August 15, 2012
We’ve started our Mongolian language lessons, and let me tell you, it’s overwhelming. The Cyrillic alphabet has a lot of the same letters as the Latin alphabet, but they don’t all make the same sounds. My name, for instance, is spelled Кэтлин, “taxi” is такси, and “restaurant” is рэcторант (that’s a transliteration; an actual translation would lack the final ‘t’). I need to drill the numbers tonight, too, because we learned 1-20, the tens, 100, 1000, and 1,000,000, and we’re expected to know them. I can consistently remember 1, 2, 5, 8, 9, and 10. Oh boy. So tonight will be fun, but not the kind that makes for interesting blogging.
It occurs to me that I have not yet described my (somewhat disastrous) exploration of Zaisan. Nothing spectacularly exciting has happened in the last few days, so I might as well chronicle that adventure.
Our dorm is in the Zaisan area, which is named after a Soviet monument on a hill; it’s about a ten-minute walk from my dorm. I wandered over there one morning figuring it would be maybe a forty minute undertaking. Walk over, walk up, take some pictures, walk down. Simple, right?
I got a few pictures, but not nearly as many as I had hoped, as my camera informed me almost immediately that it was running out of battery. Whoops. I can’t even post them at the moment, as I completely forget to bring my camera cord with me, so I’ll upload them next time I’ve got internet access.
Anyway, I made it to the top without incident. It was pretty cool, and very definitely Soviet. And then, rather than go back down the stairs like a normal person, I decided to take the trail that led down the back way.
My descent went just fine. The trail was a little slick, but I’ve done much worse in Ireland. I was confident I’d make it back within my allotted forty-five minutes. Then, as I examined the roads to figure out how to get back to the dorm, I realized that the bottom of the mountain was essentially walled in. Moreover, almost everything at the base was under construction. I’m fine with hopping the occasional fence or wall, but not if it means wandering through a construction site.
So I followed the trail around to the left, thinking that I would eventually find a way out. Surely the entire base couldn’t be fenced in, right?
And then the trail ended.
This didn’t seem so bad at first. The growth wasn’t that thick, so I didn’t think it would be that hard to walk through. And there was a shrine, of sorts, not too far away. I had walked by one already, a large pile of shale, the good-luck blue scarves that all the taxi drivers have above their mirrors, and Tibetan prayer flags wrapped around sticks. I still don’t know what their significance is, but clearly, they’re established features and not just piles of trash. It would take a few trips to make one, so one would think there’d be a trail nearby.
En route, I made a fun discovery.
This is a stinging nettle. They grow in Mongolia. In fact, they grow all over Zaisan. I tried to avoid them after brushing up against a few, but this was not an easy task. Better yet, those almost-invisible spines are hardy enough to sting you right through your clothing, leaving raised white welts surrounded by red, enflamed flesh. That not-very-thick growth suddenly became a lot more intimidating.
But I’d come this far already, and surely there’d be a path at the shrine. So I ploughed onward, avoiding the nettles when I could, stepping on them when I couldn’t (at least it kept the flowers, the most painful part, away), and trying to protect myself with my coat when I could.
And then I found myself on a scree.
I hate screes; they are, without a doubt, my least favorite terrain to traverse. At their best, they’re frightening: your feet slide out from under you every few steps, and you worry about falling down the mountain altogether. On top of these typical worries, this one was littered with broken glass and dotted with more nettle-like plants. And it was wet. Great.
I picked my way gingerly across the slope. I managed to avoid falling, though fighting my way through more nettles was inevitable. Eventually, I made it to the shrine – only to find that there was no path.
What now? I was less than halfway around the mountain, and the nettles got thicker ahead of me. I couldn’t fight through them all the way to the steps, and I couldn’t bring myself to go back the way I had come. I wasn’t far from the base, but I was still walled in, and the lot that wasn’t under construction contained a clearly-occupied ger. I wasn’t about to hop into someone’s back yard when the smoke was rising from the chimney hole – most nomads have guard dogs.
But I could see the monument at the top from where I stood, and while it was further away than the base, it wasn’t that far. I’d have to scramble, and maybe even climb, but it was more rocky than nettle-y, and of the two options, I’d take the rocks. So I started upwards, mentally preparing myself for a slippery climb.
Thankfully, I came upon a trail before the mountainside really got steep. There was still broken glass and nettle flowers to dodge, but a trail! Hallelujah. It brought me back to that deceptively simple one I’d first followed down the mountainside, and this time, I did the sane thing: I climbed back up, looked around, and took the steps back down.
The whole venture took close to two hours, but I made it off that dratted mountain without sustaining serious injury.
And the welts were gone by the time I made it back to the dorm.