It all started with the brown pants. They're a cute lenin(ish) pair from H&M that I sported with little tee-shirts and ubiquitous pink Chucks last year whenever the weather would allow. At my behest my parents recently sent them in one of their ever-divine care packages. When they arrived, I tore open the box, pulled them on and discovered with a peep of dismay that they didn't look quite right. Zipping the fly was rather more arduous than I remembered. I had heard about Mongolia's infamous widening effects on womens derrieres. A Peace Corps friend informed me that upon arriving in America after her time in Mongolia, her bosom buddies assured that she looked completely the same- just her ass had gotten huge! It seemed like I had gotten bit by the same bug. It is a commonly know fact in Peace Corps Mongolia that the majority of women who come here gain weight. (In yet another of life's injustices- men tend to lose weight.) I was even warned about this travesty before I got came here by a returned PC Mongolia Volunteer. Certainly a contributing factor is that the accepted national diet consists of solely of meat and carbohydrates (flour noodles with meat, fried hot-pockety things with meat, dumplings with meat...you get the drift). That fact makes it hard not to contemplate all the terrible things you'd do to eat just one, little green salad as you munch into yet another buuz or even piece of bread. I tried searching the stores recently for something green but only came up with canned peas and pickles out of four shops. At any rate, as I forlornly extracted myself from the brown pants, clouded with self doubt and wounded esteem, I resolved to do something about my current problem. I still fit into all of my other clothes- just the brown pants were a wee bit too snug. I wasn't too bad off. But I knew then and there that if I had to turn this mildly tubby car around. To check myself before I wreck myself, as it were. I moped about for a few days until my friend encouraged me to go running as I had done in college. I had brought my super sweet running shoes from home in hopes to start here. But life got away from me and before I knew it, I'd only laced my shoes up once and my brown pants had failed me.... or I guess my ass had failed the brown pants. So running again seemed like the most logical thing to do, not to mention the healthiest; I decided to start. It did help that my friend, fully supportive, promised to greet me with fresh coffee and encouragement upon my triumphant return. So on the following Monday, I hauled my shoes on at the bleak hour of 7:30am and headed down the apartment stairs.
I have kept the same route since then and it never ceases to amaze me. There are always new absurdities and amusements, new morning vistas and scenes of daily life as I jog past. When I start out on my route, I run upstream through waves of children going to school. Sucking on lollipops and sporting huge bows that match their old fashion Russian uniforms they stare at me googly eyed, wondering what in the world I am running from. They yell 'hello' and 'hi!' playfully as they stroll arm-in-arm. Sometimes I pass a brood of older boys hanging out on a store stoop, intent of teasing me for their own amusement they, too, holler. At first my route takes me down two relatively crowded streets. Parents stroll as their toddlers trip along beside them, teenagers late for school rush or amble by, children bravely clad in striped tights or track pants play in the dirt and old men eye me cautiously, wary of the change my presence portends. Many days my run is less of a strait path than an obstacle corse of muddy puddles and steaming cow poo. I also make sure to give a healthy distance to resting dogs, lying and tussling on the dirt road after escorting their little school-bound masters out of the yard. Then, with a turn that brings the rising sun to my face, I hit the big street. It's the main road through the Kazakh district. A wide stretch of pavement, it is lined with fences made of mud, wood and scrap metal. Behind these fences each family is waking up, performing their morning dance. Through the cracks and open gates I see children flapping their arms at cows or sheep, women transferring water from one vessel to another and men sidling up to their outhouses. A few notes on this: almost none of these dwellings have running water and, as for the latter, I learned the hard way that the outhouse walls aren't always where they should be. Who knew the full moon shined at 8am?! Many days when I turn onto the big road, it steaches empty before me. But soon, with the rising sun, people venture forth. Aged women in colorful headscarves and men equally as antique confer with one another, hands clasped behind their backs. There is always at least one or two herds of animals- sheep, goats or cows- on their way to the grassy meadow and the river that runs though it. They roll through the gas station en route to graze, making for a comic sight. Many times I'll see a huge heard of goats, their quivering cries overlapping in the air. The amazing thing about countless goats walking on a paved road is that it sounds like rain. All the tiny little hooves join together making a symphony akin to a summer storm, a miraculous sound when you live in a desert. Sometimes at the back of the herds men ride majestically atop horses or a bored teenage boy walks as he texts on a cellphone. I saw three generation of women herding one morning; they had the same gait and manner of waving at the errant animals as they walked together to the fringe of town. That seemed to encapsulate the cycle of time here on the arid steppe. All manner of transit passes me. Sometimes entire families on motorcycles sputter by. The children on board, with their heads smooshed to the side between their parents, eye me with wonder. Some motorcycles have old-school Russian sidecars laden with fuel for fires, some are piled high with enigmatic sacks- perhaps kilos of rice and potatoes to be carted to the remotest homes. On rare days huge trucks will blow by, filled to the brim with ger pieces and eight to ten people crammed in the front. But despite the traffic, which is really very sparse and in itself interesting, its a beautiful way to see Mongolia in the morning. Little birds dip and soar overhead though the smoke that rises from breakfast fires and the whole world seems fresh.
Much of the time it's sadly difficult to get up the mojo to actually run. Occasionally my mind is trapped and my body can't free itself to move satisfactorily. I will get stuck in the memory of my old morning runs. Lacing up my shoes, I'd head down to the air conditioned gym where shiny machines awaited. There I found an immaculate set up that had been paid for by a college tuition equal to mortgaging the White House. Mounting an elliptical, my feet would glide above the polished floor as I worked up a sweat. And to captivate my mind, my own personal television would spring to life, offering more channels that the good Lord ever intended. I would turn up my ipod and tune out to an intensely quaffed Paula Deen or exotic locals on the Travel Channel. Imagining sweet potato biscuits or perusing the colorful streets of Buenos Aires would suck me in and I became blissfully unaware of my vanishing calories. Now my scenery has somewhat altered and getting past that mental block has become a new daily challenge. My panting breath screams in my ears and I constantly have to will my feet to quicken, sometimes to no avail. Regardless, it has been a good new challenge. A perpetual personal milestone when normally my life is crowded with people and social predicaments. These flat streets have become my own mountains.
I have tried my best to be faithful to my morning constitutionals since that inaugural Monday morning. I've missed one day each for laziness, sickness, business and 'snoze'/'stop' confusion since I started four weeks ago. Not too bad, I think. And even if my brown pants don't fit perfectly around svelte, new hips come vacation time next week, these runs have been more than just an attempt to shape up. I've developed a new relationship with a country that I have inhabited for almost a year now- a thing I might have thought impossible after such a long time. And my relationship with myself has deepened, it always behooves one to work on pushing and patience. So every morning, as I lace up my running shoes, I wonder what new scene awaits me. Then I turn towards the pavement that is waiting for my pounding feet.