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Travel and World Culture   
  Photo: Vincent Baker
  Photo: Sam Zou

Mongolia: Driving Under The Influence Of Gobi Dust 
By Michael Roberts

Just before 6 AM we hear the only sounds of the night: two birds flying by, the heavy flap-flap of their wings informing us of the coming sun. I lie awake in my sleeping bag and am comforted that the cold night is over. I lift my head and glance to the left and see my friends’ two-person tent and a Mitsubishi van. Enkhe whispers to me in Mongolian.
“Maika! Sunrise!”
He comes over and sits down next to me barefoot in a tank top and jeans, and we watch the red sun peak over the horizon, igniting the Gobi desert. We sit in silence as sand, shrubs, camels off in the distance, and another long day of driving appear before our eyes. Last night was clear and beautiful, and Enkhe, Jesse, Alexis, and I fell asleep as we watched for shooting stars. I wonder when I will see such a night again.
After a few minutes, the sun is a big shiny egg yoke above the horizon. Enkhe goes off on a walk, and I slip out of my bag, dress, brush my teeth, and go looking for my morin khuur, a two-stringed folk instrument that I have spent the past year learning how to play. I find it in the back of the car on top of a spare tire; the black carrying case is covered in a thick serving of Gobi dust.

I play a tune that I was working on when I left Ulaan Baatar, the capital of Mongolia; and the tent shows signs of life. Enkhe soon returns, and we pack up our belongings in the white Mitsubishi and hit the road. It is only 7:30 AM, and the sun already feels hot on this cloudless September day.
I ask Enkhe, our driver, mechanic, guide and spiritual leader, if he knows where we are.
“I think we’re getting close to Ulaan Badrakh, but I really don’t know," he says. "Look at the map.”
I look at the map and find Ulaan Badrakh, the closest stop for gasoline, and realize that Enkhe is right. Sort of. The road we are driving on appears to not exist. But we are driving east, towards the sunrise; and while we both think we are OK for the time being, Enkhe wants to stop at the next ger (a traditional felt tent) and ask for directions. 

These ger stops have become commonplace since we left Ulaan Baatar six days ago and immediately got lost. Finally, all this pointing at the map and speaking in Mongolian has gotten the attention of the back seat.
 “What are you guys talking about?” Alexis asks.
“We think we know where we are, but we’re going to stop and ask anyway—I’m pretty sure Enkhe just wants to stop and get more airag.”
Alexis winces at the mention of airag, slightly alcoholic mare’s milk that is brewed throughout Mongolia in the summer months. Alexis, a strict vegan, tried airag once; and she turned green and spent the next hour in the bathroom.

We stop and ask some nomads if we are on the right track, and they tell us that we are. Within minutes we get lost, back track, ask directions again, and find the correct route. There are plenty of dirt roads in this area and very few signs. Mongolians measure distances in terms of mountain passes; so it is difficult to determine how close we are to our destination.
As the sun continues to rise in the sky, we feel the pangs of hunger. Enkhe stops the car in the middle of the dirt road (confident that no one else will come by), and we cook rice and beans.

It is midday and 105° Fahrenheit, and the heat distorts our view of the surrounding area. Flat, shrubby, brown desert extends out on all sides interrupted an occasional ger, camels, and some rocky hills. After a quick meal we are thankful to be back in the car and out of the sun.


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