We’re in the ger (or yurt as they’re sometimes known) of 67-year-old Mongolian Friday Diamond. Once an accountant, he renounced his abacus and sedentary life to become a nomad.
Earlier that day we met him on a rocky outcrop where he had discovered some of the world’s oldest petroglyphs. On the lower reaches, it’s all carvings of ibexes and deer. Up the top it’s bronze age porn. One man carved into the stone has a comically large balls and dick. In another image, a man and woman are having sex. There’s a threesome happening on another rock.
I’ve never been to a place so spectacularly “other” as Mongolia – so vivid, elemental and strange. And then there’s the nomads themselves – the eagle hunters, shepherds, goat farmers. Nomads make up around 30% of the population, and their lifestyle (if you can indeed call it a lifestyle) has not changed much in thousands of years. In a week hanging out with different nomads, I kept coming back to this question: what do we have in common? What connects us?
It is this of course, as base as it may be. These carvings speak across time and space, all of us on the mountain top giggling, studying the man bent across the woman.
Now, we’re in Friday Diamond’s ger, sitting on his bed and on the floor. In the centre is a large tarp of what looks like broken-up bits of soap. It’s curd from his goats – food to last him for the long winter and nights that dip to minus 40C. He offers our group some curd.
Everyone but me takes a piece. Some people take large pieces. “Go easy mates,” I think, but do not say. Some people take second pieces. Diamond’s stores are rapidly depleting and it’s stressing me out.
We leave on a warm note – wishing him luck in getting the petroglyphs Unesco protection but for the rest of the trip I’m troubled by our group’s greed with the curd. I think of Diamond in December – a time of scarcity. The deep silence in the snow and the engine of his Jeep stalling, the thin curl of smoke from the coal chimney, and the many hours drive to the shops. There is just crumbs of curd left … He’s eking it out. He’s remembering the Australian press trip back in the verdant autumn, and the way we hoovered up all the curd.
The next day several members of the trip are sick with a stomach thing.
“Must have been the curd!” I tell them. “You had too much curd! That’s how karma works.” They are weak and slightly jaundiced. At meals, they give the mutton a miss and sip on chamomile tea.
We drive for hours and hours across the plains and through the creased, scrunched surfaces of the mountain ranges. There are improbable and beautiful sights; wild, radiant horses racing across the plains and canyons, a nomad on horseback in a red silk coat and leather boots – her hair flying, what looks like a spear at her side – galloping alongside us, before disappearing behind the sand dunes. My eyes try to follow her, long after she’s gone. I’ve never seen anyone who looks so free. Then, later – an inverse image of sorts – a car overturned on a ditch and a man dead on the side of the road. He wears a green jumper and could be sleeping on his back in the sun, except his face is covered with a white cloth.
In the back of the van we pass bottles of $2 vodka around, drinking straight from the neck, listening to Mongolian pop music and talking about love, work and the internet. On a lonely highway after days of seeing not a single building, there’s a mint green karaoke bar. Then nothing.
We meet more nomads. In their gers we eat mutton floating in a fatty broth. There are mutton dumplings and mutton soup. We pray over mutton in a language we don’t understand, giving thanks for the animal who gave us her life. We pull the meat apart with our hands – scooping the soupy flesh with dough.
In the nomads’ tents we sit in the Last Supper formation and feast. The generators flick on and off, tea is poured from a large thermos, hurricane lamps are lit. More vodka is passed around. The night sky is brilliant with stars. The nomads proudly stand before us and sing their national anthem. We stay seated and sing Wonderwall to them.
One morning we swim in a massive lake – which is gorgeous and clear, surrounded by mountains. The edge of the lake is indistinct. Its colour is milky, and so is the sky. I have left earth and entered Xanadu, the image in Coleridge’s Kubla Khan made manifest: “honey-dew hath fed/And drunk the milk of Paradise.”
The lake is meant to be saltwater. I taste the water. It’s vaguely metallic, like licking the inside of an old kettle.
Night-time and I’m lying there in the ger on a camp bed as hard as a door frame, when I get a sharp, stabbing pain in my abdomen. It’s like my digestive tract is studded in razor blades (similar to those rumours about razor blades on the waterslides at fun parks in the 1980s) and I’m trying to digest Mongolia’s biggest chunk of mutton.
My stomach is making gurgling noises like … like … something is trying to escape.
Oh no. Can it be that I am … sick?
Improbably my roommate Tara sleeps through these noises. But I know it is not good, that I have eaten something bad and unless I purge it from my body very soon, I will explode.
All this would be fine if I was at home and had access to my glasses, a light switch, toilet paper and a toilet. But I have none of those things. I’m in a ger, in a field, in the pitch dark, without a torch and without a bathroom.
I lie fretting and sweating in the dark, thinking about how unfair this all is. I didn’t eat any of the curd. I just drank a tiny bit of lake water!
In this situation there are two sources of distress – the actual sickness itself, and the second is more of a source of anxiety, shame even. It is the manner in which you will be sick.
You will be sick in the dark field, or in your yurt. You will be sick without your glasses on to see where you are being sick. You will be sick without your torch (it rolled somewhere on the ground and you can’t find it because you don’t have your glasses). You will be sick without toilet paper!
Another wave of pain hits. I know I don’t have much time. I wake Tara and grab her torch. No time to find toilet paper. No time to find glasses. I stumble outside. It’s coming. I hear camels in the distance but can’t see a thing without my glasses. I guess that’s a good thing. I stumble further, towards the mountains and away from the ger. Some places bring you closer to nature (our nature, the natural world) than others.
• Brigid Delaney is a Guardian Australia columnist