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JULY 8, 2003 -> Mongolia Road Trip: Week 2

It was a complete set-up. After reading four-hundred pages of Mongol history, I, of all people, should have been watchful for Mongol trickery. But pride overran prudence, and I stepped out of the ger into the blzing heat of the Gobi desert, pulled off my shirt, flexed my muscles and glared menacingly at my beefy opponent. I must have looked so stupid.

Nori and I had been sitting inside a ger, pretending to enjoy the sour milk treats that are always proferred to guests. Take a quart of milk, unscrew the cap, come back in five years, slice the putrescent sludge into squares and you might approximate the taste of these 'welcome' snacks. During the whole milk snack ritual, Booji, the camelherder's burly son had been staring at me. I was conscious of being sized up, but I wasn't sure what for. After several weeks of being in Mongolia, I was used to being stared at, but this was unnerving. Then Erkemee motioned towards Booji and said "He wants to wrestle you." Booji smiled and nodded. "Now?" I asked. In answer, Booji stood up and left the ger, and returned shortly thereafter wearing real Mongolian wrestling boots. This gave me pause, but I quickly forgot about it, and said "Oh, what the hell. Why not?" I was as big as he was, after all.

Ten minutes and three falls later, my knees and elbows were scored with gravel cuts, and my neck felt as if I'd been practicing for the lead role of The Exorcist. When we locked arms, I had felt the strength in his torso, so I went for his legs, only to be shoved face-first into the ground. The next two bouts did not go much better. After the thrashing, Booji led me into his ger to deliver the punchline. A series of medals sat atop a cabinet - he had won the regional Naadam wrestling championship several times, and had come in second last year. I never had a chance!

The first week of our Mongolian road trip had taken us through the steppes to the beautiful Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur lake. The second week was all about getting to, and experiencing the Gobi desert, the vast scrubland that occupies the southern third of Mongolia and much of Inner Mongolia, China. Unlike the Sahara, the Gobi is not an infinite sea of sand dunes, but a nearly waterless plain broken by the last thrusts of the Altai mountain range, which rose far to the west.

At Khongoryn Els, we climbed more than half a kilometer straight up to the top of the Gobi's only real sand dunes, which run for more than 100 kilometers parallel to dark mountains. One of the two nights at Khongoryn Els was the 4th of July, so we celebrated with two other Americans (and some Europeans who didn't need an excuse) over a few glasses of Chinggis Khan vodka. The next day, Erkhemee piloted the van through a narrow gorge to Yloyn Am, a bird sanctuary more famous for its ice gorge, where winter snowfalls gathered and compressed into a mini-glaciers that persisted throughout the summer. We then drove on to Dalanzadgad, where we spent one night in a guest house that was actually just an extra room in a Mongolian house. After so many days in gers, it was a shock to find the family eating dinner in the living room while they watched the international news, and then "The Pianist."

The next morning we had a short drive to Bayanzag - the "Flaming Cliffs" made famous by American adventurer Roy Chapman Andrews, who discovered an amazing variety of fossils entombed in the red sand cliffs. Bayanzag looks something like a microcosm of the Grand Canyon, a two-tiered, red-orange mesa of clay and sandstone, easily sculpted by rain. There were formations like those in the Turkey's Cappadocia region, pancakes of harder strata balanced atop narrowing spires. In a deluge - however unlikely - I imagined the whole place washing away, leaving a pile of dinosaur bones and petrified tree trunks.

Near Bayanzag, we decided to take a camel ride. According to the camel riding guidelines, camels are not as smart as horses and often forget that they are being ridden. Mongolian camels are two-humped Bactrian camels, which grow a great shaggy brown coat in the winter months. They are smelly, shit-covered beasts with what must be the silliest facial expressions in the animal kingdom. They are led by reins attached to a forked stick that is shoved through the gristle of their nose. Camels stand so tall that you must climb onto their backs while they are kneeling. Then they rise awkardly, hind legs first, then front legs - it is quite easy to be thrown over the neck. You sit between the two humps, grasping the forward hump. The hump is pure fat (not water), roughly triangular in profile, and often sags to one side in old, unhealthy, or hungry animals. Slap the hump on one side and it quivers like a jelly mold.

We loped across the desert, the fiery cliffs rising in the distance. It was an incredible moment, and he were both laughing with the absurdity of where we were and what we were doing. Our guide kept trying to tell us something, but I couldn't understand his slushy English. At the bottom of a small gully, we decameled and followed the guide as he limped up a dust-blown hill to a rubbly area. Then he started sweeping away the sand and gravel with his hand. To our amazement, a reptilian skull was exhumed - it was a real dinosaur fossil! He indicated the spine and scooped out earth to reveal several vertebrae. This was no chance discovery, he had found the fossil long ago, and shrewdly decided to add it to the camel tour, but the sense of wonder that stole over us was genuine. This was a large, complete fossil of a beast that had roamed the earth millions of years ago; and now its curator was this crippled camelherder!

On the final day of our road trip, I woke early and clambered up the ridge above our campsite. It took only twenty minutes, but the views from my rocky perch were amazing. A whorl of swallows circled me, chirping wildly and whistling with speed as they dove and banked, chasing an insect breakfast. I faced south, looking out over an immense, grassy plain backed by dust-blurred mountains. To my left, a shallow, slate-grey lake shimmered in the light wind, and single thread of orange road suddenly frayed into seven strands, each seeking its own compass point. Panning right, these roads became so distant from each other that any common origin seemed impossible. They meandered like riverbeds before finally disappearing in cloud-cast shadows. Nurturing and protecting the green plain, the Khorgo Haikhan mountains reared up in spiky knuckles - like the one I now sat on.

The senses feel heightened in Mongolia. You can gaze like an eagle over a seemingly infinite space. You see gers tens of miles away. People stand out immediately by their unique shape - and their movement. Small features assume the importance of landmarks. It is not really seeing further, but is instead uncluttered, unobstructed sight. Hearing is also elevated by the tranquil surrounds. In the countryside, only the braying, bleating, lowing, or naying of the livestock disturbs the sound of the wind; which sometimes roars but mostly rustles through the plains. Human voices carry like nowhere else. Even olfactory senses seem enhanced, though not always desirably so. I remember the smell of wildflowers, the tang of wild rhubarb, and wet camel dung after the rain. Again, because there are so few competing scents, you can actually smell stones, dirt, shrubs and horses as if in a controlled environment.

Soon after I returned to camp, Turo drove up in the van to collect us and our equipment. It was already 9 am - our agreed time of departure - and Erkhemee wasn't in the vehicle, so I knew that something was up. Turo drove us to a nearby ger where Erkhemee, an old man, and his son were crowded around a dung fire. Curious, we walked closer and saw two grotesque forms roasting in a bed of goat chips. They were marmots - rodents like large gophers that live in rocky areas - being slow-roasted from within by hot rocks that had been dumped into their cleaned body cavity. Their heads had been lopped off, and the neck sealed with a encirlcing loop of steel. Their pitiful little paws stretched away from their heat-bloated bellies in a tragicomic pose.

As the marmots cooked, the teenage son scraped off the fur from the skin. When the father unfastened the neck coil, a sickeningly wet hiss escaped from the rodents body. Nori and I both gagged as the father shoved a piece of wire into the marmot's belly and a cascade of blood, water, and liquefied fat arced into a waiting cup. When all the liquid had drained into the cup, the father gave it to his young son, who greedily drained it. This was 'boodog,' a very special, and not often seen marmot BBQ. Our guidebook said that boodog was only eaten from mid-August to mid-October when the risk of contracting the bubonic plague was the lowest.

Once the boys had had their fill of BBQ marmot, we hopped into the van for the last time, and drove the remaining four hours to UB. Now for Naadam!