Notes Toward a Lunar New Year Trip to the South Gobi with the Library Director, a Bunch of Monks, and a Golden Buddha Statue to Open a New Stupa at the World's Energy Center
In Gandan monastery's off-room, I begin to wonder how long the lamb will be there. The monks don't say anything. Some of them stare at the Sprite bottle on the table. Guests must eat a mutton dumpling or no one gets to. The monk's wife is Korean. The first book I see in the large bookshelves is a Russian Sexual Bible. Also books in English called "Erotica" and "Sexual Intimacy."
Two monks heft the golden Buddha, sitting gold and the size of a man from his place at the head of the table of silent monks taking the occasional sweet milk curd.
A large TV blares in the room where things are cooled, next to a room with the kind of squat-toilet common in China.
Outside walks an orange-cloaked women, which I suppose is how females dress for the cold. Drapes and drapes of yellow-orange. Steam sweeps off the frozen puddles outside.
We drive out of the monastery compound. The building under construction juts out like a pregnant woman over a deserted Sukhbaatar Square. The members of Parliament who are part of our seven-car caravan change out of their deels and into Playboy parkas.
Stopping outside a gas station on the edges of the ger districts, air reeking of gasoline, the monks, Parliament members, and businessmen stand in the -20 cold, passing each other jade and onyx bottles filled with deep yellow tobacco powder that tickles the sinuses. It's something they do with their right hands, each passing their bottle to the other at once so the bottles clack together and slide past one another within the two walls of hands. Sometimes they just touch a nostril to it and give it back. Around them the ubiquitous landscape of Mongolia begins to open out, dirty dogs shivering their way across the empty lot beyond which three large cows lumber underneath the power lines. Occasionally, the men without hats press their hands over their ears.
They laugh robustly over how a few days earlier Akim, the head of a National Library and the guy whose book translation I am editing, gave me too much Tsagaan Sar whiskey to drink--he forgot I was a girl and I forgot most basic facts of the world--and how this led to me not remembering the ensuing visit to my boss Chilaajav's house. Specifically, I woke up on Chilaajav's bed, where his wife had put me, and threw up onto the floor. Don't worry, says the member of Parliament in whose car Akim and I are riding, it's common among Mongolians too. My first Tsagaan Sar when I could drink I did the same thing.
Out along the road three people put their hands out like people do in the city to catch cabs, but it's much much colder here where the buildings and pollution don't keep any warmth down. Maybe it's a bus stop, but there's nothing to demarcate one that I can see.
It only takes an hour south of Ulaanbaatar for there to be more tan than snow, which has shrunk to strips of white. The men spread across the rocky flatness to piss, some flapping their robes open, some standing in jeans. A former peace corps volunteer taught me to flap my jacket around me as I squat. No one told me, however, that -20, -30, -40 on one's exposed parts makes it hard to convince the body to urinate. I turn around--the men have all arranged their standing, smoking semi-circle with their backs to me. I see a woman and her daughter come from the other side of the road, where they had been more discreet than me.
Back in the car Akim breaks out a bottle of vodka, pours some into a silver bowl and rolls the window down to release the vodka for "the god", and it whips up and out in a flash of mist. The Parliament member then swallows nearly a whole bowlful, then Akim does.
He calls them deer. But they're too lithe and pale to be deer. Antelope. Herds and herds of them, quite close to the road, and Akim speculates they're heading north out of the desert for lack of snow. In the front seat the Parliament member moves his prayer beads along through the conveyor belt of his hand, touching each with his thumb. When he sees me looking, he says, 108 beads on an erkh. The praying is related to the counting. You say certain special words many times and then they become.