“No. No.” I said, “Don’t make me go out there.”
I could hear Caitlin mumbling next to me, and one of the boys groaning in displeasure in his side of the ger. What time was it? It must have been sometime in the morning, somehow, but how close that was to noon – or later – we couldn’t tell.
Suddenly, the ger filled violently with sunlight. A chorus of horrified moans erupted from all of us as we tried to burrow further under the thick woolen blankets. Outside, the family had just rolled back the felt covering our ger’s skylight. Could it be a subtle sign that we weren’t going to sleep in any longer?
I didn’t want to think about it.
We heard a clink and shuffle as the door to our tent opened and the grandmother walked in, carrying a large pot. The smell of stew – tomatoes and beans and whatever desiccated spices had been found the last time in town – began to sneak around to our beds, slowly drawing us from beneath the blankets. Bleary-eyed and head-pounding, the four of us shuffled up to the little wooden table in the center of our tent, seated ourselves on the comically tiny stools, and began moving aside the beer cans and vodka bottles from the night before.
Patches began to come back, snapshots of memories from the night before. We’d arrived at the ger camp yesterday afternoon, after a 4-hour drive from Ulaan Baatar, and stepped out of Loki’s beat up old Soviet van to see five little ger – the round, wooden-structured Mongolian tents – on a hillside. An older man, wearing a long, heavy, brown jacket in the traditional deel style, was tending to a herd of camels, while a family that could have been his children and grandchildren were leading a group of horses back to their posts. Though the manager of our guesthouse back in Ulaan Baatar had told us the name of where we’d be going – Khongno Khan National Park – it meant little to us, and even less when she tried to show us on a map.
It felt like the end of the world out here.
Around the ger camp was an expanse of Mongolian steppe: slow rolling hills, awash in shades of green and brown; a smattered few rises of rocky, pale beige boulders that were stacked together like toys for a giant; and steppe grasses that brought the smell of thyme up from under our feet. There didn’t seem to be an end of vistas to stare out at, not only because of the arresting, deserted Mongolian countryside, but because of the air. That air was crystal clear.
And it made the views roll for ages.
Because most of the countryside exploration we’d signed up for would be happening on our second day, there wasn’t much to do at the camp that first night except hang around the ger.
After dinner, we’d broken out the beer and vodka brought from town, hoping to share with the family we were staying with to thank them for their hospitality. Once crowded around the tiny wooden table in our tent, the grandfather had meandered in, laughed and sat down with us, just in time to accept a few shots of of the clear stuff. The grandmother crept in as well, though just taking one short sip of vodka, out of manners. With no common language, the lot of us had made a bit of miming conversation before our hosts suddenly, though politely, excused themselves and left us to our own devices.
The night devolved from there. Left alone with the alcohol, the four of us got into the thick of it, trading travel adventure stories, talking penal systems in the West, and having kung-fu competitions in between toasts. I wish the latter had been a joke.
I guess we should have seen the hangovers coming. I mean, what else happens when you’re this far out in the countryside?
The next morning, after the grandmother had unveiled her hangover soup, we had to face the reality of our day ahead. There was going to be horse riding. And camel riding. And general bouncing around the untamed Mongolian wilderness like Western cowboys…and all without Advil in sight.
To be honest, I almost didn’t make it out the door. There was no way I was getting jostled about on the back of any sort of 400 kg four-legged animal, even despite the fact that we’d come all the way out here to get a glimpse into the nomadic, bad-ass, horse-dominating lifestyle rampant in Mongolia.
“Maybe you guys should go without me,” I said, “I might just lay down and take a nap until my head clears up…”
Caitlin whipped around and stared me dead in the face, sleepless circles throbbing under her eyes. “No,” she said, “if I’m going out there, you’re going out there…and I’m definitely going out there.”
I stared back. She didn’t blink.
Resigned, the lot of us accepted our fates and donned our boots, jeans, and jackets. It was time to shine, residual effects of cheap Russian booze or no.
We pushed open the ger door, stepped outside into that acid summer sunshine, and then: a curious thing happened.
Outside our door stood that vast, unbridled country, rolling away and on, with green hills punctuated by rivers shining silver in the morning sun, and distant multicoloured mountains, and herds of camels and horses grazing off from our camp. The air was bright, clear, unpolluted by the crush of cities, and the sunlight was streaming down from the clouds. We stepped out the door and saw all of that at our feet. We stepped out the door and felt the punch of cold, crisp air hit our lungs.
Outside was a scenery so clear it wrenched through the fog of our heads.
I suppose I owe something to the Mongolian countryside. There was such a clarity in the landscape here, an expanse I hadn’t seen before, and it demanded attention. The amount of detail we could see in this crystal-clear air was sobering, because it was unlike any countryside I’d seen before, anywhere in the world. It was wild, beautiful, untamed, and all around us.
Maybe, this was the best place in the world to recover from a hangover.
At least, until the horse rides started.