Here’s the thing. Mongolia has fascinated me since long before I stepped foot in the country. In fact, several years before applying to become a Peace Corps Volunteer, I seriously considered joining something called the Nomad Project with the organization Projects Abroad. I was studying cultural anthropology at the time, and for whatever reason, I thought that living in a ger for a month (though I don’t camp), caring for livestock (though I’ll barely touch a raw turkey on Thanksgiving), and riding horses across the endless steppe (though I’ve ridden horses on exactly three occasions, during one of which I broke an arm) was just the right fit for me. There was just something about those pictures of ruddy, round-faced Mongolian babies and the miles of sparkling river and green, green grass that called to me.
Later that same year, I attended a lecture in Seattle given by Dr. Albert Yu-Min Lin. Dr. Lin is the youngest person to be named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, and has spent the last several years trying to find the hidden tomb of Chinggis Khan. Following his talk, I snapped up his DVD and followed his journey through Mongolia’s mountainous (and very green) Khentii region.
A couple of years later, when I got my invitation to serve with Peace Corps Mongolia, those were the images that came flooding back to me.
Fast forward to Sunday, August 17 and my arrival in Bayankhongor, my home for the next two years. The day started in large part the way I imagined it might: our prop-plane from Ulaanbaatar touched down on the airport’s single runway. Only six of us—three PCVs and our Mongolian counterparts—disembarked; Bayankhongor is a quick stop on the way to Gobi Altai province, where the rest of the passengers were headed. We exited directly onto the tarmac and collected our bags from the single conveyor belt in the two-room airport. My Mongolian hosts loaded my suitcases into the covered bed of a pickup truck that, judging by the dirt and dung, was also used for some sort of farming. And we were off.
But that’s when all my dreams began to fall apart. We rounded a bend in the road and…. ‘Wait,’ I could almost hear myself say. ‘Is that a traffic light?’ Yup. Not one, in fact, but two on the short ride to my home. Maybe even three, it’s all a blur now. I kept my head very, very still with a Mona Lisa-like smile on my face as we rolled down the four-lane paved road, weaving through large Soviet-era concrete buildings. If my life were a Mindy Kaling sitcom (and you know sometimes I wish it were), I would have stopped the truck right there and told everyone we needed to turn around. ‘There’s been a horrendous mistake,’ I’d say. ‘They promised me nomads.’
Thankfully, I said nothing. My mind was too busy processing. I was too stunned for speech. For as much as I’d professed to Peace Corps staff that ‘I just want to go wherever you need me,’ I’d also said that I wanted to go somewhere where I could experience traditional Mongolian life and culture. Somehow I just assumed that those two things would come together, and that they’d come together, ideally, in a ger, riverside, in the middle of a green field ringed by mountains.
But no. That would be where my friend Hugh has been posted.
Hugh will be living in a ger in Arkhangai, just north of me. Lonely Planet calls his aimag the ‘Switzerland of Mongolia.’ Here’s what Lonely Planet says about Bayankhongor:
Though short on sights, Bayankhongor is a relatively affluent aimag capital, making it a good place to rest up for the night and stock up on provisions before continuing on into more remote regions.
So basically, I thought, I’m living in the Redmond, Washington of Mongolia. Perfect.
I know it sounds ridiculous but that night, alone in my room, I cried. The next day, thinking I’d pulled myself together, I phoned my site-mate April, who’s been living in Bayankhongor for the past year. I cried again. And then, I called my parents, and cried even more.
The truth is, I just didn’t know what to do with all of my misplaced expectations. I’d crafted a thousand fantastic stories in my sub-conscious—not to mention all the Facebook and blog posts waiting to be born—about getting to experience what Projects Abroad calls, ‘a way of living that has barely changed in a thousand years.’ And with its first traffic light, Bayankhongor was taking a torch to my imaginary world.
But here’s the thing: Mongolian life is changing. Rapidly. While I might only have had in my head the version that Disney would create, with felt gers and people in their winter deels making cheese from camel’s milk (which by the way is delicious), Bayankhongor is just as real a portrait of Mongolia as the countryside is—maybe even more so. Here in the BX, cars and motorcycles travel alongside horses. Satellite dishes dot every apartment building. A significant percentage of homes are connected to the clean water system. While I thought I’d be living among herders, more often I hear from friends and colleagues that their parents were herders. They tell me that life was very different before, and they’re as proud of the progress being made as they are nostalgic about the way life used to be.
Of course, it turns out that we do have a river here in Bayankhongor, and while it’s narrow enough in places for me to jump across, it’s gorgeous nonetheless, and surrounded by green fields. Facing one direction, there’s nothing to see in the distance but a few gers, some grazing livestock and the nearby Khangai mountains. It’s only when you turn around that you see the town in its varying state of construction. From this vantage point, you can see not only new buildings going up, but the remains of those from the Communist era. They don’t so much bulldoze the past here in Bayankhongor as they build around and on top of it.
Old is meeting new in this aimag center, just as it is throughout all of Mongolia.