Nothing like watching your taxi driver in the rearview mirror as he dozes off. Just as I’m about to yelp or poke him on the shoulder, his head jerks up and he steers us away from the ditch between the road and the pale green hills of Bogd Khan Uul National Park, Mongolia. I divide my time between keeping my eye on him and on the yurt, horse, cow and goat-scattered hills and shadowed valleys. My original plan was to hike from Manzushir Monastery, on the south side of the park, over the mountains where I’d camp one night, back north to Ulaanbaatar, the City of Chipped Paint and Cracked Concrete. I’ve been getting the ‘here’s-a-foolhardy-woman’ looks for at least twenty years, but the looks I got in Mongolia from the few folks to whom I revealed my plan seemed to have an element of ‘and she shall not be seen again’ to them. Furthermore, there were no trail maps of Bogd Khan Uul, the world’s oldest national park. I revised my plan. I would take a taxi to the monastery early in the morning, and hike across the park in one day. According to what I’d read, the hike would take about ten hours. According to more I read, the trail was easy to find, and was used frequently. I had a topo map of the area, and a compass, and all the info I’d found about the trail.
Rip van Taxi Driver drops me off at the monastery around 7:30am. Other than one shirtless man carrying a bucket across a field to his yurt, there’s not a soul around. The monastery stands on a hillside beneath a rock outcropping, close to a pine-and-larch-filled ravine, above a few yurts still in morning shadow. The taxi driver putters away. I walk up to the monastery, accompanied by ratcheting grasshoppers and a few flies, loud in the otherwise still and silent air. Silence. Wide-open space. Here it is, here I am. What ten months of living in South Korea, population density 1,300 people per square mile, had driven me to find. Only I wish there were someone to point out the trail….
I read my directions, look at my map. I’m not an idiot; this shouldn’t be difficult. I find a trail, and another trail. Both peter out. I start over. Where’s the stream? I see a streambed but no stream. Close enough? This trail isn’t very developed… shouldn’t there be markers or something? There’s horse poop, that’s a good sign, right? I find a stupa, draped in colorful fabrics, on a ridge, and am encouraged. I feel certain I’m not on the correct trail, but, checking the map and my compass frequently, am just as certain I’ll connect with the trail soon. An hour and a half later the trail ends on a ridge top. I look down and see, maybe 500 feet directly below, Manzushir Monastery. I have gone nowhere. Now I’m concerned, and more than a little frustrated. No people have arrived at the monastery to hike the supposedly popular trail, and the time frame for my hike is narrowing significantly. I’m quite literally in the middle of nowhere, which I have to say is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, and not a soul knows where I am, other than the taxi driver, who’s probably unconscious in a ditch somewhere. I accept the fact that I’m not going to be able to hike across the park. But then I amend that plan. I will hike on the road back to Ulaanbaatar. It’s about 20 miles, I’m guessing, back to the main road, where I’ll be able to hop on a bus. I’m happy with this plan. It’s a gorgeous day. I sit on a rock and sketch in my journal, banishing frustration, making myself aware of where I am at this very moment.
Two hours later I’m walking contentedly along the road, having stocked up on water in the one small village between the monastery and Ulaanbaatar. I’d stopped by a group of men talking by the side of the road before I left the village. I said hello in Mongolian (sehn bannoh!) and asked one of them if he spoke English. “No,” he said. “Do you speak Russian?” Nope. I pointed to my map and he confirmed that I was headed in the right direction; there were a few small roads leading out of town and, not having foreseen this scenario, I hadn’t paid much attention to them when coming through this morning. “Bayar shlyaya!” I thanked him as I walked away. “I love you!” he said.
It’s warm out, and I can already feel the tan lines being seared onto my shoulders. I take pictures of hills, valleys, birds, yurts, cows, horses, and goats. A car stops beside me, and a man in full cammo, maybe in his 50s, missing a couple of teeth, rolls down his tinted passenger window. He expresses obvious concern for what he considers my plight, and gestures that I get in the car. I appreciate his concern, but decline, smiling, giving him the thumbs-up and thanking him. He persists with distress. I continue to amiably decline. He continues to implore. I begin to weaken. What dawns on me is that I’ve got a long stretch of pavement ahead of me. Yes, the pavement is surrounded by soul-soothing scenery, but on paper I’m just walking for a long time up the street to a city for which I feel no affection. In the thirty or so seconds I’ve been haggling with the guy, I’ve gotten no bad vibes. And, I have to admit, the double-failure of my hiking plans made me crave a worthy consolation prize, intrigue-wise. I get in the car.
He talks to me excitedly in Mongolian, and twice stops the car in what I come to learn is his habit when he is paying attention to something other than the road. Perhaps my taxi driver could learn from him. He seems eager to communicate something, something which involves his pointing to the west, off the road. I get my map out, and he points to a place in the hills, then touches one of my stubby ponytails, then indicates large breasts, then indicates whoosh! to Ulaanbaatar. Um. His face is so helpful, and it seems so important for him to communicate his plans with me, that I decide he isn’t taking me to some yurt where I’ll be a sex slave for only a short time before whoosh! to Ulaanbaatar. I shrug and am along for the ride. He points to his name, embroidered on a patch on the breast of his shirt. Bat Erlene. I tell him my name, and pull my list of Mongolian phrases out of my bag. He stops the car so he can look at it. He points to ‘where are you from?’ and I tell him USA. I ask him the same thing; he’s from the village we just left. As we bump and jolt over the dirt road, he tries to communicate more, pointing to himself, saying ‘military!’ and then listing many countries, including Afghanistan and Iraq. He pulls some South African money, obviously an important souvenir to him, from his front pocket and shows it to me. A little while later he stops again, to once again tell me something important. This involves the large breast gesture again, as well as one of giving himself a shot in the arm, pretending to sleep, and what sounded like the word ‘hospital.’ I look around us. Green and yellow treeless hills, our single dirt-and-rock road disappearing over one hill and reappearing on the next. Hospital? What can I do? What can I say? I can shrug and smile and say OK, which is what I do. He starts the car up again and we bump along. He takes a bottle of cologne from the console and squirts it into the fabric of the ceiling of the car.
Over another hill and there’s a one-story, U-shaped building, white and green, surrounded by a low fence and a couple of folks squatting in the shade. Bat Erlene drives around the fence and right to the front of the building. A few people come out, only mildly surprised to see me. They smile, and one man shakes my hand. A woman with large breasts, nicely dressed and made-up, is wheeled out in a wheelchair. She is cheerful and friendly, and speaks a couple of words of English. Bat Erlene and the handshaking man load her into the passenger seat. I help him load the wheelchair into the trunk. A woman about my age gets into the back, and a younger woman gestures that I get in the middle, so I do. She gets in beside me, and we’re off. The rest of the trip involves Bat Erlene enthusiastically narrating to the women, who laugh continuously and smile at me often, as I bounce along between them and grin.
An hour later we’re in Ulaanbaatar, supposedly one of the more dangerous cities in the world. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but I have my doubts, now, about the prevalence of danger in the time-worn hills of Mongolia. Naiveté, foolhardiness, trust in humanity, or a combination of all the above—I’m glad for whatever it is that got me into Bat Erlene’s car for a bumpy trip across the world’s oldest national park and a couple of hours shoulder to shoulder with people who showed me kindness—a human inclination as soul-soothing as the land.