Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Trust Fund

At the Mongolian border the asphalt stops. Some would say it's the end of the road, whereas other, more optimistic souls, would say that the road just got wider: the broad, grassy valleys of the high mountain steppe that slope gently up and down from one pass to another are the spiritual home of the off-roaders whose only boundary is the capability of their cars. Often a single track crosses a pass only for it to split into half a dozen or more a hundred metres later as drivers continually strive to find a smoother ride free of corrugations. It's a tough country for cars, nevertheless the backbone of the vehicular population are old Soviet UAZ jeeps and vans, many of which are older than I am. And they aren't treated with kid gloves either, but hurtle along bumpy roads often overladen with twice as many passengers as they were designed for plus luggage and perhaps a sheep as well for good measure.

Lake and mountains in Altai-Tavan Bogd national park. On the other side of the mountains lies China, just 10km away.

From these boundless steppes came waves upon waves of conquering, horse-riding peoples spilling westwards: Huns, Avars, Turks, Uighurs and most famously the Mongols headed by Genghis Khan. The legend of Genghis and the Mongol hordes thundering across the steppes on their small, hardy steeds, cutting a swathe through all opposition is very attractive to people today. And here in Mongolia, perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, there is a direct connection to those bygone days. Many families still lead nomadic or semi-nomadic lives driving their livestock from pasture to pasture and live in gers (yurts) in a way that would be instantly familiar to Genghis were he to come back today. Of course some things have changed: Mongolians don't do as much marauding as they used to (unless they've had a few too many vodkas), and the gers are quite likely to have a solar panel and satellite dish parked outside.

Kazakh ger near Tsengel with a large satellite dish - essential for those long, winter nights.

Many people dream to ride in Genghis's hoofsteps. Whilst waiting for the interminable Russian border formalities I met two Greek guys and a Canadian girl who were planning to buy horses in Olgii (the first major town after the border) and ride over 1000km to Ulaan Baatar, aided by little more than GPS. They had little experience with horses, had never been in the country before and couldn't speak a word of Mongolian (or Russian or Kazakh for that matter - two languages which are potentially of more use in Mongolia, especially in the countryside far off the tourist trail). The project had disaster written all over it.

I had no such plans. The few times I've ridden horses have not been totally unpleasant, but they haven't been thoroughly comfortable either, and my travels are unpredictable enough without needing to add an animal into the mix. Lutz was heading to a national park in the far western corner of the country. I hadn't considered going there myself due to the difficulty getting there alone, but now I was offered a ride and so I accepted. It was a way to brush up on my German skills which I had barely used in the past year, although his thick Swabian accent did need a fair amount of deciphering. In certain ways he was a typical German, with an overly-cautious character and a slightly superior stance to his surroundings (although that is not uncommon amongst Westerners travelling in less developed countries), but he had also been around a bit and had some interesting stories and experiences to share (plus, like many Germans, he was a bit of a grease monkey and so I learnt a little about cars). The Altai area on this side of the border is even more spectacular than on the Russian, thanks to its remoteness and inaccessibility (among other things you need to get yourself a border areas permit as the park is on the border with China). Snow-capped mountains, forests, rivers, lakes and the odd petroglyph like in Russia, but with the added beauty of Kazakh ger camps adding an authentic rusticity.

The excursion did have a sting in the tail though, and one which I certainly wasn't expecting. When Lutz invited me to come he asked if I could share some of the fuel costs, to which I agreed as it would only be fair. Having travelled together for 4 days I trusted him to calculate a fair share and when he quoted the amount I handed it over unthinkingly. After several hours of contemplation I realised that something wasn't quite right and I contacted him and we met up (luckily we were still in the same area still). I confronted him with my doubts and asked him to show me how he came up with his figures. To my mind they were very dubious, using odd conversions and what seemed to me inflated distances. In spite of the overwhelming evidence he had the gall to stick to his claims. But what rankled the most was that he had backdated the counter to when he picked me up at the Russian border, despite me obviously being a hitchhiker (I only accepted to share costs once we reached Olgii and he proposed that we travel to the park together). All this despite him recounting tales of how he had hitched round America with truckers, sometimes being given rides for several days. To have had such experiences and to still treat a fellow traveller with fewer means in such a way left a bad taste in my mouth. In Germany Swabians are infamous for their stinginess, yet, despite my sometimes inappropriate jokes, I hate to see such negative stereotypes realised.

In all my travels so far I have not only been showered with a great deal of trust and kindness from complete strangers, often by people who were financially worse off than myself which certainly wasn't the case with Lutz, but I have also gone to great lengths to save a dollar here and there, so to have so much effort wiped out in one go and on top of that by a person whom I trusted leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. Nevertheless, to let this one bad experience change my generally optimistic outlook and disposition to put my trust in people would go counter to my travel philosophy and experiences, so far so I shall chalk it down to experience and bad luck and move on. In the end it is only money.

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