Snow in Spring: Mongolia

Snow in Spring: Mongolia

“No ginger for you here, sorry. But I like this place. I think we’ll be back,” I lay feverish in the car, trying to get comfortable. The news sparked little joy or interest.

It was 2022 and the difficult beginnings of a fascinating few weeks of summer in Mongolia. Little did I realise how much this world traveler and family friend was a man of his word.

2023 arrived and with it a phone call and his voice. “I want to go back. The people of Mongolia have my heart. Will you come and help again?

The Answer

Again, the odds against the possibility vanish, one-by-one and I find myself at the same gate in Sydney preparing to board another Korean aircraft. Another wonderful friend texting, “I’m so excited for you!!”

This time the layover in Seoul will be longer. Overnight – plenty of time to ensure we make our connecting flight to Ulaanbaatar. Or so we think, as we await take-off at Sydney Airport.

A surge of fumes ooze their way through the seals of the doors and we hear engines cutting out. Then an announcement that we must return to the gate we had taxied from as the aircraft requires maintenance. Remembering that AirAsiana flies to and from Australia only once per day, we wonder if our layover will be sufficient, after all. Will they cancel the entire flight? We pray and hope.

The minutes tick by like hours. A real hour passes. Then the captain’s voice. “Maintenance is complete. Flight crew, prepare for take off.” I look and see a smile mirroring what I sense. Sweet relief!

We fly over Australia’s red centre and the Mariana Trench with glowing windows and a dark cabin. It’s midday but the feeling is more akin to midnight. My travel companion explains that they keep the shades down to save us all from the radiation which is equivalent to an x-ray. When did I last have an x-ray, I wonder. Oh yes, ten years ago when I thought I’d broken a rib.

The Layover

“I think we’re going to miss the shuttle bus to the hotel that we booked,” the voice brings me back to the present. We study the ETA which is growing continuously later as it takes into account our delayed departure. Soon, we are circling, descending towards the island that cradles Incheon airport.

Once aground and safely through customs, we make a beeline for the exit. I vote for deciphering local hieroglyphics and waiting for the next free shuttle bus. Seniority gains the upper hand though and a taxi is waved down instead. I climb into the back, taking in the night lights.

“Check out his speed,” a quiet voice from the front. The dial reads 140.

“What’s the limit?” I ask, incredulous.

“80,” the reply. I giggle at the madness and give up trying to focus on the sights flying past.

Before going to our respective rooms, we take note of the complimentary breakfast bar opening time and shuttle bus departure times. We must go to breakfast sharply at 7 to make our flights. With that information fresh in my mind, I crawl under the covers.

I awake to a softly sunlit room. I check my phone and gasp. 7.30am! I grab a robe and hurriedly pad down the hallway. A sleepy voice answers my knock.

“We’re late for breakfast!” I announce worriedly. A smile.

“It’s only six-thirty.” Oh. So my phone thinks it’s still in Australia.

We find the dining hall boasting an abundant array of traditional Korean dishes. After we take our fill of wild rice, kimchi, seaweed and salads, we hand in our keycards and join others waiting outside for the shuttle bus.

Again the debate of taxi versus free shuttle. I win, this time. We board, keeping our luggage on our laps. Our eyes are glued to the bus clock. My heart sinks as I realise that unlike my phone, it is slow.

The Last Leg

Tight white buds steal my gaze away from the red digits for a moment. Spring, oh joy!

Red again. This time a traffic light and I’m second-guessing my insistence on this option. Then the terminal! Late, but we made it!

I do not wait for the driver to remove all the luggage from the aisle but hop over it and rush into the fresh air and towards the pedestrian crossing. Once inside the airport we scan the big screens for our flight. No AirAsiana flights at all! How could it be? One look at one another and we realise our mistake. Wrong terminal!

Retracing our steps feels slow, despite our rapid pace. Once outside again a cab is hailed and we jump in, panting. Destination given, we discover that our taxi driver of the previous night was only entry level. Today, it’s 150 in a 50 zone, albeit slowing down for cameras. We again pass the larger-than-life silver statues of travelers we had seen on the shuttle bus. At least, being on this side of the road I can get a clearer phone photo. I’ll use it for today’s travel diary story.

It’s been twenty minutes and we don’t seem any closer to the correct terminal. Surely he’s not taking us on a circular route?! Suddenly the driver brakes and I see the sign for terminal 2.

We brisk-walk through the security door, unsuspecting of what lies ahead. Or how many.

“How are we ever going to make our gate now?!” I wonder aloud in despair as my eyes take in the scene. A word in a nearby ear and the security officer un-clips the straps sectioning off the cabin crew line and ushers us in. But not before adding pointedly, “You’re not the only ones in this queue to catch that flight.” More crew file in behind us. I snap a quick selfie of this unexpected twist.

The crowd thins out as we stride towards our gate. As it turns out my fears were unfounded and I have to step out of the boarding queue three times as I wait for others to finish phone calls.

At last, we are aboard. An early lunch is served. My mind struggles with the idea. I think I could eat but it hasn’t been that long ago since breakfast! I decide to wait for 11am. At least it will be four hours then.

I peel back the foil. It’s exactly the same as on the last flight. My seat companion is not thrilled. He suggests I save his portion for a later meal. I douse my white rice, tofu and bok-choi with tomato juice. It’s quite alright, I decide.

Lunch downed, I open the shades and blink at the sight. Is that clouds? Or is it snow? I look again and see the outline of mountain ridges. “Ohh, it is snow!!” I squeal, glued to the window. As ground rises to meet us, there is no snow in sight. I sigh and hope that won’t be all I see of the white wonder.

Our pictures taken at security, we emerge into freedom. We scan the crowd and then the name “Bold” is called with the tell-tale sign of recognition. I know the name, but the smiling Mongolian face I do not. Nor do I recognise the Mongolian lady with him or the face which is distinctly not Mongolian. I can guess who she is though. The German nutritionist who would be lecturing on health, Katharina. Luggage is distributed amongst the additional hands and we head towards the doors.

“Shall we go somewhere for lunch?” Bold asks.

“No, let’s hit the road. There is a good place to stop only one and a half hours away,” the reply.

The Roadtrip

Somehow all the bracing myself for the temperatures doesn’t take the bite out of the air and I clamber into the backseat beside Katharina as quickly as I can.

“Do you prefer to speak in German, Russian or English?” I’m hopeful it’s the latter.

Katharina’s eyes sparkle, “I know we can both speak Russian, but even though it is my third language, English is actually easier for me.”

“Oh, it’s easier for me too,” I laughingly state the obvious.

We shift focus to our surrounds. “I think the city is a little like China or Kazakhstan,” I offer as a general comparison.

“I’ve never been to either country, so I’ll take your word,” her smiling reply.

She’s sweet and a good conversationalist. I can’t help but making silent observations about my new travel companion. She seems pretty tired though.

“I didn’t sleep so well last night. Do you mind if I have a little rest?” she asks just then. So I was right.

No, of course I don’t mind. My jaw can have a little break from smiling.

The rest is short-lived as those up front don’t realise and begin shooting questions back our way. I pipe up in defense of my new friend. The whole van chuckles and Bold teasingly asks me to be his spokesperson if he should want to sleep.

“I’m afraid I can’t allow you to sleep at your post, sorry,” I laughingly reply.

The landscape of bare plains and slopes blur into sameness and the hours pass slowly. With Bold’s translation skills, we become acquainted with the Mongolian lady in the middle seat.

“I sew traditional dance costumes to help feed my husband and I’s seven children. One is adopted.”

She pats the little head laying on her lap and adds, “And this one is my youngest – Anant. He’s three.”

Katharina and I’s faces mirror surprise. “How is he so well behaved?” she voices my thought.

We agree that our nephews or nieces surely would’ve asked several times by now “Are we there yet?”

Or declared, “I’m hungry!” Because frankly, we were.

“Where is that great place you told us about, just an hour and a half down the road? It’s nearly four hours now!” Bold teases.

“It’ll be just around the corner,” is the ever-optimistic response.

I scan the horizon and know that it won’t be. The landscape isn’t right.

I try to find last year’s photos. Maybe I can calculate the true distance by the picture’s timestamp compared to my memory of when we left the city.

Enthusiasm rises at the mention of pictures. “Show Bold what the place looks like!”

As it turns out, the timestamp is from the following day when I imported the pictures to my laptop. And my only photos are of the distinctive rocky outcrops behind the roadhouse… and a picture of my reflection in the window.

We stop for fuel and Bold asks the lady who is filling the car how far to the sand dunes. Somehow Bold has figured out the place we’re talking about, despite my unhelpful snaps.

“Just another fifteen minutes,” she confirms. I scrutinise the horizon with new fervour. Then, yes, I see the rocks!

This time I take a picture of the whole building – in case of a future repeat. And another reflection shot, of course. Only this time, with a friend.

The Friend

Night steals over the desert. The men insist we stop and take a look at the stars. I ungratefully tell them I’m sure Australia’s stars shine brighter. I just want to get out of the cold.

We finally arrive and are shown to our rooms. Except that thanks to translation issues, instead of three rooms, we have three beds in one room for all of us ladies. Our team leader assures us the mistake will be sorted out and we will all have our own privacy soon.

A few days have passed and they’re showing us our new prospective rooms.

“But we don’t want to be separated!” I counter.

“Katharina and I are basically sisters now: sharing clothes, confiding in each other, taking pictures, freezing together by the river…”

And that was that.

The City

On one of our adventures, we walk into an impressive round building. With Google Translate’s help they tell us it is something to do with Marriages. There seems to be a few different government officials here. Perhaps it is the local council building, courthouse or registry? I cannot tell, but I am amazed by the architecture imitating the traditional yurt and the floor to ceiling windows. I take some impromptu head shots for the cleaner and Chief Youth Officer and learn the story of how the city was named after the traveling minstrel of the valley.

Alone one evening, I stand by a door, captivated by the sounds I hear on the other side. I am discovered and confess my admiration. They invite me to listen to their practice and I’m treated to a mini concert made up of native instruments featuring horse-heads and other exotic shapes and sounds previously foreign to me.

The next morning, I see a crowd gathering on the square. I’m told it is the Spring Festival. I wander down and watch as children and adults dance in perfect choreography.

The Children

I’d said that Mongolians don’t hurry. Implying they are late. I’m wrong. The children come an hour early!

I agree to teach them a song and they walk me home so they can find me in the morning.

Morning arrives. I want to wash my hair. I should have plenty of time before they arrive. Shower completed, I dress and begin combing.

A knock on the door. Tsolmon is before me, beaming and breathless. By the look on his face, he’s won a race. Moments later Anujin arrives.

“Sister, phone?” Tsolmon prompts me. This year I have local data and with Google Translate’s help, I have become fast friends with many sweet children.

“We brought icecream for you!” the phone reads. I can hardly believe it. What generosity! I persuade them to enjoy it for me.

But there’s more. The faces before me ripple with joy and excitement.

“I wrote you a letter!” Anujin hands me a book with a tab to pull. I gently tug and page after page, after page falls, piano-accordion-style with the words penned on each line, “I love you.”

“This is the longest love letter I’ve ever received!” I exclaim as I wrap her in a hug. I’m in awe. Heart-melted.

“And I drew a picture of you!” Tsolmon proudly opens his sketch book. I hug him tightly and more children arrive.

I pen the first verse of ‘Jesus Loves Me’ for each one and we sing it through a few times.

“When do you need to return to school?” They tell me in three hours. I don’t try to understand.

“Tsolmon’s hungry.” Anujin informs me. A question confirms that they all are.

“Shall we make lunch together?”

Every head is nodding, though Tsolmon looks at me quizzically as he shows his question.

“Do you have the bones to cook with?”

I laugh and tell him I don’t need bones.

“We’ll make soldier’s potatoes.” Smiles on each face.

Taking turns they churn out a bowlful of grated carrots and a pan full of potatoes sculptured into love-hearts. I can’t wipe the grin off my face.

‘Small Anujin’ finds my camera. “Can I use it?” I nod and show her how to focus. She walks around capturing the action, tries her luck with mirror selfies. The boys want to as well, so I teach them how.

Finally, the meal is ready.

“It is yummy!” Tsolmon proudly uses the simple English he’s learnt at school.

But the truth is, I’ve run out of bottled water and we are all thirsty. Potatoes might not have been the best idea. I pour each some Australian soy milk to try help them go down.

Lunch finishes after a fashion and they tell me it is time to return to their classes.

The next morning, another knock on the door and their sweet faces greet me when I open. There are new faces today too. I catch them up on yesterday’s song and decide it’s time to learn and teach them something in their native tongue. The idea is eagerly approved and a walk is proposed as well.

“Up the steps to that lookout?” I assume and point to the 500 or so steps leading to a Buddhist monument and phone tower.

Heads shake and I’m tugged the opposite direction. To the park. Here the slide emerges from a giant tiger. I join them down the slide and we land in a laughing heap.

Before I know it, two weeks are up. The tears fall thick and fast as my new best friends try to say goodbye. They beg me to return and I promise I will. We hug again and again and I am convinced, one does not know love until you have been loved by a Mongolian child.

The Return

Katharina has already left. But before she does, I tell her of the wonders of the Northern Route – the yaks, the lakes, the forests.

“Even with the long drive, I’d do it again in a heartbeat.” I rhapsodize.

Hearing me, our friend and organiser comes up with a plan. I will see my friends from last year and retrace last year’s tracks.

I wonder though, with everything being so bleak and bare in spring, would the longer return route really be worthwhile?

Dharkhaan is back with us as driver and translator. “Maybe she can have a nicer yurt experience this year — at the hot springs.”

I hadn’t known Mongolia had its own hot springs! Yes, please!

And so it is. Dharkhaan isn’t sure of himself in finding the right dirt track so has brought along a few hitchhikers who know the way well.

The initial four hours of bumpy, cross-country travel have even less charm this time. Or do they? We pass another lake and I see that it too is frozen and marvel at the sunset hues painting the sky above.

And oh, how I love the frozen lakes. Each time I see one close by, I want to stop. To find a way to run across it, twirl around upon it. And waking up one morning to snow out my window?! I have not known marvels like these before.

At our destination, Dharkhaan shows me the head of the spring, down a walking trail. “Would you like to hard boil eggs in this water? The temperature is around 80 celsius.” I decline the offer and quickly return to safety.

Instead of the tiles used in Moree, Australia, here they use polished stones for the floor and walls of the pools. They empty and clean the pools each night too, refilling with fresh artesian water each morning. As for the views, forest flanks rising slope on one side and valley stretches out before me. To say the water is hot would be an understatement. But so also would it be to say that it’s beautiful and relaxing.

I clamber out as darkness falls and others pile in. Dharkhaan has lit the fire in the yurt and it is deliciously warm after the biting wind of the night. He explains that the two pillars in the centre symbolise the husband and wife, holding up the family. He leaves for his sleeping quarters and I stoke the fire. The cosiness is incomparable. I snuggle under the covers. Sleep comes quickly.

I awake early. So early. And so cold. The fireplace is cool to touch. Apparently, there is no way to turn it down to burn slowly and customarily it is re-lit. I opt instead to pile on more covers from other beds and drift back to sleep.

When I waken again, light is filtering through the skylight. I glance around at the traditional living space of these people I have come to love and smile.

Mongolia is beginning to feel a little like home.

Christella x