The bus to Dalanzadgad drives past nothing much but plains and rocks and sheep and camels for over twelve hot bumpy cramped hours.
For nomads, Mongolians on buses do not travel lightly (in any sense; they puke at the least opportunity). Bags and boxes, bundled carpets and ger covers, plastic canisters full of – I don’t know what. A little boy perches on my rucksack, entertaining the whole bus. It’s an obstacle course to get down the aisle at each stop, and I have to slot myself back into my seat snugly as a banana into its skin. “Sadis!” – sit down! – says a toothless, deel-clad old lady, grinning and offering up what may be her only word of Russian when I get back to find even this space taken over by three boxes claiming to contain rice cookers.
Around eight p.m the lights of the town appear twinkling in the distance, twinkling, twinkling like a mirage that never gets nearer – it’s not till ten that the bus finally arrives.
Next day, the streets of this dusty little town in the Gobi desert are full of schoolgirls wearing the old soviet uniform of black dress and frilly white pinny; ridiculous white bantiky (bows) in their black pony-tails. They look like cute, slightly kinky French maids.
There are trees down the main street, and the market sells the best tomatoes and cucumbers I’ve found in Mongolia.
Riding of town, the flat desert horizon roars silently with galloping heat. There seem to be blue seas out in the pink plains, seas that never get nearer, that melt and vanish.
There are more colours out here than I could possibly find words to describe. It’s almost maddening, how the tones and the light change. A shoal of sand dunes floats gently in the plain, sides wrinkled into unmoving ripples. Their backs are perfectly knife-edge sharp, until the wind gets up and they begin to smoke and blur.
At the camel-herders’ ger where I stay the night, the little girl’s small collection of toys includes a book in English about dolphin and whale watching. There are pictures, and boxes to tick off when you see the creature in question. She will never have seen the ocean, this little girl. Only the solid waves of the sand-dunes, their shark-fin, whale-hump backs. Shining false seas made of heat and flat plains and longing.
A domestic scene in a Mongolian ger: dad sitting cross-legged, sharpening knives; toddler and kitten asleep on the floor; mum sewing teeny tiny wool saddle bags for a herd of weeny toy wool camels, to sell to tourists.