Mongolia and how people should be more like dogs

Posted on May 28, 2015

DSC_0572At sunrise, after five non-stop days of being on an overly heated train, we found ourselves in Ullan Bator, the capital of Mongolia. The cold slapped us in the face as we stood half-asleep on the icy platform. People were talking to us, trying to sell us stuff, but I couldn’t really respond, as I couldn’t quite process just how cold it was. It was about -12 degrees, with about another -10 degrees in wind chill.

We arrived at the only decent hotel in the country, looking like a pair of complete hobos. We hadn’t slept for a couple of nights and we were starving, (there are only so many omelets one can eat, trust me). Apparently, there was a veggie restaurant open at that time in the morning so we decided to walk to it. Big mistake. It was so cold that it made us cough uncontrollably. The “restaurant” was hideous and we almost puked when attempting to eat our food. We agreed that there was a serious risk of catching some awful kind of wanky-Westerner-disease, so we decided that hotel therapy was the only solution and that leaving the hotel premises for the next 24 hours would be too high risk.

The next day, having successfully met up with our exquisite friend Johnny, we decided to actually leave the hotel for an hour or so, and the destination of choice was the highly rated “intellectual museum”. The museum consisted of three floors of puzzles, as this is allegedly the intellectual pride and joy of Mongolia. What followed was an extremely surreal experience. A local girl made us wrap our feet in colourful plastic and proceeded to show us each individual puzzle as if it was the world’s greatest masterpiece. Many of the “puzzles” constituted a kid’s toy, where you put a ball or something in a slot and watched it fall to the bottom. She would demand that we all stand in the right place in front of her, dramatically insert the ball, watch it with glory as it fell to the bottom, and then grandly announce the revelation: “GRAVITY!” She showed us the lego-esk space-ship puzzle, and proclaimed that no one had ever been able to complete it with its 6400 moves. We asked whether anyone had ever tried, given it was on display completed. “No” she said, without the slightest irony. Johnny asked if he could try one of the rubix cube puzzles. She spun round, looked at him sharply, and said “NO, THE RUBIX CUBE IS NOT A PUZZLE.” (…?)

She glided through the museum lifting her hand spectacularly to bring our attention to the walls, which were covered in certificates, explaining that these were certificates for participating in puzzle competitions. Out of nowhere, a Lord of the Rings midget appeared and joined our group. She made mysterious noises and wobbled enthusiastically at the sight of each puzzle. It all got a bit too much when we escaped the museum only to be confronted by a girl running directly into a bench that we were standing next to, (even though the pavement wasn’t particularly narrow).

The next day we decided to dip our toes in a traditional “shaman” experience as it constitutes an important part of Mongolian culture. We arrived at a humble Mongolian yurt with a bottle of vodka and a carton of milk, (apparently you need to give this as a gift to the spirits before they can talk to you). The shaman’s costume was captivating. His face covered with black threads, and his hat included no less than some eerie stuck-on eyes, extravagant feathers and genuine eagle claws hanging from his ears. He drummed and made loud noises, smoked and got totally trashed on vodka while he conjured up the spirits. He jumped out of his seat when the spirit entered his body. The spirit was a very old man that only spoke an ancient Mongolian dialogue, (so we needed two translators, one to translate the ancient language into Mongolian and one to translate Mongolian to English). He tells me, amongst other things, that I need to grow a tree before I can have babies, Jared that he is a non-believer but that he will live until he is 86, and Johnny that he needs to repair his relationships with his father. He also said some things that we knew to be quite wrong, like he was convinced that Jared had had a relationship with a horse at some point in his life, and ended up asking whether he had ever owned even a tiny souvenir or picture of a horse, to which the answer was, errrr no. Both Johnny and Jared thought the whole thing was a fraud – I wasn’t so sure.

Next, we were off dog sledding across a frozen lake for six days. It took 17 hours to drive from Ullan Bator to Lake Kuvsgul, passing through a town that was actually called Moron. The beautiful baron Mongolia landscape slid past as we sat in anticipation. We were flying along the only road that exists in this part of remote Mongolia; plains upon plains of untouched landscapes scattered with wild animals, framed with dramatic mountain ranges in the distance.

When we arrived at the first campsite and I went to brush my teeth outside, I could hear the dogs howling, even though they were staying about 5 kms away. All 40 odd of them. I stopped in my tracks. So that is what 40 husky dogs howling sounds like. I tried to capture that moment in my mind. I looked up and realised that I had never seen so many stars.

I’d already spent a lot of time thinking about these dogs and what they might be like. So I was a bit nervous when we were taken to meet the crew and the dogs the next day, especially as I heard that husky dogs do not generally accept instructions from women. We pulled into the driveway of a wooden hut with more than 40 husky dogs hanging out in the snowy garden. They are impossibly beautiful. Some of the husky dogs were just how I visualised them; huge, strong dogs, with thick black shiny coats and ice blue eyes. Some of them completely white. Some of them with one blue eye and one brown eye. All were somehow majestic. And in numbers that large, the beauty of all these magnificent creatures interacting with one another was nothing but mesmorising. I couldn’t take my eyes off of them.

A few hours later, we find ourselves just nonchalantly standing on a lake, which is 160 kms long and completely frozen all over. The “musher” (the guy who owns and controls the pack of dogs), is hooking the dogs to the sleds. They all start howling, jumping up and down, and running around in circles, like little children screaming, “pick me, pick me!”. The noise is deafening.

I asked the musher what would happen if the ice cracked and we fell in, now, or at any time over the next six days. He said that the water was so cold that your body won’t be able to do anything at all. Right… but at least it would be a rather poetic way to die… remarks Jared.

The dogs are almost ready and I suddenly snap out of my trance. Oh noooo, I realise that I desperately need a wee. So I walk all the way to the edge of the lake where there are trees only to hear them calling after me. We have to go NOW, because the dogs say so. The dogs are all growling at each other, some properly fighting. I run back like a fat snowman (I have about 15 layers on) only to realise that I left my gloves there. What an idiot. I ran back to retrieve them, totally embarrassed, in front of the crew and 42 screaming dogs. Time ran in slow-mo in my head as I moved like a clumsy astronaut and jumped on the back of my sled. The sleds were released, all six sleds at the same time. My heart was pounding so loud I could practically hear it. Adrenaline was pumping through my veins as I experienced how unbelievably powerful a pack of forty husky dogs that have spent the last hour working themselves into a frenzy are. Through the powder snow we sailed…

These dogs love to run. It is what they do – all they do – they were born and bred to it. As soon as they are running, they find their rhythm and they are calm. It is a state of instinctive fulfillment and they are in their “flow”. Hours and hours pass and they don’t get jaded, they don’t moan, they don’t get sloppy in their work. I have never seen creatures want something so bad. They work and work and work, until they get to the stated destination. The phrase “I worked like a dog” kept going round and round in my head. They work because they love working, without knowing how, or why, or from where. It is quite simply beautiful.

When we stop on the sleds, for a cup of tea, or to cook the fish from the lake on a fire, the doggies howl and howl like they are having an existential crisis. It’s like they don’t know who they are when they are not running. It is pretty motivational stuff. If you ever feel jaded, or lazy, like you can’t be bothered to live your life to its fullest anymore, I recommend going husky dog sledding. They can prove to you that living the good life is about companionship, hard work, focus and unfettered determination.

The female dogs are the smart ones and the male dogs are the strong ones. So the females are at the front of the pack, leading, and the males are at the back, powering. The fact that the females were on heat may have had something to do with why the male dogs ran as if their life depended on it! They all have individual names, like “Osama”, the aggressive male dog that is just a bit preachy.

The musher knows the dogs like he know his wife, or better perhaps. He knows each personality, what type of food they like, their strengths and weaknesses, their hierarchy within the pack. He knows who has the most stamina, who is the fastest, the smartest, strongest, and weakest. He pairs them up with the same partner for a while so they get quite close, then he moves them to work with someone else so they don’t form unhealthy attachments. He wants them all to be close, but not too close that they won’t run unless they are running with their partners. He wants them to learn from each other, so that they all become the best husky dogs they can possibly be, as a pack, but also independently. This is pack mentality at its purest.

Apparently, when husky dogs get old, they just fall over and die. They don’t get slow, or ill, or “old”; they just push themselves to their absolute maximum and then just die when they can’t experience life as they know it.

The landscape was impossibly beautiful and totally surreal. Sometimes I would wonder whether the whole thing was even real. There were horizontal snow storms (where I was sure I had hypothermia at one point), and ice sculptures and snow capped mountain ranges. We slept in traditional Mongolian yurts or tents every night, completely isolated from humanity, where the lovely female Mongolian helper would cook for us over a fire. Sleep was disturbed by either being boiling hot (because of the roaring fire), or being freezing cold (because the fire had died down). Johnny entertained us with his ability to compose brilliant poems on the spot on any subject matter at all, and we attempted but failed to interact with the fourth client on the trip, an odd-ball Swiss guy who kept talking to himself and laughing too loudly at mundane crap that wasn’t remotely funny. I’m sure that we shocked everyone else as we spent hours talking about topics such as sexuality, altruism, drugs and veganism, and asked each other intimate questions about our feelings and our childhoods. Jared and Johnny told ghost stories late at night and I/we become totally paranoid about being attacked by the dogs/bears/wolves, (or a combination of them), or more likely, being axed in our sleep by one of the Mongolian helpers that we shared a tent with and who we were convinced was evil, (we called him “Hunger Games”).

I write this as I sit on the train again, this time leaving Mongolia and entering Beijing for our last night before we fly home. We somehow ended up on this 36-hour train journey with no cash, so we are a management consultant, a hedge fund manager and a lawyer, all of whom are too broke to buy an omelet. The good news is that we had the foresight to buy a bottle of vodka…

Overall, an “amazzzing” experience with two exquisite people.

And two final and random thoughts: 1. people should be more like dogs, 2. the continuous perception of bordering at the edge of death, (due to the obsessive imagination of drowning in a freezing lake), really makes you want to live and, somewhat contrarily, is also strangely comforting at the same time.

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