At sunrise, after five non-stop days of being on an overly heated train, I found myself in Ullan Bator, the capital of Mongolia. The cold slapped me in the face as I stood half-asleep on the icy platform. People were talking to me, trying to sell me 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.
I arrived at the only decent hotel in the country, looking frankly terrible. I hadn’t slept for a couple of nights and I was starving, (there are only so many omelets one can eat on a Russian train, trust me). Apparently, there was a veggie restaurant open at that time in the morning so I decided to walk to it. Big mistake. It was so cold that it made me cough uncontrollably. The “restaurant” was hideous and so I decided that leaving the hotel premises for the next 24 hours was prohibited.
The next day, having successfully met up with an 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, narrowed her eyes as she 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 (you need to give this as a gift to the spirits before they can communicate with you). The shaman’s costume was captivating. His face covered with black threads, and his hat included some eerie eyes, extravagant feathers and genuine eagle claws hanging from his ears. He drummed and made loud noises, smoked and drank 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.
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 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 42 of them. I stopped in my tracks. So that is what 42 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 an awful lot of time anticipating what these dogs might be like. So I was nervous when we were taken to meet the crew and the dogs the next day, especially as someone told me that husky dogs do not generally accept instructions from women (I was the only woman). We pulled into the driveway of a wooden hut with 42 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 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 found 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) started 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 was 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 my body wouldn’t be able to do anything at all. Right… but at least it would be a rather poetic way to die…
The dogs are almost ready and I suddenly snapped out of my trance. Oh no, I realise that I desperately need the toilet. 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 had about 15 layers on) only to realise that I left my gloves by the trees. Filled with shame, I ran back to retrieve them, knowing that the 42 screaming dogs were judging me. Time ran in slow-mo as I moved like a clumsy astronaut and jumped on the back of my sled (on my own)! 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 42 husky dogs are, especially after spending the last hour working themselves into a frenzy. Through the powder snow we sailed…
It fascinated me to experience how much these dogs love to run. It is what they do – all they do – they were born and bred to it. As soon as they were running, they found their rhythm and they are calm. It was a state of instinctive fulfilment as they were 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 and need 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 stopped on the sleds, for a cup of tea, or to cook the fish from the lake on a fire, the doggies howled and howled like they were having an existential crisis. It was as if they didn’t know who they were when they were not running. 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 show you that living the good life is about companionship, hard work, focus and unfettered determination.
The female dogs were the smart ones and the male dogs were the strong ones. So the females were always at the front of the pack, leading the way, and the males were at the back, powering the way. The male dogs ran as if their life depended on it, desperately hoping that they may eventually catch up with the female dog at the front! They all had wonderful individual names. My favourite name was “Osama” (the aggressive male dog that was quite preachy).
The musher knew the dogs like he knew his wife, or better perhaps. He knew each subtly different personality, what type of food they like, their strengths and weaknesses, and their precise hierarchy within the pack. He knew who had the most stamina, who was the fastest, the smartest, strongest etc. He paired them up with the same partner for a while to deepen bonds, but then he would move them to work with someone else so they didn’t form unhealthy attachments. He wanted them all to be close, but not too close in case they decided not to run unless they are running with their preferred partners. He wanted them to learn from each other, so that they all became the best husky dogs they could possibly be, as a pack, but also independently.
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 (one gave me hypothermia) and ice sculptures and snow capped mountain ranges. We slept in traditional Mongolian yurts every night, completely isolated from humanity, where we would cook 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). My friend Johnny entertained us with his ability to compose brilliant poems on the spot on any subject matter, and we attempted but failed to interact with the other client on the trip, an odd-ball Swiss guy who kept talking to himself and laughing too loudly at the wrong time.
Two final thoughts: 1. people should be more like dogs; and 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.
I write this as I sit on the train again, this time leaving Mongolia and entering Beijing. We somehow ended up on this 36-hour train journey with no cash (and they don’t take cards). So we are too broke to buy an omelet. The good news is that we had the foresight to pack a bottle of vodka…