Get Your Cowboy On

The Mongolia Obsession

Get Your Cowboy On

The Mongolia Obsession

Get Your Cowboy On
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Sept. 24 2008 7:17 AM

The Mongolia Obsession

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Click here to launch a slide show on Mongolia.

Like many young men who grew up in North America, I have had my share of cowboy fantasies. To be clear, I'm not talking about the fantasy of having sex with a cowboy (a legitimate, though alternative, form) but, rather, the fantasy of being a cowboy with boots, a horse, and a gun, roaming around the West. But there's a big problem: To see the American West as it was, you'd have to uninvent a lot of stuff, starting with barbed wire and trains and ending up at paved highways, strip malls, and air conditioning. Yes, all that may fade into dust in another 200 years or so. Unfortunately, we'll all be dead by then, too.

The good news is, if you did uninvent all the stuff that ruined the American West, the place would resemble Mongolia. Deep Mongolia is fenceless, roadless, and above all empty. It is populated mostly by wandering herds, tended by men on horseback or motorcycle, and has little else. It is, in short, completely irresistible to a cowboy fantasist.

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Every day you see stuff in Mongolia that screams cowboy. In the morning, cowboys on horseback herd yaks, sheep, or camels out for grazing, and in the evening, the women go out and milk the beasts. Now and then, you may see men breaking in a bucking wild horse. In the small towns—often just a few buildings set out on the plains—you run into old cowboys wandering around drunk, as if you're in Tombstone, Ariz., and they've just come back from boozing with Doc Holliday.

That said, I'll admit that being in Central Asia does require certain adjustments. The horse saddles are generally made of wood. You don't pound whisky in the saloon; instead, you drink fermented horse milk in a ger. And the guns you'll see are old Soviet bolt-action models, not Winchester repeaters.

Traveling through deeper Mongolia is also a chance in this life to see what it is about the "endless plains" that once inspired so much writing and thought. There are places in America that are pretty empty. But endlessly empty is different. It means land free of any road or fence as far as the eye can see, and then beyond that, and then beyond that. The plains begin to feel more like ocean than land, open to being crossed in any way you'd like, free and unending. You start to realize how much your daily decisions are driven by paths, streets, and fences. Forget about the road less traveled and think no road at all.

After about a week of driving mixed with riding, we'd reached that mountain we spotted on the map back in Ulan Bator. We had reached the edge of the Altai range, just out of the Gobi desert, near the Chinese border. There we camped in a high plateau next to a single family's gers, sheep, and horses. We were their first foreign visitors in 17 years—the last was a Japanese fellow who lived in a tent for a year to study marmots.

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Miki and I went with one of the men to climb our target, that mountain peak, on horseback. The horses were pretty uncooperative—"The horse thinks you are a fool," said Miki, unhelpfully, though I didn't see her galloping up the mountain, either. We had brought along Soviet rifles and bullets, but after some would-be target practice, I realized that my chances of hitting a marmot were zero, and so did our guide. As we neared the top of the mountain, he left some food behind and abruptly disappeared—not for a few minutes, but for a few hours.  We never made the summit. Later, I realized that he had left us to graze, as if we were a strange breed of horse, while he made some serious efforts to catch our dinner.   

I took my evolving attitude toward animal scat as a measure of my adjustment to life on the plains. When they needed to start a fire in the middle of nowhere, cowboys relied on cow chips, which is a euphemism for cow feces. Before Mongolia, like most urban Americans, my views on animal excrement were largely negative. That changed. Animal feces began to take on a new and more precious meaning—as a valuable and somewhat scarce commodity good for building a fire with. I knew I had reached a turning point when I began to handle yak patties with my bare hands. Mentally, feces had become just an oddly shaped form of wood. And, hell, a good dung fire keeps the bugs away.

Since we're talking about cowboys, I can't close this entry without tackling a somewhat sensitive topic: Asian manhood. There is a widely held stereotype that, samurais and Bruce Lee aside, East Asian men are not particularly masculine. I hate to admit it, but as with many stereotypes, there's some truth to this. Take my native Taiwan: Good food? Yes. Friendly? Yes. Macho? Not at all. Many Taiwanese men consider it perfectly normal to fill their cars with stuffed animals. More broadly, male pop stars across East Asia have a disturbing tendency to look exactly like the teenage girls who are their biggest fans.

Please don't get angry about this. It's true that Western popular culture tends to emasculate Asian men. I am also aware that cultural ideals of manhood vary, and that Taiwanese men are more likely to express their masculinity in other ways, like collecting tea pots or chewing on betel nuts. But rough and tough they aren't. And some of this gives Asian men outside Asia something of a complex.

The antidote to any idea that this might be a racial, as opposed to cultural, trait is a trip to Mongolia. Mongolian men in the countryside spend their time riding horses, killing animals, and breaking firewood. They tend to hold their face in a fixed grimace. At times, it is like a country of Daniel Craig impersonators. Along with parts of Latin America, it's probably the most macho place I've ever been. And so, my Asian brothers, if you ever want to know what the extremes of Eastern manhood look like, forget about Jet Li or even Bruce Lee. It's Mongolia where Asia gets tough.