On the train to Mongolia I slept the first six hours. I had stayed up the night before with a group from the Beijing hostel, drinking and dancing in clubs on San Li Tun and the sleep came easily. When I woke up, the windows were full of the steppe of northwestern China and southeastern Mongolia, landscapes that looked very much like the western Great Plains of America. As the train rolled across the countryside, we began to see more felt gers—the homes of the nomads, conical and white, larger in diameter at the base and shorter than tepees, but similar in structure.
In time we came into Ulan Bator, the capital. Ulan Bator—the one city on that trip that people warned us about. Travelers along the way had told of a city of thugs, pickpockets, and bag slashers. “Travel in groups,” they told us, “Don’t go out after midnight,” and “DO NOT GET DRUNK.” We were in the middle of the steppe at the mercy of the Mongols—a race once feared throughout the world as vicious barbarians—surrounded by thousands of miles of empty land, alone save for a few pods of travelers, hoping the million and a half Mongols wouldn’t turn on us, get hungry, or kill us as some sort of ancient sport ritual.
An older Mongol woman held a sign with my name on it when I stepped off the train. I looked around and saw Mongols everywhere on the platform watching us. We got in the car and drove off, glancing over our shoulders. At our hostel, the owner, Zaya, launched into a tirade about her people in a Russian accent. “Today, I drove out to the wild horses, the park, and I don’t know why, everyone sits in their cars in traffic, in their Jeeps! We don’t need these cars. We have horses! We are very spiritual people—we think, we have the philosophy that is very high. We are not working like robots. We have socialism in our minds, but now we are also working for capitalism. So we are both. But everywhere everyone needs these shirts, these pants, these robots (pointing at the computer I hoped had reliable Internet service) for what, 70, 80 years? And we need these things? We Mongolian people, we will never work like robots for money, not like that. I think about what we are doing to the earth, and about how the 22ndcentury will be…but it is our reality, it is what we have, and we are not going to say we need to turn away from it. It is like the tomato. It dies, and then it grows again.”