A couple dozen miles outside of Mongolia's capital of Ulaanbaatar, the paved road ended and gave way to the Gobi Desert. A few dozen miles after that, we had our first flat tire of the day. I stepped out of the car and found a sun-bleached camel skull at my feet.
Thus began our first day of documentary fieldwork in Mongolia.
As I stood outside with photographer Thatcher Cook and our interpreter Bayar — taking shelter, as best we could, from stinging sands hurled by whipping winds — our driver Ochir began pacing, murmuring in Mongolian and gesturing in an agitated way. I asked Bayar what was going on.
"Ochir says that his damn brother-in-law put the wrong tire iron in the car," he explained. "He can't remove the spare tire from the back door."
And so there we were, in the Gobi — Asia's largest desert — with a flat tire and no way to replace it. Our cell phones were out of range. There were no settlements to be seen anywhere across the broad horizon. So Ochir started walking in the direction that he thought, or rather guessed, was most hopeful.
About three hours later, a cargo truck pulled up and stopped next to our car. Two men in traditional Mongolian herder clothing got out and pointed to the truck bed, which was covered with a piece of canvas.
"They say Ochir's in there," Bayar plainly stated. And so he was — when the canvas was untied, he popped out with a metal file procured from parts unknown. Ochir proceeded to file down the business end of the tire iron until it was small enough to unscrew the lug nuts holding the spare tire in place. The tires were then swapped; we thanked the two men for bringing Ochir back to us and were back on our way southward through the Gobi, navigating our way to the city of Mandalgovi by the GPS mounted on the dashboard.
Another tire went flat less than two hours later, requiring taking out the busted inner tube, then inflating and installing a new one since we'd gone through our daily supply of spare tires. It was mid-afternoon by then; we'd already missed three interviews with Mercy Corps clients, all of which we'd have to somehow slot into the already-packed next day of field work.
Travel in Mongolia is some of the toughest I've ever experienced: it's a place where extreme weather conditions, areas of permafrost and a dearth of permanent settlements render a network of paved roads not only impractical but also fairly impossible. Regardless, we rumbled more than 1,600 miles across desert, steppes and mountains over the course of two weeks despite several more flat tires, gale-force winds and sandstorms that looked like tidal waves.
Just about the whole time, I was thinking, "people survive out here." I was in awe. After all, this is a place where temperatures range from subarctic lows around -40° F to scorching desert heat that soars to 104° F. Across Mongolia, there's an average of just five people per square mile — only three countries or territories in the world, one of which is Greenland, have a lower population density. More than a third of the population lives in Ulaanbaatar. You can honestly travel for a few hours in the Gobi without seeing one settlement or person.
And still, despite all that, nomadic families maintain their centuries old ways of life. They tend enormous flocks of livestock to satisfy household needs and provide raw materials such as cashmere and felt to sell at market. They live in round, portable houses called gers that they can put up or take down within an hour's time. They are fiercely self-sufficient, living in small family settlements on some of the world's most extreme — and beautiful — landscapes. However, the last century has tested their way of life more than ever before.
In 1924, Mongolia became the world's second Communist country, adopting the philosophy soon after the rise of the neighboring Soviet Union. It remained that way until the early 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union led to a successful democracy movement. The transition from a state-run, centralized economy to free enterprise has been fitful; Mercy Corps has been helping speed that transformation by lending its expertise here since 1999.
Each of Mercy Corps' three current programs here — the Gobi Initiative, Rural Agribusiness Support Program and Training, Advocacy and Networking project — provides financial and technical support for families, small businesses and organizations that are seeking to find their place in Mongolia's nascent market economy. Simply put, it's about giving families the chance to strengthen their livelihoods and expand their business opportunities while protecting their traditions. Mercy Corps Mongolia's programs currently boast 640,000 beneficiaries — more than 20 percent of the country's population.
Among those that Thatcher and I met were traditional herders seeking new markets for their cashmere, wool and dairy products; teachers who have lobbied the government to provide more money for healthier student meals; a traditional furniture maker who has begun an export business to Holland; and a retired mayor who somehow makes award-winning tomatoes sprout from the inhospitable desert.
When I stepped out of the car that first long day in Mongolia, miles from anywhere or anyone, there was little to consider but the vast expanses and ceaseless blue skies. By the end of my travels, though, I realized that the most boundless horizons of all were the futures of the people I met.