I have a photo, one of only three I took in Mongolia, of a road. A single line of tyre tracks in dust divides the photo into halves of mottled dun, a landscape marked only by its austerity and a line of tottering telephone poles. In the foreground, a road sign is planted in the desert gravel. There are liver spots of rust on the sign and three white arrows, two of which point out into an empty plain, the third ahead to Mandalgovi, a provincial centre along the meandering track, and my home.
In 2006, Peace Corps, the United States government’s volunteering agency, had assigned me to a school in the northern gravel reaches of the Gobi Desert to teach and support youth programs. For almost three years I huddled through snow and sandstorms, waking up to wash myself in a plastic tub, put on a jacket and tie and teach English while my breath steamed over the students’ heads.
I lived in a ger, the transportable dwelling of the Mongolian nomad. It was covered in felt, floored in carpets, and warmed by an iron stove. Mine also had a limitless view of the dirt airstrip and the desert beyond. I shared a fenced yard with a family of teachers and their high-achieving children. They suspected, correctly as it turned out, that I would fail to make food out of sheep and flour, and would waste away on their watch.
The two other photos I took in Mongolia show them sitting around a table laden with mutton dumplings and milk tea, my stool momentarily empty but my bowl full. After hundreds of shared meals, they had grafted me onto the family. I became a teacher, a neighbour, even a son, but not at all what I had intended when I left the United States – a travel writer.
I was carried off to Mongolia as much by a book as by a Boeing jet or good intentions: Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia. Chatwin was a director at Sotheby’s in London, a failed archaeologist, and a writer, before he left suddenly for South America. In 1977, he emerged with In Patagonia, a travel book that romanticised nomadism in spare prose that turned Chatwin into a literary superstar of the 1980s. I found the book 15 years after Chatwin’s death, and convinced myself that I had the soul of a nomad.
I grew up in the USA. My father worked for a farm equipment manufacturer during an agricultural recession in the 1980s and my mother had portable skills as a teacher. We moved seven times across four states before I left for university. My brothers and I were raised to move, to feel like strangers in country towns and in small cities in the Mississippi River basin. For Midwestern German Lutherans, however, the church is the basic unit of social organisation, the primary topic of conversation, and a place to share a lot of food, and this filled whatever needs otherwise unmet by our lack of a stable community. My mother directed the choir, and my brothers and I sang in it. My father taught Sunday school, we attended. We all played on church softball teams and took meals to grieving families.
In my late teens, I gave up God and moved away from home. The effect was to be born again, though not into a community of believers but as a free agent without a people or a purpose. Enter the travel book, especially Chatwin’s, where displacement is unremarkable. Human beings wander by nature and make meaning by moving along the surface of the earth, lonely and melancholy. For a newborn atheist and a prime candidate for prodigal son, wandering made for a seductive self-creation myth to replace the old.
On my mother’s side were immigrants who had uprooted and settled on American prairies. My own father had made more than 30 homes in his own life. Before him, two generations had been born into missionary families in the lowlands of southern India. They saw themselves as worshippers.
But to me, far from home and under the influence of peripatetic writers, it was clear I came from a line of wanderers. In Patagonia became a talisman, and with the zeal of the converted I went to Mongolia to find a new set of things to believe in, even if they were my own stories about adventures with nomads.
And it looked, at first, as if I might find those adventures. Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, looked like Khrushchev’s Lego set, and through it blew the scent of boiled mutton. Buses shared the roads with herders on horse and camelback and, hundreds of kilometres to the south, more wind-burned herders pushed flocks of sheep through town and sold airag, fermented horse milk, in the markets. Desert roads converged on Mandalgovi, a sprawl of modular Soviet concrete and nomad pragmatism that looked like a boomtown well into bust. Strange characters arrived in the middle of the night to drink tea and vodka and tell stories. The details, at least, were perfect.
Chatwin, a tireless walker, had taught me to see magic in movement, enough even to get me on a plane and halfway around the world. Neither magic nor my feet took me far in Mandalgovi. There were no physical borders, fences or rivers, but the desert made it an island with nowhere to go but home, school, or the post office. My wanderings in Mandalgovi seldom took me further than the hills that I could see through the windows of my classroom. On one afternoon walk, a students’ family assumed I had somewhere to go and drove out to offer the American teacher a ride.
It seems inevitable, now, that I floundered. I had put myself, like Chatwin, at the centre of the story. At the time, though, with no ready alternative to the romantic notion of the traveller, little Mongolian, and less skill in appropriate social graces, I put my faith back into travel writing. Friends and family sent me In the Empire of Genghis Khan, Stanley Stewart’s 2000 travelogue, which follows the route that a Franciscan named William of Rubruck took to the court of the Mongol conqueror in the thirteenth century. Others sent me Jill Lawless’s Wild East: The New Mongolia, a compilation of pieces she wrote when she was editor of Mongolia’s English-language newspaper, the UB Post, during Mongolia’s transition from a socialist people’s republic to young democracy. With the wind shaking the frame of my ger, I lit the stove and read what these and other writers claimed to have found just outside my flapping felt walls.
By the time veteran journalist Jasper Becker’s Mongolia: Travels in an Untamed Land arrived, I had put aside books written since Mongolia opened up to the West in the early 1990s. Most Western travellers and writers discovered the same sights from the back of a borrowed horse. Only Lawless had investigated the place over time on its own terms. The others, full of pith and vinegar and a standard set of assumptions about what they would find, built books on flights of fancy – golfing across Mongolia, following the path of medieval monks, ‘rediscovering shamanism’ – that were flimsier even than those that had set me in motion. The books were as exciting as museum diorama, papier-mâché models of their ‘medieval’ travels and capitalist fantasies.
Winter continued, and I started reading back in time and, eventually, out of Mongolia. When Owen Lattimore’s Nomads and Commissars and The Desert Road to Turkestan came in the post, the covers promised more of the same dusty adventure, cast in sepia tones. In 1926, Lattimore followed the camel caravans from Xian to Urumchi in the last years of the trade. He was as young as me and, in increasing contrast with my domesticity, seemed to be on a genuine adventure – worrying about water for the camels, negotiating visas with rebels, relaying news of armed uprisings to the British Consul over gin and tonics.
Unlike his successors, however, Lattimore closely observed a way of life that already existed, rather than a set of ideas he could animate for his own romantic leanings. He followed the caravans across waterless stages and over multiple trips. He catalogued routes and looked longer and closer at the customs of caravan travel than any of his successors dared. That act recast him as both observer and advocate, and he drew closer to his subjects through attention and affection.
I filled my notebook with Lattimore’s explanations, allowing them to give my young man’s vision depth and perspective, and received council from a dead man on how travel might be about more than the traveller. I wrote a little less often, read both books twice, and left my windowless ger in the evenings to slurp salty milk tea with the neighbours and listen to them talk.
A few months later, holidays interrupted the comfort of even those fledgling routines. Students disappeared from class to climb on motorbikes and returned weeks later with bags of frozen mutton and canisters of airag instead of their homework. Classes were cancelled and tinsel went up. Vodka appeared at strange times of day and kept appearing and disappearing long into the night.
Mongolians mark the onset of spring at the start of the lunar year, long before the cold truly breaks. To the initiated, Tsagaan Sar is a rolling set of rituals marking rebirth and reconnection after the worst of the winter. To a foreigner, it is a test of stomach capacity and a cultural Olympics performed for a procession of friends and colleagues.
On each of the first three days of Tsagaan Sar, visitors arrive at dawn, and when they leave, reciprocal visits are expected. Fourteen-hour days of precise seating arrangements and formal gift exchanges follow. I toddled along after my neighbours in a traditional robe, a deel, somewhat ill from so much vodka, mutton and mayonnaise-based salads. By the third afternoon, I had become an irritable infant, full to bursting with celebration and receding into myself faster than the vodka could loosen me up. I locked my door and reached for a book, hoping it would lead to a nap and relief from nausea.
In Arabian Sands, Wilfred Thesiger describes his travels with the Bedu in the Rub’ al Khali, the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Peninsula. Thesiger, like Lattimore, dedicated himself to language learning and saw himself as a guest:
I knew that for me the hardest test would be to live with them in harmony and not to let my impatience master me; neither to withdraw into myself, nor to become critical of standards and ways of life different from my own. I knew from experience that the conditions under which we lived would slowly wear me down, mentally if not physically, and that I should often be provoked and irritated by my companions. I also knew with equal certainty that when this happened the fault would be mine, not theirs.
In the way of good writing, Thesiger left me where it found me, but as a changed person. In time, it led me to unlock my door and go back, refreshed, into the cold and the clamor.
I chose Chatwin when I remade my post-religious self and wanted to be a fascinating young man. I chose Lattimore and Thesiger, though I might have stumbled on others, out of respect to those who had given me a place, however marginal, in their austere little town. The books made me wiser and better able to imagine the world as my neighbours saw it, but they did not transform me into a better writer.
In Patagonia inspired me because of its internal consistency at the expense of accuracy. Chatwin’s stories fit those I wanted to tell about myself, and his example gave me license to go to Mongolia and do so. Thesiger and Lattimore, however, empathised with their companions through a transformation that took time and restraint. Chatwin let me do what I wanted, and quickly. My new guides, and Mongolia, made me slow down and struggle.
Writing there had been a struggle from the start. It was cold and seriously lonely. I wrote by hand by the light of a single bulb that hung from the ceiling on a wire. The wind swung it like a pendulum and cast looping shadows on my notebooks until the dust storm left me, pen in hand, in the dark. To send anything to an audience with a shared language required hours to locate keys to freezing rooms with barely functioning computers, to transcribe my notes into a Word file, and to hurry through the cold to a barely functioning internet connection at the post office. Few of my family and friends read those self-involved emails, and on one occasion, when I had a piece edited and published, I spent more time finding a working printer than I did revising.
Whatever literary catapult or higher calling I had expected never came. I briefly became a travel writer, by way of three essays and some short sketches on a little-known blog, and then ran out of ways to make a country town interesting to an audience with no real reason to care. After the momentum of leaving home, four fizzy years at university, and the great leap into Mongolia, I slowed down enough to realise that I was doing an esoteric thing for my own gratification. I came to a halt, and I found other reasons to stay in Mandalgovi: to be one of my neighbours before writing about them.
Every Saturday morning, my neighbours threw open the door and told me to come over to eat meat. We sat around a basin of mutton with two knives so old that half of their blades had been sharpened away. The father, Erkhembaatar, cut me pieces off a boiled goat’s head and explained what I could eat. The cheek, the ears, the eyes – everything but the tip of the tongue and the palate. We talked about how drought had forced his cousins to take their livestock to better pastures where other herders threatened to steal their animals, and about how he had played volleyball and drunk vodka with the Russian teachers and soldiers before they’d disappeared after the Berlin Wall fell. We talked about the weather and the price of sheep. Anything but writing.
The best travel writing I’ve read has pulled me into unfamiliar territory because the writer knows enough to find the middle ground between reader and subject. That perspective requires time and dedication. The writing comes later. While living in Mongolia, I couldn’t turn my experience into prose. Now, two years and thousands of miles away, I can see the place, and myself, clearly enough to consider writing about it again.
Those neighbours, my surrogate family, seemed to understand that writing is about understanding the subject, not about understanding oneself. They gave me their time, and when I left they travelled 300 miserable kilometres of dust and gravel to meet me at the airport. Oyunchimeg, a woman whom I called eej, or ‘Mum’, held my head between her hands and made me stoop down at the ticket counter so she could sniff my cheeks in farewell. ‘Travel safely,’ she said, ‘and don’t forget to call. Remember us and maybe we will see you again someday. Come back when you are married and have children, and then you can write that book.’