Drunkards in Mongolia
by James Madsen
Nomads move by Nir
The areas we were in bordered Kazakhstan--great homeland of Borat. The population is eighty percent Kazakh and people speak Kazakh...so this was my opportunity to vindicate the Kazakh people from Sasha Barron Cohen's jaundiced humor. After the fact, I can see where he gets it...and there are things both better and worse than Borat would lead you to believe.
About five minutes after we were crammed into the car, bouncing along the streets Hovdt--the province center we were flying into and driving out of, consisting of muddy brown one story buildings and gers, smelling like dust, burning trash, and cow dung--a purple Jetta-looking Russian car barreled by us on our left, cut in front of us with two feet to spare, and fishtailed wildly five or six times before coming to a rubber-burning stop in the middle of the road.
The driver of the car wouldn't get out--he waved our driver to come out and see him and there was no way we could pass his car, which blocked the street both ways. Turns out the guy was drunk--totally, completely wasted at nine in the morning. He was a fat, red faced Mongolian from a province different than our driver's, and he looked like he wanted to fight.
Finally he was pacified, and so we continued on, looking for a gas station. (There is no model of efficiency in Mongolia--your driver will always fill up gas after you get in the car, not before, and you have to go to all four "gas stations" to find one open, operational, or containing gas.)
The whole thing wound me up--not only was the guy drunk and on the road, but none of us had seat belts, none of the glass in the car is tempered, and neither our driver or guide seemed to think it was terribly dangerous that a belligerent drunkard almost slammed into us at high speed only minutes before.
Then I notice, after we get gas, that this guy is following us. He ends up driving directly toward us--I see a head on collision coming--stops at the last minute, and demands money for vodka. No way in hell. Then--and this is something that happens in the other story too--after threats and yelling and fights, he shakes hands with our driver and calls it buddy buddy. Weird. I secretly hoped he would flip his car and die somewhere down the line, before he killed someone else.
We got to the camp five hours later. I'll return to that in a second, but I want to fast forward three days to our drive back. This time a Khazak man was driving us, an older man who was probably in his sixties, who had a wife we had met and five kids. I fell asleep during the ride, one of those great head-banging-against-the -window-but-it's-better -than-staying-awake-the -car-ride-is-so-long moments, when we pulled off the road to meet two other vans--groups of tourists we knew--because one of them had a flat. With them was another Khazak's truck--a big thing with a horse in the back and, it turns out. a penchant for breaking down. Apparently we had passed that truck sometime earlier and not stopped to help because we were tourists and that's not common practice. The other vans had stopped, and now, with all three vans and the truck in the same place, pulled over, there was trouble brewing. The truck divers--there were two, plus a two or three kids, were dangerous, drunken louts. My Mother woke me up, saying "A fight,
The truck drivers were upset that our van didn:t stop to help them originally--which is something Mongolians and Kazakhs might do for each other day to day, but when drivers have tourists, they don:t stop. This ticked off the truck driver--um, I guess I should say threw him into an uncontrollable drunken rage--and when I woke up I saw him punch our driver in the face twice, chase him, and kick him and hit him a couple more times. The attacker was maybe 27--not a fair fight against a frail sixty year old guy. Most bothersome was that the other two drivers of the tourist vans didn:t step in and try to stop the fight.
I didn:t get out of the car because 1. my siblings were in the car and they were my priority, 2. I didn:t know why the fight was happening and I don:t speak Mongolian, and 3. because there were others on the ground already. Well, somehow our driver got away from this guy and started cleaning the blood off his face while the attacker sulked ways away, but I guess he wasn:t satisfied, so he picked up a rock, ran back toward our driver, and tried to smash his skull in. I learned later that both he and his drunken buddy were making death threats the whole time and that:s why no one was doing anything (bad excuse on their part). It also explains why I could see them making throat slitting motions during the whole ordeal.
Well, long story short, we would have had a dead driver if the women in the group hadn:t interceded, somehow talked the attacker out of his attack mid-attack as the men (finally) restrained him. The guy tried to attack our driver a couple more times, finally cooled down, and--are you kidding me--offered our driver a couple bucks and a handshake and an entreaty to be friends. We got out of there--our driver had to see a doctor when we finished the last three hours of that wrenching drive because his kidneys were hurting him and it gave me great pleasure to pass the truck again, broken down with no one to help. It was attempted murder, and on impulse, and it scared me and it put a damper on the next couple days, seeing as we were traveling on frayed nerves as it was.
This is what I think: the life in the Mongolian countryside is so hard that people become accustomed to manual labor and death. To handle the sheep you grab them by the horns and rope them up. Horses die, camels die, goats die. You live and die by your hands and life is simple and pure and that is idealistic, ????it also means that there is less of a social filter between emotion and action. Anger leads to fighting, and alcohol more often than not leads to anger. I think all of this is helped along by the remoteness of the area because there are no police for hours and the police that are around have little power or are corrupt. And that has also led me to another realization--I don:t like being in areas where there is not some decent rule of law. My parents were not irresponsible to take us to Mongolia--????now that I:ve experienced a freak accident--this is the first time in thirty years something like this has happened to our driver (though drunk driving seems more ?????? than our guides let on)--I want the insurance of a solid cop.