Going off the Grid in Mongolia – May 2008

Our passions, much like our addictions, often drive us to what some might see as flights of excess.  Where I used to aspire to travel around the States or Europe on vacation, I now find myself seeking places that are farther from the beaten path.  Perhaps this is inevitable given the fact that as a teenager, I frequently hiked the Mousam Way trail.   Somehow, in my own way I wanted to “go off the grid” even within the confines of Sanford and Springvale.

A few years ago, this search for increasingly remote destinations led me to fixate on Mongolia, the homeland of Genghis Khan.  I’m not sure why it occurred to me to travel to Mongolia, but I guess the kernel of the idea came from a friend whose parents had once worked there.  Next, I looked at a map and decided that any country with a capital city called Ulaan Bataar had to be pretty cool.  In any case, upon finishing grad school, I set out for a three-week trek across Mongolia with a few friends. 

Mongolia’s roughly three million inhabitants live in a vast expanse that the lowest population density in the world.  Approximately 40% of the population is nomadic and horses outnumber people.  Outside of the capital, nearly everyone lives in ghers (also called yurts), or circular cloth covered huts that are the Mongolian equivalent of a tee-pee.  The gher, which is roughly the size of a typical American living room and windowless save for a hole in the roof to release cooking fumes, houses the entire family. 

One of the central objectives of the trip was to attend the annual Nadaam.  Nadaam is an ancient festival that is the local equivalent of the Olympic Games and is held in the tiny national stadium.  There are four events:  wrestling, long distance horse racing conducted by child jockeys, archery, and my favorite, a game that involves people making projectiles out of sheep anklebones.  I found the combination of events to be a little unusual, but then again, I didn’t want to judge:  I imagine that the average Mongolian would find it odd that the La Kermesse festival celebrated by our friends in Biddeford has a frog as its mascot.

Following Nadaam, we set out for the Gobi desert.  Since there is not too much to do in the way of traditional sightseeing, it’s typical to spend afternoons traveling around for miles with a guide to visit families in their isolated ghers.  Upon arriving at the gher, the routine is pretty simple.  First, it is tradition to yell out “no-khoi kho-rio” or “hold the dog!” before entering the home.  Once inside, visitors sit on woolen rugs, snack on local favorites such as horse or camel milk cheese, and hit the snuff bottle.  If everyone’s feeling a little wild, the host will break out a bottle of fermented horse’s milk called airag.  Unfortunately, unlike the cheese, which you can pretend to eat and then subtlety slip into your pocket if it’s not to your taste, you’ve got to swallow down the airag heartily lest the host be offended. 

Not content with just visiting a gher, we also stayed in a gher camp for visitors.  Heck, I thought to myself, if rural Mongolian families can spend their entire lives in a gher, I could handle a few nights.  I realized the hazards of gher living on my second night in the camp.  At around midnight, I settled into sleep with the contentment that I, like any true Mainer, was roughing it.  Within minutes, however, my self-satisfaction was pierced by the sound of something tapping the floor every couple of seconds.  The noise suggested that a series of small objects were falling onto the floor, and soon enough, several of these small objects fell onto me.  When I turned on my flashlight, I realized that the cooking hole on the roof also provided a convenient entry point for the hundreds of desert beetles that were now crawling all over the roof and increasingly the floor of the gher.  Somewhere in the night, I heard a British woman cry, “Something just fell in my ear!” 

Although I spent the rest of that night huddled under an improvised sheet tent, I slept surprisingly well and awoke renewed  Similarly, I found most of Mongolia, from the ghers of the Gobi to the spectacle of Nadaam, to be refreshing and timeless.  While there are Internet cafes springing up all over Ulaan Bataar and cell phones are pretty common, Mongolian daily life remains radically different from the modern American existence. The nation’s strong connection to the past and to tradition serves as a reminder of some of the qualities that we must sacrifice to live in a fast moving society. While our culture has been penetrated by amazing technologies, the creeping intrusions of modernity often blunt our appreciation for life’s simple pleasures.  I, for one, find myself increasingly happy to leave behind my cell phone and blackberry for a while to immerse myself in an entirely different world.  Luckily, in Mongolia, I enjoyed this transformative experience without having a beetle fall into my ear.

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