Monday, June 30, 2008


Further Notes Toward a Lunar New Year Trip to the South Gobi with the Mongolian Library Director, a Bunch of Monks, and a Golden Buddha Statue to Open a New Stupa at the World's Energy Center

For dinner we all stop at a random point in the darkness. Seven SUVs lining up. I don’t know where the women went. Akim beckons me into a large room with cots around the perimeter. Fifteen men with different sorts of hats on. No one in this group knows everyone else. After a bit we all head into a large neighboring room where all 30 of us wait--the wives are all wives of parliament members and directors, and unlike the men, who did not care or stare at the young blonde napping in their midst, the women give me looks of marked suspicion. It's rare in Mongolia compared to Russia. Breakfast lunch and dinner on the road in Mongolia is noodle soup with mutton. The monks read prayers in their baritone voices after poking around on their palm pilots.

There are a couple of middle sized children in the crew. The big room has pool tables in it. A statuesque woman in a light green deel serves the monks first. They mumble lowly over their food. Akim is then served, then me. There's precious little song and dance here compared to what I hear about in China and Korea.

I wake up with Akim next to me in the car, speaking in loud drunken bursts and pointing. Perhaps we are lost. Parliament member is also drunk. They insist I go back to sleep and that there is no problem. Yep, definitely lost.
They kept drinking vodka while I was asleep. We left concrete roads hours ago. Akim shouts in a restless sleep every time we hit a bump, pointing to the sky and saying "my child!" in Mongolian. The driver finally stops to ask Akim what's up. Parliamentary member says keep driving. Most of the time we can see the lights of at least one other car in the caravan. we stop several times for Akim, who stumbles, once getting caught in his seat belt and waiting to be helped out, I got out to pee and certain stars in certain constellations filled in parts I'd never known there were, not even at the ranch growing up, while I crouched in the -40 air and tried to unclench my body. I finally ask if Akim's seat reclines since it may help him rest better. Parliamentary member takes the opportunity to move Akim to the front seat, move back with me, and try to cop a feel under the pretense of tugging my jacket around me. I spent most of the night fighting him off. Akim was passed out, it was -40 outside, and we were in the middle of nowhere in the Gobi desert in his car. I wake up later and he is sitting anxiously forward. No lights. I don't move, knowing they'll just tell me to go back to sleep. We were lost for an hour. All 30 of us pile into the only hotel in the ghost town just before dawn.

The call Akim "Akim Go", which is either a reference to his middle name or a respectful thing, like Mr. Another former Peace Corps Volunteer warned me that Mongolian men are excused for bad behavior if they were drunk fr it, so I am not surprised when I awaken after they are so drunk that all they can talk about is how I shouldn't put my feet up and how because I am a woman their job is to make sure I am safe and warm.

Over the drone of throat singing the Parliament member asks me who won the democratic election. No one, I say, but Obama just won Maine. Whom do you support? He asks. Obama, I say, because people are getting involved for him who never have before, and because of the positivity in his message. But a woman democrat in the White House would be amazing also. They have similar policies on a lot of issues.
But if Hillary is president, the Parliament member asks, won't she go to war like Thatcher just to prove she can be tough like men? When a women is tough, that's no good.
I suddenly remember a theoretical argument someone was having at my high school near the mail room in 2000. America would choose a black man over a woman, no contest, someone said.

Please help me release what I need to, I asked, touching my forehead to the monastery ruins. We went to the three monasteries the poet and monk Natsagdorj had made. (Or at least, the translator said it was Natsagdorj, though a kind reader just commented that it was Danzanravjaa. I write the stories I hear...) Legend has it he raised enough money for the first two, but not the third. The Chinese workers wanted to be paid. So Natsagdorj sent his students to gather fifty white stones, one for each worker. The student kept one for himself and gave the poet forty nine. The next morning there were forty nine kilos of silver at 2kg each. He distributed them to the workers, then looked all over his ger for the last one, but couldn’t find it, so he paid out of his own pocket. Thus the monastery cost 2kg of silver to build.

There are all sorts of treasures hidden around here, says Parliamentary member, gesturing at frozen Khaan Bogd mountain. The Russians destroyed things. You know, Mongolia was never occupied by Russia or China, and we are this small land between two giants--we accepted the Soviet system to survive. The monks in the 20s made predictions of how Mongolia in 90 years would be a rich country. The monk Batbayar is translating these predictions now.
In the brush alongside the ruins I see the remnants of a khadag, discolored by the weather, unraveling slowly in ever-expanding squares.
At Khan Bogd they scatter biscuits the same color as the ground. Vodka is offered also. All 30 of them assemble and sing a song written by Natsagdorj, toasted with vodka, kneeled for pictures, tossed vodka into the air, and ate cold dumplings.

It's at the third and final stupa in a series that the crowds are gathered, lining up to the khadages tied around rocks in back. When we get to the stupa the guards assume I am one of the public waiting throng outside and don't let me in with the monks. I try to tell them myself but they don't meet my eye or say anything. Inside the stupa at the table they set down the golden Buddha we've taken from Gandan monastery. He is covered in a yellow cloth. The monks are doing something to the cloth and the Buddha's hand but I can't see what. It's smoky and there'd a ladder leading up to a sort of loft where all the important men I have come with disappear to pray after heaving up the boxes they brought from UB.

I stand on the steps with Akim for a minute or two befre I realize what's going on--one of those very Mongolians exchanging of gifts and speeches by around fifteen people.
Bracht was there, and Layton, who was the first to speak among the assembled men in front of the stupa after the private opening ceremony has taken place inside. Bracht's jeep, from his mining company, had an orange flag and 471 on th side. His mining company lent the crane that placed the top of the stupa.

Eyeless doll head. Car skeleton. Like a slanted Arizona. Wake up in stark landscape with honey morning light coming in the windows.

It's not eve that they love their traditions. It's that thy do them, still are them.

One the way back we all crash again at the same tiny hotel with the one big room for four hours. Snorting, farting, the men take up the floor. The women and Akim take the beds. We sleep under our coats. It's the noisiest naptime I've ever heard.

White antelope sit looking like swans in a lake of brown. Couldn’t see the tiny sunrise, sadly, for the frost on the windows. The words slide after I write them, a symptom of watching the passing landscape for pearl-colored antelope.


yan said...

Thanks for posting this. But wouldn't that poet-monk be Danzanravjaa - or was there more than one Natsagdorj?

Jed said...

Hi ming

I was just reading about the election in mongolia, and it made me think of you--is your world OK? Or, you're not even in Ulan Bataar right now? Are you still on the trip this post is about? Could you explain to me the political situation there--is there a right side?
But I'm glad to read that you're still traversing.

samraat said...

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