Monday, June 20, 2011

Odysseus Goes Glacial

It's a strange feat walking the streets of Ulaanbaatar trying to remember what my life was like last week. The trip to Tavin Bogd was amazing but even so staring at the freshly tarred streets of the capitol it's funny to think that just a few days ago I saw nothing but dirt roads littered with holes and rocks. The landscape we drove through in Olgii was starkly beautiful though almost completely unpopulated. Being jostled on the sidewalk now, I am struck with a little nostalgia picturing the gers we passed, lone dwellings in a sea of grass with not another place of shelter within sight or memory. We spent a significant amount of our time on the trip driving. On the way there we drove for about ten hours and coming back about six. The reason it took so long to reach our final destination was because we had to stop at many different, very out of the way checkpoints to obtain official permission to reach the park. Though it was a rather painful ride at times, there were six of us and a feline besides the driver wedged into four seats, it was stunning. The scenery was surprisingly varied, rolling from deserts peppered with angry, green shrubs to breathtaking green mountains cut by gurgling brooks. Though our way was long and the metal parts on the ceiling were not kind to bare heads, we had an excellent adventure snaking our way slowly towards the mountains. I felt like Odysseus in our little vessel being tossed around on the empty plains. And every time we stopped, we ran into fascinating characters. Each tiny outpost had it's own pulse, every town felt something all it's own- in some places the entire population echoed the lethargy and apathy of the Lotus Eaters, while others were as fun and fascinating as Sirens. Our final permit had to be obtained from a Kazakh herder family which turned out to be rather incredible. After finally reaching the spot, the women invited us in for tea, and being in a frustrated vertigo of bumpy road induced anguish, I was happy to oblige. We sat on the floor of their low, mud house as the grandmother laid out a spread of fried bread and dairy products, including crunchy milk curds and a sweet, thick butter. It then hit me that these people probably make everything they eat. In fact, they sustain themselves almost exclusively from their herd of goats and sheep, literally the only thing they ever buy is flour. The grandmother smiled sweetly as she bounced a toddler on her lap who was fingering a crib in which lay an even smaller child and I was floored by the life she must live and how different it is from mine-- even though we both live in Western Mongolia. But alas when the milk tea was slurped to the dregs, we had to pile back into the Jeep and set off on our way.

The next day we tackled the mountain. Now, we've discussed my climbing ability, or lack thereof, but on this occasion I felt full of piss and vinegar, ready to conquer the world. But we didn't even get ten minutes away from camp before we were forced to ford a freezing rock-bedded river barefoot. In her terror and confusion upon crossing, one girl tossed her shoes into the rapids, drenching both shoes and losing a sock. She also her her leash-bound cat in tow, which complicated matters and baffled the locals to a very entertaining degree. Sam, always gallant, dashed into the river and fished out her floating shoes, soaking the boots he had managed to keep dry during his river crossing. And from there it was a whole lot of walking. We walked for literally hours but it was the scenery was stunning. Cars weren't allowed to touch the landscape and wild flowers in a riot of yellow, purple and white bloomed everywhere underfoot. The most special moment of the hike was when we finally crested a huge hill after walking for about three hours and a spectacular vista of Tavin Bogd's peaks and the glaciers curving gently between them reveled itself above the yellow grass. From there an unfortunate three more hours of walking thrust itself between me and our destination but with some encouraging words from Sam, I made it.  Sadly we were temporarily thwarted by  the blood vessels in Sam's nose inexplicably exploding but I played nurse to my valiant guide and we were able to continue on our journey. We climbed down a rock slide to the lowest point, Sam walked boldly with me following gingerly, then I was shocked when there I felt a cold crunch beneath my feet and I found myself actually standing on the glacier. The part of the ice closest from whence we came was covered with dirt so it was well camouflaged, but beneath the thin layer of pebbles lay the first glacier I had ever touched. A freezing air radiated from the surface, chilling me to the bone and rivers of chilling runoff ran down the face, slicing the ice from it's path. Exhilarated to have reached our destination, we frolicked on the frozen surface, taking pictures and throwing shaved ice balls through the brisk atmosphere. The whole space felt alive, with water rushing all around, air breathing up on us and ice crunching under every step, it felt like we were treading on the back of a frosty giant. We wandered across the glacier, which proved rather treacherous when I readied myself to leap across a river but quickly found the snow beneath me giving way as my foot and ankle became engulfed in icy water. The fact that I was hiking most of the way in my beat-up Chuck Taylor All Star Converse did not help much, though they did dry quickly in the sun, an unexpected boon. Sam and I ate a wee snack on the banks of the fiercest glacial river then decided to head back. I was originally unsure of how exactly I would get up aforementioned rock slide after championing it's downhill slope. It proved not as difficult as imagined and we headed confidently back through the flowers, no less beautiful the second time, on our way. As we walked back, we caught up with the other contingent of our group, who we had somehow misplaced earlier. They proved to be exhausted and slowly my tiredness began to match theirs. Sam took a rather entertaining video of my sad, sad attempts to walk near the end of the hike. My ankles were weak, the slightest bump in the grass sent me reeling and at more than one point I stumbled to the ground. In a stroke of drama, I channeled American Indians on the Trail of Tears. How in the world did they walk all that way?! I'd been walking for a whole day and was about ready to die. Good lord, I surely would have been shot on the Trail of Tears for excessive snack breaks and delirious hilarity. After face-planting solidly in the grass and declaring I couldn't walk any more, Sam good-naturedly sat by my side and waited until I was ready to take his arm, welcoming much of my weight leaning on him, though he was carrying a huge backpack and I nothing. He smilingly indulged me when I made up a game called  'list all the things you hate' and suggested we start with hiking. My mood was drastically improved, however when we not only saw our camp but also when I took a minute to appreciate the beauty around me. The sun was sinking towards the mountains, casting a golden net over the hills and painting a lone man leading a camel along the ridge of a cliff. Finally, much to my surprise, we finally made it back to camp, though not without yet another trudge through a large, frigid creek, of course. I felt victorious on the inside but on the outside I looked like Sam's 17th century Chinese grandmother, hobbling along impotently behind him. Upon staggering to the tents, I was ready for a self-administered foot rub, some blister popping a lieter of water, a cold beer and a good pee when I heard an earlier arriving friend explode the words "thank God the cook's here! What do we do?" I turned around and she was staring at me with panicked eyes. I sighed, steeled myself and lorded over, by request, one darn good dinner.

The trip back wasn't so exciting as the one going. It's normally like that, though I don't know why. There's not so much excitement, I guess; things are more predictable. Recently, particularly throughout this Tavin Bogd trip, I've been thinking a lot about journeys in general. In ninth grade we studied 'the heroes quest' as a literary theme and it's stuck with me ever since. Seeing my service in this light, as a trip taken by a traveler who leaves home to fumble through distant lands and again return home, I kind of feel a kinship with folks like Odysseus. I've always tried to live like Alfred Lord Tennyson narrated for Ulysses in his 1833 poem. He said the famed traveler sought "to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield". However, I know very well my life is not so grand as this great man's although sometimes it is pretty to think so, especially when faced with something as spectacular and humbling as a glacier that, like my hero, surpasses me by thousands of years.


E in Atlanta said...

What a GRAND adventure! You are sooo lucky to have these experiences that will stay with you FOREVER!

E in Atlanta said...

"Adventure is a path. Real adventure – self-determined, self-motivated, often risky – forces you to have firsthand encounters with the world. The world the way it is, not the way you imagine it. Your body will collide with the earth and you will bear witness. In this way you will be compelled to grapple with the limitless kindness and bottomless cruelty of humankind – and perhaps realize that you yourself are capable of both. This will change you. Nothing will ever again be black-and-white.” – Mark Jenkins