As dynamic and ever changing as the Gobi Desert is, the villages in the Gobi are quite a contrast. The only words that would come to mind when I was in a desert village was bleak and uninviting. During my stay in the Gobi I was overnight in villages for 3 nights. What I thought would be a nice respite from the harshness of ger living turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. However, being a culture junkie, I found the villages fascinating beyond belief. I always had the same thought run through my head, “Who in their right mind would live here?”
All of my village experiences were similar. I’d arrive in a bleak little village of approximately 1,000 people after a hot, dusty, bumpy drive. There were no trees, nothing green; instead you saw fenced off living areas leaving wide, deserted gravel ‘roads’. People claimed their rocky village plot with some sort of house structure AND a ger. Yes, even in the villages everyone still had a ger. However, unlike in the wide open desert, the village gers were always surrounded by fencing. The fences appeared to be made of a hodgepodge of scrap metal and wood which made it look like a junk yard, not a village. Granted, I don’t know what I was expecting out of the villages, in the desert, but it was hard to get any kind of warm feeling about the village. I found it a strange contrast to the open nomadic way of life where there are no fences or apparent boundaries. The villages appear to be all about exclusion, not inclusion.
It was hard to find life in these villages. Kids played in the dirt and pebbles; their yards are one giant sandbox. More dogs roamed the street than people, giving a strange science fiction effect to the villages. The eerie, ‘what planet am I on’ feeling was heightened due to the lack of grass and trees. Motorcycles sped through once every 20 minutes, and a random car once every 45 minutes. The town was blanketed in grey clouds taunting the Gobi with the look of rain that would never come; Mother Nature is such a tease.
The first order of business was to get clean. No water or showers for days takes its toll; luckily there were no mirrors either! In the villages you could pay for a shower which resembled a Russian woman’s prison. Ok – I really have no idea what a Russian woman’s prison shower looks like…but I swear this is what it would have looked like! A big, menacing lady took our money and led us into the large open shower room with one shower head. She turned the lever and a tiny little trickle of water came out and dropped to the floor; and the floor seemed to say “thank you.” Without any facial expression, she looked at us , nodded, and left. Even this ‘barely there’ shower was such a welcome sight after 5 days of dirt, sand, rocks, horses and camel shit. I wouldn’t have cared if that menacing woman would have scrubbed me down as long as I would have been clean in the end!
Next we walked to the local shop in search of a can of Coke (my savior in any travel situation). Like the Pied Piper, soon we had a line of curious children and dogs following us and watching our every move. I scanned the shop shelves and found expired food behind old glass cabinets, rotting fruit, a few toiletry products, random clothes, and underwear hanging on the walls.
However, even in this grim village life, I was more determined than ever to find beauty in it. I knew that it had to exist somewhere. So I decided to take my camera out and try to really capture the uniqueness of it. After wandering around photographing the desolate buildings, I realized that there was beauty in it. I was reminded of how far a smile can take you. As I stood in the middle of the gravel ‘roads’ and people watched me from a distance trying to figure out why the crazy foreigner was photographing run down buildings; I smiled at them. No matter how harsh the surroundings, I always got a smile back. I found it beautiful that people could live in such an environment; one which I knew I could never tolerate.