I’m trying to remember it just as it happened. We had made 5 or 6 attempts to climb a curving, snow-covered hill, in Terelj National Park. Each try we got a little further. But when we stopped advancing, we had to turn around precariously and inch our way back down. Building up speed on the flatter part below, we aimed for the parts of the road with the dirtiest snow – where there might be a scosh more traction.
It was 4:00 in the afternoon, sun still up, but -23 degrees. Is that F, or C? Does it really matter at that point?
We nearly made it to the top of the hill, but we got stuck again. The driver, Ganaa, got some aid from a nearby traveler who took the wheel while Ganaa pushed – just to get us up and over this last difficult stretch.
But a car coming the other way lost control just above us. Here’s what I remember thinking, mostly in order:
If she corrects, we’re fine.
She’s not correcting.
She’s going too fast. This is about to hap-
pen! That was loud!
Well, I’m okay. Aren’t I?
After that, all I thought for a good long time was, “Can we please get off this hill now?” and “-23 degrees!”
The other car wasn’t going fast – that would have been impossible on this road, at this time of year, with this snowpack. But there was certainly impact. I felt no major effects that night except maybe a little pain in one wrist, where I figured I was grabbing onto something. It is already much better. I was scared I’d feel it in my neck the next morning but that probably is more true for whiplash from someone rear-ending you – not from being hit head-on, because you don’t snap backward. Anyway, I do feel okay, now more than two days later.
But the cars… oh my goodness. They took it hard. The precarious position didn’t help me feel any better about this experience.
This was my expression as I watched the sun go down, standing on that slippery slope (a real one, not a metaphor), freezing my tuchus clean off.
A shout-out to Tony for the luxuriously large and overstuffed coat that saved me that late afternoon. It was at least 90 minutes of waiting there for Plan B. I was too scared to sit in the heated car because it seemed so ready to slide backward. So I hopped and paced and tried to remember everything Kyle ever taught me about surviving in the cold. I watched the sun go down. I waited.
A perfectly lovely afternoon
We had been tooling along happily for some time. We left Ulanbaatar about 2:00 p.m. and had a nice chat and singalong with Ganaa’s favorite songs (played on continual repeat). It was beautiful and surprising and evocative. My mind raced between pasts and present. I thought of Kyle and Kyna and Lauren up in Alaska. I’ve visited in winter the parallels were obvious. Wide valleys covered in snow lead up to mountains covered in snow and people driving comfortably on roads… covered in snow. And wicked cold.
I thought of Ali and our trip to remote corners of Tunisia, flanked by monochrome vistas and camels, with the occasional mountain pass over the summit of which we’d come upon picturesque historic dwellings. This time, the color was white instead of sandy tan, and the historic dwellings were gers, or yurts. There, the sun felt deadly dangerous, while here on this Saturday in Mongolia, it was the bitter cold.
Mongolia also has camels – not dromedaries, as Tunisia, but actual two-humped camels – AND yaks.
I thought of my dear buddies Andy-n-Liz, who lived in Mongolia for three years. I’m sure they delighted as much as I in the deep kindness of Mongolians, like Ganaa trilling along with Miley Cyrus and laughing with me at whatever minimal funny thing we were able to mutually understand. I even thought of my long-ago time in Vail (BEFORE THERE WAS AN INTERNET) where I wore this type of gear and crunched along in the snow all day every day for seven winters.
MASSIVE MONUMENT AHEAD
Before heading into Terelj National Park, we visited the Chinggis Khan Statue. Not since Lady Liberty has the world been graced with such a glimmering, towering feat of… well, let me just show you.
Inside, You climb up and emerge on top of the horse. There’s a little deck full of freezing but very excited tourists. From there you see the detail on the riding crop, the braids on his head, and the falcon on his sword hilt. It is dramatic! And worth braving the cold.
Inside the warm museum at the base, you can see a cross-section of the traditional ger (home), and sit in it as if to have fermented mare’s milk over a dung-fueled fire while you laugh about your day riding wild horses across the steppe. There’s also a giant moccasin boot and a couple dozen paintings of the man himself. The gift shop is where I bought the new yak-skin backpack you’ll soon see me sporting around town.
Not even a day
I had been in Mongolia 16 hours when the hotel vehicle came and picked me up from the accident site. Ganaa was surely glad to be able to focus on dealing with the car instead of the slightly shocky tourist. I was glad to be in a warm truck heading the last seven km to the hotel. Win-win.
Wow, what a place. It wouldn’t seem quite so incongruously remote in summer I suppose. But arriving to the sparkly welcome lighting, and walking around the beautiful building, sumptuous pool and spa, spacious suite, and inviting restaurants, all I could think was, “Why did they hide this gem so far out the back of beyond???”
To be honest, I was still a bit shaky for an hour after arrival. I had to let reality sink in: I was NOT going to freeze on a backwoods mountainside for forgetting to wear my long johns. I was not injured. Ganaa and the other driver were being tended to.
Everything was alright.
So I could sink into the lap of luxury for the night and just enjoy. I proceeded to order the Mongolian Favorites Platter.
As so often happens, the brightness of a snowy morning makes the fears and concerns of the night before vanish like moisture from cold skin.
The drive home was blissfully uneventful, but also with yaks (plural!) And this driver could really sing. Where Ganaa just wailed a little at the high points, Pasche (sp?) was a genuine candidate for Mongolia’s Got Talent. I told him this repeatedly in exquisitely gestured English. His was a beautiful voice on all kinds of songs, and he had a particular predilection for The Hu, my favorite Mongolian metal band. If you haven’t heard them, check out their videos (here is one, and here is another) – loads of fun and images of Mongolia. Also throat singing, a fascination I hope I never lose.