The Transsiberian Railway – Part XI: Something Silver in the Desert

Let me tell you a little something about deserts.
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Once you’re in one – once you’re really in the middle of one and you’ve gotten yourself accustomed to the sight of, well, dirt and air – you’re likely to realize, rather quickly, that aside from dirt and air, there actually isn’t much more out here.

In fact, there is so little to see and do in the desert that you will most likely find yourself all made up (read: bundled to your earlobes in your warmest winter clothing) with nowhere to go.untitled folder-2.jpg

Let me start at the beginning. On one extraordinarily cold morning, Sal and I awoke at the hideous hour of 6am. Never in my life have I awoken at 6am when I have the option to sleep until 6pm.

The reason for this perfectly absurd premature awakening had nothing to do with choice and everything to do with being freezing. The coal in our fire had burned out during the night, dropping the inside temperature of the yurt to well below zero. The effects of vodka had long-since worn off and our teeth were chattering abrasively, clang clang, intensifying and reverberating off the walls of the ger.

The teeth clatter was so loud that it attracted the neighbouring nomad, who, I can only imagine, was awoken by our clang clanging and came to see what all the noise was about (desert mornings are usually the quietest type of silent). He walked through our 4-foot high yurt-door and, with a bucket of coal and a wooden stick, removed his boots at the threshold and stirred our fire back to life. Then, with a toothless grin and a twinkle of his eye, he vanished back into the desert, allowing us to slumber on for several toasty hours.

When we awoke again, we were energized. After a delightful breakfast of fried doughnuts and sugary coffee from the neighbouring nomads, Sal and I decided to go do something.



(there’s nothing to do).

So we did what any reasonable people with nothing to do and nowhere to go would do – we started to walk.

untitled folder-3.jpgThere was zero thought put into the direction of our walk. There was zero variety in landscape, and we had no idea where we were, so really, what did it matter?  One foot in front of the other, and we let our feet wander us into the unknown. Gandering in the direction of nothing in the middle of nowhere, yup, I couldn’t tell you our whereabouts if I tried. Literally in one of the most remote areas of eastern Mongolia. “You know the place with dirt and air? That’s the one.”
We walked, and we walked, and we walked. We walked over cracked earth and sun-scorched tumbleweed drenched in frost. We walked over yellow sand, brown dirt, weathered bones. Bones.

We walked over bones.

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We walked over bones as big as a man.

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And then we walked over dead-heads. Desert style dead-heads.

untitled folder.jpgWe walked over empty cans of Korean beer. Not even Cass can escape the wrath of the desert. (You can read more about Korea in Mongolia here, if you feel so inclined).

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We walked past an obscure, giant rectangle of rocks surrounding a pyramid of stones and prayer flags.
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We walked, and we walked, and we walked. We walked until we started questioning why we were even walking in the first place. Who walks these days anyway? I’ve never really had much appreciation for the usefulness of four-legged human-bearing beasts until now. It’s no wonder the Mongolians ride horses.

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And then we walked because we wanted to see where this sign was leading:

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Half an hour and more dirt and air later, and we’re starting to doubt the validity of the sign.

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But then, mid-step, something glimmers and flashes in the sunlight ahead. Up, way up. Way up in the distance.

An tiny, sparkling, shiny silver thing.

So then we did what any normal, rational people would do in the desert: we changed our route completely in order to find this Tiny Shiny Thing, this precious thing on the horizon that was neither dirt nor sand nor cracked bone or crushed cass.

We had a destination now. Somewhere to go!

It meant more walking (which we’re really good at by now, fyi).

We walked, and we walked, and we walked walked walked. untitled folder-6.jpg

(I saw a fence and I stopped)

We walked until we could no longer remember how long we had been walking for. We walked and we walked, and as we walked, the Tiny Shiny Silver Thing started to take shape.

First, a star. Or was it a tree? A long pole-type thing started to emerge. Then, some legs. Wait, that’s a horse. No, wait, a head on a horse. Is that a centurion, out in the desert?

Walk, walk, walk. The pole-type thing morphs into a spear. In the hand of a man. In the hand of a man on a horse?

Walking, walking, walking. We’re still walking.

Another hour goes by and we can see that it’s probably a man, on a horse, with a spear. But he’s still tiny.

We keep walking, because there’s no way we can turn around now. Not. A. Chance. (And I can’t feel my legs anymore anyway, so what’s the difference?)

As the silver speck grows, we realize this is no Tiny Shiny Silver Thing. This thing, this thing that has taken up all of our morning and most of our afternoon, is not tiny at all. In fact, it’s the most un-tiny object I have ever seen.

And then, like that – bam! – it’s suddenly very, unmistakably clear.

How could we have missed it? It’s a man, on a horse, with a spear (or is that a paddle?). It’s a giant nomad on a silver horse. In the middle of the desert.

Because that makes perfect sense.

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And who else would that giant nomad be, but Genghis Khan himself? There is no way anybody on this planet could possibly construct a bigger statue of a man on a horse, ever. This thing is a thing to be seen.

“I’m willing to bet almost nobody walks here.”

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(It’s for sure true that nobody walks here).

Then massive, arched gates in the middle of the desert; totally what we were expecting.untitled folder.jpguntitled folder-2.jpgThrough the gates and up to the statue – it wasn’t until we touched Ghengis Khaan that we realized there was a door inside of him. This massive man on a horse was actually a museum. A Genghis Khan museum, right smack in the Middle of Nowhere. With a viewing platform inside the head of Mr. Khan’s horse. (Our second dead-head of the day!) Can you see those tiny black specs in the head of the four-legged beast? Yeah, those are people.

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Without a doubt, the biggest Tiny Shiny Thing I have ever seen. And in the desert, no less. ;)

No wonder the Chinese built that Great Wall of theirs. :)

((…and now we get to walk home!! ;)))