In a High Place

Sounds of chewing and sipping jostled with the smell of dirt, meat and alcohol in the stationary car. “You like Mongol girls?” the grinning, weathered man asked from the front-seat. “Erm. Tza, Tza [sure, yeah],” I replied. The other two men chuckled, one topping up everyone else’s cup. After thumbing through my pocket English-Mongol dictionary and much mutually baffling gesturing, the man said he’d like to introduce me to girls from this town, Tsetserleg.

Feeling awkward, I stuttered and took in a mouthful of vodka and vacuum-sealed sausage before shaking my head determinedly, as a stupid, apologetic smile fumbled across my face. The car exploded in laughter, gold teeth and cigarette smoke; three hands repeatedly clapped my shoulders, glad to be humored.

It was early April and still in the death-throes of winter, when temperatures would swing wildly between different degrees below zero. The Mongolian landscape during this time is majestic; a sparse, blue-brown horizon glittering with ice and sporadically dotted by sheep, yak, horse and herder; a place where there are 250 cloudless days a year, facilitating a pervasive timeless quality.

We were in Tsetserleg (pop. 17,000), the provincial capital of Arkhangai in central Mongolia. It was the main stopping point on a westward trek between Ulaan Baatar and Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur (the Great White Lake), that would cumulatively involve around 35 hours of travel on jeep, lorry, horse and car.

The man in the front seat was the lorry driver. After much haggling, he was giving me a paid lift to the lake – en route from his usual supply run between the capital and settlements in the region – but we hadn’t yet budged. The lorry’s axle had cracked under its weight, and we were sitting in his friend’s car.

After only four hours of makeshift repair, a bottle and a half of exceptional local vodka and numerous dubious-looking sausages, my duffel bag was launched atop the lorry’s load, strapped under a tarpaulin, and the vehicle’s Brezhnev-era engine hand-cranked to life.

As befitting an overloaded truck, the dry dirt road made for problematic terrain, and we broke down half a dozen times in eight hours. Not the sort to be unprepared, the driver had an assortment of rusty, non-reducible spare parts in two large nylon sacks that could be forcibly incorporated into the truck’s system with mallet, wrench and screwdriver.

It bore testament to the simple longevity of Soviet manufacturing and the mechanical know-how of its consumers that no matter how fatal the vehicle’s injuries seemed, the merchant driver managed to coax it back on the road every time.

We eventually arrived sometime past midnight in Tariat, the village nearest the lake, which was by now in utter darkness. Being a long way from hotel bookings, the driver kindly took us to his brother’s ger – the nomadic tent-like dwelling ubiquitous in Mongolia – where, upon rousing the entire family, I was confronted with utmost hospitality.

Fatty foods and alcohol are prized commodities in a country that experiences bitter cold for eight months of the year, a fact made telling as they offered tea (the local variety, mostly milk, fat and salt), tsuiven (a lardy but tasty fried noodle and mutton dish), chocolate and, of course, more vodka.

Batbold, our host, soon settled down to some chess with the driver. Mrs. Batbold cooked at the wood-fired stove, which stood in the center of the ger and did double duty as a heater; the iron chimney rising through the thick felt ceiling to stare at the star-studded night sky. The 11-year-old daughter did some schoolwork, his 14-year-old son – whose English was excellent – acted as translator for all while collecting firewood from outside. It was a scene from a storybook, without time or place.

Nearing the lake the following day, my horse was tired and somewhat unruly. The metal bit jangling its teeth could be felt through the reins as the animal shook its head, and the leather saddle felt like wood against my posterior. Batbold’s son, now my guide, was mounted on a traditional wooden saddle. It must have hurt.

Navigating through several kilometers of reddish-black volcanic debris, we passed the crater of the extinct Khorgo volcano, and began picking up pace as the knobby ground smoothed out, making lighter work on our horses’ hooves. Near the top of a tall, steep ridge, the visual field changed as the lake gradually appeared beneath us, stretching the horizon above the uppermost edge of the rock face until at the top, we were looked out on Terkhiin Tsagaan Lake.

It was a shimmering spectacle of desolate beauty, an expanse of frozen fresh water that in its own blue-white glare appeared devoid of human life – bar one herder’s lonely ger. The view induced a tingling lightheadedness and a tightening of the chest; there was cause for celebration. Yet in the moment when the act of toasting would have been at its conceptual zenith, it was a pleasant thought that then, for once, there wasn’t a drop to drink.