained his intention to help his wife extract the cow, even if we refused. The combination of these two approaches, spiritual fervor and subtle guilt-tripping, was enough to convince everyone that this was a necessary task.

This cow was buried about halfway up its torso, its legs completely vanished under the mud, allowing one of the researchers to estimate that it had been there about three days. The trapped creature was still very much alive, however, and seemed to welcome our offer of assistance. It was clear that this was going to be difficult. We had to use much more discretion with this beast than we had with a stuck van; we needed a way to lift it out vertically, or else we risked snapping one of its withered legs in the process.

080715Mongolia_Landscape2 (3)As we began to set up an elaborate system of ropes and pulleys reaching underneath the animal, our driver stood by with a kitchen knife, just in case all else failed. We moved closer and closer to the poor beast, our feet sinking into the muck up to the knee. The quiet scientist who volunteered for the rear position was a saint—she knew what she was getting into, as did we all. As soon as the body of the cow was high enough, it immediately voided its bowels all over the poor woman. Despite this, the team pressed on and, after several hours, managed to lift the cow high enough to free its front legs. After a complete extraction, guiding the cow as far away from the mud-trap as we felt necessary, we left her, half-drenched in mud and shit, most likely to be devoured by wolves that very night. Despite this inevitability, she could walk, and we were all extremely proud that a wildlife conservation organization had, in the most direct way possible, successfully saved an animal’s life.

Upon returning to Ulaanbaatar, I had a night in a hotel to let the absurdities I had experienced during the previous weeks really sink in. I felt confused and uncertain as to how a place on the same planet where I lived could be so completely unlike my place in the world. But what haunted me was not an overplayed, liberal-guilt ridden epiphany about how fortunate I was to live in a western society, where I had access to all the material possessions I wanted. I wasn’t returning with some esoteric lesson about the joys of privilege and my good fortune. I know many friends who had gone on various types of service trips to classic “third world” locales and had come back ready to preach these lessons. Mongolia isn’t a place that won’t teach you these lessons, if that’s what you want to take home. After all, yes, a ridiculous percentage of the population lives in poverty (39% was the accepted estimate at the time of my trip in 2010). Yes, people in rural areas die from diseases and conditions that wouldn’t kill them if they had the benefit of modern medicine. Yes, people still ride horses, or drive shitty communist-era vehicles, or (my personal favorite) ride mopeds along the steppe to get from place to place. And yes, they often have to burn cattle dung instead of timber to heat their gers during the brutally cold winter months, which, I can testify, continue well into May. But they also hook solar panels up to their gers. Can these power a home entertainment system, or a desktop computer that’s always left on? Absolutely not. But they can they power a single central overhead light and a television with a basic satellite connection.

In Mongolia I didn’t see a populace that was too backward to embrace modernity. They didn’t seem adverse to modernity or betrayed by it. Rather, they seemed to pick and choose which parts of the modern world they wanted and which they didn’t. The herders’ use of solar panels is a perfect example of this, as they allow for the advantage of electricity while still maintaining the freedom of living off-the-grid. And this made me realize that we don’t have the same luxury in the United States. Instead, developments are thrust upon us, and we are forced to adapt. Social media started out as an opt-in resource, and now it’s nearly become a professional requirement to have some type of online presence. Cell phones were a tool to connect us, and now someone without one is a pariah, a radical, or homeless. These forms of communication have also become a way in which we can willingly incriminate ourselves, instruments of surveillance with which we keep tabs on one another under the watchful eye of the NSA. It seems impossible to me that the Mongolian population could even be estimated in number accurately, much less patrolled through telecommunications.

In mask in Mongolia

For years after my trip there I wanted nothing more than to buy another plane ticket, spend a few thousand dollars on a yurt, some solar panels, and some goats, and start a life in which I wouldn’t be subject to societal pressures or government surveillance. But I could never do this. I’ll admit that in the absence of authoritarian scrutiny I would fall victim to a natural scrutiny—the vagaries of nature from which we protect ourselves with technology. Brutal heat, frigid cold, hunger, and disease are harder obstacles to hurdle than obedience to a state or social acceptance. I do not possess the skills, the durability, the knowledge, or the willpower to survive in a climate such as the Mongolian steppe. Compared to every single Mongolian I met, including the angry drunk guy, I am a total and complete pussy. People raised in an environment without true freedom, in which they are reliant on others (including corporations and government) to provide their needs, cannot survive if cut off from that upon which they rely, at least without excruciating difficulty. Accessibility to resources and luxuries, even those that seem basic, is the ultimate catalyst for dumbing down a population. Urbanization and westernization require sacrifices of personal liberty to reap their benefits. By parting ways with survival skills and a visceral understanding of our environment, we gain convenience, security, and structured education—a more theoretical approach to understanding that is crucial to succeeding within the established model of modernity. But what we consider “success” is simply one form of success—and as long as we live within our paradigm of success it will continue to sustain us happily. However, not every person, every culture, every civilization exists within or embraces that paradigm. We have sacrificed freedom for comfort, despite how forcefully and how frequently our national rhetoric tries to convince us otherwise. On the steppe, people may have to put in significant effort to find drinkable water on any given day. But they can also walk without fear of their state’s police force. They can live unafraid that their government is making decisions that provoke others to seek to harm them. They may face shorter life spans and a higher risk of illness, but they can rest assured that poison is not seeping into their bodies through their water, clothing, and food.

080715Mongolia_River_Sky (3)But Mongolia is not immune to the constant encroachment of the modern world, as Ulaanbaatar can testify. A place that saw its people dominate the world under Chingis Khan, has suffered invasions from the Chinese and a cultural invasion by the Soviets, now faces the arrival of Western capitalism. The city had, just a year before my visit in 2010, completed a new addition to an eclectic skyline. Called the Blue Sky Tower, this building has an all-glass façade, a sloping, contemporary shape, and a maze of office, conference, and hotel spaces. It is, by any account, a modern construction, built by capitalists to reflect and pursue the ideals of capitalism. More than anything it just looks like a giant fish, but the point remains: a culture that has endured many attempts to control it and has resisted them all is now facing western capitalism as its next hurdle. In the five years since I was in Ulaanbaatar, the city’s population has undoubtedly increased and the nomadic percentage of the population has undoubtedly fallen. At least this means there will be more grazing space for those who do choose to maintain the nomadic lifestyle. I can’t see a day in which fences, surveillance, and regulation become the norms of a Mongolian herder’s life. But, on the other hand, I’m sure that many ranchers of America’s old west said the same thing about their own country.

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