Slow Convoy

Dumpling Break
Dumpling Break
DELUUN, Mongolia
July 29, 2006

I was shaken awake at 6:30 this morning, well past dawn. I suspect that sleeping until that hour is considered late for the driving schedule these Kazak traders operate on.

At nightfall we happened across a yurt and decided to stay. I was surprised by how large, warm, and comfortable its interior was. Carpets and mats were stacked together to form a bed, I slept soundly through the night.

Last night was another mutton-fest. There's not a lot of variety to cuisine across Mongolia, the meals here are positively neolithic. Dinner's opening course was a platter of bare sheep shanks. The meat had been boiled up separately, the bones set out to gnaw on. Greasy bone in hand, I got to know four of the other men in the convoy: Erman, Erken, Serik, and Berik.

Our level of communication seems dependant upon how much effort whomever I speak with wants to put forth. Erken understands everything I say and occasionally translates my Uighur into proper Kazakh. He takes the time to speak slowly and paraphrase, so I understand him well. I have varying levels of comprehension with the others, depending on how much they care to understand what I say.

After a day's journey we've made it maybe 100 kilometers. Typical with travel around Mongolia, trucks in the convoy have been continually breaking down. Additionally, we've had to cross several rivers without bridges. Occasionally the rivers run deeper than the wheels of the trucks. I'm surprised such large vehicles can make it across, especially when they seem prone to breaking down every hour or two. Even when the trucks have no problem, the convoy stops often for no apparent reason. During one of these pauses a driver from one of the trucks decided to pick a fight with me.

After spending an hour sitting outside doing nothing, the convoy started down the road together. We had stopped just before a narrow bridge; the lead driver turned his engine off in the middle of the bridge, blocking traffic in both directions.

I'm not sure what set him off, but he staggered out of cab and started yelling at everybody. He pushed a few people around; I didn't realize his anger was focused on me until I heard one of the women in our group repeat the word "American". He lifted a large stone and raised it high, gesturing in my direction.

Dumpling Break
Erkin and Berik
Pacify Drunken Driver
He was clearly drunk, from the reactions of the others that this was nothing unusual. They yelled at him, held him back, and instructed me to wait inside the cab of the truck parked farthest away. There was no sense of urgency or surprise, though.

While waiting for the drunken driver to forget his anger, the woman sitting next to me in the cab in the truck whispered something in Kazakh which I couldn't fully understand. I made something out about incidents happening twice before, once in Bayan-Olgii, another time in another town. Given the hushed tones she used, I wondered if he hadn't stabbed or perhaps killed somebody twice while drunk."

After the other travellers had calmed the driver, the convoy set off again. An hour down the road we stopped once again for no apparent reason. Again, I was told in hushed tones something about "twice before" and "two other men", this time by some of the men in the convoy. Reasoning that the verb I wasn't understanding was likely stab or kill I tried to make light of the situation by responding, "Well, perhaps I'll be number three."

Everybody burst into laughter beyond what I expected for my joke, I must have misunderstood who had done what. Perhaps they weren't whispering, "He got drunk and killed men twice." Maybe it was, "He got drunk, started threatening people, then got his ass kicked twice before."

Whatever it was they were saying to me, my joke was spot-on, for the rest of the day everybody was chuckling, "So, you're going to be number three, huh?"