Lake Uvs
Lake Uvs
KHOVD, Mongolia
July 26, 2006

Waiting patiently for a lift in Moron paid off. Meenday and I found a ride with two men heading back to their home in Uvs, a province in Mongolia's far west. They brought us much closer to our destination (Ulaangom) than an alternate ride we were waiting on would have taken us. They also charged us an unbelievably low fare, about $20 U.S. (per head) to get from Moron to Zuungov.

Mongolia doesn't have any highway system connecting its cities. It's even a bit generous to say that there are "roads" around the country, as people drive Jeeps across scattered dirt tracks to get from place to place. There isn't any system of public transportation. To get to another part of the country, it's necessary to hitch a ride with some vehicle heading in the right direction.

About an hour after leaving Moron we came across another vehicle heading west. It was an old Jeep with no other passengers, driven by a 76-year old man. He was returning to his home in Khovd after bringing a guest out to Lake Khovsgul. He was unsure how to follow the tracks back out west; our driver agreed that the two vehicles should travel jointly to help the old man find his way. I was impressed that this old man was driving alone for several days across such dificult terrain. There's no way I could drive a vehicle anywhere around Mongolia, even at half his age.

After getting on the road again our driver complained how there was no music to listen to. Our Jeep had a basic stereo system, though the cassette deck was broken. Outside of Ulaan Baatar, there's not much on the Mongolian airwaves.

Fortunately, I had brought along my iPod and a tiny FM transmitter. I don't usually travel with the transmitter, but had visions of driving across Mongolia listening to the same distorted cassette over and over. I figured being able to offer up music of my own might keep me sane on long travels across the country. I offered to play DJ.

When we left Moron Meenday had mentioned that our driver was actually a teacher of one of Mongolia's classical instruments, the horse-headed fiddle. My iPod has a small amount of music from this corner of the world, I figured the driver would appreciate hearing something familiar. I started with an album of traditional khoomei throat-singing.

"What is this?" the driver asked as soon as I put the music on, Meenday translating.

"Khoomei," I replied.

"Don't you have anything I can drive to that won't put me to sleep? Do you have any disco?"

I figured that by "disco" he might actually mean dance music. Friends in Urumqi go to "discos" all the time, though they certainly wouldn't care to listen to '70s music.

I was wrong. The driver was most excited to hear genuine disco music. He sang along to several songs, though never managed the lyrics well. "Stayin' Alive" came out closer to "Say Lie," the "Y.M.C.A." was abridged to "C.A.". Singing along to Ottawan, he repeated the letters of his favorite genre, which came out alternately as "Z.I.S.C.O." or "T.I.S.C.O.". He hit the ABBA number perfectly though, whistling along in perfect tune.

After two days of driving to disco music, we parted ways. The older driver was continuing on in our direction, further west to Ulaangom. Meenday and I got into the old man's Jeep and continued west in wonderful silence.

Staying two nights in Ulaangom provided a nice break. There is a good road to Russia, so the city's infrastructure is better than many across Mongolia. Boldra (whom we met back in Ulaan Baatar) is from Ulaangom, her older brother and Meenday are good friends. We were hosted, fed, and taken around the area. We spent one day out at Lake Uvs, a colossal lake straddling the border with Mongolia and Tuva. We went swimming in the lake, then boiled mutton over a small fire. Before starting the fire we gathered a small number of stones to place beneath the kindling. After the mutton had boiled, the stones were placed directly into the pot--I presume to somehow more fully cook the mutton.

Jeep & Driver
Jeep & Driver
It was educational for me to hear Mongolian perceptions of nearby Tuva. Being just a short drive away from Ulaangom, I was intrigued by the proximity to a place I'd heard described in superlatives. I don't know much about the region, but had heard of Tuva as a remote area of nomads, shamans, and khoomei throat singing. I asked about the locals' connection to Tuva and found my romantic perceptions of the culture were not shared.

Mongolians come from a wholly different vantage point. They lack the distance and cultural differnces which shaped my notions of the area. Mongolia itself has similar traditions of nomadism, shamanistic religion, and khoomei throat singing, so these are not perceived as exotic. I learned that present-day contact between the two cultures is, at-best, strained.

"The Tuvans are awful! They come across the border at night to rustle our horses. They come heavily armed with guns and are extremely dangerous!"

While not enough to put me off a visit someday to Tuva myself, it certainly put matters into perspective, reminding me how relative everything can be.