1:00 p.m., Mongolia time.
We have landed in Ulaanbaatar. Immediately, we are aware that the atmosphere is different than in China. The airport in China was large, sleek and modern. Here, it is much smaller, and not so new. Not rundown exactly, but definitely not as modern as the one in Beijing. The people are much friendlier, however, and we like the place already.
The language we hear is considerably more pleasant than the Chinese we heard in Beijing. Chinese is harsh to Western ears, and the speakers always sound as though they're angry. Perhaps they are. Anyway, the Mongolian language is much softer, with a gentle rhythm to it, and a lot of sibilant sounds. It sounds very difficult, but it's pretty.
A young woman named Badmaa has been traveling with us. She is a Mongolian, a medical student who has actually graduated, but still has some residencies to complete. One of our team members, himself a physician, befriended her on a previous tour, and she has been in America for the last two months, living with him and his family. We have all gotten to know her, and to love her. She is delightful, bright, enthusiastic, eager and filled with the joy of the Lord. She is returning home, and Mongolia's gain will be our loss. She is met by her sister, grandmother and boyfriend, and we were witnesses to a sweet, tearful reunion.
A bus was waiting for us, along with a van for the luggage. The bus has a/c (sort of) and is comfortable enough. The driver is skillful, which is fortunate, as will soon become apparent. Susan Smith, the wife of Jerry Smith, who founded the Change The World ministry that we will be working with, and two Mongolian associates met us, and will ride with us to Darkhan. Susan shared some very interesting stories and facts with us. Eloise and I were fortunate enough to be seated across the aisle from Susan and behind Omar, and the conversation really made the time pass quickly.
Omar is hilarious. He shared stories from his childhood with us, including what he called his "ascot period." It seems that when he was in about the third grade, his mother bought him some little suits to wear to school. He described them as "Eddie Munster" suits, and they came complete with little ascots. He was compelled to wear them every day. Well, you can imagine what response that would generate from schoolkids. Omar's reaction to that was to reply, "What? Do you mean you don't have a suit and ascot? That's terrible. Maybe you should ask your parents to buy you some, because they're the latest thing." He declares that the ascot experience is what taught him to think on his feet and talk his way out of any situation. We were all roaring with laughter, just picturing Omar in his little suit and ascot.
The drive was about four hours, through desolate but beautiful country. It is very hilly, progressing to mountainous in places, but unlike any terrain I've ever seen. It's like the land is in folds and pleats, and there are almost no trees. There is vegetation - grass, weeds and a few wild flowers, but very few trees. The ones that do exist are gathered into small, isolated groves on the hillsides. The margins are sharply defined, as though the trees had been clearcut up to that point, but Susan says not, they just grow that way.
I realize that I'm seeing the same lines that I noticed from the plane, cobwebbing the landscape, and now I can see what they are. They're little tracks and trails, running alongside each other, crossing each other, veering off and returning, and they are everywhere. Some lead right up to the highway, and very soon we see the makers of these trails. There are animals everywhere. Not wild animals, but rather livestock. The same livestock that at home would be held behind fences and in corrals. Out here, they are free-ranging. I don't see a fence anywhere. Free-range includes the highway, apparently, as we encounter horses, cattle, sheep and goats clustered right on the shoulder of the road, and occasionally meandering across it. The driver uses the horn generously, but the animals mostly ignore it, and just go on about their business.
Not only do animals gather along the roadway, but people do the same thing. We see a lot of people just walking along the side of the road, or standing beside it, sometimes sitting on suitcases or bundles. We are told that these are travelers, and may be waiting for a bus, or hitching a ride, or might just walk all the way to Darkhan. If a vehicle has broken down, it is just stopped in the road, and the occupants are milling around beside it. Our driver exhibits all of his aforementioned skill, as he avoids mowing anyone down. No one gets excited at all.
Susan explains that almost all the land belongs to the government, but herdsman families live on it with permission, and keep their herds. The animals free-range and graze, but apparently know where they live and return home at night. Thus, the network of trails.
We were told there would be a "rest stop" about halfway, and Eloise and I were looking forward to that. However, when we got off the bus and saw the facilities, we decided we didn't need any rest! The bathroom consisted of a crude hut, clinging to the side of a deep ravine. It was divided into four sections, two for men and two for women. No doors, just a ramshackle wall built across the front of the little building. Inside, not only were there no doors, there was nothing else either, except a space where one plank had been removed from the floor, leaving a foot-wide gap, through which one could get a glimpse of the gates of hell. One is expected to straddle the gap and perform. Okay for guys, I guess, but a bit more difficult for the girls. The stench was overpowering, and only the very hardy or the very desperate went inside. After a quick peek through the door, I decided I wasn't that hardy, or that desperate, and returned to the bus.
Leaving the rest stop, we continued our drive through the beautiful Mongolian countryside. We see a lot of gers, and are surprised to see that some are equipped with satellite dishes! Most do not have electricity, but some do have gas-powered generators. They are the ones who have TV. We see a few motor vehicles outside the gers, but most of the time, there are only animals outside. Horses - always several horses, as they are the chief mode of transportation for these nomadic people. We learn that the families who have permission may stay on their chosen site for long periods, but most families do not have permission and must move every four months, or they will be charged taxes for the land they're occupying. This seems like a monumental inconvenience to us, because the gers look pretty substantial and semi-permanent. I'm anxious to learn more about them.
Soon, we begin to see buildings in the distance, and realize that we are approaching our destination, the city of Darkhan. The Mongols pronounce the kh combination with a soft, throat-clearing sound, but for Westerners, it usually just comes out as Darhan, with the "han" rhyming with "con." I'm busy at the window with my camera, snapping pictures as we go, but most don't turn out well, as the bus is lurching and swaying a lot. Perhaps I'll get some pictures later. I put the camera away, and just sit there and soak in my first impressions of the area that will be my home for the next ten days or so. America seems very, very far away.
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