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The Open Spaces of Mongolia

The next morning we watched the wrestling, which took place closer to town. Silk tents were pitched in a great circle on a greensward. Cavalry kept the crowd more or less in order, though periodically spectators rushed forward and threatening words were exchanged. The judges sat under a blue canopy adorned with white sacred symbols. Music played loudly; people jostled one another for good views or shady spots. One by one, the wrestlers came out in long leather del, paraded past the cheering crowd, then removed their coats to reveal hand-embroidered wrestler's garb. Each solemnly performed an eagle dance around a judge, then slapped the front and back of his thighs (thwack! thwack! and thwack! thwack!). Next, partners began sparring according to ancient rules, striving not to touch the ground except with their feet and the open palms of their hands, while forcing their opponents, with a hair-raising mix of weight and precision, down to the ground.

Nearby, the archers were competing, firing slender arrows over a long meadow. The men shot from a back line; the women, in white silk, stood a few feet closer to the targets. On another field was a pick-up game of polo. There were small stands selling cakes, carpets, or radios. The hillside that formed the backdrop for the events was a wash of color: the revelers had pitched a small village there. The smell of meat cooking on open fires mixed with the scents of curdled airag and the wild thyme that the wrestlers were trampling; the whole place took on an aroma unlike any I had known. Once more, the Mongolians were overwhelmingly friendly; I could have lived for five years on the hospitality they offered. I took a picture of one man who looked particularly noble in his saddle, and he swept me up onto his horse with him. From that lofty height I watched the sport as his friends asked me questions and gave me cow's-milk liquor.

We left the Naadam, and as we traveled deeper into Ovorhangai province (Kharkhorin is on its northern edge), the paved roads stopped. Mongolia is a magical place, but travel there has its drawbacks. Imagine the worst dirt road you've driven. Now envision the worst stretch of that road; now that worst stretch in the rain; now that worst stretch in the rain immediately after an earthquake. You see in your mind's eye one of the better roads in Mongolia.

We drove through muddy fields where it was impossible to see the road, and we forded rivers when our driver thought the bridges looked unstable. It was rough going, and more than once we had to get out to push our car--or to assist others whose cars had given up along the road.

But despite the wild jolting, the magnificence of that drive will stay with me forever. The great hills were nearly mountains. There were, however, no trees; and grazing animals had cropped the lush grass so low that it was as smooth as a golf course. We were on top of the world, so far as we could tell, and it was every bit as good a feeling as the cliché would have you believe. A brook flowed through the bottom of a valley, and yellow flowers bloomed all around. Slender columns of smoke came from the chimneys of ger here and there. Herds feasted on the vegetation: yaks and cows and sheep and goats and even the occasional stray camel from the Gobi, and astonishing numbers of horses running free. There were no predators and no hiding places; the feeling was of sublime peace.

Every so often a herdsman would come into view, smoking a pipe, watching his flock; children played and laughed by the water's edge. Women emerging from their ger surveyed the scene with satisfaction as they arranged trays of cheese on their roofs to dry. Eagles circled overhead in lazy patterns, while smaller birds flew lower. Marmots darted from their holes and scampered in and out of sight. Here were stretches of earth that had been neither exploited nor deliberately preserved, that were almost as innocent as our planet in its prime. I have never encountered a terrain that was at once so magnificent and so unthreatening; there was no evidence of the monstrous force of nature here, only the golden, the light, the perfect.

Many visitors to Mongolia cross parts of the country on mountain bikes. Others ride on horses, as I was to do later in my trip. It is not easy terrain, but you want to be close to the land.

Of all the animals of Mongolia, I loved the yaks most. Large and inept, with vain faces and a gratuitous leg-obscuring fringe similar to what you'd find on a Victorian sofa, they moved with the disgruntled self-assurance of old ladies elaborately done up in tattered versions of a bygone era's fashions. A few spry creatures waved their absurd fluffy tails in the air like parasols, or darted daringly across the road, mad great-aunts with spring fever. Most of them eyed us dubiously, offering no physical threat but preserving an air of mild disapproval. They liked being photographed; they would gaze straight into the camera and blink, flirtatiously.

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