Claustrophilia: Do wide-open lands bring us closer together?

Cover essay and photographs from the September 15, 2015 High Country News Books and Essays issue:

I can see a spark of tired panic in Jo’s eyes as they meet mine. Our narrow Purgon — a Russian-made UAZ van that resembles a jacked-up VW bus — is bursting with people. The rigid seats, which face each other like those in a diner booth, are crammed with butts, and our knees interlock like a human zipper. In the back, where baggage and boxes of supplies serve as yet more seats, two weathered old men hunch below the ceiling. In the front passenger seat, a woman settles on the lap of the standby driver.

Dhuka reindeerAnd yet here we are, picking up another passenger. She looks like she weighs maybe 100 pounds soaking wet, but where will she fit? There’s a slim gap between Jo and her neighbor; the newcomer clambers over and wedges in sideways. Finally, finally, after six hours of waiting, the driver decides that we’re full. He grinds into gear and we chug free of Murun, Mongolia — capital of the country’s northernmost province — toward the remote village of Tsagaan Nuur, near the Russian border.

After 30 minutes of paved road, we veer abruptly onto a dirt two-track winding into the hills. Jo’s husband, Sean, who finished a Peace Corps assignment here in 2007, grins knowingly at Jo and me. “Jiiinkheeene,” he comments wryly, drawing out the Mongolian word. Jinkhene translates roughly as authentic, or old-school. But it can best be defined by what follows.

The Purgon bounces and shudders: The passengers brace arms against seats and each other’s knees, occasionally knocking heads. The Purgon grows steadily chillier: The passengers produce a laptop and memory stick and put together a compilation of Mongolian power ballads that the driver plays on repeat for the next 12 hours. The Purgon bogs in the mud: The passengers tumble out and push, sprinting in all directions when it lurches free at high speed. Through it all, everyone smiles, everyone laughs. There’s something almost tender about the ease with which strangers drowse on each others’ shoulders through the night. Shepherd slumps against meaty policeman; meaty policeman slumps against Sean; Sean, wincing, flattens his 6-foot-4-inch frame against the Purgon wall and my feet, which I had propped up to keep my knees from cramping.

The Mongolians are better at this than us.

In my early 20s, I was in a similar situation on a Greyhound bus between Kansas City and Denver. When the sleeping teenage girl next to me began drooling on my shoulder, I felt not tenderness but silent, half-homicidal rage.

Now, though, watching these strangers touch each other as casually as friends, I feel differently. Beyond the smeared windows stretches one of the most sparsely populated landscapes in the world. There are no fences, and little interrupts the gentle roll of the steppe besides patches of dark trees and congregations of plump sheep, yaks and horses. Felt roundhouses called gers — the traditional homes of pastoral nomads — appear now and then like white buttons stitched haphazardly onto rumpled green fabric. Sean has told us about the nomads’ generosity, how they will offer even unexpected visitors salted yak-milk tea, food, a bed. And I’ve read of the blizzards and subzero cold that pummel people here each winter. Maybe, I think, in all this beautiful, brutal vastness, a tiny enclosure that brings the world to a human scale is to be shared, not defended. How else would anyone survive in such a place? More…

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