November 19, 2008


At exactly midnight on the train-ride from Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar, I clinked my glass of red wine with a toast of “To Our Health” with my friendly cabin mate Anton. I had many things to celebrate; the train was finally moving again after sitting stationary at the Russian border for nine long hours, I had gotten a local Russian man to drink wine instead of Vodka, and I was crossing into the thirty fourth year of my life, albeit in a very different time zone than the one in which I was born. As I caught a glance of my MacBook Air laptop on the table, I was reminded of so many friends from the past who have recently contacted me through Facebook with pictures of their husbands, wives and children included in their profiles. My peers were holding down steady jobs, cohabitating, reproducing, and buying homes while here I was, riding a train into Mongolia, alone, in the middle of the night, celebrating my birthday with a stranger as 99.9% of my belongings sat in a 10 ft x 10 ft storage unit in New Jersey and the other .1% sat in the backpack below my seat. “What happened?” “Where and when in my life did I step off the road frequently traveled or was I never really on it to begin with?”
The weather was cold and the morning still dark when I got off the train in Ulaanbaatar and from the short car ride to the hostel, I could already tell that this city was living outside the fringes of Westernization; there are no H&M or Armani stores lining the streets, the Golden Arches are missing from the skyline, and the main attraction in the town square is a massive statue of Genghis Khan rather than a collection of outdoor café’s with fancy umbrellas and overpriced drinks. By the time I finished my first cup of coffee, I had luckily managed to meet two other hostel guests who were interested in a fourteen day barebones, backpacker’s tour into the Mongolian countryside, which turned into three people by lunch time, which turned into an ideal of six people, including me, by dinner.
So, two days later there was a Dutchwoman born in France, a Frenchman born in France, a Dutchman born in The Netherlands, two guys from Canada, and an American born before all these kids, piling into the back seat of a green van packed to the brim with gear and supplies as our driver, Erka, and guide, Nishgee, sat at the helm. As we rolled out of the city and onto what felt like the set of the popular Mongolian movie “The Weeping Camel”, leaving behind the urban clouds of car exhaust and factory pollution along with our devices for communication, it was the first time that I started to feel truly “off the grid”. Before I had left for my trip in March I sent out a group email to my family and friends titled “Getting Off the Grid” and then proceeded to include my international cell phone number and my three email accounts while assuring them they could get in touch with me anytime and in any country, but as the paved road slowly faded to dirt under the tires of our van, so did the natural 21st century reflexes to check computers and phones for newsflashes, pointless information and new messages. We were voluntarily enrolled in “Getting Back to Basics 101” and the further we drove into this incredible landscape in which time seemed to stand suspended in the boundless physical space, the further my concepts of freedom were challenged. Is it the nomadic family, sleeping together side by side on mats on the floor of a ger (yurt) heated by wood or cow dung, living off the land, which summon majestic sunrises, sunsets, and starry nights as well as harsh weather conditions, with a herd of animals and limited technology that is free? Or is freedom found in the modern city dweller who has the bank account to vacation every year, dine out at new restaurants offering the latest trend in cuisine, sleep on an expensive mattress that pads stress in the lower back and owns the latest iphone in which emailing stock quotes and party dates with friends is done as cars honk and street and building lights mask the glow of the moon overhead? Has the simple way of living and loving where we are in intrinsically connected to nature, which has been replaced by a migration away from nature and towards technology producing a more confused way of living and loving whereby divorce rates, prescription happy pills and unfulfilled dreams and expectations are on the rise, been worth the sacrifice? 
It was, however, nice to be marginally connected on November 6th with a family that had a ger with a black and white T.V. and a satellite connection as they reported news that affected their lives none, that the “black man” had won the presidency in the States. This ushered in a whole new set of wild freedom thoughts as I jumped up and down, in the middle of nowhere, yelling Obama’s name toward the sand dunes and some camels, elated that my country had finally, after two strike’s out, come around to hit this one out of the park.
After the first night we left the black sheep of the group with a family out on the steppes and continued on, traversing the open earth, forming witty humor and intelligent conversations between the remaining seven of us along the way (guide and driver included) whereby I was kindly labeled “Grandma” by my much younger adventure comrades. By day, our vehicle was akin to the Beatles Yellow Submarine as we rolled on to the Gobi Desert, till we found the sea of infinite land, and we lived beneath the sky, in our Green Soviet-ski Van (We all live in a Green Soviet-ski Van, Green Soviet-ski Van, Green Soviet-ski Van….). By night we became ger hoppers, finding gracious families to put us up along the way; some of whom were prepared, with an extra ger, for a small caravan of tourists and some who had never hosted foreigners before and looked at us nestling into our sleeping bags on the floor of their home, like sardines in a can, with undivided curiosity.
The constant transition from hot-cold-hot-cold-hot-cold, with the thermostat-less ger stove creating a sweat lodge at sleeping time only to burn out and make the place feel like the inside of a freezer by morning, had my flu-ridden body swinging it’s temperature back and forth while the rugged beauty of my surroundings, with naked fields breaking into ancient ocean floors, dinosaur mountains that take on a lunar quality and sand dunes dotted with Camels that are slowly drifting their way toward China, had my thoughts following the same pendulum; it seemed that the more space I had, the more trapped my mind felt. In fact, there was so much space available, everywhere I turned, that it made my body mass feel like the lowest common denominator in all of Mongolia; a spec of sand in the Gobi, a tiny star in the galaxy.
I had made quite a bit of sarcastic speculation about what my trip into the Mongolian countryside would be like by joking that I would be trying to sell my firstborn if someone could rake me over hot coals as I sat wrapped underneath an animal skin and snacked on sheep’s rump and drank yak’s milk. While it wasn’t quite cold enough to let my firstborn go, I did spend considerable time promising better behavior to God if he/she would just send someone in to light the fire stove in the mornings. And perhaps I passed up trying all the boiled components of the inside of a sheep’s stomach, but I did manage to dine on some Camel-vegetable stew, wolf dumplings and dried goat curd while washing it all down with a refreshing glass of fermented mare’s milk (a local alcoholic specialty called Ayrag). After a while you even get used to the sight of hacked off hooves lying on the ground, abandon animal skulls scattered throughout the desert and goat’s heads sitting on tables inside of gers; there is even a “dice” game played by the kids with animal bone ankles. I didn’t get the chance to wrap myself in a heavy animal skin, but I did wear the traditional coat called a Del while horseback riding and it made me feel like a Mongolian-Warrior-Princess as I galloped my horse Butch into home ger territory a few days later. My two week trip out into the countryside was an unforgettable experience that brought me to new levels of clarity on my journey of healing and when I think of my comrades calling me “Grandma”, I can only hope that one day I’ll decide to explore the road traveled by my peers and be able to share all these amazing life adventures as “old lady” stories with future generations of me.

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