I sat there at the Ulaanbataar airport solving the puzzle of my PhD. Next to me was a Mongolian lady having a 0.5L Chinggis beer at 8:00 am in the morning. I have been working in the Gobi desert for the last three and half months. I have gathered information on the population of ibex, the most important prey of the snow leopard, the feeding preferences of the snow leopard and the population of livestock in the region and through a colleague's work, the population of snow leopard in the region. The puzzle is to fit all this information together and predict the number of livestock (sheep, goat and horses) that the snow leopard will kill. I am trying this experiment at seven different sites across the snow leopard distribution in Central Asia. The lady sitting next to me timed her beer to the boarding call of our flight to Beijing.
As the flight rose, the vast open steppe took my attention away from the puzzle for the next half an hour. Just the endless steppe only intercepted by small ridges of snow covered sand dunes and small hills. There is something about the open steppe and the savannah, that inspite of being monotonous, I don't ever get bored of looking into the distance. The landscape slowly changed. Snow got shallower and the scares of mining were more visible. Slowly the snow disappeared altogether. The flight path almost traced the rail track between Ulaanbataar and Beijing – an offshoot of the Trans-Siberian railway.
Slowly the valleys between the ridges grew deeper. Mist filled many of them. There were also a lot more trees. My thoughts drifted away from my puzzle to my experiences in Mongolia. Visiting Mongolia had been a childhood dream. A dream that I have nurtured since the first time I rode a horse. In Monolia I met some of the most amazing people. A lot of frustration with the red tape and inefficiency but sweet and cooperative people slowly shrugging away the soviet ways.
The more I tried to focus on my puzzle the more I would get distracted. So I just chose to ignore all my thoughts and just stare and the steppe below. And just then, the Great Wall of China emerged from the mist below, snaking along the ridgelines of the mountains. After having spent all my life in India, I see the Great wall before I could see the Taj Mahal!