As the sun dips towards the bleak Gobi horizon we witness the miraculous transformation. As each desiccated blade of grass catches the fading rays, the monochrome brown around us slowly ripens into a soft mellow gold. We quietly sip our tea by our tent lost in thoughts brought by the changing light on the steppe. After a hard day of cycling this was the time to reflect and relax.
We had come a long way, cranking our pedals from Thailand to reach the arid scrublands of the Mongolian Gobi. This is dirt track terrain where tar remains a myth for those who have never left. We rattle along a rather squiggly route following tracks that will lead us to Ulaanbaatar, the capital city. Crossing people is rare in the desert and our evenings often end with tent visits from curious nomads.
This time a young man rides in. “Sain ba nuu”, we greet him, inviting him for some tea. “Sain ta sain ba nuu”, he replies, eyes roving around our little camp and the two bicycles parked beside. Hitching up his scuffed leather boots, he squats beside us while his horse, happy for the break, munches on the dry bits of grass. I had unnecessarily prepared myself with our phrasebook. The man did a fine job of sign language banter.
Fingers play quite a role in Mongolia. The pinky is for bad, the thumb the global sign for good while the forefinger shoved into the mouth is for cigarettes. He studies our maps to figure where we came from. Raised eyebrows and a thumb for ‘Great!’. He then shows us where he’s come from with his herd. We’re surprised as he points to the opposite aimag (province) at least 300 km away. A long detour from the circuit nomads usually cover on their annual migration. A pinky goes up as he points to the grass and back to his home on the map. Another pinky for failed rain. A thumb appears as he points to the land around and to his horse happily munching and snorting its approval. I exchange looks with my partner. We’re amazed to think that the bland ubiquitous brown around us could be considered good grazing grounds.
Our man then returns to the map and places his finger on Thailand. He lifts a questioning thumb to ask if the grass was good there. We grin, ready to share a laugh but catch the solemn look in his eyes. Instead, we nod. Without having to elaborate he shrugs and signs ‘it’s a little far’.
By now the sun has disappeared leaving a washed out red autumn sky in its wake. As we face the lingering light I can’t help but sigh. After a few minutes of silence our man points again to the map, taps his finger on Mongolia and lifts his little finger with a sad smile. We shake hands before he straddles his horse and gallops back the way he came.
(post script: a combination of summer’s drought and a severe winter that followed killed over 8.4 million animals in Mongolia this year stripping the livelihood thousands of families across the country)