Today I took off by foot (I don’t even have a bike now) to see the Buyant River, which Google maps had promised me I would find just west of town. I remembered a river crossing to the northwest, so headed back to the road that Judy and I walked the first evening we were here. Following it out another half mile or so, I came to the river crossing I had seen. It was, at the same time, everything and nothing like I had imagined. To begin with, the images on Google maps are more than seven years old. (This has been pointed out to me several times since I’ve been here.) Those images were taken in winter, and show solid ice instead of the shallow braided stream that I am looking at standing on the bridge.
Growing up in Western Pennsylvania, I am always surprised by flat ground. I understand it intellectually — some combination of gravity and sediment disbursed in water will do the trick — but the visual evidence is still foreign to me. Here there is another twist. I feel like I am looking at the world’s largest golf course. It isn’t clear to me yet whether the vegetation is trimmed so neatly by the cattle grazing on it or by the fact that winter lasts so long and that evolutionary pressures have selected for the compact and tidy. In either case, I am describing wide-open space that extends between sharp ridges to the east and west, and which extends in length as far as the eye can see to the south. To the north, there is a cut between the west and east ridges which the river slips into, disappearing on its way to the Khovd River which then empties into Har Us Noor.
Between the bridge and the cut are dozens of sites where gers have been set up. Large circles dot the landscape with, depending on how long ago the gers left, either bare soil or vegetation that is a different color than the surrounding hue. Here is where the hard facts of nomadic life are expressed, for while the gers move from one place to another, the discarded artifacts of their temporary stay do not. Some of what remains is the evidence of a meat-based diet — bones, skulls, horns, bits of skin and hooves which are in the process of blending back into the land. There is also that part which is not blending back into the land — the by-products of modern life that we take for granted with our public system of garbage collection and recycling. There is no trash pickup here, so, unlike the bones and skulls, the plastic oil containers, beer bottles, rubber flip-flops, disposable diapers, and detergent bottles remain in place for the foreseeable future, startlingly out of context.
When I showed these pictures to Davaa, my department supervisor and mentor to Mongolian customs, he stopped at an image I made of stones that had been carefully placed in a circle. I had seen several of these as I walked the plains of the river. “Do you know what this is?” he asked.
I told him the truth, that I had no idea.
“It is when children are playing. They make this circle for their ger.” A Mongolian doll house. There is just so much I can’t imagine.