First get a bed sheet; green if you have it but don’t worry if you don’t. Now get ten to twelve shoes of various sizes and arrange them randomly on the floor. Shake out the bed sheet and let it fall, resting over the shoes. Kneel down and lower your head as close to the floor as possible, looking out over the lumpy bedsheet. See that? Welcome to Mongolia.
Marty and I had booked a one night tour of Gorkhi-Terelj national park the day before, then promptly went out that night. Something about having finally shaken off the grim reserve of China made restraint next to impossible. So, it was through the filter of squinting eyes and a hangover that I watched two Germans with bulging backpacks descend the stairs, load them into the boot nearly filling it up. "Shotgun!" one of them said.
Ulaanbaatar is the smallest capital of any country I’ve ever visited. Standing in the busiest street of the CBD you can see the naked hillsides nearby through gaps between the low-rises.
The centre is laidback and cosmopolitan but here, bouncing through its outskirts, stuffed in the car with Marty’s elbow displacing my liver, the dwellings began to look impermanent. The further out we travelled the more frequently gers appeared. A ger for those who don’t know is like a yurt -- think the big top, only with a wooden frame, scaled down to house a single family and you’ll be close.
Ulaanbaatar was founded as a mobile Buddhist monastery in 1639 before its location became fixed over a hundred years later in 1778. It’s no wonder then that most of the city looks like it can literally head for the hills at a moment’s notice.
Sebastian and Helge, or "The Germans" turned out to be great fun, though they didn’t make things easy for themselves. They had arrived that morning on the train from Irkutsk and had told us they travelled from Moscow to Irkutsk (a journey of some four days) with only a bowl of noodles and a loaf of bread. "It was a like a prison" said the toothy Sebastian as part of an extended commentary about their travels so far. "All we had was the boiling water from the samovar for 4 days. I’m so dehydrated man." I could hear the sticky smacking of his mouth as he spoke. He was a scout leader but prepared he was not.
Eventually civilization relented and another hour later we came to a stop at the crest of a hill. Getting out and looking around invoked a feeling of tremendous expanse, like when you see a night sky full of stars. It was one of those moments where, just for a fraction of a second, your identity retreats and it’s impossible to differentiate between yourself and everything else. For that moment you are, by definition, universal.
Speaking to Gaats, Marty’s Mongolian mate, the night before, we’d been told about the proper etiquette with which to conduct ourselves when interacting with the family who we were to be staying with. "There is the head of the family. You give him a cigarette like this," he flipped open the lid and drew out a single cigarette.
"The wife might like some chocolates, the children too, and the husband would like a horse or a wrestling magazine."
"A horse magazine?"
"Yes, a horse magazine."
Further to this Sebastian had told us it was bad luck to touch the door frame and bad manners to walk inside with your shoes on. Combined, these two last things made getting inside this ger a hopping affair. Inside was cosy, the wooden frame vividly decorated with intricate geometric patterns. Beds were arranged along the walls and in the centre sat an iron stove, its pipe extending up through a small hole in the roof. Throughout the night, inside was very warm even without the stove on. A ger has since featured in this author’s retirement plan, perhaps up a tree and near the beach somewhere on the south-east coast of Australia.