My friend Ragan and I crossed the Mongolian Desert for a week eating nothing but pickled cabbage, potatoes and the occasional found bag of crushed airline pretzels. As each day progressed and another plate of vinegar-marinated vegetables was consumed, our thoughts became overtaken by piles of nachos, golden cheesy pizzas and jam-slathered croissants.
It’s not that we didn’t know what we were getting into, but meal after meal of drinking salty yak-milk tea and eating pickled vegetables that came shrink-wrapped or canned from China and Russia, well, it begins to ignite the craving circuits in one’s brain and you find yourself bargaining with the patron saint of gastronomy.
Then, after a week of praying for a culinary miracle, right there on Day Eight of traveling through Mongolia my supplications were heard. I’d like to believe.
On this particular Monday our tour group rolled into barren Western Mongolia. Our encampment for the night was in Karakorum, the ancient capitol of Chinggis Khan’s 13th century Mongol empire.
Immediately it felt different. Dark clouds hung low in the sky, heavy with rain, electricity and a supernatural chill. It was movie weather, the kind that signaled a child-parent body swapping episode or the discovery of a time traveling car. On this particular day it was the backdrop for the fates to deal us a different dinner.
A brief perusal of my Lonely Planet: Mongolia guide turned up a listing for a pizza-serving ger camp somewhere in this small town. Let me repeat myself: THERE WAS PIZZA HERE. I now could think of nothing else. No amount of sightseeing in Karakorum could distract me from my escalating mania. Not the outdoor market selling soviet trinkets, not the herd of adorable goats eating weeds around the stupa-topped city walls or even the giant penis carved from rock could divert my thoughts.
It was fairly easy to convince Ragan that we must break away from our group and own this pizza. If what I had been reading was true, the key to reviving our taste buds was at a ger camp aptly titled DREAMLAND, which, I had sleuthed, happened to be the next camp over.
Fidgeting at our tour’s group dinner, we smiled and pushed pickled bean curd around on our plates, politely making dinner conversation. We did our best not to tip our hand about our after-dinner activities, lest we somehow jinx this plan by sharing it. I didn’t know how the magical pizza gods would feel about that.
Once the desserts had been freed from their plastic wrappers we knew it was time to answer the siren’s call and set out to discover if there really was a golden-crusted cheesy trophy in these parts. We said goodnight, and grabbed a bottle of red wine for the journey. We needed fortification for what we were about to undertake. And also a decent pizza pairing.
According to our keen orienteering skills, the way to Dreamland appeared to be over a wooden fence, across a dried riverbed and through a barrier of trees. Wine glasses in hand we began our extraordinary journey. The sun was getting ready to clock out for the day, prompting us to quicken our pace across a riverbed filled with scampering critters and the occasional skull.
We made out voices and pressed forward toward our long-awaited Italian dinner. But something was off; we were coming up not on a pizzeria but on a windowless building and what appeared to be a basketball court. We bravely pushed on until we were face to face with a handful of teenage boys engaged in a game that resembled basketball. As we approached they came to an abrupt halt and stared at us, two women, not of this world, especially with those wine glasses in hand.
“Is this Dreamland?” Ragan asked.
The boys stared, possibly asking themselves the same question.
“Do you have PETE-SUH?” I articulated hard.
One of the teenagers gestured for us to go back the way we had come.
Undeterred, we carried on and forged across the bone yard. We both saw the hand-painted sign indicating the way to Dreamland at the same time, and I swear the opening licks of “Hotel California” started to swirl around us. Was this real life?
We began to wonder if this was a trap. Was it a setup to lure famished pizza-lovers inside, only to kidnap them for scientific tests or organ harvesting? I mean, how did we know?
The entrance to Dreamland loomed large in front of us. Flanked with concrete lions and carnival-like signage it looked either ominous or jaunty, depending on your level of natural-born pessimism. We took a deep breath, clasped hands and soldiered forward for we were brave of heart and hungry of stomach.
At first it seemed we had once again stumbled into the wrong place. A guard sat inside a little booth and start calling out to us in Mongolian. Were we trespassing? Or maybe we should have booked a table? Or perhaps he was saying, “Don’t go in, it’s a trap!” But melty cheese drowned him out and we ran past his small wooden hut. He retreated back to his seat. He tried.
We now found ourselves amidst a tree-enclosed camp. Groups of Asians stopped and stared at us, perhaps it was the way we had triumphantly burst onto the scene or the crazed crust-craving look in our eyes. Were we interrupting something? Or was this the moment when we were supposed to realize that we were yet another couple of victims who had fallen for the whole “there’s pizza in Dreamland” ploy?
A man approached us and I began to believe we had potentially made a foolish choice, the greedy Hansel and Gretel of our tour group.
“Welcome to Dreamland.” He smiled like a Mongolian Ricardo Montalban.
Feeling a lot like Oliver in that opening scene of the movie, I dropped my chin and looked at him directly.
“Please sir, we’d like some…pizza.”
He stared quietly and studied us.
He directed into us into a large round tent.
It was a restaurant. Photos of sumo wrestlers and men wearing Mongolian wrestling bikinis lined the walls. A chef sat at a table watching TV. So close, we were so very close to our moment of truth.
In a mix of broken English and Russian punctuated with charades I asked once again for pizza. I got bold, and asked for mushrooms. He smiled.
“No! We cannot make the mushroom! Not the pizza!”
Time froze. Life’s meaning ground to a halt. I felt like Dorothy bringing that burnt-out broom to the wizard only to be told he couldn’t help her. We had come all this way, Shiraz in hand, following a dream and a carbohydrate craving. We had taken a big leap of faith that night; forgone bean curds and pickled cabbage and now had nothing but a protein bar to offer our hunger pangs as a reward for this fool’s errand.
“Tomatoes and pepper okay!”
The crowd went wild. Or at least Ragan and I did. I’m fairly sure it resembled two contestants winning a game show. We were about to have ACTUAL, REAL PIZZA! I’ve never wanted to hug a guidebook so much in my life. Lonely Planet: Mongolia…how can I ever thank you?
That night we reveled in the gooey cheese strings that stretched from each slice as we pulled it away from the mother pie. Tomato sauce rolled across our taste buds like a red carpet and those fresh peppers sashayed across our tongues. This hot, crusty pizza was ours, right here in a town so remote, beyond an empty Mongolian landscape a day away from the nearest city. This was black magic and I’m not sure what I’ve agreed to in return, but I was prepared to pay it.
Later that night, after a harrowing trek through Karakorum in absolute pitch black back to our own camp (damn it, why didn’t we bring our flashlights?), we lay in our ger and listened to the sound of rain on our roof. Did Dreamland really exist? Did we conjure that glorious pizza party out of delirium and taste bud meltdown or did it actually happen? We drifted off to sleep, huge smiles on our faces.
If Dreamland was just a dream, please, nobody ever tell us otherwise.