After about a week of camping out in the military field campsite and enjoying all the running around the steppe, collecting crystal rocks, colorful lizards and wild carnations, we had a surprise… My father summoned us in the middle of the day and we set out for a short trip.
“Where are we going? Where are we going?” My sister and I kept asking intrigued.
“You’ll see,” he would reply evasively.
We drove for about forty minutes in our field truck and reached a ger settlement in the middle of nowhere. It was a small village with several yurts. There were adults around but my eye caught the fact that there were a lot of children, most younger than my sister and I, roaming freely from ger to ger and playing in the field. As soon as we parked, they quickly surrounded our truck and were shamelessly gawking at us as my sister and I sat inside trying to comb out hair into braids. I even tried to close the truck’s door only to see a few tiny hands slipping into the gap and opening it wide again. We felt very uncomfortable for a while.
But as my father explained that a car, let alone a huge truck, stopping by the village was a major event for the settlers, we felt a little more at ease. We realized that they didn’t stare at us because they thought there was something wrong with us, but because we were a new occurrence in their lives. I could understand that.
As my fear of the locals had subsided, I began seeing them in a different light. I suddenly noticed how beautiful and full of vitality they were. They were dressed in mixture of colorful clothes- some in traditional Mongolian silk frocks, some in modern clothes with dominant colors of bright pink, purple, turquoise green and yellow. They had big smiles revealing bright white teeth, strong and perfectly even. Their black thick hair was braided and tucked under pointy hats and gaudy scarves. A strange thought occurred to me as I was watching these free, happy people enjoying life in the middle of harsh and seemingly empty land. “This is what humanity was meant to be like. These are the ‘original humans’…”
It turned out that we came to the settlement to meet our old friends. My mother had worked in a student dormitory as a manager in Irkutsk where she met a Buryat woman named Ghita, who later married a Mongolian citizen and moved out to the Dornod aimag, a far eastern Mongolian province. Ghita’s ger was one of the biggest around. It was open, just like all the others’ and anybody could come in and out as they wished. We were seated to the right of the entrance.
Mongolian yurts are traditionally set up with the entrance always facing South. As in a Miniature-Universe, everything inside the ger revolves around tits central axis, the wrought-iron fire stove. All those entering the yurt move in the direction of the sun- East to West. Men are seated on the western side and women and guests opposite of them. The northern area is reserved for the Spirits of ancestors with an improvised altar, photographs and keepsakes.
As we sat on the colorful bed we were offered to feast on the plate of candies laid out in front of us on a low table. As soon as my sister and I, squinting cautiously at the half-melted caramels covered in flies, politely declined, a fireball of a little girl flew into the ger, grabbed a handful of sticky sweets and rushed out stuffing a few of them into her mouth. Interesting idea, I thought to myself, maybe it isn’t really necessary to only eat things that are clean?
While my parents were having conversations with the locals, using my father’s limited Mongolian, the men’s limited Russian and Ghita’s translations back and forth, I was gawking around the ger and taking in everything that was challenging, contradicting or expanding my knowledge of the world. I loved the feel of the black, soot covered stove that exuded warm coziness and generosity. It seemed to say- I know I am the center of attention but only because I give so much livelihood- I feed you, I keep you warm, I entertain you with my flickering blaze and crackling fire wood, and I bring you all together. The beds along the round walls seemed to agree and, blending in with the colorful rugs on the walls and on the floor did not challenge the stove’s claim to the spotlight. Toono, the top opening in the middle of the tent’s roof, protruded by the long stove pipe, was the main light source aside from the opened door. It showed the movement of the sun, tracing the light like a sun dial and was said to be the “Window to Heaven,” through which the spirits of the Upper world could enter and bring people luck and prosperity. There was not one thing, I thought, in Ghita’s yurt that was just an object, a dead item… no- everything inside the felt covered tent was enlivened and constantly interacting with its inhabitants- a never-ending flow of exchange and communication. I felt so good and so right in this small model of the Universe that I didn’t want to leave.
I understood why the Mongolians, especially the older generation, were having such a hard time adjusting to the “civilized” life style. My father had told us a story of a man who received an apartment in Ulan Bator from the government as part of the program of moving people from the rural areas into the cities. That Mongolian man did not object to the gift and happily accepted it, but used it in his own way… He set up his ger on the front loan of the apartment building and treated the second-floor flat as a drinking well for his sheep. Thus every day, in the morning and in the afternoon, one could see a sheep herd running up and down the staircase, leaving traces of dung and dirt along the way. What was the government to do? Not much. I in turn could not blame the man for not wanting to give up his cozy, living, breathing womb of a home in exchange for a cement box…
Eventually we had to leave, bidding our warm and polite farewell and setting on our way. As a gift exchange, we received some fresh Mongolian food and gave a lift to five village men to the nearest town.
There was just one little mishap worth mentioning related to Ghita’s delicacies. When she asked my parents whether they preferred sour cream thinner or thicker, my mother and father in unison declared:
“Thicker, of course,” remembering the thin sour cream sold in Soviet stores, which looked and tasted suspiciously buttermilk like. It was a common knowledge that store workers would routinely steal parts of the original product replacing its quantity with something less valuable and more abundant such as buttermilk.
When they opened Ghita’s container however, my parents rolled with laughter. Inside the tin box was sour cream so thick that it was one step away from becoming butter. “Thick” in the local language apparently meant “thick.” That was Mongolia in my experience, a country of vast spaces, harsh weather and very real people living very real lives…