Hole #4: Animal Farm

Horses stick together. Cows pretty much stick together. But sheep and goats have an identity crisis. The alliance of small, short-tailed, grass-munching animals is so strong that you almost never see one without the other. It's as if Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan announced that they have formed a new alliance -- who would really notice? This is Mongolia, the land of the horse after all, and the small animals play second horse-head fiddle to their equine neighbors. (The horse-head fiddle, or morin khur, is Mongolia's national instrument, by the way.)

But I've noticed this thing about the sheep and goats sticking together. Maybe I read too much Plato when I was young but I begin to wonder if, never looking in a mirror, the sheep and goats know if they're a sheep or a goat. Perhaps after puberty they find an attraction to one species more than the other, but I'm telling you, the goats and sheep here in Mongolia look confused about this.

You see an occasional camel in eastern Mongolia but they're sort of like the occasional Frenchman you see in Ulaan Baatar. They just go their own way, rarely mixing with the other animals. "Zer is no good cheese and zee wine is terrible here."

There are lots of birds in Mongolia and one of the most common is the Cuckoo bird, with its mocking, cynical call. It usually happens that I'm thinking to myself how crazy this expedition is when I hear "Cuckoo, Cuckoo." This never hit home as much as when I heard the distinctive call while walking through a small town called Moron. Made me want to call the whole expedition off right then and there.

Marmots. If Jonathan Winters put his pet guinea pig on steroids, it would look something like a marmot. It's not gopher holes you worry about on this Mongolian golf course, it's marmot holes. The silly little buggers see you coming and decide to try out their camouflage tactics first by becoming completely still. As if you couldn't spot a bleach-blond muskrat with a fat ass in the middle of the steppe? Then they dart down the nearest hole feeling good about themselves, narrowly averting danger. It's hard to believe that these cute little animals are carriers of the Black Plague. It's like learning that Sandra Bullock has a venereal disease. It just doesn't go together.

Dogs: I've heard stories about some vicious dogs protecting their family's ger in the countryside. Almost every ger has one or more dogs and true enough, they do bark when you walk by. That's what dogs do. But I've found that if you give them a gentle reminder that they're man's best friend and have a small chat with them, then 9 out of 10 will have their tails wagging. For the 1 out of 10, I usually have my 3-iron wagging, sending an altogether different message. I did encounter three dogs who approached me from quite a long distance. Sort of a Siberian Husky/German Shepherd mix who had me a little apprehensive. But the cheeky little pooches ran right past me to chase off a man who was approaching me from behind on horseback and then escorted me silently in triangular formation for the next ten minutes. I challenge any cat-lover to find three cats who would do that.

The most highly populated branch of the animal kingdom, however, is the insect family. Grasshoppers and beetles are plentiful enough but don't approach in numbers the flies. At any given moment, there are hundreds of flies buzzing around me. At least four different species not including the mosquitos and gnats. It seems every square meter has thousands of flies, making me believe that there must be billions of flies across the country. If I had a dollar for every fly I could fund the Mongolian government for the next ten years. I could probably even pay off the US government debt and still have a few bucks left over for Curious George to play Star Wars.

I look over at the horses to see how they're dealing with the flies and they just constantly nod their heads up and down mechanically, sort of like Tony Blair when he visits the White House. "Yes, yes, yup, lots of flies, mmm-hmm, lots of flies." So I've taken a new zen approach to dealing with them, which is simply to just ignore them no matter how many are covering my face, head, backpack, or golf club. It's a losing battle to try to fight them and I just don't have the energy during the day. I may not be Lord of the Dance, or even Lord of the Rings, but I'm on my way to becoming Lord of the Flies.

Cows I've decided I just don't like. Maybe it was that incident when I was quietly sitting, eating my lunch, and a bull put his head down and started charging me, his horns aimed straight at my abdomen. They're murderous beasts, those cows. I'm having a double cheeseburger as soon as I get back to Ulaan Baatar. Make that two.

But the rest of the animals I chat with regularly. They all stop what they're doing and stare at me when I pass by, as if they've never seen a Mongolian golfer before. They might not appreciate all the witty puns I send their way, but what's a man to do when he's all alone on the Mongolian steppe.

continue to Hole 5 >>

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