I awoke at 2 AM to the sound of a pickup truck horn being honked incessantly. Was I suddenly back in the States, in some crap motel alongside an interstate in west Texas?
No, I confirmed to myself, I was still in a ger in the remote mountains of Mongolia, just miles from the border with China.
But a truck horn?
I heard some shuffling in the darkness and then a headlamp came on from the bed near me. The light illuminated the face of the 20-something man I’d first encountered upon arrival. Then, from the opposite side of the ger, there came a voice which I recognized instantly: it was The Patriarch.
I was a little unnerved; I’m a notoriously light sleeper (by-product of my home being burglarized, twice, while I was in it) and tend to awake at the slightest of noises. Yet the young man and the Patriarch had entered the ger and bedded down while I was counting sheep. Damnit, I’m losing the edge.
They exchanged a few words, which then became many words, which then become a bit of an argument. Meanwhile the horn continued its blasting.
Finally the young man shuffled outside, and because I’m disastrously curious AND cursed with a small bladder, it seemed reason enough to go out and accomplish two things at once.
Given the temperature inside the unheated ger, I had a feeling it was downright cold outside, and I was right. I’ve backpacked and camped at elevations above 4300m/14,000 feet; do it enough times and you’ll gain a pretty accurate internal thermometer, and upon stepping from the ger I estimated it was no warmer than 4C / 40F. I found a somewhat discreet place behind the ger that allowed me to see the headlights of said truck, no longer blaring its horn.
Through the darkness I spotted a very large metal tank placed 20 yards or so from the house. Probably about 500 gallons, I then realized it was for fuel storage, and that this farm was a small gas depot for the neighbors.
I finished my business and scurried to get back inside. I was moderately disappointed; I’d been hoping that the horn was some sort of call to arms to unite all the mountain clans. Then we would mount up, them on horses, me on the DRZ, and we’d thunder across the plains, invading China and riding relentlessly until we’d liberated Beijing. If I was particularly brave, they might even make me a warlord.
But, no. It was just a guy needing gas.
I heard the young man re-enter the ger a few minutes later, his headlamp bobbing on the ornate rugs that hung from the walls. It was only then I realized a large form standing directly over my bed, and it wasn’t the young man.
It was The Patriarch.
JC, was this guy a ninja? I briefly contemplated shouting out for my guardian warrior princesses but knew they’d never make it in time. Instead, I sat up on my elbow, grabbed my own headlamp from under the pillow and switched it on.
As he silently stood over me with a look equal parts reluctance and disdain, I truthfully had no difficulty understanding his perspective. He’s out here in the middle of nowhere, responsible for his wife, his daughters, his sons, his livestock. If I were in his shoes, would I want some stinky wet foreign man in my home, a man stupid enough to have been caught out in a lightning storm, chatting away with my uncomfortably too-interested teenage daughters? I know of precious few dads who’d have acted differently than this Mongolian man.
With a deadly seriousness he locked my eyes and emphatically held up one finger. I took his meaning immediately and nodded my agreement.
“Yes,” I said, meeting his Man With No Name gaze with one of my own. “One night. Then I go.” I pointed outside and made the sounds of riding away.
He grunted his satisfaction and turned toward his bed, snoring away within minutes. Shortly thereafter I was snoring too.
Next morning I emerged from the ger to discover that my suspicions of the overnight temps were correct. Water in the livestock trough had a thin layer of ice. The nearby hills just 50 meters above the farm had fresh snow upon them.
I quickly packed up the bike, eager to get going. It broke my heart to have no photos of any of these people; not Lady Preggers, not the warrior princesses, not the son, not even The Patriarch, who’d made it very clear he wouldn’t tolerate any pictures of his family. As much as it ached, I wasn’t going to be disrespectful. Still, as I was tightening my last strap, Ahgula came to say good-bye and I took my chance, asking her to quickly sign my helmet. She was delighted to oblige.
I was loaded and riding by 8:30 AM, an incredibly early start time for this Backpacker Moto. Last night’s hefty dinner plus a solid nine hours of sleep and I felt energized and optimistic, dark rain clouds overhead notwithstanding.
And it’s a good thing I was feeling so rejuvenated, because by the time the sun would set, this would be the most difficult, challenging, brutally exhausting day I’d ever spent on a motorcycle.