North Atlantic Review, Number 17North Atlantic Review, Number 17

The day begins in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital city. I have been in this country of nomads just 48 hours, yet my senses reel from its dramatic mix of Russia, China, and the spirit of Genghis Khan. There are no roads in Mongolia, but for the roughly half dozen potholed pretenders that crisscross this city of three-story high-rises, wooden shacks, and Ger tents. Nothing is slick. Russia’s influence is unmistakable. Yet surrounding this tiny, dull metropolis is its antithesis: lush, rolling hills dotted with pine-scented forests and crystal clear streams, all lit to cinematic perfection by the low-slung sun. Mirroring these contrasts are the people, who belie their Russian connection in deference to an indefinable melding of their Chinese neighbors’ high cheekbones and flat faces with the ruddy complexions of Eskimos.

These observations are in my mind as my wife and I are driven to Ulaanbaatar’s airfield, where we will be loaded onto a Russian-made Antonov 24 for the two-hour flight north to a place called Moron. There we are to spend the night in a Ger camp before beginning a long overland journey to Mongolia’s lake region on the edge of Siberia, subsequently backtracking south to the arid wonders of the Gobi. The promise of exotic experience looms large. We count on it. What we do not count on is the way this day will end.

Tonight, we will be honored guests at a feast. Ideas will be exchanged, laughter shared, cultures bridged. It will live in our memory as “The Night at Aya’s Mother’s.”

Aya is our guide—a petite, 20-something Mongolian Annie Oakley. Her family lives near Moron, a barren settlement of Ger tents in the middle of absolutely nothing. “We are invited to visit my mother’s home tonight,” Aya announces on our arrival in Moron. “There you will see how country people live.”

For my wife and me, and a couple of fellow travelers, it is hard to imagine getting more “country” than Moron. Then again, the whole idea of a holiday in Mongolia had been rather difficult for most of our friends and family to get their heads around. “You’re going where? Why?” was the standard reaction upon hearing of our travel plans, followed promptly by the old standard, “What are you going to do there?” Truth is, we really didn’t know ourselves. We just thought it would be different. That night, we learned just how different.

At about 5:00 p.m. on the evening of our arrival in Moron, we travel overland through rugged terrain for more than an hour from what we thought was the middle of nowhere to what must certainly be its epicenter. Two Ger tents, a wooden shed, some livestock and a herd of wild horses signal that we have arrived. Outside stands a small, proud, ageless woman, resplendent in a quilt-like garment of the deepest blue, dotted with golden needlepoint moons and gathered at the waist with a brilliant orange sash. She smiles in anticipation to see her daughter from the city. As our vehicle comes to a stop, other people appear: an older man from the tent directly behind Aya’s mother; a woman and several children from the second Ger tent; three teenage girls from behind the shed. As if on cue, young men immediately begin arriving on horseback. All wear thick cloth coats, simple black boots, and hats of every conceivable design. The horses prance, and the young men smile. Indeed, all of the rugged, weathered faces that surround us are softened with smiles and excitement for the occasion that this night is to be. For, as we soon learn, these nomadic people have never before seen Westerners up close.

For the next six hours, words will be shared only through Aya, but who needs words when you’re raising a Ger tent, slaughtering sheep, cooking mutton, milking cows, riding horses, drinking homemade vodka, singing songs, and dancing to bubble gum music from a dilapidated boom box powered by a world-weary car battery?

Work quickly begins on the assembly of the large Ger tent that will be our festival hall this evening. It is a process astonishing for its speed and community—for it is Mongolian tradition that when a Ger tent is raised, everyone lends a hand. Neighbors (from no place I can see) magically arrive. Everyone seems to know exactly what to do. The Ger’s frame is erected by a delicate balancing act that places at least 100 hand-cut pieces of wood into unique positions, each secured with thick twine. The circular structure is then wrapped in heavy canvas. A stovepipe furnace is positioned in its center, poking through an impossibly perfect hole in the conical roof. A colorfully stenciled door provides the finishing touch. In less than 45 minutes, our dining hall is ready.

The feast itself is tethered nearby. We stare in awe as our hosts sacrifice one of their precious sheep, skinning and gutting it with precision and respect, careful to waste nothing. Our mutton will cook in a large pot among white-hot rocks straight from the open fire.

With dinner preparations underway and the golden evening sun hovering on the horizon, it is time for a horseback ride. The young cowboys take great pleasure in displaying their talent for riding bareback while deftly handling a 12-foot long pine branch with a rope looped at its end to lasso mounts for us. We will, of course, use saddles. The Mongolian saddle is made of wood and dramatically swoops up at both ends, giving me instant appreciation for the young cowboys’ penchant for riding bareback. Notwithstanding my predictable inability to walk the next day, the ride across the Mongolian plain into the setting sun is exceptional.

At dusk we return to camp, and the festivities begin. We four Americans are seated in front of 30 Mongolians, all of us on rough-hewn benches. The meal is basic and the vodka strong. Suddenly, one of the rugged young nomads stands and begins to sing. In sweet, clear tones, he performs a beautiful Mongolian folk song, in which the others join. A second young man contributes another tune; then, a third. And so on. As each song ends, everyone joins in the Mongolian tradition of a vodka chaser. Now a request is made through Aya. Will we sing songs from our country? Our inhibitions sufficiently numbed, we happily do so—our repertoire encompasses “God Bless America” and Elvis’ “Hound Dog.” Then comes question time. Aya translates as we are asked how we traveled to Mongolia, how long did it take, what is it like where we live, does it snow, what is the ocean, will we come back?

Hours pass. They seem like moments. Wrapped in the warmth of hospitality and discovery, no one wants the night to end. So we are happy when asked to stay just a little longer to share a dance.

A full moon lights the way from the Ger to the shed, where a single light bulb hangs in the middle of the wooden structure’s bareness. With fits and starts, the bulb casts a yellow glow, thanks to a weathered battery that somehow finds the energy to also power a boom box. Suddenly, the jitterbug is alive and well. It is the most fun I have ever had on a dance floor. The women, girls, and older men regale in the merriment. But the young men—these rough-and-tumble horsemen with the sweet voices—are shy. They sit like wallflowers. While smiling shyly for the attention, they are resistant to all coaxing.

Midnight arrives…time to leave. Extending the moment, we slowly load into our van and bid farewell to our newfound friends as if they were family. We already miss them.

Crossing the rugged plain, the moon dominant in a star-filled sky, each of us is lost in thought. It has been an evening of immense hospitality, discovery, and joy…spent among people who have nothing yet shared everything. The adventures ahead will pale by comparison.




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