People of the Plains

Artwork: © Kathleen Loe. All rights reserved.

When we drove to the ends of the earth, we ended up here, Melody and I, on the Mongolian plains, with herdsmen racing their horses by the water’s edge. Our campervan finally ran out of steam (we were running on vegetable oil fumes) and we had tinned goods to last just ten weeks. The world had gone to hell behind us—first the hyperinflation, then the food shortages and civil war, finally a mass exodus. We reached Europe on one of the last ferries. Britain’s borders are closed now, our homeland a fortress.

Melody—twenty-six, an artist and designer, wild as the wind, and I—thirty-seven, disgruntled ex-distiller, named Hercules by optimistic parents—met as we fought through a burning supermarket, loading our trolleys with looted provisions.

“You got a vehicle?” were her first words to me.

I nodded. (She had me at gunpoint.) “Camper, out back, hidden in the bushes.”

And that was that. We rolled out four catering-size drums of vegetable oil and set off on the road. I’d added bull-bars and spikes to the front of the Volkswagen. I sped up and blew an airhorn wherever the Crazies blocked the road. They usually stumbled out of the way but when they didn’t, we scarcely felt the impacts. Their disease-ridden bodies were no more substantial than rotten mangoes.

Most of Europe was a no-go, but the border posts were mostly abandoned, so we blasted on through. France, Germany, Poland, Belarus and on into Russia. I drove and Melody rode shotgun, all too literally. We skipped Kazakhstan—there were rumours another Shooting Star had come down just outside Almaty. Waves of the Crazies would be emanating from there. Instead, we hammered along back-roads and within three weeks we hit the border at Khandagayty, bribed the frontier guards and headed out onto the steppes. We didn’t get much further than the Lake Uvs, which we at first thought was the sea. Absurd of course—Mongolia is landlocked. The 80km wide lake is salty and so large that it’s tidal, soaking your feet in warm, frothy breakers. We limped to the shade of a small forest, half a mile from the shore. The soil seemed richer here at the foot of immense mountains. We’d presumably find streams. In any case, when I tried to start up the van, which we’d christened Daisy, she wouldn’t go. Daisy had made our decision for us.

We woke on the evening of the third night at Uvs, with rain pounding down on Daisy’s roof like hurled handfuls of frozen peas. Melody disentangled herself from me and began grabbing pots and pans.

“What are you doing?” I grumbled.

“Collecting rainfall,” she retorted, like it was the most normal thing in the world. This is why Melody and I are a perfect match. She’s a logical planner, I fly by the seat of my pants. By the end of the storm, we had eight litres. Poured through a filter, it would keep us going for days, at least until I got the seedlings down and the inflatable tank sunk to store filtered lake water. We had it all worked out, believe me. Self-sufficiency is somewhat easier when you have the best of stolen twenty-first century tech to draw upon. Soon we’d have a hydroponics set-up, greenhouses, an allotment growing a range of vegetables and beans, perhaps even a field of grain.

The Mongols came on the seventh night, and they were armed. Their archaic rifles worried us, but the large blades tucked into their saddlebags were, if anything, more frightening. These men might be direct descendants of Genghis Khan; the people of the plains are racially pure. Did they have the warlike gene of their infamous progenitor? Neither Melody nor I speak any Mongolian and we’d hurled our useless phones into the lake a couple of days prior, skimming them like slates in a symbolic gesture. It didn’t matter—there was nobody to call, even if we could get a signal.

Our visitors wore hide jerkins or fleece-lined coats and sported wide fur-lined hats. Their eyes squinted directly into ours as they looked us up and down unapologetically, particularly fascinated by out campervan and its hand-built interior. None of them stood over five foot six but they were wiry and agile, leaping from their horses with the ease of people who live in the saddle.

We used mime and facial expressions to indicate that we were friendly. There were six horsemen, and their leathery, sunburnt faces gave few clues to their age or disposition. However, they smiled constantly, especially when we gave them a plastic bottle of hooch we’d distilled from potatoes. They seemed more curious than cautious; we presented no threat and had little worth taking. They pored over our obsolete and pointless mass-produced possessions and somehow, we managed to amuse rather than alienate our unexpected guests. After half an hour, they left, with whoops of wild abandon, galloping those magnificent horses around the sloping shore of Uvs Lake.

“What do you think of the neighbours?” I asked Melody.

“They seem like nice people,” she answered. “We should barter for one of their horses. Or two.”

She’s astute, Melody; always has an eye on the next big chance. Cogs began to turn in my head. The tribesmen had enjoyed the vodka and eyed up our stock of fresh vegetables. Melody said she wanted to weave blankets and we’d heard there was natural cotton growing in Mongolia. Perhaps our neighbours could show us how to make the comfortable-looking long coats they wore, called Deel. A fitting name, given that barter was now our only economic resource, other than self-reliance.

“What do you reckon?” I asked, squinting into the later afternoon light. “Have we found it?”

Haloed in light, Melody stood on tiptoes in the dusty soil and kissed me. “I think we’re home,” she said. Just like that, our peripatetic life ended, in a land of nomads, wild horses, salt lakes and endless plains.

Gavin Boyter is a Scottish writer and filmmaker living in London. He’s the author of two books about travel and running including Running the Orient, describing his 2,300 mile run from Paris to Istanbul. His stories have been published in over a dozen literary magazines including Progenitor, Constellations, and Tiger Shark.

Appears In

Issue 14

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