It’s no exaggeration when they say that there are no roads in Mongolia, only directions. The crew was off at the site, digging down through the edge of an iron age burial mound to get at the splinters of rough black rhyolite (or whatever the hell it was) that marked the presence of people here two hundred thousand years ago.
Back in camp, the cook was busy inside and outside the kitchen ger, working his magic on that unvarying collection of staples that is the Mongolian diet: potatoes, rice, onions, turnips, mutton or goat (try coming up with new dishes using only those items, three times a day, every day. For the rest of your life).
He found me crawling. Not sure where I was headed. My gut was a knot of agony. Crawling was better than writhing, I suppose. At least it wasn’t raining.
People rushed this way and that. The old Hungarian van was fired up. I was half-carried to the back seat. There was a town. A Soviet-era clinic that served as a hospital. We were heading there.
The road forms where people decide to drive, across the rolling steppe. When the potholes get too fierce, someone veers off, beats down a new set of ruts. When that one gets as bad as the first one, they find another. These ribbon tracks weave across each other, ever spreading. A skilled driver can on occasion work the vehicle into third gear, but mostly it’s the lower two. Heads thump on the ceiling, people are thrown around, bits fall off the vehicle – just another outing – we’re always finding other travelers.
Two hours later we come upon the town. If one imagines the countryside as unfenced wilderness where sheep, goat, cattle and horses wander at will, broken up here and there by a huddle of gers and a log-notched winter lodgings with a kraal or two, then the town is a cluster of the same.
One or two half-derelict pre-fab Russian buildings here and there, falling apart in front of your eyes. A herd of cattle being driven willy-nilly through the lumpy streets by watchful youths on horseback. A dozen stores all selling the same stuff. And the clinic.
Translation is something of a problem. It’s now evening. The doctor has gone home. We find out where a nurse lives and drive to her front door. With me is our Mongolian driver, a Khazakstani and a Russian, and a young French-Canadian grad student. The agony had somewhat subsided – the roller-coaster ride had actually done some good, but I feel like shit.
Nurse climbs in. We drive to the hospital. Word has already gone out and the doctor arrives when we do. He’s pissed to the gills. He takes my blood pressure. Left arm. Then the right arm. He says something, shaking his head. Mongolian into Russian, Russian into English. Details gets lost in the translation. My blood pressure is ‘very low.’
What does that mean? I’m naturally at about 110 over 70, slightly below average. So … what’s low? I can’t seem to get an answer. I want him to do it again, so I can eye the sphygmomanometer (yeah, it’s what they’re called, I still remember from Grade Eleven biology, thanks Mr. Weiss), and catch the pauses in the fall. Systolic, diastolic, let’s get back to that, shall we?
No. He gets me to lie down. Prods me here and there, and then writes a prescription for antibiotics.
The pharmacy has shut. We find where the pharmacist lives, drive her to the shop. She opens it up and we wait while she counts out five days’ worth of pills. I stare at a poster warning against rabies. Another warning against ticks and Lyme disease. There’s a box on the shelf of hair dye and some kind of surgical application kit.
Back into the van and the long drive home.
Around midnight that night, the crew’s drinking vodka by the fire. I’ve been thinking all evening. I take the project director off to one side. I’m pulling out. How soon can I get a ride down to Ulaan Bator?
• • •
This is the moment. This is the real crisis. It’s like a stake driven deep. I’ve been on all kinds of projects, all kinds of digs and surveys, in all kinds of wilderness. I’ve been chased off a cliff by a sow bear. Dragged over rocks towards killer rapids when trying to line a canoe. Been attacked by a fer de lance. By fire-ants. Got sick as a dog on a pit-roasted pig in Belize. Been through plenty. But here I am, two hours minimum to the nearest help – a drunk doctor and an absurdly reductionist three-way translation process. No air field, no evac at all.
There are moments to be faced, and faced down. Was I going to recover from this? Probably. But then, it’s hard to be sure. And if I got hit again? After all, what I was looking at was either forcing down un-refrigerated meat, the very smell of which left me nauseous, or starving. The issue came down to recovery, reserve strength, and just how the fuck much did I want to keep doing this?
I had a series to finish. Nine books done. One left. One. Did I really want to risk not finishing what I’d spent 20 years of my life working towards? Sure, beautiful country. Beautiful people. But … a handful of cruddy unifacially flaked stone knives and blades? Fuck my pride, there was no real balancing of the scales here. I needed to pull out.
I am curious how others would feel, if placed in my shoes. I normally don’t back down from challenges, but I think sometimes I lose track of what’s important, versus what my stubborn will demands of me.
The next day, I was kneeling in my tent, packing. My socks were wet (raining again), so I’d left them off outside the flap. Sudden stabbing pain in my ankle. Once, twice. Swearing, I flinched to one side and shot my hand down, smearing something across my left ankle. Still swearing, I resumed packing.
Ten seconds later I was lying on my side, head spinning. What the fuck just bit me?
• • •
In the next installment, we leave the realms of possibility, of documented rigour, and enter the true but impossible. Stay tuned.
“Inner Mongolia” moniqca @ flickr. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.
“Mongolian Steppes” Ed-meister @flickr. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.
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