*This is Part 2 of “10,000 Miles to Altargana; Festival of Nomadic Culture”
A Running Battle with Fatigue
Besought with travelers exhaustion, the whole bus conks out. Anybody remember the sunset? I didn’t think so. Perhaps we didn’t have one on account of gathering storm clouds. As fast as a Soviet bus can manoeuver dirt track in the Mongolian steppe, that is how fast we advanced. SUVs, mini vans, and Priuses lapped us. They would roll on by with a honk and a wave, often the Mongolian flag royally rippling, blue, scarlet and gold over their steppe vessel.
Things got dark, and as the road pounded up through the frame of the bus, up through the frame of your body, things got blurry. Things like reality. A hard jolt would send us all flying in a collective gasp of surprise and displeasure. Each time you sailed, your brain would run the following set of diagnostics.
Brain: “Who are you?” Me, groggily: “Mmmmm . . . Oh! Alex.” Brain: “Correct. Where are you?” Me: “Airborne in the back of a bus?!” Brain: “Insufficient. Where are you?” Me, getting hot: “I Am In AIRBORNE SYNCHRONIZATION With Twenty-Nine Buryats On A Bus BARRELING Across North-Eastern Mongolia For The Altargana FESTIVAL!” Brain: “Accepted. Are you prepared for landing?” Me, incredulously: “Wha??? I was just sleeping!” Brain: “Warning! In .000135 seconds a sorrowful spine compressing landing will be reality’s affirmation that you are on a bus barreling across the Mongolian steppe. Prepare.” BAM!!! “UNGH!!!” Ten out of ten chiropractors would not recommend this.
At midnight we found some gas station somewhere. I have photographic proof. We staggered for the exit to put our feet on solid ground. Jadedly, I watched the driver, mechanic, and Otgoo the mountaineer struggle with one of the bus’s wheels in the dark. Brain: “Keeping the wheels on.” Me: “Oh shut up, Brain!” A stroll and a stretch and it was already time to slide yourself back into your slot in the rolling sardine tin. It started to rain . . .
Fatigue plays games. You realize you were sleeping only when jounced awake. Consciousness to “out cold” transpires in milliseconds. In this state, your body lets go, which explains why I kept being impolitely awakened when my head swung wide and careened off the metal wall of the bus again. Nothing like a blow to the head to wake a fella. I would groan in pain, start to feel sorry for myself . . . and I’m asleep. Karaam! This time I’ll feel sorry for myself first, no time to groan in . . . asleep. Rain pattered down the windows.
Light begins burnishing the edge of Mongolia’s horizons around 4 am. An hour later the merciless punishment slowed and stopped as we encountered a rain swollen obstacle. Obstacle protocol played out as follows: The driver spied other vehicles collecting like wildebeests at a watering hole. He surmised, that this is a tricky piece of country. He pulled in for observation. Observation consisted of watching these skittish vehicle-wildebeests attempt to clear the (crocodile infested) obstruction and in accordance with their results, deciding which path is the most likely for a successful ford. The fact that we stopped, and growing tension in the air roused many from slumber. We ooh and ah in simulcast as each driver released their emergency brake and rolled into a bounce, dash and totter on the edge of catastrophe.
Some of the fine young fellas, myself included, clambered out to reconnoiter. My viewfinder was open and ready to record this successful siege on a rain bloated gully bottom. “She’s hardly a creek, boys! Hardly a creek!” Our white mini-van lined up and took her setup run. She hit that rivulet right, blew mud sky high, and conquered the grass covered mud flats after fording. Next up, us. The driver shifted down, revved the GAZ’s (Soviet Bus) engine, and rumbled down the hill. He hit the creeklet straight on and lumbered through. He’s looked OK. Then he got a bit wobbly! That mud flat grabbed at the tires like minty quicksand toothpaste. GAZ ground to a halt.
Mud: A Hungry Thwarter
It was 5 am, raining hard, and the bus is mired in muck. Good morning!
Oral steppe policy begins with the rule that you help someone when they need it, and they help you. So we unrolled the towing cable and hooked it up to our stalwart van. Stalwart gave her a go. But it’s a no go. After two hours, with all my gear accept my camera pack and water bottle, that van forged ahead with the promise to send back help. Ever after, people would say to me: “It’s raining, don’t you have any pants?” “Yes, of course, they are in my pack, on the other van.” The mosquitoes came out well fed on that deal. Other vehicles gurgled through and rolled on by. These are the moments when a person thinks, “If I’m stuck, everyone should be stuck.” “Get stuck, get stuck! GET STUCK!!! No? I wish you safe voyage.”
Driver and mechanic were busy trying to jack the tires up, while we scoured the rain drenched hillside digging out rocks by fingernail. Returning, we sacrificed those rocks to the gluttonous maw of muck sucking our tires down into perdition. Ya know what? That mud ate rocks like it was a coney island hot dog eating contest.
We commissioned Dorj to intercept the Russian jeep we saw on another track. Dorj ran two miles, Dorj brought back the jeep. We thought of every trick in the book, and that Russian jeep driver made two hours of attempts to jerk us out. No luck. All hands queued up on the steel cable, young, old, and slightly infirm for a tug o’war battle with the GAZ. GAZ Didn’t Give! At one point I considered Tserigma in my lens. She stood in mud spattered pink sandals, rain soaked hair plastering her face, lamenting our most recent failure to extract the bus. In exhausted misery she plaintively uttered into the air “I just want to go home!” Tears of frustration mix well with rain.
The day stretched, yawned, got about his business. He produced the sun, who dried us out and knocked us out. Our driver misplaced his consciousness in the grass in front of the bus, laying in the sun as if dead for three hours. People played cards, they socialized, they slept. I stalked steppe eagles scouring the landscape for lunch. Bold and I even pushed another car out of the gully, while we remained STUCK. After that, I dug myself a bed amongst the stored luggage, and exited this world for three lovely hours. I didn’t know we were stranded, I didn’t know I was in Mongolia, heck, I didn’t know I was alive. I was wherever our driver had wondered to.
A prickly sun chased me from reverie as thunderheads started building. I’m not joking when I say, we were all contemplating spending the night on the bus in a deluge.
The Mongols materialized in several boss looking SUVs. Sporting fedoras common to steppe environs, their confident saunters exclaimed: “This isn’t our first rodeo.” That lit our hope light. We believed they could pull us out of the sludge, and toward broader horizons. Out came the tow cable to be bridled to a bright and creamy Toyota. When our driver signaled, the driver of the Toyota quirted his horses, and they spit mud to the moon. It was beautiful. Soon the moon was covered in mud, but our bus? That bus just would not budge.
After forty-five minutes, the Mongols rounded up their SUV’s and sped off. Chastened, we took stock. Our promised help hadn’t come. Three different vehicles and their drivers had done their level best to clear us from our trap to no avail. Storm clouds continued to gather, but the distance to Altargana remained the same – Infinite. It was late afternoon, our prospects poor. And yet, we hadn’t lost hope. Even in the midst of trouble, you realize, once you survive this, it will be an epic life tale, one you will never forget. (Other epic tales: Part 1 and Part 2 of “Return from Snowy River” and “A Long Haul for Olkhon” part 1 and “Retracing Baikal’s Ice Crucible” part 2.)
And then the World Wildlife Fund motored into our lives. Calm, collected and humble, this man displayed for us magic we had yet to try. That magic is spelled w-i-n-c-h. Hope burned in our eyes! The meadow where we had been lounging in the sun transformed as everyone got up to push. The driver, who had been granted resurrection from his death like sleep, crawled under the bus to attach the winch cable. All was ready. We held our collective breath as the winch cable tightened, and found purchase. The bus was still winning, it pulled the SUV dangerously close to its failed orbit. But WWF was not to be foiled, he let the winch out again, and we gave her another try. The SUV stood its ground, and the bus teetered, choked, and started to MOVE! Inching forward, while we all pushed, that GAZ found its feet and drove up the hill at 5 pm, twelve hours after our bog down. Quickly we reloaded our bus (all extra weight had been jettisoned), and got back underway, after the WWF driver had received his proper kisses from the Matriarchs! (If you don’t know who the Matriarchs are, read part one of this story here.)
The Sweet Bliss of Movement
It was a half an hour before we found our promised help. One of the van crew, an elderly gentlemen had searched for half the day for a tractor to come pull us out. Several tractor drivers had agreed, only to back out. When he finally found one, they started back the way he had come and we met up just before six! We will never know the great lengths he went to, to procure a tractor. He piled in, and we left our would be rescuer to trundle back to his home base.
The scenery started to change. We skirted the great bed of the Onon river, best known river of Chingis Khan’s homeland. Up, up we broke out into high grasslands and saw two wild boar sauntering through tall grass as if all Mongolia was theirs. As we drew near our goal, the roads got really crazy. Supply trucks were stalled out on muddy hillsides and our bus was desperately leaning at forty-five degree angles while we picked our way toward the valley where Dadal lay.
Darkness swallowed the verdant landscape just before we crested the final hill and tooled through the grand gate that signaled our arrival at Altargana. My breath caught as the dazzling lights of the entire encampment stretched out wide across the valley below. It was as if we had been transported back in time in a magic bus, to arrive at the great cantonment of the Grand Khan, Chingis. From here he united the steppe tribes, from here he rode forth with his army of mounted archers to unleash the Mongol blitzkrieg across Asia and Europe. For the next three days, we would live in the tents and gers of his encampment, and experience the culture and traditions of Chingis Khan’s northern vanguard and arguably his most feisty warriors, the Buryats.
Part one of this series, 10,000 Miles to Altargana can be read here.
Look for the final post of this series, Smiling Faces of Altargana where you can learn what Altargana is all about.