Learning to Sit in Mongolia
It had been hours since the van had stopped and dropped us off to yet another remote part of the Mongolian steppe. Actually, saying another remote part is a bit of a redundancy: all of Mongolia is remote. This is a land that I had never been immersed in, through readings or otherwise. It wasn’t on my top list of anything really. I was simply here to see horses. I’m a horse lover to the degree that makes one obsessed. The only way I could be more into horses is if I owned one, but that wasn’t in the cards. So far though, we hadn’t seen any horses. All we had seen were rocks. Rocks and goats. Lots of goats. Goats that destroyed the steppe with their greedy little stomachs to produce the cashmere for the masses an ocean away.
The steppe was brown and dry, due to overgrazing and drought — both in some way or another human caused, if you believe that humans can destroy an ecosystem as vast as the steppe. And it is vast. I tried to think of other words to describe it, but that was impossible. Vast in my mind conveyed something without end, the spreading of your arms into the horizon. Some people would say infinite, but that seemed too constrictive a word to use for the steppe.
It’s vast in a way that defies time and it often seems that it’s all you have. Land and time. We spent hours in a van traveling to our various destinations, a ger, a hill, a camp. We sat in the soviet vans, only known to me in WWII movies before this, bumping along as if traveling on a 5-legged camel. The scenery seemed flat from your view out the window but the suspension of the van told you otherwise. I couldn’t tell if the contouring of the land was determined by the wind, lichen, tires, or some other mystical force but you would feel each ridge travel through your person as you jostled along with other passengers.
The rides would take hours, simply to bring us to another hill on which to sit on the top of and watch for wildlife. In truth we were watching for pallas cats, or ibex. But it was mid-day, and while I had no degree in wildlife biology I had been outdoors enough to know that animals bed down during the afternoon, especially when the sun was beating down and there was no water to be had. The only thing we would see is the rock.
We would sit for hours, staring off into steppe. At times the land would blur into the sky, even though the brown and bright blue were at odds with each other. Looking out at the land you thought about, what? It depends on each person I guess.
I thought once again how small I was in comparison to the world. You might tell me I’m being trite, working on something that seems to be a trend, a cliche even, among the traveling set, to go on a journey that makes you realize you are nothing in the world at any given moment. I would challenge you to spend a half day in the steppes of Mongolia and feel any other way. This land that has little ice or snow, more plant life than a desert and yet has NOTHING around it for longer than you can see. No giant saguaro cactus reaching to a purple desert sky, no megafauna striding across a sun-setted Namibian desert, absent of colonies of penguins stark black against a white background. This is a land that is stark in its absence of height, where you or the cairns are the only things jutting with any height off of the ground.
And so you sit and look out at this landscape that challenges you to find the differences in rock and lichen and clouds. You sit with the earth and the sky and yourself, contemplating none and all. But that’s what you do, you sit.
How was I to know that a mere three years later I would be forced to sit again. As the world sat together during COVID, in places far more insulating to the eyes than the steppes I wandered. But the sitting was very much the same. It’s just you in this vast world and you are nothing to the world.
I thought about the steppes a lot when I was homebound. And now that I can venture out a bit more I find myself sitting. Sometimes in sitting you go farther.