At least Ulysses left on a high note! We had to wait three hours for our 8-seater Korean clunker mini-van-bus, to get choke-filled with 16 adults, one girl, and a baby, at the appropriately named Dragon Center: a mosaic of belching buses, broken concrete framed pools of mud and oil, sprinkled with shards of vodka bottles. Javkhaa dropped us off at noon, which according to him was the scheduled departure time. We paid for our spot, quickly loaded our backpacks, huddled into our seats, and watched our van fill up and empty several times with our would-be companions, their relatives, and friends. The locals did not mind the wait; they seemed to count on it, to bid proper farewells to old friends, while starting new bonds with fellow passengers. We were quite a novelty for them, and somehow ended up in the middle of every exchange. No one can nail down the actual departure time; the driver would mumble something in Mongolian, when I jabbed at my watch, and disappear into the maze of idle hulls, leaving us to shrug our shoulders, and continue on with our motley of Mongols. After stuffing the van well past capacity, the last surge of Mongols shouldered in with their bundles; we all inhaled and jigsawed our elbows, shoulders, and knees into place, as our sardine can FINALLY lurched!
We were treated to a paved pathway, riddled with potholes, for the first hour of our odyssey, then we plunged into the dirt roller-coaster, following deep tire grooved trails that spiderwebbed out in all directions. Exhausted from prepping for our short-noticed adventure the night before, I prayed for sleep, which came in short 5-minute bursts, interrupted by the rugged Mongolian landscape, dribbling my head off the van’s flaking hull. Soon green rolling plains, gave way to an arid semi-desert, sparsely laced with shabby stubborn shrubs, sprouting out of hard packed sand. I soon gave up on sleep, as our driver popped in a cassette of classical Mongolian ballads, which growled from static-ridden speakers, and clapped along with my jolly companions.
After some hours of dirt laced delirium, we pulled into a ger camp for dinner. The group of white felt tents bloomed like a cluster of white mushrooms, from the chapped Gobi. Sprinkled like trails of bread crumbs between major cities, they are a stark reminder of Mongolia’s still-present nomadic culture, and serve as all purpose rest stops, meeting basic needs: food, auto repair, even solar powered internet, for weary travelers. The menu is pretty standard, at least in our experience: a hearty heaping bowl of noodles mixed with strips of mutton. A steaming cup of salted milk tea is part of Mongolian hospitality, and comes free for every visitor. With the contents of our stomachs jostled about, Courtney and I elected to split a Clif Bar instead, with the milk tea. After ‘watering’ the local shrubbery, we shrugged back into our metal shoebox, and nosedived into the ever-present dust-cloud trail produced by vehicles ahead. Fluid pale blue skies burned into orange, red, then deep purple of twilight.