MONGOLIA The Clock, the Ice Cream and the Marmots


When we lived in Irkutsk, my father had a seasonal assignment job in various parts of Mongolia. He was spending six months out of a year working abroad. When I was around twelve years old, my family went to visit him. It was my first time traveling out of the country, and even though I had been traveling “domestically” since I was a toddler, the world “outside the boarder” seemed like an unfathomable reality to imagine. Each time we would receive letters from my dad, they were always reeking of that “otherworldliness” only a foreign country could evoke. The envelope was of an unusual size and proportion, made of a bluish, different quality paper with the colored edge markings, suggesting that it was an air mail, not the ground post, printed on all four sides and not just one like on the domestic air envelopes. And the post stamps were sheer masterpieces- colorful pictures of the legendary Mongolian heroes, famous sights and works of art. Every letter was bringing a piece of that mysterious foreign land into our living room.

So, finally, we were to visit the remote country ourselves. The level of anticipation was beyond what we could bare- constantly giggling and jumping around to release the excessive energy, we finally packed and headed to the train station. Our train was leaving early in the morning, before the public transportation was available, and we walked all the way to the station, carrying our heavy plastic suitcases. It was the beginning of August and the weather was slightly chilly in the morning but very warm and pleasant in the afternoon. The trees were heavy with the green foliage that was starting to turn yellow here and there. We walked along the Angara river bank, enjoying the fresh morning air and the calm scenery in the pearly glow of dawn. Even though we had to stop and rest a few times along the way, it was probably a good thing that we didn’t get a taxi and boarded the train somewhat fatigued. Otherwise, our enthusiasm and exuberance would have had us bouncing off the walls all the way to the boarder.

The last stop in Russia was a small Buryat town, Kyakhta. Since the early seventeen hundreds the town has been a trade point between Russia and China due to its location- direct across border to Mongolian town Altanbulag. There, in Kyakhta, our train was detained for several hours for passport and luggage checkup. As we stepped out on the platform, I felt something shift in the air. Was it just my imagination or did I really sense something different about the place? It was as if all of us suddenly walked into another dimension where everything outwardly seemed to look the same but felt different. There was something added to our everyday perception- something very significant but impossible to see with a naked eye.

Everyone from the train was asked to leave their compartments and register their tickets and visas at the station. As the crowd of a hundred people gathered by the regular ticket windows, my younger sister and I followed our mother to the separate room with a very small queue, the ticket room for the military personnel and their family members. As a child I was used to these privileges and to the doors opening and everything being accessible to us because of my father’s position, and I took it quite for granted. My mother joined the queue, striking up a conversation with the officer who was ahead of her, and we sat on a bench by the large arched windows of the old-fashioned vaulted colonnaded building of the station. I stared at the big clock on the opposite wall. It had Roman numerical and ornate hands. I knew the clock was working and showing the right time, but for some reason it seemed to me that it stood still, as if time was an irrelevant concept to the reality at hand. I could almost see the clock winking at me as if saying: “look I’m pretending to show time. Do you think I’m doing a good job?” I eyed the surroundings and saw everything as if in a movie, shown in a slow motion.

When we strolled out on the platform, having completed all the formalities, our train was still there with the border patrol looking through the compartments and the passengers’ luggage, but the destination title was changed from “Irkutsk-Kyakhta” to “Kyakhta-Ulan-Bator,” and the name “Nairamdal” was added to the car. Nairamdal means “friendship” in Mongolian, and I felt a sunny welcoming wave of friendliness, like an openhearted handshake extended from the country we were about to enter.

The last thing we did in Russia that day was to buy crunchy waffle cups of vanilla ice cream from an outdoor kiosk nearby. There must have been crowds of people surrounding us but I remember that walk along the platform, relishing the delicious dessert, as a solitary experience- as if I were there all by myself, surrounded by the shifting and moving air and the heavy linden leaves trembling in the breeze. We walked to the end of the paved stand, observing the trains being reassembled by the dedicated rail road workers in orange jackets. Watching the busy tech personnel doing their job at airports and train stations had always instilled a sense of security in me. There, at the end of the platform, the railway trails were braiding together and branching apart, receding into the distant unfamiliar land…

Finally, the crowd of travelers who were already feeling like a family to each other- that happened very often in my experience with long distance trips, especially in trains and buses when the spirit of comradeship developed among people sharing the communal venture into the unknown- were boarding the newly reassembled train cars, radiating the sense of excitement and anticipation of wondrous adventures. The last warnings of the radio announcer declared the parting of the train. The locomotive hissed its farewell puff, something metallic clanked, and the platform floated away from the direction of our destination, leaving the motherland soil behind. As the train crossed the invisible border line with the huge Russian letters spelling a foreign word “Mongol Uls,” (Mongolia), I felt the mood of the entire car change. I knew that everyone around me shared in the same feeling of no longer being where we “belonged.”

The next morning, the landscape behind our windows changed dramatically. Instead of the tall evergreens of Siberia and the spare vegetation of Buryat Republic we were presented with the boundless brownish bareness of the Mongolian steppe. The hordes of sheep, horses and the occasional exotic rarity in my experience, camels, replaced the sights of cityscapes. The steppe was so vast and so austere in its expression that hours would pass but it wouldn’t feel like we moved anywhere, as if the train were riding on a treadmill next to the miles and miles of foreign emptiness.

Only when we approached the state capital, Ulan Bator, did we start seeing the hints of human presence. In the middle of the night, half-asleep, we changed trains once again to the cars marked “Ulan-Bator-Choir,” the final point of our destination where our father would pick us up. The next day, late in the afternoon, my slightly exhausted and unsteady in the feet family finally re-united with my father at the small train station in the middle of a desert. He picked us up accompanied by a solder-driver in the military jeep from his division.

We drove away from anything that contained brick, concrete or asphalt toward the world of round felt yurts, spare wooden fences, horsemen and horsewomen. Though utterly beat by the never-ending trip I was eagerly staring out the window, absorbing everything that was new, and new was everything- the smells, the sky, the flora, the fauna…

Against the setting sun, I noticed a strange occurrence- here and there across the steppe, there were peculiar beasts the size of a rabbit standing up on their back feet, still as if frozen in hypnosis, all facing West. At first I wasn’t even sure if they were alive.

“What are those?” I asked my dad, pointing to the immobile stump like little figures.

“Uh, those are Marmots,” replied he with a casual smirk of a local who was used to the land and its inhabitants. “They are very common here.”

“Why are they standing like that?” My sister asked.

“It’s their habit. They always watch the sunset.”

My father told us about the Mongolian Marmot hunters who used that trade to hunt the animals for their fur and meat. I felt such deep sympathy and compassion for the poor creatures who suddenly appeared as very spiritual beings to me. I thought I was one of the Marmots, halted by the reverence of the mighty, ever-generous Sun-god, risking my life by paying my homage.

The jeep proceeded to the Military base…

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