Church of Wanderlust

For decades I thought I wasn’t religious. Until I realized: my religion is Wanderlust.

The temples of my faith are scattered all over the world. They are Babylonian airports and abandoned landing strips overgrown with weeds; bustling city squares and sleepy fishing villages; mountain-top castles and back-alley dive bars, awash in neon lights, lingering smoke and that tingling feeling of déjà vu.

The scriptures of my religion come with blank pages. You fill them up yourself, with all the secret words you find along the way. Passwords you earn by showing up and taking it all in. Like the Japanese «kikubari», the Spanish «duende», the Tibetan «lungta» and the Finnish «kalsarikännit».

There are millions of us Believers, and we have our own sacred rituals: swapping road stories (that time you crossed the Tibetan-Nepalese border on foot), travel tips (never join a Great Wall of China tour) and anecdotes picked up around the world, like the one about popular Austrian T-shirts with «No kangaroos here» – because of how many foreigners allegedly confuse it with Australia.

Our altars are invisible and intangible, built of memories and scars: the first time you inhaled the air of India, that time your flight landed safely – but not the one right behind yours, that time you drank with a real Viking, that day you got to ride an untamed Mongolian horse and almost got killed in the process, that beautiful stranger on the opposite side of the planet who became the lover you’ll always carry in your heart – but will never see again.

Our priests are grandmas the world over who feed every stray soul that comes through their door before they even ask your name or where you’re from. Our angels are people finding creative ways to give you directions when you don’t share a single language in common. Our prophets are those who have traded security for discovery; achievement for contentment; retirement money for frequent flyer miles.

We are everywhere, and eventually, we will take over the world. We won’t need bombs or economic schemes. We’ll just blend the borders by blending our families. We’ll continue to spread our ideology through street foods, ethnic tattoos and cultural holidays. We’ll quietly convert everyone by making them fall in love with people in our stories – until each and everyone on the planet becomes us, the Wanderlusters.

And that’s the only thing I religiously believe in.

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Off the grid in Mongolia: Part 3

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Lonkh gathers some moss and starts the fire.  His hands are dark and leathery.  Lonkh is a small guy and could be anywhere between 28 and 52 – it’s hard to tell, as it often is with the nomads living the hard life.  But turns out Dekke and Lonkh used to be classmates in summer school for nomadic children, whenever their parents would be able to bring them there.   Dekke leans over to tell me that “Lonkh” means “half-bottle”, because he’s as tiny as a small bottle.  Bottle of what, I’m thinking to myself, but don’t go there.

The most striking thing about Lonkh is his riding style.  Most of the time he slumps in the saddle, half-hanging off the horse, very much unlike Dekke who is riding with a very straight back.  I ask him why and he gestures that this way is better if you need to place a girl in front of you in the saddle  (just in case he finds one randomly roaming around in taiga, I guess).  As she translates this pipe dream, Saraa breaks into her typical explosive laughter.  Dekke just rolls her eyes and shakes her head.  Clearly, they are not rooting for the old classmate.  In response, he just sends them his best smile (with whatever teeth are still in place).  I really wish I could have been there when this Fresh Prince was courting the girls of the nomadic school when they were all teens.

Dekke is married now and has two grown sons back in the nomadic village.  Her husband drinks and often tries to beat her up, so she avoids him by spending weeks in the taiga with her horses, sometimes alone, sometimes guiding people between the mountains and the settlement down in the valley.   She often eats what she finds in taiga and usually sleeps outside, in a makeshift bed made out of saddles and a blanket.  It’s really comfortable, she says.   She can’t sleep inside other people’s homes anyway.  The spirits of other people’s ancestors come to her at night and bother her, so she prefers to sleep in open air.  You see, Dekke’s father was a famous local shaman, so she has a gift.  But she was a bastard child, and thus he passed on to her no knowledge.   So she just sleeps outside, away from other people’s family altars, summer or winter, and it’s better, she says – fresh air, and my horses can see me, and we are happier that way.    I look at her calm weathered face and think to myself, I don’t think anybody can beat this woman up even if they tried.   And then  I think maybe she is the spirit of this taiga herself.  The Taiga Spirit in red Mickey Mouse sweater.

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Mighty Dekke

As for Saraa’s life – that could easily be produced as a Mexican telenovela.   The very traditional marriage, the baby, working as a nurse in the settlement’s hospital to feed the family,  her desire to study more and maybe become a doctor, the classic mother-in-law, who called her a whore for wanting to go the city to study, the divorce, the long hungry years of being a single mother in a settlement with very few jobs, her first business:   taking reindeer loaded with barrels of vodka to the illegal gold-mining camps deep in the mountains, at night, in the dead of winter,  the mind-blowing profits coupled with the very imminent danger, and a sound advice from a kind old man at the camp who warned her one night – woman, it’s time to leave the camp now, before it’s too late.  Her next venture was a bit safer:  she figured the local prisoners had too much free time on their hands, they should be carving traditional souvenirs from reindeer antlers and she would find how to sell them.

Her fate took turn for the better shortly after:  a young and handsome military officer met her at the post office and started courting her.  She held her guard up as long as she could.   He had been proposing for to her for 5 years, and all those years she was telling him – listen, been there, done that,  you can move in, but I ain’t gonna promise you nothing.   The officer eventually won the battle – she married him right after she realized he had become a real father to her son.

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Saraa works as a tourist guide now, having learned English on her own, and that’s how I know everything that’s going on:  she’s local, she’s a woman, she’s plugged into the grapevine and she likes to share, if you like to listen.    Dekke is her close friend, too, and strangely enough, right here right now, deep in the middle of Mongolian taiga, with no connection to the outside world, I feel absolutely safe and protected  with these women by my side.

**

We get back on our way.   The taiga is stunning, the ground a mix of purple, orange and emerald green.  The forest is still whispering all around us, but now it feels friendly.  You get under its spell, you feel like you belong, you stop taking pictures to avoid producing that foreign sound of camera clicking.

On top of the mountain we ride up to a bunch of piled up stones.  These are oovos – a shamanic tradition, a way to please the local spirits.  Some are decorated with blue silk scarves – the color of the sky, some with animal skulls.  There are Mongolian banknotes tucked between the stones, and there are also cans of beer.  Everything you need for a spirited party, in other words.  We circle the mounds on horseback three times clockwise to ask the spirits to protect us on our way.

But I already know I got nothing to worry about in this neck of the woods.

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Off the grid in Mongolia: Part 2

off into the mountains on horseback

Beginning

Countless torturous hours later, the mini-van spits out my pitiful remains and a very fresh Saraa.  We are now in the very North of Mongolia, in the Tsaaganuur settlement right at the northern border with Siberia.  Too tired to have any dreams , I plummet to sleep like a rock.

The early morning welcomes me in Saraa’s voice: “Good morning, sunshine, they are here!”

“They” includes a pack of horses led by a beautiful Amazon, adorned with  a red Mickey- Mouse sweater and an impenetrable smile.   Her name is Dekke, she is a Tsaatan, a horse-woman and a taiga guide.  A small Mongolian man half-hanging sideways off a horse behind her is Lonkh, joining us to go in the same direction.

Dekke takes off her glasses and looks me up and down.  Forward comes a horse – well into its senior years, of a very beautiful grey color.  Clearly, I will have to prove myself to this woman somewhere along the way.

Dekke puts her friend Saraa on a pretty white horse with auburn spots.

-Watch me fall off this thing! – cheerfully informs me Saraa. –  I always do!

We ride into the heart of the Magic Forest –  the scenery is straight out of a Hollywood blockbuster.  One minute you are riding past a blackened tree scorched by a lightning, with its dry arms up into the skies like a dire warning.  Another, you are at the top of the hill, the thick grey clouds staring you in the face,  and the wild grass whispering from down below:  fresssh flessshh…

The arrival time to the village remains unknown.  We get there when we get there.  Could be today, could be tomorrow.  Depends on how well you can stay in the saddle, they say.   And don’t snap photos on horseback – she startles easily.    Through the thick woods, across the swampy valley, over the burned patch, around the small lake.  My horse is now breathing heavily ascending a big hill.

A big group of vultures starts circling in the sky right above us.   The word “carrion” pops up in my brain.   And then I realize that the closest thing to carrion around here is me.  Suddenly, I feel uneasy. I force the letters in my head to rearrange into “carry on” and straighten up in the saddle.

There are no road signs anywhere, no markers, no park guides.  There is no compass, no map, no satellite phone,  no chance for an emergency helicopter.    There is only Dekke, who knows this taiga like the back of her weathered hand, and then there is Saraa who knows everything else you need to know for survival in this neck of the woods – except she keeps falling off her horse.

Just like now – we hear a dull thump and a piercing shriek behind, which can only mean that Saraa fell of her horse again, so we stop for a much needed break.

Dekke the horse woman

into the wild

vultures playground

Dekke and Lonkh making strides

(Next chapter)

Horsing Around

As a child, I loved the concept of horses.   I used to collect every magazine page, every postcard or a stamp with a horse on it, putting them in a special album.  I was fascinated with horses and dreamt of riding like a western movie hero, galloping fast and furious, on a wild mustang that would only listen to my command.  It was a very intense, but also a very long-distance relationship: there were no horses anywhere near my home.

Finally, at the age of 14 I lucked out and got a horse-back ride in a summer camp.  The mare was senile and quiet, and the solemn 10-minute snail-pace ride went without a hitch until I tried to get off the horse, caught my shoe in the stirrup and fell down, shattering the bones in my right arm.  It took forever to heal and the dream kind of lost its luster.   I figured I’d never gallop wild like Clint Eastwood, and that was that.

But the dream came rushing back to me  when I found myself in Mongolia.

There were horses everywhere.  One of the main events of the Naadam Festival is the horseback race by 7-year-old kids.  Locals decorate their homes with paintings of horses.   About half of the traditional music is dedicated to horses and riding, there is even a  musical string instrument called “horse-head”.   Looks like a horse head, sounds like a woman weeping in the open steppe –  guaranteed to squeeze a tear out of the most cynical bastard.  A horse head is also on the local airline logo.

Mongols even have a special word for a person’s spirit, your most inner self:  it’s “wind-horse”, and the stronger you are, the stronger your “wind-horse” is perceived to be.  “Wind-horse” is a term widely used in Shamanic practices, too.

In other words, my childhood obcession resurfaced.  So one day somewhere in the countryside I gathered the courage to ask the locals if I could return to the camp on a horse instead of a van.  Sure, they said.   Gallop ok? – I double-checked.  Whatever you want! – they gestured, put me on a quiet-looking horse, and sent me back to camp with two local boys, about 7 and 12 years old.

It was a nice, dry day.  There was about 2 miles to the camp.  The kids were young and seemed pretty friendly.  How hard can it be to gallop a little, I thought.  I was looking forward to a nice ride, getting comfortable in a saddle, when suddenly the boys lashed their whips, shrieked something wild and our horses suddenly took off like they just got fire lit under their tails.

I barely had time to grab fistfuls of my horse’s mane, as I had immediately lost the reigns and any control of the situation.  I would later find out that the 7-year-old was some kind of a national horse-riding champion.  And the 12-year-old was some kind of  an ex-champion.  And that both of their horses had won multiple races.  And that although my horse had not been a champion, she had ambitions, too, and would not tolerate hanging too much behind the others.

StoOOooOOp the hooOOooOOooOOrse! – I was trying to yell,  swallowing mouthfuls of dust and flying pebbles, trying to hold on to the mad beast under me.  My whole life flashed in front of my eyes, including the damn horse album.  I was holding on for dear life, feeling all my internal organs tumble inside and the brain matter bump around in my head, smashing against the cranial walls.   The wind was about to blow the contacts straight out of my tearing eyes, the right arm started to itch again where the fracture had healed over a decade ago, as I started planning my imminent fall.   From time to time the little rascals would glance back at me, clearly mistaking my SOS signals for expression of glee, scowl and whip their horses hard, making them going faster and faster.

I was just about to let go and accept my dire destiny, when my horse suddenly changed the gait.  It was now moving in a wave pattern:  jumping forward on both front legs, hanging in the air for half a second each time.   All of a sudden, the body caught onto the new rhythm and balanced itself out, I recovered the reigns and realized – this was it! That was the gallop!  Finally, the horse and I merged into one wind-horse spirit, moving in unison.  It was like flying and felt totally euphoric, the best sensation ever, worth every moment of the horror leading up to it.

Unfortunately, we were already sprinting into the camp.  The little juveniles were already there, cheering my effort.  After peeling off the crazy horse, I tried to stabilize my jelly legs, squeezed out a happy smile, and limped into a guest yurt, where I collapsed on the nearest cot and proceeded to manually shift my eye lids back into their natural position, waiting for my stomach to find its way back down.

Over the next couple months spent amidst the mesmerizing Mongolian landscapes I eventually learned how to gallop without clutching a horse’s mane, just leisurely slumping in a saddle, almost cool like Clint.  And just when I was about to feel very proud of myself, in a village somewhere a wild-looking horse stormed past me full-speed, foaming at the mouth.  In the saddle, a pink-clad teenage girl was typing away furiously on her sparkly mobile phone with both hands, her head down and the reigns just tied to the saddle, letting the horse find its own way across the wide open land.

**

Clearly, I will never ride like Clint Eastwood.  Nor like an average Mongolian child.

But I learned something better in Mongolia:  every one of us has a wind-horse inside.  And if you let yours run wild,  it might take you to the happiest place you’ve ever been.