The Mikr Ride

by Michael Bricker ’04

November 26, 2008

In the Summer of 2006, I unexpectedly found myself in the middlest of nowhere I had ever been, tumbling across the vast Mongolian landscape, sandwiched between an elderly Italian woman and two young Americans in the backseat of a wheezy Soviet minivan.

Some call the mikr (mee-kur) "the Mongolian Way" of travel. In the rows in front of us, five Mongolians squeezed into seats that in America would hold three. As foreigners, we had the luxury of sitting four across in the back, knees pressed into the seat in front of us, our shoulders arranged in an alternating forward/back formation.

I took my turn to lean forward and looked out the side window, considering those big hypnotic questions that creep to mind when you’re traveling along a dusty road: How did I get here? Will I ever pass this way again? Why didn’t I take a leak when we last stopped?

Then for a pleasing, suspended moment, time and discomfort escaped me. I felt my gaze melt into the streaming countryside, until the van surged forward, introducing my head to the ceiling, and awakened
the slumbering charley horse in my leg.

I took a breath, leaned back, and gave a constipated smile to the 12 Mongolians staring back at me as we veered off the dirt road, bounding toward a small bunch of brilliantly white gers that dotted the distance like tiny sprouted mushrooms.

I turned to Ami, my research partner. She looked back at me with a knowing sigh. This was our second stop along the supposed nine-hour route back to Ulaanbaatar from the ancient Buddhist monastery we’d been visiting in Tsetserleg. I glanced at my watch, hoping for noon. The hands read 3 p.m., which meant we had traveled less than 60 miles in 7 hours, the first 4 of which were spent picking up everyone and their stuff, including a table saw with no legs.

I sighed back.

The mikr skidded to a stop in front of a lone ger, and we unloaded ourselves like clowns from a Volkswagen.

As the rest of the passengers staggered in the sunlight, I headed off toward four plastic-bound posts
that I took to be the toilet. I looked back at Ami, who gave me an encouraging nod of good luck. I have since come to realize that nothing is more liberating than being able to see in all directions while urinating behind a flapping piece of plastic in front of a herd of hungry goats.

Strolling back to the ger in manly fashion, I spotted our driver sliding back behind the wheel of the mikr. Almost time to leave, I thought as I picked up the pace, only to watch him drive away without us. Without any of us. Ami and Jill, a Peace Corps Volunteer we had picked up the day before, whirled to face me. Our only mode of transportation—the only vehicle within miles—was heading off into the expanse.

I looked around to verify that shock was indeed the correct reaction to this situation. Apparently it was not. The Mongolians continued to chat and pet horses, while Marina, the Italian woman, was off photographing wildflowers and large insects. Ami, Jill, and I stared ahead as our ride got smaller and smaller in the distance before it finally halted in front of a white speck, presumably another ger. I squinted in frustration.

By now we should have known that it had no plans of returning, so after waiting for 30 minutes, all 15
of us hiked at least a mile to meet our driver, who was drinking vodka and tinkering under the hood when
we finally caught up.

Ami and I piled in the back, while Jill maneuvered Marina’s surprisingly large backside into position. The Mongolians took our lead, and before long, we were packed and ready to go. As we returned to the road, the dirt crunching beneath our wheels quickly dispersed our once-souring attitudes. Ami and Jill napped while Marina and I spoke of politics, her life as a German and English professor in Verona, and her ailing friend back in Ulaanbaatar. She scribbled the names of Italian political leaders in the back of my book and told me how much she hated the American accent.

We quickly grew fond of each other though, the way travel companions often do, and for a while came to almost enjoy climbing back inside the mikr after its frequent stops. During these breaks, while Ami, Jill, and I stood around griping about the trip’s pace, a delighted Marina would lumber off, hugging Mongo-lian children, snapping photographs, and letting the breeze blow up her long skirt. Although I, too, often used the time to lie in the grass and look up at the sky, Marina’s positive influence on me began to fade with each ger visit.

That enthusiasm faded completely after our fifth stop. I looked at my watch again and groaned. We’d been on the road for nine hours. So as Marina scanned through her recent images of her newly adopted homeland and smiled, Ami and I took up a new pastime: inventing nicknames for our Mongolian companions. I’m not proud of this, but at the time we felt justified. They glared at us, especially at Ami, who is Indian
and pretty, and our friendliness was wearing thin.

Fat Head had started it with his licentious glances in Ami’s direction, and Cheese Face deserved some sort of recognition, not because his face was pocked (which it was), but because he was constantly sucking on a stick of aoral, sun-baked Mongolian cheese that looked and tasted like a dried-out eraser. We had a good chuckle at their expense, which they reciprocated, as the mikr tankered to a stop again. I looked outside to discover that we had stalled in the middle of the road, the middle(r) of nowhere. 

When crammed in the back seat of any vehicle, mind over matter staves off discomfort only while the vehicle is actually moving. We all sat sweating in our seats refusing to get out, hoping that if we stayed inside, the mikr would fix itself.

Outside, the few Mongolian women on the trip had spread out a blanket, and Marina (whom we had since dubbed Marinara), lay fetally curled in the grass. Her positive attitude was losing out to a mounting cold, and overcome with the sniffles and something akin to the whooping cough, she closed her eyes. I climbed out of the mikr only to find that the entire engine had been removed and dismantled on the ground.

The entire engine. The Driver and CoPilot were stirring a homemade adhesive in the lid of a water bottle that was no doubt one part dirt, one part saliva, and two parts Cheese Face’s cheese. They squatted over the engine like surgeons.

Ami, Jill, and I huddled off to the side feeling stranded, helpless, yet remarkably calm given the circumstances. Jill began a play-by-play of the repairs, while Ami and I discussed the food we’d eat if we ever made it back alive.

After about an hour of provoking hunger pains, we decided to take a look at the engine progress. As if our looming presence could actually move things along. As if we actually knew anything about anything in Mongolia, let alone the inner workings of a Soviet minivan’s engine.

We were amazed to find The Driver and CoPilot fastening a hunk of wood to the engine with some wire and a glob of glue. Wood and glue. I looked around at all 16 of us scattered on the side of the road and no one else seemed the least bit concerned. Fat Head and The Stud were working on their tans, while Old Man 1 & 2 shared a cigarette. I gave in, sat down, and started whistling through a piece of grass.

The sound of a sputtering engine called me away from my daydreams as The Driver motioned for the women and children to climb inside. CoPilot began pushing the mikr forward, and the rest of us rushed excitedly to lend our strength. As the engine finally turned over, we ran along side the van, hopping laterally inside with the help of outstretched arms; it was a scene straight out of Little Miss Sunshine. Adrenaline pumping, we all settled into our seats with a renewed sense of purpose and accomplishment. We spoke excitedly in our native tongues, somehow managing to communicate what was important. We smiled and bonded and gave each other pats on the back.

Then The Driver, ever the thirsty one, off-roaded to the nearest ger in the distance. Fantastic, I thought. Running five hours late after spending three hours on the side of the road, and we were making another stop? Impossible!

Yet it was here that we finally learned the real purpose for the trip to the city: the frequent and lengthy filling of plastic gasoline containers with airag (AYR-ag), a favored Mongolian beverage made of fermented mare’s milk. The Driver had been stockpiling the rear of the mikr with gallons of airag at each stop while the rest of us were inside accepting the gracious hospitality of the ger hosts.

This stop was no different from the previous six, and while CoPilot negotiated costs with the lone herder, the rest of us ducked inside. All 16 of us filled the circumference of the ger, sitting on various benches, beds, and stools, waiting while the hostess ceremoniously served us airag one guest at a time. Being one
of the first to drink, I raised the cup to my lips, not wanting to offend the couple’s generosity.

The obligatory sip was followed by that split second of comfort one feels after downing a shot. The subsequent scalding down the back of my throat eventually terminated in a slow burn that coated my stomach like an anti-antacid.

This liquid gold. This nectar of the Mongolian steppe. I could sense that the Mongolians were secretly eager to see my reaction. Airag was as revolting to drink as it was to say—the petroleum aftertaste and occasional fly wing notwithstanding—but I refused to give them the pleasure of a disgusted face.

Marinara, our rock, watched in horror as the cup labored its way around the circle, each time passing back to the hostess for a refill. It was like living in slow motion. Losing her wits, she proclaimed between weeps and coughs, "We’re never going to get out of here!"

A few Mongolians raised an eyebrow, while Ami delivered a series of impressive assurances that we’d soon be on our way.

"How can you be so confident?!" Marinara screeched with a German accent that, until then, she had reserved only for speaking of American foreign policy. Our hostess quickly offered her the cup.

Returning outside, we watched The Driver top off the last of the airag containers in back, while an exasperated and leaky Marinara climbed inside on all fours. We were about to follow when one of the Mongolian women produced a small gasoline container from under her seat. An unexpected sense of excitement and surprise seemed to pass throughout the cabin, this little jug bringing with it renewed hope that, indeed, yes, another drop of that wretched drink could fit inside.

"No way." said Ami, watching in weary astonishment as the woman began filling the jug by making lengthy trips back and forth from the ger with a small metal cup. No one helped. No one thought to simply pick up the container and take it inside for quicker filling. They all just stood there as if watching a giant game of Pong.

Ami lost it.

"Enough! No More!" She yelled, waving her hands like a traffic cop insisting that everyone needed to return to the van for their own safety. Jill tried to reason with them in her raw Mongolian, while I stood there making flippant arm motions of my own. Fat Head retaliated with some comment about Ami being Indian, or crazy,
or short, causing all the Mongolians to laugh—a sight we hadn’t yet seen.

Ami reeled on him, her finger inches from his face. "It’s not funny asshole, I’m f-cking hungry!"

We all froze, the last bit of airag tinkling into the jug. A sniffle from Marinara broke the silence. The Driver uttered something quickly that when translated, must have meant "Everybody in the car. Now." We were on our way in seconds.

It was dark by the time we reached Kharkhorin. Ulaanbaatar was still at least six hours away, but Jill lived here, and since Marinara was clearly exhausted, they departed together, freeing up two seats in the back row.

Still, I was sad to see Marinara go. She seemed beaten to the core, soul-crushed, as if for the first time in her life, her starry optimism and adventuresome spirit had let her down. As I hoisted the pack onto her shoulders, we unexpectedly embraced in goodbye. Nothing too long or weepy. No exchange of personal information. Just a simple moment to mark the end of something meaningful. I watched her hobble into the distance, knowing that once I turned away, she’d be reduced to a character in my imagination.

After we stopped at a local diner for food, a young Mongolian woman about our age, who remarkably remained nicknameless, joined us in the back seat. She knew a little English, and inquired mostly about American music, movies, and food. Totally catching me off guard, she asked me why I seemed so upset.

For the most part, I thought that we had been amenable, but for the first time during our six weeks in Mongolia, I realized that we had reached a cultural breaking point of sorts. Somewhere after the first eight hours, our participation in Mongolian culture had turned into a cold appreciation of it. We had reverted to tactics that were comfortable and alienating, like exclusive huddles, annoyed glances, and loud gestures. Appreciating a culture suggests distance, a kind of I-don’t-understand-it-so-just-power-through attitude that we had worked so hard to avoid.

Speechless and embarrassed, I looked at the woman and imagined what it would be like for two Mongolians traveling with 14 Americans. In addition to rapid conversations and slangy inside jokes, we would of course be media-multitasking within a sea of fast-food trash. We’d be watching the onboard DVD player while talking on our cell phones. We’d be fighting over whose iPod to listen to while sending offensive text messages to the lucky person who had called dibs on shotgun.

When I explained all of this to the girl, she seemed confused, and honestly, I had confused myself. I felt ashamed for thinking of this journey in terms of miles and hours instead of a casual sequence of unexpected events. I looked ahead at the 12 Mongolians sitting in front of me, and they all seemed perfectly content.
We could have taken twice as long for all they cared.

The Driver, who had purchased a bad tape of Japanese pop music at the general store, dispersed my thoughts by blasting the stereo. Old Man 1 cracked open the Chinggis Vodka he had been hiding, while Old Man 2 fashioned a cup from the bottom of a water bottle. Cheese Face started pulsating his blue key-chain laser light to the beat of the music, while we all passed around the makeshift glass.

Here we were, in the dark, drinking while driving, catching the smiles of each others’ faces in brief blue flickers. Where else did I really have to be?

Michael Bricker ’04 earned his master’s in architecture from The University of Texas at Austin last spring. In the summer of 2006, Bricker and fellow graduate student Ami Mehta traveled to Mongolia to research Mongolian architecture and to develop a warmer residential prototype for rural communities.


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