On my first night in the Gobi Desert, when the sky was dark with clouds, I held up my hand in front of my face inside my ger, which is the Mongolian word for a yurt. No matter how much I strained, I could not see my hand.
It reminded me of being on one of those cheesy cave tours, once, somewhere, and when were deep underground, after pointing out stalactites and stalagmites, the guide told us not to move and turned off the electric light. “Your eyes will never adjust,” he said with ominous delight. I tested his assertion by opening my eyes as wide as I could, I eventually closed them until he turned the light back on. Dark was not a condition I really experienced, growing up as I did in Manhattan, where nights in the polluted 1980s were at their darkest a deep glowing orange. I don’t think I knew that nights could be black velvet dark.
I also don’t think I ever realized that any place could be so empty. The Gob landscape, land all the way to the horizon, to the sky. Then a thin layer greenish grass covering rocks, in various shades of bake, and beyond the small group of gers that made up the Three Camel Lodge. That was it. I had never seen anything like it, on dry land anyway. It didn’t surprise me that one of the Chinese names for the Gobi means “endless ocean.”
And somehow empty land is different than empty ocean. Even a becalmed ocean is pregnant, you know there’s plenty in that deep that you can’t see, and that could emerge from the depths at any moment. So being able to see all the way to the horizon, to occasionally see a plume of dust that was a vehicle, or a drift of white that was an animal herd, to know nothing unexpected could appear from around a corner because there were no corners, no structures, not even a tree – these circumstances allowed some old animal part of me to relax. I could see anything coming, I could prepare and there could be no surprises.
However, the relaxation was a mammalian reflex, not a conscious sigh. Because the civilized part of me was tense. I could not survive here, without what had been put into place for me by the staff of the lodge. There was no cell phone service, no internet searches, no Google Maps. (I’d heard there was cell service on a certain rocky hill, and that if you stood on the top of the hill and threw your phone into the air, it would acquire the signal. Although I asked many times, I never did find the hill.)
Reality: I would not be able to walk or drive out of there, even if I remembered the name of the town that had the small airport, which I did not. My actual condition was completely stuck and dependent. And this reminded me of a backpacking expedition I made with the National Outdoor Leadership School in Wyoming for a story several years ago. On the first night of the trek, in my sleeping bag, I thought I heard traffic and comforted myself by thinking that if I could hear a road, I could bail out if I needed to. The next day I found out the sound I heard was a river, and there really wasn’t any way out.
At the Three Camel Lodge, I watched people sitting on the porch chairs, facing out at the space. They looked stupefied, slack-jawed, it was hard to take your eyes off all that emptiness. Some people faced their chairs the other way, so as to look at the human-built structures and not all the space.
The first afternoon I was in my ger, and on my bed reading, with the plan of taking a nap. The ger does not have any windows, and other than a small door (open for the photo above), the only opening is at the center, which admits light, and air, and allows for the exhaust of stove smoke in cold weather. Apparently, and unusually, it started to rain — so the diligent staff covered the opening, which they reached from the ground via attached ropes. I heard the squeaky scratching pulling against the ger, and I had no idea what was going on. I wondered if it was an animal, but I was too drowsy to investigate, and anyway what on earth would I do about an animal?
I figured out what was happening when the cover was jimmied into place, and the day light was extinguished, along with fresh air. The ger is covered with fabric but has an insulating layer of plastic, and so without the opening at the top, it’s like being inside a sealed plastic bag. I opened the small door to breathe, but I couldn’t leave it open because I could see a herd of goats, or were they sheep, not far from my ger, and also there were insects. I spent that night lying in bed for as long as I could stand it, listening to the blood rushing in my ears, and then getting up to stick my head out the door to breathe, reluctantly pulling the door shut again with a leather cord. The next day I asked the staff to uncover the central opening, regardless of rain.
I heard that a quarter of Mongolia’s population is still nomadic and they live in gers. My ger only had a bed, a desk, a chair and my suit case and me, but whole families lived in spaces like this. I thought about the contrast to the vast space of the Gobi and these close quarters, nothing but air and wind and a dark and airless interior. I thought about the balance between positive and negative space, and how maybe one makes the other more tolerable.
The Gobi doesn’t have a lot of sand dunes – it’s a desert formed in the rain shadow of the Himalayas and it’s more rock than sand. But there are a few dunes, and where there are the dunes and tourists, there are of course camel rides. After the camel ride, I climbed up on the dune and remembered the last time I’d been on a sand dune was in New Mexico, at White Sands National Monument. It was then only a few months into my traumatic divorce, so soon in fact that I remember almost nothing about the trip although I’m told that I did a good job of impersonating myself.
But I do remember climbing on the dunes there, and looking at the strange landscape and thinking that the external landscape perfectly mirrored my internal landscape, barren and strange, challenging and blank.
Standing on the orange sand dune in the Gobi, as I looked down at a local family setting out felted goods for tourists to purchase, I realized that I would not have been able to tolerate the empty Gobi landscape if I’d made the trip even a year earlier. But I was fine now, and that seemed like a victory.
The next evening, we were driving on the road and there was small bright light right at the edge of the world. What is that? A very large and well lit ger? A village? “Maybe it’s a casino,” I said, out loud.
It was beyond my imagination in that moment that the bright light on the horizon was a rising full moon.