A stream was the last thing we had been looking for in the middle of the Gobi Desert. Expected or not, there it was, and our mini-van was stuck right in the middle of it: six people and a van surrounded by a silent expanse of sand, pebbles and icy gusts of wind. The rule of the desert is that where there is water you will find people. Perhaps then, it was just our luck to get stuck in a stream and not in an empty hole. Less than a thousand meters away was a small felt-walled yurt watched over by two
barking dogs and a few horses. We approached in search of help. The family had a tractor, though I couldn’t imagine what they cultivated with it, and we hoped they would agree to pull us out. The tractor, however, had no petrol, the nearest household was quite a few hours away, and it had been
sitting outside unused through the six months of the freezing Mongolian winter, so no one was sure if it would start even with petrol. Adding to this, a new foal had just been born and the adults of the family had already consumed plenty of vodka in celebration. There was nothing to do but wait until morning when the celebrations were over.
Avoiding the dogs, we returned to the van. It would be a cold night: the Mongolian spring is defined by freezing wind and dust storms, not by blossoms and tulips. Nothing grew here, not even the tiny wild flowers of the steppes, not even a blade of dry grass. I went for a walk to pass the time. I walked until the voices of my travelling companions were silenced by the distance. The sky was still blue above me, the infinite Mongolian heaven echoing the seemingly infinite ocean of sand. That is what it had been, millions of years ago: an ocean. Standing still and closing my eyes, my mind was lost in a sensation of timelessness. My feet stood on sand and shells millions of years old and if I walked a little further I could probably find places that no human eyes had ever seen, places witnessed only by the sky. Who was I, in this uninhabitable and silent land? Who was I, alone on the sand? If I wandered and died here, no one would know but the wind which had no feeling and did not see. Alone here, I was stripped of my country, my history, my expectations and my future.
Everything I had held certain became precarious. For a moment my mind grasped for something to hold and then relaxed. Who did I encounter here in the desert? A family that could survive from a few animals and a tiny stream of water in almost total isolation would also make a good story. There are many such families in Mongolia, however, and this was neither the first nor the last that I would meet. I encountered myself, free from all the images of who I was and should be, created by myself and the society in which I lived. I encountered myself in an expanse of silence. In that silence I wondered
which parts of me were real and which were only a falsehood I had created and clung to for security? If I would really wander and get lost here, without hope of rescue, what was the significance of my life? Would the sky as witness be enough to substantiate the fact that I had lived at all?
Confusion passed into fear and fear into a sensation of peace I had not experienced before. I turned and walked back to the van. Shivering I remembered how cold it was. The van, the stream, and the faces of my companions were the same as ever and yet strangely different.