Perched high up on a rock, we could see the trails of dust heading our way. After seeing less than 10 cars in the past 4 days of driving around the desert, it was almost a traffic jam to watch a dozen heading straight for our ger camp.
We were in this remote location to witness a family reunion, Gobi Desert style. The matriarch was 94 years old, a tiny woman who could be mistaken for a child at first glance, at least until she opened her mouth to make her wishes known. Then she was a giant. She is a respected Buddhist in the community, well regarded by even the senior monk at the nearest temple.
Her 5 children and their extended families were on their way to take part in honoring her, many of them from the ‘big city’ of Ulan Bator. Before 9 a.m. there were tents erected all around us, including 2 giant canopies to contain the food and the special seating for the guests of honor. A PA system was installed, running off solar power. The music was a combination of traditional Mongolian and an occasional song by Adele or Jason Mraz.
A lone goat was tied to a rock nearby, nervously awaiting his fate.
In the center of one canopy was a giant blue barrel of airag, an alcoholic drink made from fermented mare’s milk. It tastes exactly like it sounds, and despite this it is a favorite drink of Mongolian men in the summertime.
The celebration started at midday in the giant canopy with everyone gathering around. Most of the men and women had donned ceremonial deels over their summer clothes, and the event took on a more reverent feel. We felt decidedly underdressed.
We tried to stay on the outskirts of the tent to give the family room to kneel, but we were ushered inside to take part in the festivities.
The matriarch started by giving blessings to the children with handfuls of candy. She included us in this ritual, and we ate our candy along with the kids, smearing chocolate on our hands in the hot desert heat.
After kneeling down we were offered a large cup of airag. It would have been impolite to refuse, especially as everyone around us was downing it, so we bravely sipped ours. As our throats constricted and our eyes watered, we listened as family members stood to introduce their siblings, children and their accomplishments to pay homage to the little mother who started it all. There were tears, laughter, and congratulations all around.
The drinks continued to flow, now including vodka and wine, and there were servers dedicated to filling empty right hands. Yes, you read that correctly. Holding a drink in your left hand means you still have a desire for an alcoholic beverage in your right. Poor left-handed Warren learned this lesson the hard way.
The family then gave gifts to the matriarch. The presentation was beautiful, with brightly colored scarves serving as an elaborate wrapping for each gift. Our gift was a bottle of vodka, which we thought she would add to the table of drinks for everyone. But no, she slipped it into her goodie bag of gifts to save for later. Then she gave us more candy.
As the sun continued to beat down, we began feeling effects of the airag and vodka. It doesn’t take much in the dry desert air to bring on dehydration, and the sour taste of airag made me nauseous. The airag is actually a great digestive cleanser, and the Mongolians shake off the sluggishness of winter by ingesting up to 5 liters of it in a day in springtime. First-timers can experience gastric distress by drinking even a small amount of it. First timers like me, for example.
The first part of the celebration started winding down to allow people to rest in the heat of the day. We found a shady spot in a cluster of rocks and sat down to talk and avoid another drink being placed in our hands. Pretty soon we were joined by 3 boys, and we spent the next hour teaching each other words and singing songs from The Lion King. I don’t know if I was more surprised to learn the boys knew the words to The Lion King song or Warren did.
Later in the afternoon the goat was brought out. It had been cooked with hot stones in the traditional way and was set out on the table for everyone to eat. By this time, several of the men were staggering more than walking and many of the younger people had changed out of their deels and back into summer clothes, which gave Warren the opportunity to try one on.
That evening as the sun went down the music started again, though this time it remained traditional. As it neared midnight, the music was turned off and everyone joined together to sing a capella under a blanket of stars. We couldn’t believe we were there to experience such a beautiful moment in time. We went to sleep in our ger that night to the sounds of old women singing, peeking at the stars through the top vent, and feeling like the luckiest people on earth.
The next morning people began packing up early to leave, including us. It was back to regular life for everyone, both those who had herds to tend in the desert or desk jobs back in the city. The day before seemed to put a pause button on daily life, the chores, habits and responsibilities that keep everyone too busy to think about the bigger picture. It took only one day – 24 hours – to remind everyone why they do what they do and how it fits into the circle of life.
“Home is where your rump rests.” ~ Pumba