In the morning, Mims and I bid the Justy and Andrew adieu. We climb into the van and finally understand what it feels like to be a canned sardine. We are packed cheek to jowl, five to a seat. This means Mims is squishing my thighs and arms, and I’m becoming intimately acquainted with his musky odor.
“Deodorant, man,” I say, as he braces his hand against the ceiling when the van hits a hellacious bump.
I comfort myself with the thought that at least I’ll be eating food from the locals’ perspective. However, that assumes that the locals eat food. For the first 12 hours of the journey (which includes a stunning shot of a rainbow), my fellow passengers sustain themselves on sips of water and dry cookies.
“Why isn’t anyone eating?” I ask Mims, whose belly has started grumbling. We have only a few shrunken apples to tide us over until midnight, when we finally stop at a row of roadside restaurants. It’s rainy and dark. The passengers splinter off into various eateries. Mims and I follow a few travelers into a well-lit spot.
I try to order khuushuur or maybe a restorative bowl of soup. A young girl of about 12 (why is she up so late?) informs us that the only edible available is gulyash.
“Well, two gulyash,” I say, wondering if this is goulash’s cousin.
Our steaming plates arrive with three humps of rice, sticky mashed potatoes, pickled cabbage and carrots, and gravy-slathered mutton. Goulash this ain’t. Then again, this isn’t wholly horrible, a compliment given our growing dissatisfaction with Mongolian food’s bland uniformity.
“Gravy makes a world of difference,” Mims says, spearing some cubed mutton. We clean our plates of every scrap, even the mashed potatoes that have the consistency of spackling paste.
“It sticks to the roof of my mouth like peanut butter,” I tell Mims.
Eating everything is a wise decision: This is the last meal we’ll have on this van journey.