MIT undergraduate Scott Berdahl spent a year traveling the world to see what all the fuss was about. Over seven months, he traveled from Moscow to Delhi by train, bus, horseback, and on foot, finding his share of adventure along the way.
Now in the Western world, the concepts of privacy and personal space seem to be fairly well ingrained in the public conscience. Such is not the case in Mongolia, where the largely nomadic people see to it that every space on every moving platform is packed with the utmost efficiency.
This is how I found myself, sandwiched between rows of Mongolians in a rickety Soviet van bumping along the similarly rickety dirt roads of the nation’s highway system.
As the drive wore on, my fellow passengers wore out, and the man next to me tipped in his slumber to rest his head on my left shoulder. I looked over to Will, who was himself sandwiched between a large ice cream-loving woman and the window. “Looks like you’ve made a friend,” he chuckled. As I considered waking the man, I felt a weight on my other shoulder. The boy to my right had set up in a similar fashion. Feeling awkward, I looked around the van for help, but nobody seemed to notice.
Across from me, an old man had begun to slump forwards out of his seat. We were packed facing each other, knee-to-knee, so when his knee slid between mine, I experienced no small degree of alarm. With each bump of the road he slumped further, his knee coming closer to my particularly personal space. I couldn’t maneuver my way out of it, so I knocked his knee with mine, hoping he’d wake up and realize his mistake. He stirred briefly and looked around, then closed his eyes and slumped further. Time was running out.
Momentarily forgetting I had Mongolians on my shoulders, I leaned forward to try to push his knee away. The two bodies avalanched down behind me, wedging into the seat and propping me forward. That was it. Hunching out from the bottom of a Mongolian dog pile, and with an old man’s knee firmly planted in my crotch, I passed the rest of the ride in silence.
Sometime in the wee hours we reached Tsetserleg, the destination of the van and a town in which we were hoping to buy a couple of horses. We spent the next day exploring the grassy little town, talking philosophy and doing whatever else it is travelers do all day long, before we finally stopped in at what looked to be a makeshift nightclub of some sort for a bite to eat.
Sheep kebabs. They were delicious, and I quickly cleaned my plate. Will did not. “Aren’t you going to eat your cucumbers?” I asked. “No,” he said, “meat’s usually alright, but you shouldn’t eat raw vegetables at a place like this.” Huh. “You’ll probably be fine though.”
I spent a great deal of that night curled up on the cold floor of the run down hotel bathroom between episodes of violent expulsion from the various ends of my digestive system. At last I was able to return to my bed; sleep felt good.
Will woke me up some time later. It was light. “Here,” he said, offering me a bottle of water. Luckily for me, Will had had some experience with this sort of thing before. “Do you want some food?” I nearly puked again at the mere thought of it. “All right, well then have this.” A Pepsi! “Drink the water too though.” With shaky hands I accepted the drinks and forced down a few sips.
While I nursed my beverages, Will filled me in on the developments in our pursuit to buy horses. He had asked around the town, a difficult task as he didn’t speak a word of Mongolian, but he hadn’t found too many available horses. Those that were available ran for a similar amount in Tsetserleg as they had in Ulaan Baatar.
The word now was that the place to buy horses was out in the countryside, where nomadic breeder families raised small troops of them. Will had, however, met a lady who spoke some English, and she had offered to provide us with a pair of horses for $5 per horse per day and offered the services of her brother as a guide for the same price. If we found horses out in the country, we could send the rentals back with our guide. With my consent, things were all set for us to head out the next morning. We even had food and a cooking pot each.
I was incredulous. “Wow, that sounds really good.” Outside it looked to be mid-afternoon. “How’d you get all that done so quickly?” Will looked confused. “Quickly? Uh…”
And then it hit him. “Dude, you’ve been asleep for almost two days.”