Hole 2: The Shot that Changed History

Forenote: Although Western textbooks spell the great Mongolian leader's name Genghis Khan, the best transliteration from Mongolian is Chinggis Khan. Chinggis is also the brand name of my favorite Mongolian beer, so it's Chinggis from here on out.

So, Chinggis Khan is putting for birdie on the 18th hole about to shoot the lowest round of his life. Before he putts he confers with his personal shaman, who is caddying for him that day. The shaman tells him that if he makes the putt, he will conquer all of Europe and the known world. We all know what it's like trying to putt under pressure like that and of course history tells us that he missed. But what we now know is that he was so furious, he exiled the shaman to a remote island off the coast of northwest Europe, and he never picked up the golf sticks again.

As I wander across this land, there is no doubt in my mind that golf must have originated here. The horses, goats, and sheep keep the fairways mowed down to the perfect playable height; every day is a sunny day (perfect for golf); and the marmot holes make perfect targets. Archaeologists recently uncovered human remains in central Asia that were covered in Tartan plaid fabric. Do we really need more evidence than this?

This theory is reinforced every day when I witness how instinctively the Mongolians pick up the game of golf. Every day I meet locals who ask me what I'm doing and where I'm going. Inevitably, I'll be invited into a ger for some tea and a bite to eat. The children are especially curious about my golf club but there's usually one in the group who knows the word golf. I've spent hours teaching the proper grip and stance but it usually comes down to my telling them that the ball needs to be hit from the grass, not from the dirt or from the top of a rock (my 3-iron has some serious scars but is still intact). I'll end up giving the kids a handful of balls and my club and they'll play for hours, while I relax in the ger drinking milk and eating dried curd.

If I had more than one golf club, I'd be happy to leave one with them, for it doesn't take long until they're getting some serious distance on their shots. I'm convinced it's in their blood. Chinggis must have been ferocious off the tee back in the day.

The second hole began in a small nameless village along the main "road" between Choybalsan and Ondorkhan. I had the fortune/misfortune of meeting a van full of passengers on their way to Ulaan Baatar. The driver was the same one who had taken me to Choybalsan eight days earlier and was extremely happy to see me again. Among the other passengers were an attractive woman who spoke brilliant English (I offered her a full-time translation job but she said her husband probably wouldn't approve) and a man named Uul. Uul means mountain in Mongolian and the name certainly befit his girth if not his stature.

Uul was impressed by my adventure and made it clear that I wouldn't have to pay for my lunch in the ger. In honor of this special chance meeting, he also ordered a bottle of vodka. Now, I saw the ghost of future drunkenness waltz right in the door when the crackle of the cap being twisted off the bottle echoed in the ger but I was powerless to stop him. I was like a train engineer watching two trains on the same track headed towards each other, but paralyzed and bound, could do nothing to stop the oncoming disaster.

When the seal is broken in Mongolia, the bottle must be finished, and soon enough bottle #2 was being opened. Needless to say I never made it out of the ger until the next morning. But before Uul and the other passengers got back into the van and I collapsed prostrate onto the bed, he asked me why I was putting myself through such incredible hardship. The question lingered with me until I finally had the answer two days later.

It was a long day of golf under the relentless heat of the sun and I was trying to find my way to the river to refill my empty water bottles. Three teenage boys approached me on horseback and invited me back to the family ger. I had already made one ger stop that day where a family was shearing the wool from their flock of sheep, and to repay their hospitality I lent a hand in the process. Now, Bataa and his two brothers were showing me how to saddle a horse and later how to unbridle it and hobble it for the night. We had a big dinner of mutton and noodles and then played a few holes of golf. This was followed by an impromptu game of soccer and then a delicious bowl of fresh yogurt before bed. As I crawled into my tent, an enormous red moon was lifting itself over the horizon and a few stars began to peek out from behind the sheet of midnight blue sky. In one day I had learned how to shear sheep and hobble a horse. I had laughed, joked, played soccer, and enjoyed the warm hospitality of two Mongolian families. In the calm of the Mongolian night I smiled to myself, knowing that it was exactly days like this that make the hardships of this long distance trek across the country worthwhile.

Reality Check: My feet hurt. I thought the blisters would turn into calluses by now but instead keep getting worse. Pain radiates from my neck down through my shoulders and into my back and the weather has turned considerably hotter (thank God for that wind). This is no short walk in the woods either, Mr. Bryson, and I know some changes will have to be made if I'm to conclude this journey. But for now I continue to press on, letting my experiences lift my spirits to momentarily make me forget my corporeal reality.

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