In Search of Inner Mongolia

This is the story I told my wife on the afternoon that I first met her, about twenty-seven years ago.

The events themselves occurred several years before, while I was staying in Inner Mongolia, in a small encampment of yurts, with an extended family of nomadic shepherds. It was my last afternoon with them, and I wanted to go off for a while and see the land as if no one else were there. In those days I liked to see my life as a heroic drama: here was another episode. I picked up a wooden staff as tall as me, thick enough that I could just wrap my fingers around it, and began walking away. After half an hour the yurts were out of sight, and I sat down on a boulder, breathing in plentiful May breezes riffling across far-reaching slopes of tall grasses. I took out a pen and wrote on a postcard: “Everywhere I look, there are green hills rolling one after another. After a while, they all begin to look the same, and you get the feeling that they go on and on, all the way to Siberia.”

Looking back at myself from a distance of thirty-odd years, I feel compassion and chagrin. I watch myself leave the boulder where I wrote my postcard. I walked for about an hour, not coming across our yurts; I figured that, if I walked a bit more, they would turn up. An hour later, though, my yurts still were nowhere to be seen. My watch showed 5:00. The golden late-afternoon sunlight faded across the steppes.

Something was wrong. I could no longer deny it: I didn’t know where I was. My skin prickled—yes, your skin really will do that if, suddenly, you’re terrified.

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