© Copyright 2021 by David Urubshurow
Photo by Simon Hajducki on Unsplash
Iím in the shade of an arbor created by the water from a nearby wellspring that also gives this oasis its Mongolian name: Bulgan. Notwithstanding the leafy canopy, itís scorching hot and bone dry! Iím here because an imprudent impulse overcame my usual good sense when traveling through inhospitable environments: I yearned to eat cold watermelon in the middle of an unforgiving desert. (Three words: Death Valley Days.)
I am about to realize that adolescent fantasy while also providing treats for the fifteen American hunters and half-dozen Mongolian staff of my safari 20 kilometers away. Weíve been stalking the Gobi Desertís most prized yet most elusive fauna; magnificent creatures that roamed this table-top terrain in vast numbers sixty-five million years before the United States and Mongolia established diplomatic relations in 1987. Now, five years after that milestone, I have brought the first-ever private group of amateur dinosaur hunters to Mongolia, led by celebrated paleontologist John ďJackĒ Horner of the Museum of the Rockies and the Jurassic Park movies.
In the interim, Mongolia has discarded the political straightjacket imposed on her by the tottering USSR, Mongoliaís gargantuan neighbor, principal patron, role model, and ideological godfather for the last seven decades. Sheís erected a multi-party electoral infrastructure; is aggressively nudging a sclerotic, command economy toward a more flexible, market-based one; and, broadly extended her international outreach beyond the Soviet-centric Eastern Bloc.
Coming from Americaís only ethnic-Mongolian community, I cautiously took advantage of the warming climate between my once and current homelands. That pace greatly accelerated after the winter of 1989-90 when Mongoliaís communist rulers abdicated rather than slaughter their own children when faced with Tiananmen Square-like protests and hunger strikes in their capital city. The practical effect of that capitulation, for me, was that Mongolia became fully accessible, finally!
I should explain.
My forebears migrated from the Altai Mountains of Western Mongolia in the early 1600s to settle the Volga River basin north of the Caspian Sea. In Russia, we are known as Kalmyks; an appellation applied to those Western Mongols still remaining in Russia after a disastrous, mid-winter exodus of most of their fellow tribesmen and women in January 1771. My 18th century ancestors, by accident or by design, did not depart with the doomed multitude.
Because of that road-not-taken, a group of us Kalmyks, 180 years later, was able to emigrate from Displaced Persons camps in post-WWII Germany to the United States despite the provisions in immigration law banning non-whites from American residency. In February 1951, the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals ruled that undeniably Asian Kalmyks were, in fact, Europeans (i.e., white) because of our centuries-long presence in Russia west of the Urals.
A generation before the suspect anthropology and prevailing Cold War politics informing that decision delivered four-year-old me to central New Jersey in 1952, scores of Kalmyk families had been able to leave Russia for Eastern Europe in the early 1920s just before the infamous Iron Curtain clanged down behind them. Consequently, a tiny segment of Kalmyk society had been exposed to the West for a generation before I was born in the Bavarian refugee camp that was the terminus of my parentsí flight from their Bulgarian redoubt just ahead of the Red Armyís bloody march to Berlin in spring 1945.
Those first Kalmyk fugitives in Eastern Europe were spared the crippling effects of the Orwellian world Lenin and Stalin would soon create on their abandoned, but unforgotten, steppes. Itís doubtful Iíd be at this oasis in Back-of-Beyond, Mongolia, in 1992 if Kalmyk-Mongols hadnít lived in European Russia from the 17th Century. That geographic perch offered the necessary condition for a precious few, including my maternal grandfather, to get the hell out of Dodge when the opportunity beckoned; fortunately for me.
Iím able to communicate in partial Mongolian with my partners in this joint-venture Ė Mongolian State Tourismís maiden experiment with adventure tourism -- because Kalmyks speak a Mongolian dialect. My father steadfastly forbade anything other than Kalmyk within his earshot in our modest home in Freewood Acres, New Jersey,1 while my brothers and I were growing up in the 1950s and Ď60s. (Idiots, where else will you learn to speak your own motherís language?!) Now, I use my Kalmyk and the street-Russian learned from Russian and Cossack playmates to converse more effectively than etcha-sketching stick figures in the packed Gobi Desert gravel. (Thanks, Pop!)
Moreover, Kalmyk culture rests on the twin pillars of Tibetan Buddhism and nomadic pastoralism. It is, at its core, virtually indistinguishable from that of our compatriots in the motherland with whom we share parallel spiritual histories and identical nomadic-pastoralist origins. After 1989, the historical anomalies that would normally incite centrifugal impulses between Eastern and Western Mongols, plus the more recent barriers erected by Capitalist and Communist ideologies, are replaced by a vestigial consanguinity rooted in the unuttered knowledge that our common ancestors had once rocked the known world in ways no nomadic society had done theretofore, or hence.
I repeatedly hear the phrase spattered blood, torn flesh in response to my trademark query concerning my new Mongolian friendsí view of their long-departed Kalmyk kinsmen, especially of those of us in the West. We are all part of the same body, is the convivial message, gory imagery notwithstanding.
It is impolitic, of course, to remind Mongolians that they once pilloried Kalmyks as inveterate anti-communists and vile German collaborators. That was the party line spewed from Moscow and one that Mongolians, as explained, simply had to follow in lockstep. Despite this inconvenient and unmentioned recent history, I feel welcomed wherever I choose to go in this huge, ever-intriguing country. I am where I want to be and have wanted to be for the better part of four decades.
Yet, even after three extended visits in the last two years, I still canít help feeling like a casual visitor, rubber-necking past one more Soviet-era train wreck and ideological graveyard. Sure, there have been moving and poignant moments during my visits here, but none that matched the joy (and sadness, too) of reuniting -- after a 70-year hiatus -- with my paternal first cousins when I first visited the Kalmyk Republic of Russia in 1990. I wait attentively, harboring no unrealistic expectations.
The generous spring has also spawned an impressive communal garden with sizable portions devoted to growing as many tomatoes, cucumbers and watermelons as possible for Mongoliaís notoriously brief growing season. Itís mid-August and that season is rapidly closing despite the sweltering temperature. Our driver, my guide and I walk through the garden plunking on and picking out the ripest looking candidates to supplement our dinosaur huntersí dinners.
While the watermelons cool in a catch basin adjacent to the springís source, I visit with a young doctor who is collecting vegetables and melons for his familyís evening meal. He has been assigned here to serve scores of otherwise isolated nomad families scattered for miles in every direction from his clinic in the village thatís appended to the oasis.
He is interested in all things American and intrigued that ethnic-Mongols also live in that semi-mythical kingdom that has been portrayed in less than flattering images for most of his life. The rapid thaw in previously icy relations has kindled a desire to learn more about life in the States and to find out if Americans really did eat their young, as the Soviets have long suggested. Before he returns to his duties, I convince him (I think) that the Kremlinís propaganda-meisters were speaking metaphorically, most-likely.
A few minutes pass before we spy an agitated old man scurrying toward us at a pace that bodes ill, considering the heat and his age. The moment he looks up and catches sight of us, he cries out: Whereís the American?!
Like many of his generation Iíve seen in Mongolia, his chest is festooned with impressive medals sporting colorful ribbons that indicate he is either a veteran of The War and/or participated in other government-mandated patriotic endeavors on Mongoliaís bumpy road to modernity. It takes only seconds to deduce that the old warrior had crossed paths with the doctor who must have casually mentioned that their oasis had had its first American visitor.
With deceptive agility the septuagenarian closes the remaining yards separating us and repeats his query to each in turn. My companions look to each other with knowing smiles before simultaneously pointing with upturned palms: There he is. The old herdsman screws up his walnut-brown face in deep thought as he grapples with this startling new information. He takes a full minute to give me a thorough once over before observing: Damn, theyíre exactly Mongolian!
The immediate guffaws bursting from my companions arenít reciprocated by the old man who unselfconsciously continues with his inspection while I modestly turn and wipe at involuntary tears of sublime happiness that have emerged, like a desert wellspring, to irrigate my parched cheeks, slake my thirsting psyche and anoint my new existential awareness: Yes, we Americans, after all that, are exactly Mongolian!