There is only one paved road in Mongolia, and I had long since left it behind. Searching for signs of life outside my window, I was confronted by the overbearing flatness of the Gobi desert. The low, unbroken horizon line pulling the sky closer to the earth. It had been hours since we had passed a yurt, even longer since we had seen another car. A serendipitous turn of events had brought me to what felt like the epitome of nowhere: an expiring Chinese visa, a chance meeting of like-minded travelers, and the patience of a local van driver. I reached for a bag of stale chips and wondered what I would be eating that night, where I would be sleeping.
My contemplation was broken by a jolt. As the van lurched forward, I pressed my hands against the ceiling to steady myself. I looked out my window to see something rising from the nothingness. Red rock formations towered in the distance like a Martian cathedral. Alone in this stunning, surreal landscape, we might as well have landed on Mars. I scrambled to the top of a tall column. Gazing out over the empty expanse of red and blue, I became acutely aware of my own smallness. I spotted a lone cowboy skillfully navigating the steppes on horseback, appearing like a vision from a Clint Eastwood film. I realized that we were not as alone as I had originally thought.
Our driver led us to a little yurt tucked behind the red rocks. Ducking through the entrance, I found a spacious room with two beds and, to my surprise, a solar-powered, black-and-white television. A small group of Mongolian men were huddled around the tiny TV, eagerly watching an Olympic boxing match between Mongolia and Cuba. While we had few words with which to communicate, our enthusiastic cheers for Mongolia transcended language barriers. The lone cowboy entered the yurt, smiling and sweating. Communicating through pantomime, he invited us to join him in an antelope bar-b-que.
Mothers and children, young and old, had gathered around the campfire. I pulled a bottle of Genghis Khan vodka from my backpack, which was met with laughs and cheers. Our new friends passed around the vodka, pouring hefty servings into small wooden bowls. As the night went on, communication became easier and more natural. I even exchanged email and Facebook information with some of the younger Mongolians, promising to exchange photos. While I came to the Gobi desert in search of solitude, I instead found an outpouring of humanity, rising from the emptiness.