The Cleanest Line


Innard Mongolia

Innard Mongolia

Oct 1, 2007 October 1, 2007

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We received a note the other day in our e-mail box. Our kind correspondent had a simple request: more Field Reports, more stories of dirtbags doing their thing. So here's a little story from the archives. This one's for you, Kelly:

Perhaps it was the ten-hour trip off-roading over the rutted steppe in a Russian Jeep. Or maybe weeks of eating mostly fried bread and the rich dairy products squeezed from cows and yaks. It could have just been the biological karma that extracts a pound of flesh from every privileged traveler to the developing world. Whatever the reason, I now find myself on my hands and knees at midnight in the packed-dirt yard outside a Mongolian ger, puking my guts out in the ash pile.

All that evening I’d languished on the floor inside as everyone elsebustled around the single room. I watched the family members circle theger, no motion wasted, no empty corner, no materials tossed aside.Everything here gets used. One arm jostles a stoic-faced baby while theother one dices potatoes. Girls stuff the stove box with the sheep dungthey gather from the hills and stack in neat drying-piles in the yard.My husband sits with the men, herders in from their flocks, all downingcups of salty, bitter tea, then wiping the dishes clean with the hemsof their dels.

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I feel useless here in the corner, ensconced in my purple nylonsleeping bag, but a bit too miserable to care much. The ger smellsstrong—ubiquitous frying mutton, lanolin from the rug I’m laying on,the slightly cloying scent of burning dung. The man of the house sitsacross from me; he’s a herder and father and seasonal ranger whopatrols the nearby park for poachers; brother to the eagle-hunter wholives next door; and cousin to the translator who arranged our trip.The man smiles as I watch him cleaning his nails with his homemadeknife—handle of bone, blade of forged re-bar. Everything here getsre-used.

Later, midnight in the ash pile has a sky sharp as a knife edge and thedogs circle around me, whining. I’m too weak to think about the LonelyPlanet’s rabies lecture, and as post-nausea relief sets in, I realizewhat the dogs are after. Three of them pawing the ground, one lickingmy face, wiping clean my bitter-tasting lips—no calories go wasted innomadic Mongolia. I feel proud, out here in the cold, doing my part.

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Author Bio: Christine Byl lives, works and writes in Interior Alaska, justnortheast of Denali National Park in the shadow of the Alaska range.Her one-room cabin sans running water seemed to endear her to manydisbelieving Mongolians.

[Photos: Christine Byl]

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