I Have Two Wives But I Can Marry You

Somewhere near Bayan Olgii,


July 15, 2005

Bayan Olgii province in the extreme west of Mongolia seems like land that time forgot. It is remarkable even in a country like Mongolia that is already remarkable for its vast stretches of open land in this day and age. With the looming Altai Mountains and rolling pasture lands as far as eye can see, it is a gem. Other than Khovd and Oligii, both oversized villages rather than towns, there are no permanent habitations of any sort. From time to time, mostly in the distance I see round white gers.

This area is populated largely by Kazakh nomads and it is their gers that dot the landscape. Smaller dots are the sheep that graze on these undulating lands. Hunting is still done with eagles in this part of the world I am told but it is not quite hunting season yet. Once or twice I did see eagles soaring high overhead. I have been wandering in an aimless fashion, walking and camping each night. The days have mostly been brilliant under cloudless blue skies and the nights brisk enough that I burrowed into the sleeping bag mummified in layers of clothing. Sometimes I saw some locals out for a picnic but they were only out for the day.

Walking south today, past the bridge I was heading to a spot near the river, far enough from the gers to avoid any unwanted and harrowing investigation by their wolf-like mastiffs. It was then that I heard the sputtering sound of a motorbike behind me.

“Sain bainu” I heard someone yell behind me.

“Sain bainu” I replied stopping to wave and then kept walking.

A young man soon appeared on my left and getting off his motorbike started walking, pushing his bike, keeping pace with me. The interrogation began with the usual questions. We spoke in a mixture of English and Mongolian with vigorous miming thrown in for good measure.

“Where are you going?” he asked.

“Over there” I replied waving in a general direction of the river.

“Oh, my ger is there also. You can stay in my ger” he said.

I thanked him but said I had my own tent.

He digested that for a minute and came to the conclusion that my backpack must be heavy. “The river is far but I can help you” he said, solicitously offering to bring me a horse to ride.

“I don’t want a horse” I replied. I had learned the hard way that horse-riding is a skill I neither have nor particularly want to have.

“Oh” he said mulling it over. “We have no camels” he said sounding crestfallen “but you can ride on my motorbike”.

I thanked him and declined. We kept walking.

The interrogation followed the usual pattern – how old was I? Did I have children? Did I have a husband? I could see the shock on his face when I replied. No husband at my age was unheard of and no doubt a stigma. I could almost see the gears turning in his head as he frowned over the problem.

A couple of minutes later he stopped trundling his motorbike, turned to me and said

“I have two wives, but I can marry you” desperately trying to save me from the ignominy of being unmarried. He wore an expression of earnestness. I declined as gently as I could trying to keep a straight face. He grunted acceptance, not particularly put out but was clearly still thinking of other options. We walked on. A couple of minutes later he again stopped and turned to me. He pointed to the west and asked

“See those mountains there? There is Kazakhstan and my cousin is there. He is not married” he said, adding “He can marry you”.

Before I could think of any response, he continued “It is not far from here, only three days by walk”. Less by motorbike”. And added hopefully “Yes? You come with me?”

We walked on and talked of sheep and goats and winter. Every so often he would offer some other hapless friend or cousin as a potential groom. By the time I had declined his offers and hastily put a stop to any other inventive offers, we had exchanged names and he proceeded to tell me about his family. Andrei had eventually nagged me into riding pillion – not an easy feat with a fully loaded backpack on my back! But we arrived without any mishaps at the camp. We had reached a compromise; I was still going to pitch my tent but close to their camp.

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