Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Tim Wu - The Mongolia Obsession

Tim Wu is a great travel writer, and this piece about Mongolia, posted over at Slate, is a wonderful glimpse into a unique culture.

The Mongolia Obsession

From: Tim Wu
The Astonishing Hospitality of Rural Mongolians
Posted Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2008

Click here to launch a slide show on Mongolia.

After some time driving around the Mongolian countryside, I hit upon a great way to make new friends. It was simple: Draw a line in the dirt, paw the earth a bit, and wrestle to the first fall. Call me primitive, but there's something about fighting in the dirt that seems to foster a certain kind of companionship. I don't take this approach too far—at book parties, for instance, I tend to stick with small talk. But in the middle of the Mongolian nowhere, in a country where wrestling is the national sport, there's just no better way to make pals. Brave Miki even took on a few women, pitting what I imagined to be an interpretation of Japanese sumo against the local technique.

As the wrestling story suggests, traveling in Mongolia forced me to re-evaluate my own attitude about one of the greatest of travel dilemmas: that whole "meeting the locals" thing. Call me a snob, but I hate meeting the locals. I'm not really interested in the locals back home, so why should things be any different overseas?

You can't blame the locals. The problem is that most events billed as a chance to "experience indigenous culture" tend to range from the merely uncomfortable to the downright nauseating. If you've ever, say, sat through a hula dance in Hawaii, you know what I mean, but at least you know that's fake. It's worse when a real native gets coerced into being your friend. You get that creepy feeling that you are at a human zoo, particularly if the poor guys are paid to put on feathers and dance around.

But the most terrible things in life are bastardized versions of great things—like bad marriages are to good ones or as fake Parmesan cheese is to the real stuff. So it is with meeting the locals. In Mongolia, the horrors of the forced encounter give way to something much more natural, rewarding, and energizing even for the most jaded traveler.

It all happens at the yurt (or ger, as they call them here). You may just think of it as a big tent, but it's a lifestyle, and one that takes some getting used to if you are accustomed to the idea of "property" or the concept of "trespass." For the odd thing about the Mongolian countryside, besides the lack of roads, fences, and other indicia of civilization, is that anyone's ger is potentially a rest stop, a play station, and, sometimes, a hotel.

Read the rest of the article.

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