After some time driving around the Mongolian countryside, I hit upon a great way to make new friends. It was simple: Draw a line in the dirt, paw the earth a bit, and wrestle to the first fall. Call me primitive, but there's something about fighting in the dirt that seems to foster a certain kind of companionship. I don't take this approach too far—at book parties, for instance, I tend to stick with small talk. But in the middle of the Mongolian nowhere, in a country where wrestling is the national sport, there's just no better way to make pals. Brave Miki even took on a few women, pitting what I imagined to be an interpretation of Japanese sumo against the local technique.
As the wrestling story suggests, traveling in Mongolia forced me to re-evaluate my own attitude about one of the greatest of travel dilemmas: that whole "meeting the locals" thing. Call me a snob, but I hate meeting the locals. I'm not really interested in the locals back home, so why should things be any different overseas?
You can't blame the locals. The problem is that most events billed as a chance to "experience indigenous culture" tend to range from the merely uncomfortable to the downright nauseating. If you've ever, say, sat through a hula dance in Hawaii, you know what I mean, but at least you know that's fake. It's worse when a real native gets coerced into being your friend. You get that creepy feeling that you are at a human zoo, particularly if the poor guys are paid to put on feathers and dance around.
But the most terrible things in life are bastardized versions of great things—like bad marriages are to good ones or as fake Parmesan cheese is to the real stuff. So it is with meeting the locals. In Mongolia, the horrors of the forced encounter give way to something much more natural, rewarding, and energizing even for the most jaded traveler.
It all happens at the yurt (or ger, as they call them here). You may just think of it as a big tent, but it's a lifestyle, and one that takes some getting used to if you are accustomed to the idea of "property" or the concept of "trespass." For the odd thing about the Mongolian countryside, besides the lack of roads, fences, and other indicia of civilization, is that anyone's ger is potentially a rest stop, a play station, and, sometimes, a hotel.
One day, early in our jeep tour, I spotted a bucolic ger atop a local hill, surrounded by intensely green grass and grazing horses. "Nice place," I said to Tula, our translator/guide, in my mix of broken German and Japanese.
Tula said something to Bimba, who took a hard right and launched our Russian jeep up the hill. I had thought of the ger rather as if it were part of a landscape painting, not something you might actually interact with. But within minutes, we had landed on the front lawn like a light-blue flying saucer. Out jumped Bimba, shouting, "Hold your dogs!" to the family. (They held them.) Without any further ceremony, he swung open the door to their home, beckoned us to enter, and plopped down as if he were taking a break in his own living room.
I was, to say the least, taken aback, and prepared to be thrown out. But to my surprise, our hosts seemed cool with our invasion of their living room. It was as if a groovy steppe party were in progress, and we were somehow on the guest list.
Our hosts served "tea" (though what Mongolians call tea you might call salty sheep's milk mixed with parts of the tea plant that the rest of the world throws away). We chatted while Bimba, right at home, borrowed a needle and thread to reattach a button to his shirt. After tea, out came a strong, clear liquor distilled from horse milk, and in no time we were roaring with laughter like old friends. Our host caught me eying the horses and suggested I take one for a ride, the way your friend's dad might let you use the motorboat at his cottage. Minutes later, I was thundering through the hills at top speed, whooping and hollering—my distaste for locals gone forever. Forget the feather dances, this was a kind of indigenous experience I could get used to.
And so it was through the rest of our trip. Hanging out and getting drunk at local settlements made what might have been a boring trip more like a magical mystery tour. However romantic a road trip may sound, riding for days in a bumpy, un-air-conditioned jeep can take its toll. There are only so many times in one day that you can bash your head against the roof of a vehicle and remain in good spirits.
It sure helped that every settlement was like a friend's summer home. Within limits, you can drink, hang out, milk goats, go hunting or hiking, and maybe buy an animal and kill it for food (more on that later in the week). There isn't much by way of, say, coffee shops or opera houses in the countryside, but that doesn't matter much when every settlement does double duty.
If this all sounds like some kind of communal anarchy, it isn't quite. You can't just go to Mongolia and jump on the first horse you see. It's bad manners actually to plan to sleep in someone's ger—you use your own tent unless it's raining. Mongolia is not Burning Man or one big hippie commune—it's just a very friendly place.
If you've traveled a lot, you may be suspicious of the kind of friendliness I am describing. "What a sucker," you may be thinking, "I bet he got cleaned out later." Who among us has not had the experience of making a new friend overseas only to find the local gift shop forms the glue in your relationship? But believe me, in the Mongolian outback, there are no gift shops. It's not even clear what they would sell, unless maybe you wanted to get your hands on some stuffed marmots.
There's a Greek myth in which Zeus and Hermes disguise themselves as needy travelers to test a town, curious to see who is willing to give them shelter. Most of the population fails, of course, and the angry gods send them to Hades. I'm pretty sure that's where most of us would end up today. The story seems to express a moral principle that is so generally lost—that you should welcome lost travelers—it is almost quaint. But for now, and for as long as it lasts, rural Mongolians are among the few people in the world I've met who truly and unquestionably pass the test.