Last year, HFR contributor Ming Holden lived in Mongolia as a Luce Scholar, working on PEN Center formation, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees refugee status for an exiled Chinese writer, and literary translations for the Mongolian Writers Union. The Asia Foundation sent her back to continue that work for a short time this summer. Here, she takes us inside her trip. You can learn more about her work on her blog.
On Sunday, Altangerel, the top lawyer at Mongolia's Ministry of Justice and also the woman whose translated book of short stories I am editing for The Asia Foundation, stood in the 8am sunshine outside my Stalin-era apartment block in Ulaanbaatar. I walked toward her with by bag over my shoulder, squinting in the Gobi bright. Ulaanbaatar is not a city that opens early, especially on a Sunday (witness: the only Buddhists I know who drink). Alta looked up from texting. Alta manages to do everything quietly, even things that would be silent in the first place.
A man in a camouflage uniform got out of the jeep beside her, and I realized that we were not only going with them, but that I would be riding for the next 13 hours in the middle seat in the back, between one of Alta's co-workers at the ministry (I think) and Alta, who, like me, is not at her best in the morning. "Who is driving us?" I asked. "Border Patrol Officers," she said without anything beyond her normal, calm amount of inflection. I was glad; this meant I didn't need to worry about the border pass foreigners usually need to travel that close to Russia and/or China--Choibalsan is quite close to both, in the dusty, windswept, flatlanded far-east of Mongolia.
"What are you going out to Choibalsan for, anyway?" I asked.
"Work." she said shortly.
Oh. Right. She had said, when she mentioned I might come with her for a work trip, not to tell people I was there to do work on her book. It followed I shouldn't be asking about the nature of the work done by those around me, those to whom I was not to tell the whole truth.
Outside of Ulaanbaatar where people on road trips stop for chips and gas, we pulled into a parking lot next to a glistening SUV. Police officers climbed out of it. The Mongolians, lawyers, Border Patrol Officers, and Police Officers greeted one another, stood in the green and the wind for a few minutes, then got back in the cars.
Five hours later we were in the aimag center of Khentii. Pollen blew. We went into the central police office, and Alta pointed up, smiling. On the TV in the top corner was Alta herself, giving an interview. The resident Police Chief led us to the only restaurant/pub establishment I could see in the town, and we ate the requisite gureeltai shul, mutton and noodle soup. Alta and her cohorts actually left the rest of the vodka in their glasses after the welcome toast, something that in the ten months I lived here last year I'd never seen before--but then again, I worked at the Mongolian Writers Union last year.
The guard driving was the only person I knew not to either stop at the ovoos (Buddhist places of worship on certain hilltops consisting of piled stones, sometimes birch branches, blue khadags, or prayer flags, and plenty of milk, vodka, and candy offerings), and get out, circling it three times and tossing a pebble each time, or at the very least, honking three times as we drove past. He was also the first I knew to follow the speed limit.
"Who starts the ovoos?" I asked Alta.
"The herders consult with lamas, with monks, and they say the place with the best energy."
She mentioned energy one more time when describing the province of Uriangkhai: "Mongolians who live there use no technology. We say, Mongolians say, they are special with a gentle nature. All the monks who lived and worked there- the place has a special energy, a special feel." She looked out the window. "This place feels to me like the heart of Eurasia," she said. "All this clean land with no mountains, feels like the mother place." When we went away across the fields to pee where the men couldn't see us she said on the walk back that she felt excited to have the time "to relax, to dream, see the nature, listen to music" (on her iPod Nano).
People were working on a bridge when we drove up to it, so Border Patrol driver guy did a seventeen-point turn and we went to the next bridge over. Two teenage boys in their deels on horseback at the other side, and between us, flooding the bridge, were a hundred sheep. Big sheep, brown sheep, baby sheep, horned sheep. They groaned and jostled in a river or fur. One of the Border Patrol guys got out to stand between our jeep and the side of the bridge, helping to herd. The other one, the heretofore unsmiling driving one, rolled the window down and "Ch! Ch! Ch!"'d the sheep along. Camels, who by their tattered appearance were ownerless, wandered solo across the steppe, fresh wind, then the Kherlen River with twenty horses mid-submerged.
Here in Choibalsan we stay in a hotel with no hot water or showers. The police officers woke me up today by entering the room I shared with Alta and her co-workers and asking loudly if we'd go eat. They take me to the market, they call to ask if I need anything. Alta and the others are gone on their James Bond Mission somewhere near China. The pollen stream by in tufts like piano notes, carried swiftly along the breeze. The faces of the elderly, sun-browned and leathery, look as though the word "weathered" was created for them. Dust coats it all, the buildings match the desert floor upon which they stand, and the sky, patched with rapidly scudding clouds, is, of course, endless.
Today I permit the present to enter. I'm not to know the facts that ferried me here, so I won't try to; instead I will bear witness to this uncanny place, this hole in the world, as a poet and not a journalist. I'll ponder that "text" has become a verb. I'll watch the adolescent boys push each other in the children's park porch-swing and pray to this dusty place for that playfulness and obliviousness to remain in them. It's the interaction between the world and my heart, unfettered by analysis: deep grooves of soaking, pollen and light.