My Glamorous Life
Or, tales from an ice- cold ger on the stepped of Central Asia
The pee bottle was sitting stop the rusty stove in the middle of the ger. I needed to find it, having awakened with an annoyingly full bladder at 1 am Mongolian time. The rain, which had marched in last night just as my guide and driver finished schlepping all our gear to our separate gers, pattered lightly against the fabric, which flapped in the wind.
I love that sound.
However that sound also makes me want to pee in the middle of the night.
I flailed around in the air near my (hard as fucking concrete) bed for the hanging light switch. Couldn’t find it.
Shit. So I threw back the six layers of blankets- which, given that laundry services can be scarce out here, were a bit gamey- and padded to where I knew the stove sat. Right into a puddle of water on the floor.
A very cold puddle, if you will.
After cursing loudly enough to wake up the same folks who kept me awake last night well into the wee hours, I found the pee bottle. It’s just a dark blue water bottle, nothing more. However it has saved my ass on multiple occasions. Here, a walk to the concrete facility to pee into a rectangular hole that reeks, as all long drop toilets do, through the cold and rain, well, you get the point.
Pee bottles are a challenge in and of themselves, for you only have to knock a full one over inside your nice clean, dry tent once. Trust me, you’ll never do that again. The night that happened I was in a buggy, spider-infested tent somewhere between Arusha and Lake Natrone, Tanzania, traveling by camel, along with four Maasai men and a Meru cook.
Water was damned scarce out there. I had to use a fair bit of it to clean up the mess. My tent never did smell the same again, especially because it was so incredibly hot. Let’s just say I had to leave the tent unzipped at night, which was simply an invitation for many more six- and eight- legged fellow adventurers to crawl right in. Boy, did they. I was a welcomed smorgasbord.
Glamorous. Sure is.
I woke up repeatedly last night when my damaged right hip and shoulder- the result of having been tossed off the back of a galloping horse in Kazakhstan in 2017-barked about the hard bed. I prefer solid surfaces these days, but various body parts frankly don’t. So I did my best to do the requisite PT exercises while underneath untold heavy layers of fragrant blankets. After a while I gave up. Downed two pain pills, pulled the blankets over my head and hoped. Cold makes the pain worse.
Which is why I am pecking out this story on my phone, both hands encased in thumb splints, the result of the harsh conditions in Canada. For four weeks I subjected my aging hands to icy mornings, hard damned wilderness work and freezing tent poles. My hands thanked me by developing arthritis.
Try peeing in a tent which sports a rime of ice on the inside. Far better there, then chancing a midnight conversation with a grizzly which is inspecting the campsite for leftovers. That’s how you end up as shit in the woods.
As I age, I am handed a wholly different set of challenges than when I first threw on a backpack and stuck my thumb out on the “wrong" side of the road in New Zealand back in 1983. These days my packs are heavier, my body complains more, and I have to pack Rocktape. Lots of Rocktape. Sometimes I think it’s the only thing holding me in one piece.
You adapt. None of this keeps me from heading out. You get accustomed to having a rat’s nest of messy hair that you finger-comb into a lumpy braid. You get used to slightly fuzzy teeth (in my case, dentures) until you can locate, treat and use precious water to scrub them clean. You get used to poly pro adventure shirts and tops that keep you warm but holy cow, can they retain odor. You smell like everyone else, so it hardly matters.
As I sit here now on my concrete bed, my legs warmed by the weight of the blankets, I look at the ceiling which sports the traditional painted spokes radiating from the (leaking) roof. In a few hours we are off to the Gobi. Along the way we will pass endlessly long winding tracks that meander over the scented plains just as these nomadic people do. The horse herds gather, the yearlings lying in the sun, standing nose-to-nose in the incessant winds. The tracks will disappear like an Etch-a-Sketch drawing, erased by winter snows and winds. Goats and sheep graze the rocky hillsides. Winter will take the weak, spring will see the herds culled and more bones will bleach in the summer sun.
Timeless. I’ve wanted to see this part of the world for years. Horse cultures are disappearing. This is what it takes to experience them.
No aches or minor pains can keep me off the camels that I’ll be riding shortly. For all I know, I’ll end up with a few more. May be a bite mark or two. I’m pretty sure decorate d as it is from horse kicks and bramble scars.
A small price to pay for experiencing some of the world’s last great places. I have to exercise longer and harder. Stretch more. Eat more carefully. Bring along a back brace (that Kazakh accident broke my back in eight places). Bring along Ace bandages.
These days I bring my own tent and sleeping bag because I want to control the quality. That means paying more for extra gear and weight. Two big bags instead of one.
Worth every pound and penny.
But not Glamorous.
By this age I have learned what works, what’s not worth it, and what I’m willing to sacrifice (a lot).
Are you? For all those who state so breathlessly that they want my gig, any of this sound like gobs of fun?
To me it is.
Outside the winds of the open, rolling stepped are picking up. Here, a mile away, Genghis Khan established a Buddhist monastery that was once the capital of all Asia. He later moved it to what is now Beijing. The gorgeous paintings inside the temples, preserved for eternity by the dry climate, are worth the effort. The Russians nearly wiped out all this art. They smashed the Buddhas, but the locals, at great risk, spirited away the precious artifacts in their gets just like this one.
The Russians are long gone, their presence out here largely erased by wind and time and the implacable determination of these nomadic people. Like an Etch-a-Sketch.
The once thriving city of some fifteen thousand is also long gone. But monks are back, the temples get painted, and Jack Buddhists like me can come appreciate exquisite artwork, protected by devotees against tyranny.
It’s not Glamorous. But it it is worth it.
Now I gotta go pee.
All photos courtesy Julia Hubbel