While re-watching "The Two Towers" last night I was struck by several thoughts. My first thought was that "The Lord of the Rings" really was an extraordinary movie, one that should be remembered for generations to come. Even after my Tolkien ardor has cooled off I have to salute the amazingly beautiful yet realistic interpretation that Peter Jackson has given Middle Earth.
My second thought was that, after months of watching the Korean historical battle dramas that KBS was airing, it was surprisingly novel to see a swords-and-warriors movie where everybody was blond.
My third thought occurred during the scene where Eowyn is talking to Aragorn. It was a scene that had struck me as wonderful in terms of stoic, Germanic character development back when I first saw it in college. Eowyn, a coldly-determined "shield-maiden," describes to Aragorn how she fears neither pain nor death. An adequate avowal from a warrior, but what she goes on to say bothered my now-no-long-20-years-old brain. "[I fear] a cage, to stay behind bars until use and old age accept them.... and all chance of valor has gone beyond recall or desire." When I first saw this scene, I heartily agreed with this "American Beauty"-esque sentiment where the soft comforts of everyday life can make a sort of hell that is just as palpable as pain and death. When I saw the scene again last week I couldn't help but feel that this sentiment was hogwash. It seemed drastically out-of-place in the ancient pseudo-Viking society of Rohan where presumably even life during peacetime is a struggle against starvation, disease and the whims of natural events.
Assuming that Eowyn has a morality that excludes fighting for obscene personal gain (gold, jewels, power, women.... all of which her character would presumably have no interest in) then what the hell WOULD she fight for? Wouldn't she be fighting for that possible future of a soft, comfortable "cage" where all those inside would have no concept or wish of fighting? Isn't that what all people in the modern age claim (usually falsely, I'll grant you) they fight for.... the privilege of living in peaceful comfort?
I couldn't put this question to the scriptwriters for "The Two Towers" (Ms. Walsh, Ms. Boyens and Mr. Jackson.... yes, I still remember who they are) because they took Eowyn's line directly from Mr. Tolkien himself. So was Tolkien perhaps being a bit romantic here when it came to presuming that a soft cage was a less preferential lifestyle than pain and death? Was a man who got a first-hand view of the slaughter in the trenches during World War I, where he saw his school friends die and almost lost his own life in the bargain, still capable of thinking that heroic death in wartime was better than a quiet retirement for the rest of one's days?
Then I thought back to Tolkien's "Beowulf" essay ("The Monsters and the Critics") where the discussion of pre-Christian beliefs concerning the afterlife was lightly dissected. Basically, according to Mr. Tolkien, pre-Christian Germanic cultures considered the afterlife to consist of only the words of those who remember your life. The longer your achievements were remembered and passed down from generation to generation... the longer you would "live" after death. There was no Heaven or reincarnation or anything of that sort of unproven intangibility.... just the memory of your life stretched out over the years past your death. When warriors fought for "renown," they were fighting for whatever their best hope for an afterlife would be: songs of their bravery. When Eowyn is asked by Aragorn (in the books and somewhat indirectly in the movies) to stay with the women and children and die with them instead of die fighting beside the warriors, he is asking her to make an exceptionally harsh sacrifice. Not only must she fight and die... but she must give up her AFTERLIFE as well as the life she possesses on this earth. After the noble warriors are dead and the bards have fled to the hills to remember and recall, ... she must die in anonymity among the screeching weaker members of the population.
Tolkien was a man who, according to Humphrey Carpenter's biography of him, was very fond of his soft "cage." After the war and the marriage, Mr. Tolkien moved to England to live a life of quiet, dusty scholarship. Mr. Carpenter is forced to 'fess up to his readers that, as Mr. Tolkien's official biographer, he has absolutely nothing more to tell. "He lived happily ever after to the end of his days." So why was Tolkien allowed to live guilt-free in his little house in Oxford and Eowyn condemned to writhe unhappily because she could not die on an invader's sword while still within sight of someone who knew how to wield a pen? Because, as Tolkien noted somewhat obliquely in "The Monsters and the Critics," he is Christian and Eowyn is not. According to New Testament belief all modern Christians have the option of an afterlife. The qualifications for entering are entirely different from "death with honor." Just go to church on Sundays. No real pain necessary, just a two-hour wait before indulging in your Sunday croissant.
My fourth thought, after this, was wondering where that left me. I am not a Christian and I was very much ensconsced in a soft, warm cage. I was hiding from the cold everyday, curled up with the warm glow of the laptop moniter. Yet my concept of an afterlife was much more closely aligned with Eowyn's beliefs than Mr. Tolkien's. The only afterlife is through stories... either stories created by you or stories about you. But since I was neither creating stories (or, in my case, comics) nor dying honorably but instead curled up with a movie what was my excuse?
My fifth thought was that I really needed to get out of the house.
So the next weekend I and my friends (who were not named Robert, Franz and Nathalie) went out to Terelj park to go hiking. Terelj park is at least several times bigger than the city of Ulaanbaatar and is located at a comfortable distance from the capital. By "comfortable," I mean that it's far enough away to have a truly countryside appearance (miles and miles of steppe penetrated by only the occasional ger) while being close enough to UB that anyone can get there by car within an hour. It was well into March by this point but the snow was still over a foot deep and the roads treacherous. Nathalie and Robert arrived more or less on the dot at 7 am in the morning by the state department store. Franz was a bit late but he had told Nathalie that he was walking up Peace Avenue towards us and maybe we could literally meet him halfway. So our driver obligingly drove slowly up the main street of Ulaanbaatar while we peered at all individuals walking along the sidewalks and enduring the morning chill. "There we go. White guy," Robert finally said, pointing at one individual walking alongside Sukhbaatar square.
"Are you sure?" I asked. The figure in question was still a bit of a distance away and everybody was bundled up that morning.
"Oh yeah," said Robert, "I can tell it's a foreign guy...tall, curly hair, general sense of confusion..."
It was indeed Franz walking up the sidewalk towards us. He squeezed into the car with the rest of us and the driver continued outside of the city and towards Terelj. As he drove Robert talked about his evening a couple of nights ago. "I was with my friend Ariun and we were dancing and this guy just started harassing us. We managed to walk away without a fight but I was thinking 'Damn! That was my last chance to say that I had punched a guy in Mongolia.'"
"Oho, wow... You do not want to start a fight here," Nathalie said, "Mongolian guys are strong."
She was quite right. Mongolian men in general are quite strong and easily the largest men in Asia. Last year I fell into a conversation with a beefy, affable American man who was waiting for his passport renewal. "I met my girlfriend in Beijing, y'know? She's Mongolian so after I finished my teaching job in China we came up here to live."
"How are you getting on so far?" I asked. For some reason I tend to adopt British turns of phrases when I encounter fellow Americans while abroad. I don't know why... it may be because I'm rather pretentious.
"All right, okay," the American replied. "It's nice, ... definately different from China, that's for sure."
"Oh, well, y'know... if I went out drinking with my buddies in Beijing we never really had any trouble with people bothering us. If some Chinese dudes wanted to harass us I'd just go 'HAH!' and lunge at them. They'd run off real quick. Doesn't work here though," he laughed, "I make a lunge and I'd get my ass kicked. Guys are pretty game for a fight around here.... and they're big too!"
I didn't tell this story to Robert but he nevertheless could grasp Nathalie's point. "You know," Franz said, "I also had a friend named 'Ariun.' She said that her name means 'Virgin' in Mongolian."
"Really?" I asked, "I didn't know that." "Ariun" is one of the few names in Mongolian that I don't really know the literal meaning of.
"And was she a virgin, this Ariun?" Robert asked.
"I don't know," Franz said, "I mean, she was just a girl I talked to, a friend."
"What does 'Ariun' mean?" I asked the driver, who was simply driving politely without paying any attention to our conversations, "Does it mean 'virgin?'"
The driver laughed. "No! It's just a common girl's name."
"But what's the literal meaning? Like, for example, my name's literal meaning means 'light.' What does 'Ariun' mean?"
"I think it's a type of flower," the driver replied.
"There you have it," I said to Franz, who was looking a bit sheepish.
"She told me her name meant 'virgin,'" Franz mumbled.
"Dude, she was trying to hook up with you!" Robert said, laughing! "That was her best line, the 'virgin' line. You missed an opportunity there!"
"Was she pretty?" I asked Franz.
"Well, yeah..." he replied
The car drove on as it left the city and turned towards Terelj village. I was amazed at how much snow there was. When I was little and lived in New England I loathed the sight of grass tips showing over the tops of a snow cover. Snow wasn't snow if you still saw grass! Here in Mongolia there was no trace of grass nor had been for months. Occasionally there would be a slight melt and then everyone's spirits would lift as the thought that maybe-MAYBE- spring had finally come would peak out of the mental tundra of the public's cold-fatigued mind. But the warmth would only be enough to cause more snow to fall. After 12 hours of above-zero temperatures there would be dark grey clouds on the horizon. Massive banks would march in from southern Siberia. The cold would return again... except this time it would be a sort of humid cold instead of the dry cold we had been used to earlier. Humid cold is so much more penetrating, so much more chilling. Darkness would fall, people even in well-heated apartments would huddle under blankets and once again, with the return of morning light, there would be a fresh blanket of snow on top of the already-present snow on the ground and a fresh nippy breeze in the air. It was getting monotonous.... especially after four months.
As the driver slowly crept down an icy hill and reached the bottom we all came to the entrance of Terelj Park. Three years ago I went to the Omnogovi national park with a bunch of teaching colleagues. The sign on the park said clearly that all foreignors were obliged to pay 3,000 tugrugs and all Mongolians merely 300. I and another teacher who was also white slouched down in the car and covered our faces with scarves. The other teachers made sure that they sat on either side of us and, with the micro bus driver doing the talking we all got into the park none the wiser. Nobody paid 3,000 tugrugs.
As an American with the Lockian belief of "tolerate everything except for intolerance" burned permanently into my brain... I have a tendancy to blow my stack whenever I encounter institutionalized racism. Asia has many instances of institutionalized racism. To be fair, Mongolians and Koreans tend to take racism- or what may be perceived as possible racism- perpetrated against themselves with a certain amount of savoir-faire so it is somewhat understandable that they expect foreignors to show the same courtesy. When I was tutoring a Mongolian government advisor who spoke three languages fluently, had degrees from several international universities and possessed an energetic entrepreneurial spirit that really can only be found in Asia nowadays I was taken aback by something he said. "Mongolians really do have inferior minds," he said laughing, "I can't train any of my staff correctly. Their mentality is not orderly."
"Oh nooo... no, no I don't think so," I said, aghast. Was the government advisor saying this because this is what he thought I wanted to hear? Do Mongolians truly believe that Westerners have such racist assumptions? Or do Mongolians truly believe that they are inferior? Could a trilingual government official with a doctorate degree and two UB businesses founded through his efforts really believe that a monolingual English teacher with a scant Bachelor's degree (I didn't even graduate cum laude) and a desultory career of patchwork teaching jobs was mentally superior to him?
Going back to Terelj Park I braced myself for what would be an inevitable confrontation between my intolerance-intolerance and the price differences between foreign and Mongolian tourists at the park. I considered it a point of honor to launch myself at any and all examples of racism regardless of cultural difference. Pig-headed, I know, but I do it. My sub-conscious mind was scrabbling for an excuse to think that no racism was being perpetrated and thus no obligation to flip out was being presented. It's so hard to restrain my rage once somebody has pushed the final button for it to be released..... and I didn't want our weekend to be ruined.
The guard walked up to the driver of our car after we stopped at the entrance to Terelj. "Three thousand tugrugs please," he said.
"Does it matter what country we come from?" I asked him
The guard smiled in a rather amused way. "No, it doesn't matter."
In retrospect he probably meant "It doesn't matter which specific country you come from, all foreignors have to pay the same foreign price," but I took it to mean "It doesn't matter if you're foreign or local, you will pay the same price." I was excused from being mad so we all paid the same price and continued into Terelj.
The driver toodled us around for a bit until we could find a good ger camp to spend the night. The ger camps were a bit dingy but the smoke coming from the chimneys was so homey-looking that we asked about prices regardless. Unfortunately most of the ger camp owners over-charged so we had to do a bit of looking and a bit of scrambling over icy banks and a bit of dodging ferocious barking dogs before we could encounter a ger camp owner who could give us a ger for a night for a decent price.
After relieving myself at a truly evil-smelling outhouse (outhouses, on the cold, dry winter days so common during Mongolian winters, generally do not smell very offensive. Indeed I often find outhouses preferable to the malfunctioning, urine-splattered indoor toilets that are also so common here. To find an outhouse that smelt so foul even in this weather was a surprise. Perhaps someone was sick?) I went with Nathalie, Franz and Robert to our ger. As I passed the main cabin in the ger camp, a young woman rushed out to prepare our ger. She was carrying a young baby, no more than fifteen months old at the most, and set the munchkin down in the snow rather like she would set a water can or a suitcase. The child stood, a small figure in a too-big blue snowsuit, silent and motionless against the snow. The woman did not give the munchkin a second glance but instead raced to our ger at the edge of the compound in order to get the fire going.
It always unnerves expatriates a bit when they see how loosely parents watch their children here in Mongolia. I've seen children in ger compounds play around very steep ditches, run barefoot over ground littered with pieces of grass and sharp metal and even just be left unattended for long periods. As the young woman walked to our ger in order to take care of it for us she clearly expected us to follow. Franz and Robert did so while Nathalie and I lingered behind, wondering if anyone was going to pay attention to the frozen toddler in the snow or if it was simply going to stand there unattended until an adult deigned to show up to care for it. It was both worrying and hilarious how the child simply stood there, alone, clueless and tiny in his baggy snowsuit... waiting for anyone to catalyze him into action. It wasn't until his brother, a boy I estimated to be five years old, showed up with a sled that the baby started moving. He toddled slowly over to his brother, content to simply observe the older boy and be occasionally rewarded with a friendly glance or comment.
Meanwhile Franz, Nathalie, Robert and I set up a small feast in the ger where we were staying. We unpacked buns, doughnuts, chocolate, soda, coffee, chips and various other unhealthy tasties and set them all up on the small table by the stove. The toddler-abandoning lady made a toasty wood fire for us and we all felt so cheerful as the ger began to warm. It's not just the warmth that makes people happy in a ger, it's the entire womb-experience. For some reason, even if you have never in your life seen a ger or spent a night inside it, the interior of the ger provokes a sense of home the first time you step inside. I have absolutely no idea why this can be true. It's some automatic psychological response that just causes people joy. Maybe it's the roundness of the surroundings, the absence of sharp corners. I remember how Peter Jackson instructed that the hobbit-holes on the set of "The Lord of the Rings" be made with a circular motif. Hallways would be round, doors would be round , windows would be round and everything would be underground. Upon examining the finished product Mr. Jackson then declared that he would keep the set after filming finished. "I want to retire here," he remarked only half-jokingly later on the DVD commentary.
After getting all loaded up on sugar we pulled on our warmest clothes and headed out towards the hill that we would be climbing. Unfortunately we started climbing up on the worst route we could take. When hiking up to the top of a mountain it's best to follow the ridgeline. It's one short, steep burst up a mountain... but the steepness is helped by the rocks that provide traction and the horizon line that comes so appealingly closer with each step. Once you reach the ridgeline it's fantastic. You have breathtaking views as you walk along the now very slight and variated slope towards the highest point on the mountain. It really is the best way to hike.
Unfortunately one member of our hiking team was very much afraid of heights so we hiked up what was probably the most difficult and least-satisfying portion of the mountain. An average mountain is made of several long, verticle folds or crevasses interspersed between verticle ridges. Even an amateur hiker knows that hiking up a crevasse is hard work since it is steeper than the ridgeline and filled with softer soils that make walking a real slog. If one hikes up a crevasse one's views of the magnificent mountain peaks in the distance are also cut off because the crevasse is hemmed in by ridges on either side. Nevertheless, since we were all in on this expedition as a team, we hiked through foot-high snow (sometimes deeper) up a steep crevass hemmed in on either side by pine trees and ridges. Any view of mountainscapes was be blocked. In this way, nobody was height-sick. Of course the day was so wonderful that even this relatively inferior view was very pretty and Christmassy with all the evergreens and snow and whatnot... despite the fact that it was March.
By the time we reached the top of the mountain I was nearly sobbing with exhaustion, but the snow had fallen away from this more rocky area and I was surprised at how much good time I was making. Snow really does slow you down and suck out your energy in the most amazing way when you hike. Here, with only hard-packed dirt and rock under my feet, even my exhausted leg muscles were able to make the ground fall away with astounding ease.
Ten years ago, when I was still in high school and my sister not much younger, both she and my mother bought several pints of specialized ice cream. It was from some company named "Creamery Dreamery" or "Dreamery Ice Cream" or maybe "Dream Factory" or something. "Dream" was definately in the title somewhere. It was one of those extremely elite brands of ice cream that charged roughly two dollars an ounce and were only packaged in small, cylindrical containers that fit comfortably in the palm of your hand. They held enough for four average servings or one single serving if you were depressed. Anyway, the reason why I bring this up is that each "Creamery Dreamery" ice cream container had a pastel mountainscape painted on it. It was really quite pretty. Then, a few years later, I climbed a mountain outside Darkhan city and saw that distant mountains really do have that stylized, pastel quality. Movies nowadays have a realer-than-real quality to them where the graphics imagery is so extraordinary that you really can't tell the genuine stuff from the pixels. It always comes as a further shock to me when I see that reality itself can be pretty unrealistic. Mountains look like stylized pastel paintings from a distance (the Mongolians have a word for it: "Tsengelekh".... which means "to turn blue from distance." It refers to the phenomenon where mountains that are far away become faint and blue. It's one of the few instances in my experience where the stoic, pragmatic Mongolian language outstrips English in terms of poetry. Of course I don't know if Mongolians of my generation still use that term... I found it in a dictionary) and landscapes tend to have a fuzzy, grey quality that blur the clear imagery that a competent CGI team would be able to build.
When I finally reached the top of the mountain, walking over to where Robert and Nathalie were already enjoying the view (Franz, being far more in shape than the rest of us, had already taken off for further, more exciting points in the landscape), I was once again reminded of Clara's "Dreamery" ice cream containers. The mountains were so blue and pink and they seemed to march on forever.... unencumbered by anything like a human dwelling. Indeed that was the thing about the landscape.... there was nothing but mountains and empty valleys towards the eastward side where I looked. When I was hiking up a mountain in Scotland about eight years ago I remember looking out at the mountainous landscape after reaching the top of my own particular peak and seeing how the soft mountain shapes had been so clearly shaped by ancient Pre-Cambrian volcanic eruptions. Only molten lava spewing up from below could have formed those destinctive crater-esque shapes... despite the fact that millions of years had softened the resulting mountains that had formed the crater walls into what now looked like large, forested dimples with foggy raincloud soups drifting and spinning in the hollow parts.
There was a great beauty and exoticism to the landscape. The fact that it was northern Scotland and thus still had a shining sun at 10:30pm in the summer added to the alien atmosphere. Indeed, if memory serves me correctly, the cozy, twee countryside of northern Scotland was even more odd and other-worldy to my eyes that the Mongolian landscape was almost a decade later. Nevertheless there were some distinct differences between my Scottish and Mongolian mountain views. Standing on my Scottish mountain back in 2002 I could still see the small, grey string of a motorway, the white doubts of several small villages and even, maybe, the grey fuzz of Glasgaw smog on the horizon. The landscape was desolate by British standards but not entirely free of signs of human habitation... not by a long shot. I had just traversed the great moor between the hotel I had spent the night in yesterday and the tiny, independent bed-and-breakfast I was to sleep in later within the space of a morning. The path I had been following was full of cheerful day-hikers in brightly-colored jackets and boots. People lived close to gether here, even in toy-sized moors that were not so much "Baskerville" as basketball courts (though very desolate and exotic basketball courts). Once I reached the top of a mountain I would be able to see a fair bit of human habitation. Though I was fatter and more out-of-shape back in 2003 than I am now I nevertheless was pretty reassured while in Scotland that if I really applied myself I could probably reach a dwelling place- and probably even a small town with gift shop, coffee corner and b+b to match!- within eight hours of hiking.
This is not so in Mongolia. When atop that mountain in Terelj I saw mountains upon mountains marching off into the distance with not one stick of human habitation visible to the naked eye. When gazing back in the direction from where our group had come the neat, artificial rectangles of Terelj village were very visible. We could see the roads, the stores, the dwellings and most noticeable of all the fences that squared off "hashaas" ("yards" in Mongolian). These dwellings could be seen very slightly starting to march up the mountains on the opposite side of the valley from where we were but they obviously were not going to go very far. The mountain forbade it. All those who stood at the top of our mountain knew that that village was really the only thing seperating us from the cruel, desolate expanse of cold whiteness that was the rest of Mongolia. When you turned away from the village, there would be nothing left for days and days and days. Keep walking. You should hit Darkhan by July... maybe.
Finally at the ridgeline of the mountain we galloped about, exhuberant because we were at THE TOP OF A MOUNTAIN! For some reason this is always a reason to celebrate. We jumped, punched huge, flat pieces of snow and snapped pictures of ourselves next to small piles of stones that were interwoven with blue "haddoks" or prayer scarves, vodka bottles and (for some enigmatic reason that was- at the same time- completely understandable) an ornate black 18th century masquerade mask. It was an amazing high in every sense because we had just ascended a mountain! And now we were at the top, surrounded by deep snow, a beautiful, pastel "Creamery Dreamery" mountainscape and the reassurance that the rest of the trip down the mountain would be far more relaxing than the trip up.
Nevertheless there was some noticeable mist, possibly heralding snow and certainly threatening a decreased level of visibility, drifting in from the mountains on the other side of the valley. I decided that it would be prudent to begin our descent and Robert concurred so we started clamboring downwards. The descent was as pleasant as the ascent was frustrating. Though mist and precipitation were closing in fast we all took our time to admire the view and do things that we would probably rarely have the chance to do again because, as I mentioned before, we were on a MOUNTAIN! A MOUNTAIN! So we laughed and chatted, words coming so much easier to our mouths since we were now going downhill instead of uphill. We skated down slopes of smooth snow on our bottoms, merely leaving it to purest chance that some hidden rock would not suddenly and painfully pulp our long-john clad genitals. We stopped at rock piles to photograph three beautiful cow skulls neatly lined up on top of the stones.
Rock piles are interesting in Mongolia. You can walk out into what looks to be no more than the deepest, most untouched part of the Gobi desert, climb a mountain that you are sure has not been climbed by anyone human in the last five millenia and come across a rock pile at the top that has been recently garnished by haddaks and smashed "Xaraa" vodka bottles. Some people, most noteably American douchebags documentarians who film their trips to Mongolia for "National Geographic" in order to gawk at the "deep spirituality of the Mongolian people," see these rock piles as powerful observances of Buddhist/Shamanist belief manifested through rituals that interweave spirit and landscape in such a way that no lumpish Westerner who hails from outside the West Coast could possibly understand.
I.... have never liked these shows. Imagine, as an American, watching a documentary forty years from now when a filmmaker from Shanghai visits a rustic corner of the former world power known as the U.S. Now imagine the swaggering, unshaven man wearing I-don't-care-how-I-look-or-smell cargo shorts and following local US citizens as they go about their usual business. Imagine watching this filmmaker film a local high school football game while sanctimoniously describing the "deep, deep spiritual traditions of these countryside Americans as they engage in this celebratory sport to honor the soul of their homeland." Imagine him continuing to film everyday activities while trying to hammer the subjects of his documentary into Rousseauian noble savages whose crude technical intelligence is compensated for by a naive, almost child-like devotion to anti-establishment religion? Listen to the barely-disguised pride in the documentarian and self-described "spiritual adventurer's" voice. See how he, in a barely subconscious fashion, regards himself as above his countrymen because only he had the initiative and emotional intelligence to travel to far lands while his obese, suburban compatriates stayed home because of their lack of money dumpy unadventurousness, family responsibilities refusal to consider challenges to their belief systems and workfear of the unknown. See also how he also subconsciously sees himself as above the people he is studying because only he, the university-educated Westerner, can put the native people's culture and religion in it proper place: in a wider context of far more wide-spread "conventional" religio-cultural establishments that only the documentarian with his various high-grade humanities degrees can understand with his full, supposedly-unbiased views.
It is strange because I have almost always watched National Geographic specials with great enjoyment. When anthropologist/documentarians visit such far-flung places as Melanesia, Lesotho or Aboriginal communities located in the depths of the Australian outback I watch their shows with wide-eyed concentration. I accept the generalizations such documentarians make about the cultures in these areas without a second thought. After all, they know more than I do. In Mongolia however, I find myself feeling very odd when I watch the Gobi herders in National Geographic documentaries going about the everyday activities that I have also done for over three years now (attending Naadam, hauling water, lighting fires in gers, etc.). It's weird to have everyday mundanity spun into the most pretentious sort of exoticism. Naadam is NOT an "Olympics that honors the gods of Shamanism!" It is simply an annual sporting event where people bet on horses, watch wrestling and get roaring drunk as they weave their ways around the great tent-cities of the peddlars that surround each Naadam stadium. It's like watching your American neighbors high-five each other during a football match and while hearing some idiotic ass drone on about the religio-cultural significance of such gestures when performed by the natives in this far-off land.
But enough of my self-indulgent rant. Instead let us rejoing my self-indulgent recollection of the hiking trip back on the mountain in Terelj. Franz, Nathalie, Robert and I were clamboring past the cattle skulls and heading further down the slope though we were still pretty high up the mountain. The mist from the further mountains had by this time reached us and I was beginning to seriously worry about visibility. Once the mist of the late-afternoon snow storms that inevitably plague Mongolia around February or so envelopes relatively tender-foot mountain hikers said hikers are just one bad step away from a broken ankle and a possibly fatal night spent shivering in 30 degree-below-zero weather on the isolated slopes of the peak.
Also, the fact that I was texting the driver (astoundingly enough, my cell phone still had reception) while clamboring down a mountain in a snow storm was perhaps not wise. Still, I was at least aware that I was not the best sort of professional hiker. I could not allow myself to take chances so I mentally urged the rest of the gang to stop their gamboling and just climb swiftly down the mountain while we could still see fifty meters ahead of us. We were at this point less than half-way up the mountain, however there were still many sheer rocky cliffs and ledges lurking in the increasingly thickening fog. One slip and .... well, the possibilities were not pleasant.
While I was mulling this around in my head, the potentially excruciating pain of taking a slip off a rocky ledge and the definite future pain of what my leg muscles would feel like in the morning, I notices a goat herder about a hundred meters to the right of us. He had obviously meandered up the side of the mountain, keeping track of a small goat herd that was munching what vegetation there was to be had between the rocky crevasses and patches of snow. He watched us as we all talked loudly, laughed and clambored down the mountain. We were secure in the knowledge that only a moderate, downhill walk stood between us and a warm meal. Of course we were all cramped and exhausted and whatnot but at this stage the pain only enlivened us. Imagine how good sitting down is going to feel now! Boy, we really have done a good day's work today and resting is going to be sweeeet tonight. Of course we had all climbed the mountain through pure choice alone and were simply on vacation. Indeed for most of us the next few days would consist mostly of sitting in front of a TV, drinking hot cocoa in a heated apartment and nursing pleasantly sore muscles. This goat herder, however, was climbing the mountain because he was doing his job. He had to keep track of his goats, make sure that they could find food and not wander off leaving his family out of pocket.
Of course I myself am perhaps falling into the trap of douchebaggery right now, fishing for praise of my supposed intelligent humility by making the shallow observation that my life in general is much more comfortable than the life of the nomadic herder in late winter. In reality the herder also had respites from the cold. After his day's work he could retreat to the warmth of his ger, watch TV with his family while eating hot mutton stew and dumplings and generally shelter himself. Also in some ways this man's life was easier than ours. He had to perform legwork while watching his herd, sure enough, but he didn't have to spend hours everyday navigating traffic, putting together lesson plans, untangling student complaints and excuses, beating his brain to come up with fun yet informative activities for adult students every day so they wouldn't complain that they were NOT paying three million tugrugs a semester just to basically cover the same material that they learned in high school etc. etc. No,... both of our lives had easy parts and difficult parts.Our pleasures and pains were simply different but they probably shook out to around the same amount.
It was not so much Western guilt that made us pause our conversations and wave to the herder in a self-conscious fashion as we passed him coming down the slope. It was the awareness of the extraordinary, inescapable difference between our lives and his. It was the realization that this mountain was not just a tourist attraction but a place where people totally unconnected with the tourist trade made their livelihoods.
But meanwhile I was wondering about the pain. Oh God, my legs were going to give me agony tomorrow after I woke. I would certainly enjoy it in a way because I could imagine muscle tissue being replaced by even more beautiful, shapely muscles. Right now my legs weren't hurting exactly though they were definitely tired, rubbery and not so reliable as before. Strangely enough my arms were hurting more than my legs. Robert was nattering on about getting together a reunion of train passengers with whom he shared a compartment for a few days while chugging across Africa or Europe or someplace. Nathalie and Franz were following on with admirable cheerfulness.... though the cheerfulness could very well have been entirely unfeigned as we were all happy about getting off the mountain and approaching a good, hot meal full of boiled mutton and noodles. Our limbs would pain us but it would be a good pain because it would be like a reward, a recognition that we had completed an arduous job. Perhaps in a way the pain that stems from past exercise is just as satisfactory as the meal following the exercise.