NOTE FORM JONAH: Сайн байна уу? – Sain baina uu and hello! Welcome back! Summer has been comically busy for me this year, traveling and working in Beijing, Shanghai, Yunnan, Qatar, Vermont, New York, Boston, Montreal, Mongolia and France (yes, all this summer). In that time I’ve seen amazing people and things and have been busy publishing over 10 different videos and articles. Thus, a hiatus in the blog became necessary. Life has returned to “normal” and regular blogging activity continues today — in Mongolia (proper).
NOTE FORM JONAH DOS: The product of this trip can be seen at nytimes.com “Though Not Yet Open, a Huge Mine Is Transforming Mongolia’s Landscape.”
I’ve driven across the United States. I’ve driven across Australia. And I’ve driven across Tibet.
While the Dakotas, outback and Himalaya can be pretty desolate, I’ve never seen so much nothing — until I drove across Mongolia.
You hear about rolling planes, the expansive grasslands and the Gobi Desert — the Mongolian Steppe! But what no one tells you is what’s really there — nothing. Now, don’t get me wrong: this nothing is a very beautiful nothing, but dont be confused — it really is Never Ending Story style nothing.
If you drive across the the Australian Outback or Death Valley you will find your occasional rest stop, town, gas station or community — be them few and far between.
However, 5-mintutes after leaving Ulan Batar on a road trip recently, the road stopped. And with it, so did civilization.
Let me rewind.
Late July, I flew to Mongolia to shoot a couple videos and a couple print stories. The main article I was pursing was for the New York Times. I was sent to investigate the effects of mining on a community in the South Gobi desert.
Before I went to Mongolia, I had a lead. Through some networking I was introduced to fellow Vermonter Sas Carey. Although Sas resides in Midlebury, Vermont she has been working in Mongolia for almost 2-decades. She started an NGO called Nomadicare which helps train the nomadic herders of Mongolia in both traditional Mongolian medicine, but also western medicine. Her organization has been providing both medical supplies and medical training throughout the countries most remote regions.
She works with the Reindeer people of the Taiga to the desert nomads of the Gobi Desert.
While in China, Sas invited me to come with her and see a community Nomadicare was helping in the South Gobi desert and at the same time — see the world’s largest undeveloped gold and copper mine, Oyu Tolgoi. This mine, owned by Australian mining giant Rio Tinto is found near the border of China. The mine has been in a preparation state for nearly a decade and is scheduled to go into production before the end of 2012.
While economic benefits of mining are clear for Mongolia — what is a little more elusive are the environmental, social and cultural impacts, especially for those closest to the mines.
The community closest to Oyu Tolgoi, Khambogd, has seen a boom like no place on earth, since the discovery of the untapped natural resource.
I went to look into these effects.
However, after arriving in Mongolia — through either a miscommunication or something different, Oyu Tolgoi decided they didn’t want us to see the mine. They told us, they needed more notice and invited us back for the official opening of the mine this fall. They did agree to answer some preaproved questions in Ulan Bator — but they would be no help in showing us the site.
More troubling then this — was access to Khambodg, the real subject of the story. While there is an airport at the site, the mine controls the air field. This meant, I had no way to get to Khambogd.
Unless, I were to drive.
Within 24-hours of loosing access to the mine, I had a driver, a translator and an old van ready to take what would be a 22-hour drive across Mongolia and the Gobi Desert to access the town. I’m all for a good car ride, road trip and adventure — so the 22-hour ride didn’t bother me so much. But what I didn’t know, was how little roads there would be in this country.
And this brings me back to — the nothing.
Turns out, there aren’t so many roads in Mongolia. 5-minutes after the car left Ulan Bator the driver turned off a paved road, onto a grass plane. It was clear, cars drive here, but I wouldn’t equate it to what I would consider a dirt road. The next 22-hours would be spent, without roads, signs and for the most part civilization.
Sometimes this meant driving across enormous grass planes. Other times it meant driving across rocks and dirt. But at no point for the entire drive was there a street sign and it seemed like gas stations were positioned to be the maximum distance anyone could possibly make it.
The topography of Mongolia is one of large expenses, followed by small hills, followed by enormous expanses. Where I was there was never a real mountain, forest — or any other any recognizable land mark. Even more interestingly, it turned out our driver had never made this journey, nor did he have a map or a compass.
For many hours one question rattled in my head: How on earth does he know where he’s going? All there was — was nothing. Not even a tree. We passed horses, camels and sheep. In the distance you might see a ger (yurt) or a man riding a horse at full speed across an enormous plane.
Truly, it was nothing. But unlike South Dakota or the Australian Outback, this nothing was epically beautiful. Being able to see in all directions to the horizon with almost no variation in the landscape is compellingly interesting.
So how did our driver know where to go?
The answer is: the nomads.
During the 22-hour drive across the country, we only saw 3-4 small villages. But, what we did see quasi-frequently were nomads. Sometimes they would be herding their animals. Othertimes they would be riding horses. And other times, we would see a felt covered ger in the distance and just drive over to it.
With no hills and almost no vegetation larger than a small rock, roads aren’t exactly necessary. If you see a tent in the distance, its easy enough to just straight tale it directly toward the tent.
When we saw a person or tent, the driver would just drive straight for them. When we reached the person, he would stop the car, jump out and proceed to walk directly into their tent. There was no knocking, or hesitation if anything private could be going on inside the tent. The driver would simply walk into the tent like he had lived there for 20 years.
Proceeding this, usually a man in a colorful suit would walk outside the tent and the two men would stare off into the expanse, chatting with the occasional finger point in some direction that looked just like the other directions.
Then, the driver would hop back in the car and we would drive, like the bird flies, into that direction.
We would then drive in a straight arrow in that direction, until we saw the next nomad and the process would repeat itself.
A much more social form of the GPS, this human-to-human directional system actually works in a country where people know the land, because they spend their lives wondering around.
I think there is a common misconception that nomads wonder aimlessly. To clear things up — Mongolian nomadic herders don’t. They might not put their tent in the same place overtime, but they have seasonal patterns they follow, based upon weather, their animals and available resources. These people, know their land.
Our human GPS system worked for the most part, although at some point we ended up driving into a mud pit, so deep the car bottomed out.
When something like this happens, the first thing I do is look at my phone. No service. Of course, there’s no service. There’s no people, no towns. Just nothing.
I think if AAA did exists in Mongolia, they would have difficulty finding people.
We tried pushing. We tried pulling. We tried putting wooden planks under the tires. But when a heavy van is in mud up to the bottom of the car and your tires are spinning — there’s not much you can do.
After becoming completely covered in mud, I walked away from the car and looked around.
No cell service, no people. Nothing, except a storm approaching.
When the storm hit, the rains came down, sinking the car deeper into the mud.
But then, as luck would have it — another car appeared in the distance. A truck. As it approached the driver walked outside and waved at the approaching vehicle.
As the truck came closer, it slowed. And slowed. And soon it slowed so much, it stopped. It too — was stuck.
However, our man power increased. We now had 8 Mongolian men, 1 Mongolian woman, an Englishman and an American.
The group collective went ankle deep in mud and tried to push the car as the loan female attempted to drive the car backwards out of the mud pit. No luck. The rain started to come down harder and everyone took shelter in their respective vehicles.
An hour past. Then another.
Looking into the distance in all directions, all I could see was rain — and nothing.
No one really seemed to mind though. It was seemingly a normal situation. Just business as usual for the 9 Mongolians.
Eventually a third car past and an exchange of words happened. They drove off. And within a couple hours another truck came. This one — of Russian origin. A powerful car big enough to pull our van out. And it did.
And once again, we were on our way — into the nothing.
One amazing thing about the plains is your ability to see so far away. Photographically this gives you the opportunity to see weather patterns so far away, it almost changes the perspective of everything’s size. Clouds can look mini, but once you put a person near them, they look huge.
While I certainly wouldn’t want to do it again, the 22-hour ass-numbing (literally) drive across the country is something I don’t regret.
Sometimes getting a story requires some less than comfortable situations. This was one of them and the ride back, perhaps even more so.
But 22-hours later, I arrived in the town of Khaboldg.
The blog picks up in this frontier town, next.