For a brief period, as summer turns into fall, the weather in Mongolia is perfect. The sun beats gently on the ground, and light cirrus clouds float above the mountains like smoke trails. The wind, when it blows, lands tiny flecks of dust on lips and eyelids and skin. This is how it was in late August, 2001.
The intense summer heat had waned so that I no longer sweated as I walked through the campus of the Arkhangai Aimag Teacher’s College, the school I had worked at for the past year as an English teacher in the Peace Corps. All around me was newness; the fresh coat of paint applied to the class buildings and dormitories; the plaque recently constructed for the school’s 50th anniversary; the arrival of students, tanned and rested from summer break, their luggage and furniture in the backs of Russian jeeps, their arms around each other in hugs of hello, their semester supply of meat hung in thin pink strips from second-floor windows.
Among the crowd stood Delgermaa, a Mongolian English teacher. Her black suit was stark as a noontime shadow against the clean, white-plastered main building of the college. She was talking to a woman wearing a deep red shirt and blue jeans. Delgermaa waved me over to meet the young woman.
“Matt,” she said, “this is Elisa. She is from France.”
Delgermaa often lodged tourists in her home over the summer break. It was a way to make some extra money and practice her English at the same time.
“Have you been in Tsetserleg long?” I asked Elisa.
“A few days,” she said. “I was hoping to leave this morning, but the roads are all blocked.”
“The roads are blocked?” I asked Delgermaa.
“Yes, did you not hear? There is plague in the town.”
I knew plague existed in Mongolia, but I had always thought it stayed in smaller towns further west. We lived in a provincial capital 500 kilometers west of the capital of Ulaanbaatar.
“When will the roads open?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Delgermaa said. And in the way that many Mongolians in the countryside resigned themselves to authority, she added with a slight tinge of awe, “The police and doctors know.”
I had a plane to catch in two weeks. My older sister was getting married, and I was looking forward to my first trip back to the States in over a year. The quarantine and those infected with the plague crossed my mind, but mostly, I just wanted to be sure I could leave.
When Chinggis Khan and his descendants barreled their way across the Eurasian landmass in the 13th century en route to the largest land empire in history, they were accompanied by small, sturdy horses, ornately fashioned bows and arrows, military tactics that would revolutionize warfare, and plague. Many historians now believe that these Mongolian invasions provided the breeding ground for the Black Death pandemic that killed over one-third of Western Europeans in the mid-14th century.
Though plague caught Europe by surprise and by storm, the disease was nothing new to Mongolia. In 46 AD, a plague epidemic killed more than two-thirds of the entire population. And in a Mongolian folktale that describes the origin of storytelling, an epidemic of plague causes a young man to leave his body before it dies, and then to return from the Kingdom of the Underworld with the gift of storytelling. Today, though bubonic plague has been mostly eradicated in the West, it lives on in many places around the world, especially in Mongolia, where annual plague figures often reach the top in both numbers and death rates.
The carriers of the plague in Mongolia are delightful-looking rodents called marmots, that lope around the Mongolian summer steppe like beavers without tails. Marmot hunting is not a new pastime in Mongolia. It has been a tradition for centuries and is a sport with intricate rituals and customs. Before a hunt, a Mongolian hunter dons a daluur, a hat that resembles a marmot’s head, with the face serving as the cap’s brim and two floppy marmot ears attached to the top. Since marmots live in underground dens, the hunter’s objective is to creep as close to the den as possible. As he approaches, he will sing in a warbly, clucky voice that mimics the sound of the marmot. The goal is to attract the marmot from its den, fool it with the hat, and then dispatch the animal with a bullet.
Once the marmot has been killed, Mongolians will shear the hide and cook the animal with hot rocks placed inside its belly. The meat roasts from within, and marmot meat is a fine delicacy on the steppe, not to mention a nice change in diet from the ubiquitous mutton. Though Mongolians are aware of the dangers in marmot hunting (most hunters steer clear of areas where sickly looking animals roam), there is often little indication as to whether a marmot has plague, and whether the fleas on its body are carriers themselves. Thus, every summer, Mongolian newspapers run the Plague Alert (much as western states in the U.S. run Fire Alerts), indicating where plague has broken out, and where there may be danger in the near future.
The rumor in Tsetserleg that August was that a young boy had contracted the plague from a marmot his father had shot on the open steppe. Everyone in his immediate family was rushed to the hospital, and the town quarantined, cut off from the rest of the country.
On the second day of the quarantine, an American friend and I walked to the top of one of the mountain ridges with a bottle of Scotch and a jar of caviar, both purchases from Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. We plopped ourselves on the rocks and grass and spread the fish eggs over Ritz crackers. It was late afternoon, and the sun had folded itself into a line on the western horizon. We drank the Scotch from a cup, Mongolian style: dipping our right fingers into the liquid and flicking once each toward the sky, the earth, and the fire, before pulling tautly until the liquor was gone.
From our vantage point, we could see the police cars positioned on the three roads that led out of town, their siren lights off, though they still sparkled in the waning light. That afternoon I received an e-mail from a friend who had tried to visit the day before but had been stopped by the police. “They said I could go in but that there was no guarantee I could leave,” he had written. “Good luck! Did you bring your Camus?”
All of my conceptions of plague had come from literature or movies. But there were no rats scurrying around town spreading the disease and there were certainly no doctors in full-body suits calling for people to “Step Back” as they worked night and day to find the save-all serum. Instead, from on top of the ridge, with smoke from dinner fires twirling up, up, up towards the sky, Tsetserleg seemed like what it was: a calm and serene mountain town. In fact, the first several days of the quarantine reminded me of my youth in Chicago, when a severe snow storm or frigid temperatures would close the schools down for a day or two. The plague presented us with an unexpected vacation.
When the bottle of Scotch was a quarter gone and the moon had begun to rise over the largest mountain to the north, my friend said, “We’re probably the only people in history to drink Scotch and eat caviar in a plague quarantine.” I liked the thought. It was romantic, to be sure, but there was also an insouciant defiance to it. If we could eat caviar and drink Scotch, how bad could a plague quarantine be? False logic, but comforting nonetheless.
Though the beginning of classes had been postponed, the teachers still gathered at the Teacher’s College in order to prepare for the upcoming semester. We worked some, but mostly we huddled together in the Teacher’s Lounge and told plague stories. Everyone knew someone who was affected by the quarantine. A woman who had an interview for an American visa but could not leave. The parents who wanted to drop off their son or daughter at school, but were now stuck. Elisa and other tourists who had plane reservations. Mongolians have great respect and love for family, and the teachers were worried—perhaps just as much as I—that I would miss my family wedding.
“Well,” I asked, “Do you think the quarantine will have stopped by then?”
They gave shifty answers. Rumors in town abounded. Some said that up to ten people were now infected and that the town would be closed for a month. Others said not to worry; the town would reopen in days. All I really knew was that the main market was closed lest the disease spread, which meant no fresh meat and limited vegetables; that the smaller shops, the delguurs, were still open and selling food; and that the roads remained closed, though, mysteriously, people continued to enter.
I had never seen Tsetserleg so crowded. Our town possessed the only market in the province, and people from the countryside normally came to buy bulk items of food, to gossip with family and friends, and to seek rides into the capital or back into the villages. Its parking lot was usually full of jeeps and vans; the metal rails that ran along its white-plastered walls full of hitched horses. But in late August, there was even more reason for people to be in the provincial center. School was beginning at one of five colleges and four secondary schools, and now was the time to sell any remaining milk products, the food that stocked Tsetserleg’s market for most of the summer.
With the market now closed, people drifted towards the 12-store, Tsetserleg’s largest delguur, on the northern side of town and closer to the city center. Men dressed in the traditional robe-like del tied their horses to larch trees and drank juice from glass bottles. Women, wearing thin surgical masks to protect themselves from plague, shouted above the din that they were selling shelled pine nuts, a snack relished by both adults and children. And along the streets and sidewalks, groups of men and women gathered to gossip about the plague, play cards, play chess, adjust their large sacks of flour and rice on the backs of horses and jeeps, and wonder when they might be able to leave.
As the first week passed and the realization dawned that the quarantine might not be over soon, a tension grew in the town. As far as we knew, no new cases of plague had been reported, but the roads were still closed. The crowds still congregated at the 12-store, though instead of the card games and juice drinking, there was an agitation that simmered beneath the surface. At the slightest hint of a rumor that the quarantine had been lifted, people jumped into their vans and sped off down the streets. Yet they always returned moments later, slammed their doors shut, told the crowd the news of no news, and continued to wait.
One afternoon, I went to a bar with some students of mine from the previous year. The bar was packed with men waiting out the quarantine at nicked wooden tables full of bottles of vodka and overflowing ashtrays. We sat at one of these tables, a thin curtain tinged brown from cigarette smoke dividing our table from those in front and behind us, the Russian word for “pussy” carved into the wood. Close by, a conversation rose to a confrontational pitch, and men began arguing and slamming their glasses on the table. I could understand some of the words, though not the context, and I asked my students to lean in closer to tell me what they were fighting about.
“They want to leave,” one of them said.
“But they can’t, right?” I asked.
“They are thinking of ways to escape.”
The thought had also crossed my mind. I had ten days to make my plane, but only if I left Tsetserleg on the day before my flight, a journey that, under the best of circumstances, would take a full day to make.
“What are they thinking about doing?” I asked.
“One of them wants to try and give the police money.”
“Would that work?”
“No, I don’t think so. Not this time.”
“Another is thinking about riding out on a horse,” said another student.
“How about that?” I asked.
“Maybe, but it is dangerous.”
Any escape by horse would involve leaving at night, and since Tsetserleg was surrounded by mountains, the descent would be doable, but hazardous. The fourth side of town emptied into a flat river valley that would be easy to cross on a horse. But my students had heard that police were patrolling this area at night to prevent people from doing just this.
“If you go slow,” one of my students explained, “then you may be spotted by the police. If you go fast, then they will hear the horse’s feet.”
I had been reading Peter Hopkirk’s historical tales of adventure on the Central Asian steppe, and breaking free from a plague quarantine, though not the same as spying on the Russians, held a certain appeal. I envisioned a midnight crossing under the stars: me, a horse, a small bag, and 35 kilometers to go until the nearest town. Just to see what my friends’ reactions would be, I told them I was thinking about escaping.
“Why don’t you just ask your government?” one of them said.
This had also crossed my mind, but I did not think there was anything that could be done. The Peace Corps knew about the quarantine, but so far there had been no indication that they were willing, or able, to help out. This past winter, a small town in northeastern Mongolia had been quarantined for hoof-and-mouth disease. A volunteer had been stuck there for over a month, and Peace Corps had been unable to arrange for her departure. When the quarantine had lifted, she left the town, and then the country. She had been the only American there, and it was easy to see how that loneliness might have been a burden too tough to bear. I had friends in Tsetserleg, both Mongolian and American, and, besides loneliness, there was the sense of futility and utter lack of control about the quarantine. Basic decisions were not in our hands. Then there were practical concerns, and not just those related to health.
The price of food was beginning to rise as availability began to dwindle. The delguurs in town sold food, but that food was usually stocked by trips to Ulaanbaatar. Without those trips, rice and bread, canned goods and vegetables, tripled and quadrupled in price. The cost of food, more than plague, or the delay of the start of school limiting their winter vacation time, was what most concerned the students.
The four students who sat around the table lived together in a small, spartan house close to the northern border of town. They had not yet purchased their bulk of winter meat, and with none now available, and rice climbing in price, they often ate at relatives’ or friends’ homes. Money and food were not a problem for me. I had supplies of meat stored in my freezer and plenty of rice in my cabinet. I could always have Peace Corps wire me more money if I had to remain here for an extended period of time. I had worked hard the past year to shrink the large gap between me, an American, and my Mongolian friends. Yet it was clear that if I didn’t get sick, I would come out of this unharmed. I might miss a wedding, but I would have plenty to eat. For my friends, that wasn’t necessarily the case.
We finished our beers, and as we left the bar, I slipped them each some money. They protested against it, but I insisted. I felt as if I needed to do something. I walked by the 12-store on the way home. It was closing, but a large crowd milled about outside. Horses were still hitched to the larch trees, and the shells of pine nuts covered the ground like brown snowflakes. I passed a young woman whom I recognized as a juice seller and asked her how her business was.
“What business?” she said. “The juice is finished.”
Before the quarantine, a new Peace Corps Volunteer had arrived in Tsetserleg. He asked me to visit him one day and help him translate, and so the day after I met my students, I made the short trip to his workplace on foot. The road took me past the hospital, and I realized I had not gone past it since the quarantine began. The provincial hospital was encircled by a white fence, the same white and the same plaster that had been used to construct most of Tsetserleg. I walked along the one hole in that fence and decided to enter the compound to see what the hospital was like during quarantine.
The building was a faded pink color with black paint graffiti drawn and written on its sides. Plaster was crumbling from its base. A small crowd had gathered immediately to the right of the entrance, and above, on the second floor of the hospital, heads and torsos dangled out of windows. The two groups were carrying on a conversation.
“Are you okay?” someone from the ground shouted up.
“Yes, yes, I am fine. But there is not enough food.”
I asked someone close by what was happening. It took me awhile to understand what he was saying, but finally it made sense. When the young boy had been diagnosed with plague, he and his family were rushed to the hospital and quarantined. But the doctors had forgotten to release those already inside before they sealed off the hospital doors. Therefore, patients who had been in for check-ups, doctors and nurses who had been on duty, visitors of bed-ridden relatives and friends, and those who simply wanted to shower at the only daily shower house in town, had been caught inside the pink-plastered building as well. And now they were hanging out of windows looking for food.
Some of the crowd on the ground were trying to throw plastic bags full of buuz, Mongolian dumplings, up to the second floor. Most bags missed their mark, hit the wall with a light thud, and fell back to the dusty ground, where mangy dogs tore open the plastic and devoured the food. One bag made it through the window, though. It was a straight shot thrown by a young man with a backwards baseball cap. He had been calling someone in the window “older brother,” though that term had a variety of meanings in Mongolian. When “older brother” caught the bag, he undid the tie and distributed the buuz to those in his room.
The weather had been perfect all week, and the day after I visited the hospital was no exception. The morning sun was warm but not hot, and the sky was spotless. The fires that boiled water for tea and cooked rice for breakfast were sending curls of smoke from chimneys to the south.
I needed to e-mail my family with the news that the quarantine had yet to be lifted, so I awoke early to use the Internet at the post office. The main road was empty. Magpies chirped, crows cawed, and the sounds of jeep engines could be heard driving up-and-down the streets. At the largest intersection in town, a jeep screeched its brakes to a halt in front of me, and the driver stuck his head out the window.
“Hoosh, Angli,” he said. “You want to go the City?”
“What about the quarantine?”
The side door opened and Elisa and four other tourists looked out towards me.
“Hey, do you want to come with us?” Elisa asked. Her face, and those of the others were weary and anxious. They had not planned on spending their vacation in Mongolia in a plague quarantine, and were now hopeful that this latest rumor was true and that they could leave. I thought about their offer. I had over a week to catch my flight, but I wondered what might happen if another person was diagnosed with bubonic plague and we were quarantined again. I would miss my plane. But, if they were right, school would begin the next day. I wanted to be here for that. I also knew teachers and other friends had presents they wanted to give to my sister, a woman they had never met. To leave now would seem like an escape, not the dignified escape from quarantine, but, rather, the less dignified escape from community.
“You know,” I said. “Thanks, but I think I’m going to stay. I’m sure things will return to normal here in a day or two.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, I’m positive.”
The jeep sped off down the road, and I inhaled the mountain air deeply. I realized it was something I had not done in over a week. A quarantine is supposed to close things off, shut things down. Instead, I found the opposite: this week had opened me up to Tsetserleg unlike any other experience in the past year. I turned around and headed toward home. Of course I wanted to get to my family wedding, but the teachers at the College would be meeting to discuss the semester’s opening, and I needed to put on a work shirt.