The Isolated Steppe: On Cultural and Linguistic Barriers and Our Return from the Countryside

Posted on June 7, 2012


This is a long one. Apologies all. Much history, though, and it contains some of my last big-thought observations on the nation (and the story of how we nearly slept on the ground on the steppe for a night, sans camping gear). Internet’s too slow for pictures, but check them out on the public Facebook album.

Sitting here comfortably at a little table in a Soviet apartment block’s communal kitchen, with a view of the busy but unspectacular Peave Avenue (the main drag of Ulaanbaatar), I realize that I have not written anything of our somewhat eventful travels since we returned to Tsetserleg from our first jaunt over the steppe. Perhaps the best way to say all of this–to string together such a jumble–will be to relay in a roughly chronological order just how we did manage to get back to Ulaanbaatar.

Getting to Tsetserleg, you see, was easy even if it was uncomfortable. The last 200 km through Arkhangai were on rough roads in a snow storm, crammed up against the cracked windowpane of a microbus jammed 50 percent over capacity, pausing for the feral pigs who wander through towns and the immense herds of sheep and goats that clog the dusty, rutted dirt roads. But in order to catch that ride, we had M.T., our initial host, a bubbly woman who helped us to negotiate our stop with the driver. All we had to do was look out the window at every stop and meekly repeat Tsetserleg Khot? (there are a dozen Tsetserlegs in Mongolia, but khot signaled that we meant that Tsetserleg which was also the capital of its aimig, province) until the driver nodded and let us out into the frigid night (which would turn to boiling day to hailing storm to cloudy evening to snowy night to boiling day).

Jumping from Tsetserleg to Kharkhorin, a town a bit smaller than Tsetserleg and 200 km down the road at the border with the Ovorkhangai aimig, proved a bit more difficult. Kharkhorin is not a set stop on any of the regular hauls so we needed to indicate to a driver that we wanted to be let off on the side of the road in this nowhere town. Fortunately, a girl named Khos helped us negotiate that leg after a butchered attempt at gestural communication went awry.
Kharkhorin, just meters from the buried ruins of the ancient Imperial Mongol capital of Karakorum, established by the third son of Ghengis Khan (the wasteful drunkard Ogedei), actually holds a kernel of the story of why it is currently so hard to communicate in this nation. Allow me this historio-linguistic digression:

The first “capital” of the Mongol empire was actually in the far east of the nation, at a town called Avarga near the Onon Gol where Temujin (Ghengis Khan’s given name) was born. Funny story in and of itself–the Onan Gol (river) fed a forest region just above the steppe and more related to the taiga, meaning that both Temujin and the Mongols traced their origins to the taiga and back to Siberia’s Lake Baikal rather than to the steppe. Temujin got his start as a forest forager, not a herder. Returning to the original digression from that sub-digression:

Avarga itself was hardly a capital and more a storehouse for the spoils of war to be divvied out to families and warriors as needed. Temujin preferred to rule from horseback as he recognized it gave him the advantage in governing and fighting over a vast empire. Ogedei, though, was taken with the imperial majesty of Sung China and Khwarazem Turkestan and Persia, and so wished to construct a massive imperial temple in the Mongol homelands. But even from the grave, Ghengis Khan would have none of that near the Onon Gol.

Ghengis Khan turned the region around his home into a restricted area, guarded and closed off to all who were not members of his Golden Family or the other families who traditionally used it for a breeding ground. He was himself buried in this forbidden zone, and as was custom allowed none to reveal the location of his grave and had the earth around his burial trampled by riders so none would be able to identify him. He and his close progeny recorded his life in excruciating detail in a document that many believed to be mythic for hundreds of years, although it was discovered and deciphered in the modern era: The Secret History of the Mongols, which was restricted to elite Mongol audiences. And as he conquered the globe, though he exacted tribute and imposed laws upon his subjects, he never engaged in an imperial project to create a unified Mongol identity, allowing cultural law and practice and identity to thrive within what was really a unified free trade zone with primary economic benefits flowing to the steppe tribes (the people who now call themselves the Mongols coalesced out of the Mongol, Merkid, Khitan, Jurched, Tartar, and other Siberian and steppe tribes). In fact, he encouraged Mongols to live outside of the cities they conquered, in pasture lands and ger camps, and forbade outsiders from learning the Mongol language.

Ogedei was forced to build at Karakorum because he could not build to the east in the Mongol homelands. And even then, Karakorum, built in a fusion style of Christian, Muslim, and Sino-Tibetan architecture, served mainly as a holding house for human possessions: Chinese doctors, Persian clerics, European metal and glass workers, and spiritualists from all corners of the empire. Ogedei (and later Mongke and Kublai) had their palaces in the city, but most of the Mongols lived outside the walls and the subjects in the city were discouraged from learning Mongol.

Even when Kublai moved the seat of the empire into what is now Beijing and adopted Chinese customs, language, and titles, he built the original Forbidden City to be a walled enclosure in which was pasture land and ger camps. The Forbidden City, guarded solely by Mongols and open only to the Mongol court, allowed the Mongol rulers to retain a separate Mongol identity that they barred their subjects from participating in. This rankled the Chinese, especially after the death of Kublai. But that last bit is getting a bit off topic. What we can gather from the history is this: Mongol identity was established as non-expansionist, exclusive. The Mongol language has traditionally been a restricted language. Even Mongolia itself, if open to trade and political contact, has remained throughout history and in the policy of the collective cultural elite a simultaneously closed and isolationist nation.

Mongol is a difficult language to learn and Mongol culture is almost impossible to penetrate. As promised, before I touch on our experiences with this culture, what I have observed of the language: Although it is related distantly to Turkic languages, it has been so long isolated and protected that it sounds different from almost anything in the world. The language involves much slurring, shortening or alteration of vowels depending on the addition or subtraction of stems, themselves altered by contact with a root word. Consonants at times disappear completely depending on the grammatical and situational context of the language. Vowels formed at the front of the mouth cannot be mixed with vowels formed at the back of the mouth. And the sentence structure varies greatly, itself impacting the pronunciation and stress of words and vowels within words, depending on situational context.

In short, due to its isolation, variation compared to other regional languages, and the cultural closing of the language and its human context for hundreds of years, Mongolia has one of the most ridiculously insurmountable cultural and linguistic barriers I have ever encountered.

I will comment as to why I added cultural to linguistic barriers in a moment. For now, back to the story of our return journey:

We were dumped from our bus onto a dirt road in a town without any clear sign indicating its name. We believe-hoped this to be Kharkhorin, and attempted to use the sun and the roads around us to pinpoint our spot on the map. Unfortunately, the sun transits at such an angle this far north and it was near its zenith in the sky when we arrived so we wound up confusing our cardinal direction by the angle, and it took us half an hour to situate ourselves, find a landmark, and establish that, yes, we were indeed in Kharkhorin.

After trekking out of town a ways to explore Erdene Zuu Khiid, once the largest monastery in Mongolia (established in the early sixteenth century by Tibetan lamas) and one of the few to at least partially escape Stalinist purges in the 1930s, and the blasted earth where once Karakorum stood and the first large-scale interfaith dialogue was sponsored by Mongke Khan in the fourteenth century, we returned to the dusty dry ghost town of modern Kharkhorin. We wandered into a cafe known to be under the management of a Mongol woman named Tuula, who spoke both French and English, but found no one there speaking anything but Mongol. Still, through gestures and pathetic looks, we aped out way into spending a night in the empty gers Tuula keeps behind her cafe.

In the other gers we found a motley collection of European backpackers: Fabian, a French graphic artist who had been hiding in Tuula’s gers for almost two months; Emma, a wandering Englishwoman on an unknown trek; Fiona, a Frenchwoman in the nation for a month; Matilde, another Frenchwoman who had been gone for four months on a trek through Morocco, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and was later that week taking her tent out to the Orkhan Valley beyond Kharkhorin’s hills to be alone and read; and a young German girl whose name I cannot recall who had come by train through Nepal, Tibet, Mainland China, Inner Mongolia, and into independent Mongolia, and was bound for Moscow after that.

We cleaved to the Europeans, sharing stories and cooking potatoes and onions on Fabian’s wood stove late into the night. We did not realize how exhausted and isolated we had been on the steppe, how starved we were for human connection and conversation beyond our duo. People on the steppe gladly welcome you in, but as Mike notes you are a footnote to their lives. They will engage with you from time to time and feed you, but they do not reciprocate an interest in your life that you may have for theirs. They have taken what they wish to take of the outside world, but feel no compulsion to engage or welcome outsiders into their own. As such, you might spend a month on the steppe in the company of others, but unless you spend it with a globally inclined Mongolian (of which there are few), you may go stir crazy nonetheless if you are not used to long stretches of isolation. Even Gaaj was contented to pass most of the days in silence, checking back every hour or so mainly to make sure we had not fallen from our horses.

We left the Europeans later that day. By that time, I was comfortable enough with Mongol sentence ordering that I could plug slightly complex ideas into sentences and was able to write down our next destination on a scrap of paper to show to a microbus driver: we wanted to go to Khustain Nuuru, the nature reserve known to be home to the last few hundred wild horses in the world. But we knew that Khustain was off the road. If they could stop on the main road and point us in the right direction, we would walk. The driver looked, nodded, wrote a number indicating his fee in Togrogs, and we set off. Five hours later, he dropped us at the side of the road, pointed south through a maze of small dirt jeep and horse trails, and gave Mike a cigarette (as if he were preparing him for the firing squad), then resumed his journey east.

We had a finger’s width of sun left in the day, about two hours, and we knew that there was a ger camp at the entrance to the Nuuru, about 13 kilometers down the steppe we had been told. We knew the Nuuru had a research center and that it needed electricity. So we shouldered our packs and stuck to the trails hugging closest to the lone power line that ran deep into the steppe, beyond our line of vision.

13 kilometers was a lie. After 20 kilometers of trudging up ridge lines, always hoping to see something over the horizon, but finding nothing save the power lines stretching on and on, we began to give up hope. The sun sank below the ridge and the power lines sharply departed from the last remaining trail. We caught the outline of dogs barking and circling on a hilltop in the moonlight. Right before we gave up hope, we noticed a ger on the ridgeline.

Bedraggled, we climbed the hill, hoping to stay the night with the nomads sure to be nearby. The old man atop the hill looked at us with no concern.

“Khustain?” he asked? We nodded. He pointed south. We continued to look pathetic. “Kilometers?” I asked. Two or five, the father and his young son could not agree. They gave no indication that they would let us stay, so we continued to walk south, with no trail and no power lines in sight anymore. Then we saw headlights.

The headlights faded, but they led us to a road, and up that road a few kilometers to a ger camp full of Japanese businessmen and Dutch and German tourists, powered mainly by a bevy of solar panels in lieu of roofs on the few cottages in which the Mongol workers lived. We slept soundly in our little ger for the night.

The next day we hiked half the depth of the Nuuru, perhaps another 20 km, in search of horses. Cresting a hill, we found two old Mongol men crouched on its ridgeline staring through one of the little spy glasses that nomads seem to treasure here. They beckoned to us and one said “Takhi.” The other, in rough and minimal English, handed me the spy glass, pointed to a ravine below a small birch forest on the next mountain, and said, “wild horse.” Through the spyglass, we caught a small herd of wild horses and a few reindeer wandering the next mountain–too far for a picture, unfortunately–then took our leave. We did not say thank you as by now we had learned that Mongols do not say thank you for basic acts of kindness and hospitality. They find it strange and off-putting.

The next day we had to find our way back out of the park. We found the same two men at the entrance to the Nuuru and Mike, attempting to use our previous interaction and the one man’s limited English to our advantage, approached them. They seemed not to care a whit that we had met previously.

Mike asked, “Ulaanbaatar?” He motioned a steering wheel. “Yes,” said the man. “You go?” “Yes.” “Today?” “Yes.” “You take us?” “Yes.” Pointing to his watch, “When?” “… Yes.”

We gave up and wandered away, only to find a jolly Mongol man in an Old Miss shirt and a safari hat. Named Bold, he ran a tourist operation out of Ulaanbaatar and was taking an elderly Californian couple to Kharkhorin that day. He allowed us to hitch in the back of his red pickup out to the main road, then left us at a service station to hitch a ride back to Ulaanbaatar.
We went into a bumblefuck cafe when suddenly a young Mongolian waitress walked up, looked at us, and asked, “Sprechen sie Deutsch?” Do either of you speak German?

“Ja, ein bisschen,” I responded in semi-shock. Yes, a little.

We ordered a cup of tea while I let her know that we were looking for a ride to Ulaanbaatar. She found us a seat in the back of a land rover headed into town, and from there we used our knowledge of the bus system to reach the center of the city, where we are currently staying until our jump by air to Astana, Kazakhstan tomorrow.

(Sidebar: We have a view that faces roughly towards Sukhbaatar Square. Last night, we heard a bang, which we soon realized were fireworks. But our initial fear was that the Communist Party Headquarters down the street was being firebombed again, as it had been in the last election season four years ago. Hey, it was chronologically plausible.)

Mongolia is a hard place to penetrate as a foreigner. This is not a bad thing. In fact, I appreciate it very much. I have endless respect for nations that guard their autonomy not out of reactionary fear or repressive authoritarianism, but simply because they see no need to be roped into a globalizing world, save to take what they wish and retain what they like in the measure they determine appropriate. It can be a wonderful thing to walk down the street and be ignored, not maliciously as if you were a toxic social containment, but because those around you are content to acknowledge your difference, but do not fetishize it or believe that it holds more of interest than the negotiated, unique, and mediated reality they have carved for themselves in the modern world.

This is what I mean when I give this takeaway impression of Mongolia: This nation could not give two fucks about you. This nation could not give two fucks about what you think of it. You do your thing and the Mongolians will do theirs.

Yes, there are globalized and Westenrized Mongolians. But they are in the minority. The cultural barrier remains high, as does the linguistic barrier. It’s a great thing to experience. But it would make living here hard. So long as one remained foreign, one would be isolated. Perhaps this is why M.M., our expat nuclear engineer friend, tells us that most expats do not last more than two years here and stick together more than is usual. It is hard for non-Mongols to live in Mongolia without being to some degree alone and outside.

I’ve enjoyed my time here. I like this nation. But I would not move here, personally. I will post once more with some scraps and observations from the nation, but this seems to have become my goodbye post to the nation.

So long, Mongolia, and thanks for all the yak butter.

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