We were all set and ready to go. Yes, we did have a great big truck, but the roads… well there weren’t any. The sound name “road” in rural Mongolia was given to any tire tracks left on the ground by a pair of wheels. Actually, the dry flat steppe would have been perfect for driving if it wasn’t for the desert rains. Paraphrasing a famous Russian proverb, “it rained seldom, but hit the bull’s eye”: it seemed as if a solid wall of water would suddenly connect the sky and the earth, and when it was over, the desert would turn into an ocean. Just before the land dried up, it turned into soft mesh and any vehicle that drove through the steppe at that time would leave deeply imbedded ruts, sometimes as many as thirty running parallel to each other. Once dried completely, those tracks would become as hard as ceramic tile. And through that “furrowness” we had to get in the GAZ 66 army cargo box truck, or more precisely in its box…
The truck inside had two benches set up along its windows and some handles on the side walls for infantry transportation. I suppose when the benches were filled with twenty adult people cladded in heavy ammunition, it was a different story. But as soon as we left the premises of the base, the Mongolian wilderness quickly let us know how little those handles mattered for the three of us- one delicate woman and two lighter than feather kids. The truck was driving about 60 km/hour and we were flying about the cabin like lotto balls in a bingo blower, losing all distinction between the floor and the ceiling. We had to stop and rearrange the benches into the sleeping position, which meant laying the long top seats across the box and putting as much soft stuff on them- blankets, pillows, etc. as we had. That slightly reduced the “crowd” in a “bruise department,” and made it possible for us to survive the rest of the journey.
Eventually we reached our first camping sight. It was a small island in the middle of the Kerulen river. The river itself is very full and long, one of the largest in Mongolia, running from the Hentiyn Mountains all the way into China with many sorts of fish in its waters and lush green pastures along its banks. The part of the river we reached, however, was not so picturesque. It was just a shallow stream of fast running mud.
My father and his soldier-driver unanimously decided that setting up a camp on the island would probably be safer than out in the steppe where wolves were “visitors most common.” The truck had no problem crossing the shallow, couple of feet deep, waters on its high four-by-four, central tire inflation system wheels. We parked our GAZ 66 in the middle of the island, had a quick supper of canned meats and veggies, warmed up on the campfire, and crushed exhausted at the sundown- the soldier-driver in the truck’s front cabin and the four of us in the box…
As we woke up the next morning and crawled out of our warm cozy box, we realized that apparently… APARENTLY during the night, one of those famous desert rains passed by and left us on an island much smaller than we first entered. The shallow muddy stream that was so easy to cross yesterday today turned into a proper river, wide and roaring. What to do? We all stared at the landscape around us dumbfounded, our minds drawing blank. There was no chance of crossing the river now; we had no radio or telephone with us to call for help; and there was no human soul around for as far as we could see. After we regained our ability to think, my father’s solution-oriented mind came to the only logical conclusion:
“We’ll have to wait until the river tides down.” He said.
So, great, now we were on a real desert island, trying to survive a real natural disaster. My sister and I looked at each other- this is not fun at all, we both noted silently. The island, unlike in our imagination, had nothing, and by “nothing” I mean NOTHING on it. It was a flat patch of clay land with minimal vegetation- no berries, no trees, no animals, no flowers not even one interesting looking rock. It was the most boring square-footage imaginable. Lucky for us we had food provisions enough to sustain us for a while but we were running out of water. The last drops in our flasks went to the making of instant coffee for breakfast, and now we were nervously glancing at the rolling brown river that surrounded us…
The russet water looked as bad in our enamel bucket as it did in the stream, and having tested it after it had been thoroughly boiled and the dirt particles settled to the bottom, my sister and I unanimously agreed that only severe dehydration will compel us to drink it. Having some food concerns though was good for us. It temporarily distracted the five of us from having to figure out what to do with all the pastime, but soon enough we were faced with that dilemma. My father who rarely had the luxury of extra-time on his hands just wanted to stretch out in the sun and do absolutely nothing. My sister and I, who were well acquainted with the abundance of “free time,” however, were more concerned with creating activities and entertainment for ourselves. It was interesting how uninteresting being stuck on a real desert island turned out to be. There wasn’t a lot of places one could go to, nor see many different things. So, unless one would learn to renew one’s perspective and look at his or her surroundings with “new eyes,” one could very easily go mad in this situation, I thought.
After a little while our eyes and minds adjusted to the seeming emptiness of our surroundings, and we began to see variety. Suddenly every little stone and rock had a bit of a different shape then all the others, a bit of a different shade of color and had a bit of a different “character.” I was beginning to understand what my father meant when he told us that the natives orient themselves in the steppe very easily. Not only are they consistently aware of their position in relationship to the four spatial directions- East, West, South and North, but they see the steppe as we see streets and roads in our world. Everything, every rock formation, every little valley, ravine or a slope has as distinct characteristics for the Mongolian locals as for us our bus stops, streets and house addresses. Not only that, but the various areas of the steppe feel differently to the native population. I was finally seeing the country wilderness a little bit more through the eyes of those who lived here and who loved its austere vastness. I could sense the pulse of the land, the energy of the river. The river was no longer a muddy stream in my mind but a powerful and defiant Spirit that, like blood through the veins, was pushing the vital nourishment through the harsh terrain and keeping it alive. Everything was harmoniously cooperating in nature- constantly negotiating and re-negotiating its push and pull, its flow and its dance of what to be “important” in the moment. It felt to me that being trapped on that island was not a mere coincident, nor a miscalculation. It had a greater purpose, and greater powers were at play here, as if the land itself was saying to us- “stop rushing about, slow down enough to see me for what I really am.”
As soon as that realization dawned on me (it felt) the water began to tide down. The sun was still high in its zenith when the stream became shallow enough for my father to cross it. He walked cautiously with a rope tied around his waist in case if he were to slip and got carried away by the fast running river, and we watched breathlessly from the island. Finally, he was safely on the other side. My father and his soldier-driver constructed a temporary emergency waftage with a rope and a spare tire so that we, the civilians, could sit in the tire and be transported across the river by the two men pulling and slacking the rope. Eventually our whole family re-united on the “mainland.” The only thing left to do was for the driver to take the truck across the stream. By my father’s tense posture and sparse speech, I could appreciate the risk of the venture. What if the truck gets stuck in the mud or fills with water so much that it becomes disabled? What would we do then?
I’m not sure why but as I was watching the truck emerging into the brown rapids I remembered a story my father had told us about the Mongolian customs. He described his experience in one of the ger settlements where they worked with the cooperation of the locals. There was a rapid river nearby and one of the little kids got caught in its stream and was drowning, screaming while the entire village passively watched on the side. It took one of the soldiers diving into the stream and pulling the child out for the situation to be resolved. Later someone explained to my father that Mongolians believe in destiny and would not interfere, especially when it comes to water. They believed that the powerful Spirit of the Underworld, Bur khan, was claiming the child, and there was nothing anybody could do about it. At first upon hearing the story I felt infuriated by the seeming cowardice of the people but standing there in the middle of the Mongolian steppe I felt the power beyond one’s reason and understanding. I could see why they might have felt so much awe in the face of it. Though unlike the village folks I didn’t feel subdues by that mighty spirit. In some way, I realized, felt united with it.
The truck slowly but surely passed the midpoint of the rapids and was emerging out of the deep waters. The worst was over. Everyone breathed a little more freely now… Half-dipped in mud with the dark water draining out of its every orifice, our beloved GAZ 66, along with its driver, finally joined us on the safe side.
The rest of our journey went quite smoothly, and we arrived to the military campsite before dawn. Nobody talked much about the flood but I felt that it had changed us all a little bit. Maybe it allowed some of us to feel more respect for the natural powers of the steppe; maybe it made others think beyond everyday concerns; as for myself I felt that in that flood we were all “baptized” by the mighty Spirit Bur Khan, and now we belonged to this land, just like the natives did. We surely got our feet wet here…