Through the steppe, the desert, and across a quiet lake in Mongolia, is it possible to leave all comparisons behind and just soak up the land anew, in silence?
My attorney is perhaps not the most cheerful man on the planet. Before I leave for Mongolia, he sends me Kirkegaard quotes. When you get right down to it, the Internet has brought the world two things. First, easy proof of that line from the old Barney Miller tv show—"you can point to anything in the Sears catalog, and somebody somewhere wants to sleep with it." And second, random assaults by attorneys quoting Danish philosophers.
"The present state of the world and the whole of life is diseased," James writes that Kirkegaard wrote. "If I were a doctor and were asked for my advice, I should reply: Create silence! Bring men to silence. The word of God cannot be heard in the noisy world of today. And even if it were blazoned forth with all the panoply of noise so that it could be heard in the midst of all the other noise, then it would no longer be the word of God. Therefore create silence."
And so I slip the kayak into Mongolia's Lake Khosvgol to get away from the ger—forever burdened under the typo "yurt"—camp where, last night, a group of wrestlers threw each other all over the lawn like people who really didn't understand the rules of Leap Frog, where Koreans sucked up to their boss in loud, off–key songs until nearly 3 am, and where the people I've ended up traveling with stayed awake nearly as late talking about Philadelphia.
I'll learn a lot about Philadelphia on this trip. Hardly anybody will ever mention Mongolia, though, whether we're watching horses run across the plain in a way that redefines grace, whether we're drinking fermented reindeer milk in the tepee of a man who is going as extinct as his entire way of life, whether we're walking in a landscape where it is a safe bet that, even though we can't see them, snow leopards are watching us.
Nope. None of that matters. Why look at the world when you can talk about home?
So in that spirit, let me say: This part of Mongolia doesn't look like Mongolia. It looks like Montana or Wyoming, places I spent large portions of my life trying to avoid. Hills, trees, streams. Slate gray mountain tops. Expect trout fishermen throwing overpriced string at water.
Domesticated Animals and Wild Mongols
Mongolia does have one little surprise: no matter where you stop, no matter where you walk … well, it's more than obvious this is an economy based on farm animals. Still, yaks are really, really cute: big, shaggy, shy gray faces peeking out from under dreadlocks of fur, looking remarkably like something Stephen Spielberg would come up with, say, "hey, we can sell a billion of those, let's make a crappy movie about them and crank up the machine." But the simple truth is, after Mongolia, my hiking boots will never be the same.
Later, in the Gobi, I'll take a picture of dung that the wind has blown into patterns like a Japanese rock garden.
But first, on Lake Khosvgol, the kayak moves with the near silence kayaks always move with, the light splash of my paddle, a slight creak from the boat's frame. Probably the most perfect meeting of form and function that the human mind has ever come up with.
Two, three minutes of motion and camp is out of sight, everything is out of sight but this vast, flat lake and a dun–colored landscape that is creating the silence of God.
And I'm alone with Mongolia that doesn't look at all like Mongolia.
Other parts of Mongolia do look like Mongolia. Or, perhaps a better way to phrase that would be to say that other parts of Mongolia look like I expected Mongolia to look. Around Kharkorum, where Chingis Khan was from, the landscape hasn't changed much at all from what the man himself would have seen before he went out and conquered more of the world than anyone before or since.
The Mongols had three things going for them, back in the day: they invented the stirrup, which meant they were killer horsemen; they were fearless when it came to weather, which meant they'd swoop down on towns in the dead of winter, using frozen rivers as highways, a tactic that had never occurred to anyone else; and they had nothing at all to do back home except watch goats and yaks nibble valleys that never ended, so they might as well go out and terrorize the globe. Really, an early invention of ESPN 2 might have saved civilization.
The Orkhon, the river Chingis would have drunk from, flows shadowed by the five–foot wings of black storks. The water runs cold, as smooth as the honey I'll buy in the nearby market, the fine work of Mongolian bees who only have flowers the size of teardrops to haunt.
The Notes of Erdene Zuu
No flowers seem to grow in Erdene Zuu monastery, which sits in the center of the valley like a brick dropped from the sky. Founded in the 1500s, finished in the 1800s, pretty much razed in the 1900s, the grounds are a whole lot of empty space with only a couple buildings huddled together for protection. A man chases a monk—"I'll give you a dollar if you let me take your picture"—and I figure if I whack him and his camera with a rock, I won't even need my attorney; with their ancestry, the Mongols would surely understand the necessity of certain deeds.
Hiding from him and yet another discussion about Philadelphia—apparently the stones here reminds one of my fellow travelers of a meal there, and we need to be told about it in painful detail—I duck into a chapel full of the smell of buttersmoke and the sound of chanting monks, a low, rolling drone that welds my feet to the floor.
The walls are dark with thankas, one kid shows another how to make the sacred gesture of a mudra, their fingers tangled like spiderwebs poking out from red sleeves. And the chant never pauses, never breaks, but flows over me like the word that created the world, like the B–flat that pours out of black holes.
I don't know what the note is of Lake Khovsgol, but I'm listening carefully for it. I aim the kayak north, towards Russia. The lake goes almost to the border, a spot where, twenty years ago, I was on that side of things, looking south at this side of things from the train window, and much to my own shame, instead of looking at Russia, I was busy wondering what Mongolia might really be like.
I might as well have been in Philadelphia.
Like Gobi Dust in the Wind
But never would I have expected this, the ice blocking half the lake, its slow breakup a sound that would have made Kirkegaard really, really happy.
I float next to a patch of ice that sounds like fine china being stacked in a distant room, like extremely delicate wind chimes, like a small bell on a Christmas puppy.
At the other end of Mongolia, the Gobi sounds like wind through dinosaur bones. The red hills are scoured clean, and lizards that look like horned toads make the mistake of moving when they see me, not realizing that as long as they stay still, they're utterly invisible.
The rest of Asia is not that thrilled with the Gobi. Beijing ends up in enormous clouds of Gobi dust every year, women in head nets like demented beekeepers using twig brooms to sweep it into the gutters; and Koreans are planting long strips of trees in experimental farms in the desert, thinking that will stop the Gobi's red clouds before they even get a chance to leave Mongolia.
Because messing with ecosystems always turns out well, right?
The Gobi is so large that the curve of the earth proves the rainbow of gravity from even the lowest hill. Fragments of dinosaur eggs, a light translucent green, lay scattered like confetti after a half–hearted parade. Deep in a canyon, I walk three times around the sacred ovo, a stone cairn large enough that the stone I toss onto it simply disappears. Tucked in around the rocks are 5– and 10–togruk notes; Mongolia has no coins, so in a good wind, the prayers simply blow away, flapping their voice into the sky.
I look up, craning until my neck hurts, waiting for the sky to darken with the silhouettes of lammergeiers. And then, my head spinning from circumambulation, from being in a landscape so large and empty that at night, for the first time ever, I feel the motion of the planet, not of the stars, I move down the canyon until I hit a dead end when the narrow passage is itself blocked by ice. A desert that looks, apparently, like Philadelphia did one winter.
Can we ever stop thinking in comparisons, and simply let a place be itself? Stop and listen and look as if it were both the first and last night we were ever to have with the love of our lives? Or is it a simple fear of how immense the world is, and so we feel a need to stick to the familiar noise of our own neighborhoods, as if the lawnmower next door was a music box?
I think avoiding exactly that was what Kirkegaard was after. A chance to stare into the immense without our own noise and familiar safety. To be quiet enough, placed enough to hear the pad of a snow leopard's feet.
I circle the ovo again on the way out, changing my usual prayer: yes, let the people I love be safe, let them always be safe, but also, please, please, just let me be here.
And then I depart fast and alone, as alone as I am, as happy as I am on this lake in northern Mongolia, my paddle splashing cold onto my hands, paddling towards a shore where there is nothing but the slow motion of yaks and dun colored hills and a landscape too large to even bother with horizons. The curse of a decent education puts the lines of Dante's Paradso in my head: "I was in the heaven which receives the greatest light and saw things none can say who come down from hence; for our spirit hastens on the paths of its yearning into boundless depths and cannot find its way back"
And on this lake, the ice acting as an amplifier for the ice, I'd tell Dante: "I was on a lake in Mongolia. And I was in the only place in the world where I wanted to be, listening to the silence that wasn't silent at all. And I'm okay if I don't make it back."
As long as I can be here, listening to what the world says when it thinks no one is listening.
Edward Readicker–Henderson is a frequent contributor to National Geographic Traveler, Budget Travel, Sierra, Modern Bride, AARP, and dozens of others. Edward has won a Lowell Thomas Award for cultural writing, a Northern Lights award for the year's best travel story on Canada, and has been short–listed in Best American Travel Writing.
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