Saturday, June 28, 2014

Mongolian toilette

Home comforts on the Mongolian steppe are hard to come by. The toilet, a necessity, is a hole dug in the ground. Bathing, however, is a luxury; you do it if you can.

Some days ago, after several in the saddle passed unwashed, I was craving being clean so found some privacy at camp where a little branch of a stream diverted behind some bushes. I stripped, scrambling a ferocious squadron of starving mosquitoes as my warm flesh announced an end to the colony's famine.

To outfox them I jumped into the water. I nearly spring out again like a pogo stick. It was frigid! I was only thigh-deep, but was ready to abandon hygiene and leap back into my warm and stinking clothes if I gave myself a moment to think.

I acted fast. I thrust my head under the surface, splashed my armpits and arse, and hopped onto the bank to soap. Before my mind had time to scream "I'm not getting back in there!" I plunged back in to rinse. My lungs popped full with a shocked gasp. I dunked my head, splashed my nethers, and bounced out again to don my mosquito overcoat. Looking up I noticed on the opposite bank an unmelted berm of snow. It is summer!

The Mongols must think Westerners have a strange fascination with weather, which is notoriously changeable in Mongolia, in the same way as they are obsessed with time, which Mongols give little consideration—a journey takes as long as it takes. Each morning we ask Dondov, the lead wrangler, if it will rain. At first he seems puzzled at our stupidity and answers in the vein of, "yes, it rains." Now I think he answers yes or no arbitrarily, which is as good a forecast on the steppe as you will get: it will either rain or it won't, and half the time he is right.

Today he isn't.

At nine we set off ahead of dark clouds, but sliding like a locomotive up the mountain pass they catch us by noon. The daylight dims. Suddenly we are being pelted with hail and freezing sleet.

Caught off guard on a brief break from the saddle, several of us remount. Annie kicks her horse into a tall thicket for shelter and disappears. I try to follow, but the thicket spooks my horse and he halts in front of it. I'm at a loss, feeling as a learner driver must when first confronted with a stick transmission on a hill. Isn't there something I should do, here?

I look around, water streaming off my hat, and see everyone at a standstill. Susan and Ercihan are warm and dry in their oilskins. I have on a thin windbreaker. It is keeping the wet out but insulates like a plastic bag, which is practically what it is. Paul is smart. He watches what the Mongols do, and follows suit: dismount, crouch under a bush, and entertain yourself watching the sodden idiot sitting on his horse out in the wet and cold.

It passes, and we trudge on through cold drizzle. My jeans and shoes are soaked and my fingers are like ice. That bastard Paul is wearing gloves. I think he's done this before. I plot to kill him and steal his gloves, but the group is too small and someone is bound to ask, "Where did Paul go? And why are you wearing his gloves?" In any case, my plan is moot by the time the climbing temperature on our descent of the mountain thaws my fingers to be sufficiently murderous.

We ride along a river on the valley floor and ascend again. As we mount a crest and the sun comes out, a row of charming blue-roofed huts on stilts appear out of nowhere, perched on the mountainside.

"It's a spa resort built by the Soviets," Jenya tells us. "One week a year, workers from farming collectives could relax here for free. There are hot springs."


We dismount and, as the wranglers tie up the horses, we build a fire to dry off. Our support crew had arrived before us and prepared a lunch of sandwiches, which we scarf down with cups of tea before laying on the hillside in the sun, reading, chatting and dozing.

At last we summon the energy to find the springs. At the end of a winding trail through hillside scrub and over ice-surfaced patches of snow is a simple wooden construction—three connected huts built over top of a broad course of water spouting out of the mountain. The hot water flows into enamel tubs inside. I strip and ease my sore horse-riding muscles in.

Springs in summer. It is heaven.

No comments: