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The Open Spaces of Mongolia

Almost none of the land in Mongolia belongs to anyone; it never has. You can drive over any part you want; you can pitch a tent wherever you like. A herder in the Gobi Desert said to me, "When I move my ger, I feel the exhilaration of possibilities and freedom. I can go anywhere, put my house anywhere, take my flock anywhere, except maybe some few little places where they built a city." He stopped for a moment to pour me tea with camel's milk. "Tell me," he said, "is America also a free country?" For the first time in my patriotic life, I found that question difficult to answer. One-third of Mongolians live below the poverty level, but when I talked about the American dream, he said, "Why would a son want a different life from his father's?" I asked about his young children, who were playing underfoot. "I am sending them to school," he said, "and if they want to be politicians or businessmen, that is up to them. I went to school and I chose to remain a herder; I hope they will make that choice also, because I can imagine no better life."

The fashionable wisdom is that capitalism has won out over Communism, but I left Mongolia persuaded that these two systems had never been opposites, that the real opposite of both is nomadism, a way of life as close to joyful anarchy as humankind will ever reach.

WE STOPPED SEVERAL TIMES FOR GAS AS WE TRAVELED SOUTH toward the Gobi. The desert starts gradually: bit by bit the plants become sparse, and then the land flattens. The smooth, glorious grass fades away. We drove for hours and hours across Dundgovi (Middle Gobi) province, which was dull and bleak. Then we came to Omnogovi (South Gobi), where the sand was even and yellow, vegetation almost entirely absent. An hour or two later we arrived at one of the Gobi "forests," full of plants with thick stems and thin leaves, like old driftwood stuck in the sand and decorated with arugula. The color was very strange and very beautiful. And after that the real desert began, flat and without ornament of any kind, and vast, vast, vast.

We spent the night at the Bayanzag--a region known as the Flaming Cliffs--where great crumbling formations of limestone, bright red and warm gold, frame and reframe the desert around them. The wind brayed at us through tunnels carved into the cliffs. In the distance we could see snowcapped mountains. There were fossils everywhere, as though the dinosaurs hadn't bothered to clean up when they moved on to their next campsite.

We decided to spend that moonless night with some camel herders, which involved simply stopping at their ger and introducing ourselves. The camels of Mongolia are friendly, and they don't spit at you as Arabian camels do. They are curious creatures that turn to follow you as you pass. Their two humps are topped with tufts of long fur. When they lack water, their humps droop like aging bosoms. At night, they howl--an eerie sound, like the spirits of purgatory crying out.

I liked the herders at once. There were a brother and sister and their spouses, none older than 25; their parents, who'd recently departed after a long visit, were encamped within a day's ride. The couples invited us in and readily answered our questions. So I learned that camels are easier to take care of than sheep; your flock will not mix with others. You let the adult camels roam during the day, but you stay with the babies and yearlings and guide them home in the evenings. The mothers return to be with the calves, and the males follow them, so the herd stays together. Camels yield good wool, and they can manage with infrequent meals. The herders told me that about five times a year they pack their ger onto their camels to seek better grazing land.

We had by then learned basic ger etiquette, so we knew that men sit on the west side and women on the east, that you are always given something to eat and drink, and that it's rude not to try what you are given. Usually you get milk tea, made with tea, salt, sugar, and whatever milk is on hand (this time, camel milk), and often you get airag. The herders made us soup from dried mutton, and we added some onions and potatoes. These items were new to them. The onions they liked; the potatoes they found "disgusting," complaining that they "had the texture of dirt." At night, a ger is usually lit by a single candle, and in the flickering light we talked until it was late, and the children started dropping off on the floor. Not wanting to use the only beds in the ger, we returned to our tents just outside.

The next day the rain began. It seemed unfair that there should be heavy rain in South Gobi province, where the annual precipitation is about five inches. It seemed particularly unfair that it went on for three days, making the road we took as we headed back toward Ulaanbaatar virtually invisible and barely navigable. It seemed utterly unfair that our tents were not waterproof as guaranteed and that none of us ever quite dried out. And it seemed cruelly unfair that I had gotten sick from something I had eaten at the Naadam and that it was now kicking in with a vengeance. I felt as though I were a dry-clean-only item in a mobile washing machine, in which I was tossing around getting damper and damper. We got stuck twice. We jacked up the vehicle, checked the tires, tore up nearby plants, and established traction by laying the branches underneath. I had just finished reading the manuscript of a friend's novel, and its pages did very well for getting the wheels re-engaged. The earth might as well have been made of marshmallow.

FOR THE FIRST HALF OF OUR TRIP WE ENJOYED CAMPING AND DRIVING and staying in a different place every night. But now we'd had enough of it, so we flew north to stay in Khovsgol province for the rest of the trip. It's hard to write about Khovsgol in a fittingly superlative tone after having described Ovorhangai's beauty. Khovsgol was just as beautiful and very different. We took a bumpy four-hour jeep ride to Khovsgol Lake National Park. Having a national park in the middle of Mongolia is like having an urban development zone in midtown Manhattan, but in principle it means that hunting is forbidden, which explains why the wildlife is particularly plentiful there. Khovsgol Lake contains just under 2 percent of the world's fresh water; it is enormous, lovely, dark, and deep. On its banks are fields of wildflowers so brilliant you might think you were looking at a shoreline of butterflies. All around the lake are steep mountains. There are no buildings with foundations anywhere.

We stayed at a resortlike ger camp called Toilogt, where we had a wonderful view of the lake and a very attentive staff who provided every service. Each morning we decided whether to take a boat ride, or go hiking, or ride horses, or ride yaks (which no one who had a horse would ever choose to do except for the novelty of it). Some evenings the waiters performed traditional Mongolian music. While we ate, the staff would light a fire in our ger stove, so when we returned everything was toasty and welcoming.

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