“The United Nations won’t allow us to go,” said a young Japanese woman volunteer sitting next to me in a coffee shop.
“Into the Mongolian countryside.”
“Why, are there terrorists, bandits or dangerous people that I should be aware of?” I asked in a concerned tone.
“No, they say the cold is too dangerous for us to ride in public transport. If it breaks down, which it often does, you can freeze to death.”
It wasn’t exactly the words I wanted to hear the day before I left on an 18-hour van ride to northern Mongolia. But I was determined to go, and hoped the Mongolian gremlins would choose another day to attempt fate.
Nine the next morning as I headed for the van meeting place, I glanced out my taxi window to the bank sign that showed the air temperature, -19 degrees.
“Moron,” I said to the small hoard of men rushing to lure me to their vehicle. One of men took my arm and escorted me to a gray Russian van.
In the van I sat patiently for an hour, aware we would leave when it became full. Thirty minutes later the driver came back and attempted to have a conversation using sign language, fingers and gestures, he explained the van would leave at 1 p.m. Grabbing my daypack, I decided to head across the street to a restaurant. As I walked in the door, I bumped into four drunken Mongolian men stumbling out from a back room, followed by a waiter carting six empty vodka bottles.
“That’s one way to deal with the cold,” I said softly out-loud.
Each time I went across the street to check on my large backpack that held my seat in the van, the leaving time changed.
At 6 p.m. we finally pulled out of the parking lot, loaded to the gills and packed like sardines and began the all night journey to the north.
By chance one passenger spoke English, and was able to translate all the curious questions my companions had for me.
I positioned my daypack between my body and the metal side of the van, using it as a buffer against to the cold. The windows slowly began to ice over. Occasionally I would take my pocketknife and slowly scrape across the window. Ice crystals curled into long white strings before breaking off and falling onto my feet. A small hole the size of a baseball would allow me to catch a glimpse of the wild countryside floating by. All too soon, the hole would freeze back over, leaving me trapped inside with no sight of what was happening outside.
Waiting for me in Moron was Esse, a contact name given to me by a friend in Europe. Esse was a guide in the summer, and spent most of his winter months with his family waiting for spring to come.
At 2 p.m. the tired van pulled into an empty dirt lot that served as a bus station in Moron. “Welcome, Mr. Dean, you must be tired from the long journey. Tonight you will sleep in my house,” Esse said.
“If you don’t mind, you will be my guest an extra day?” asked Esse. “My good friend is getting married. If you wish you can come with me and see a traditional Mongolian wedding.”
The next day 30 people packed into the one-room ger dressed in formal attire. Dressed in the del, or traditional Mongolian regalia Esse loaned me to wear, I smiled at the crowd as we entered the ger.
Each time someone new entered the ger; they would head straight to the elders to offer their respects before finding a small place to sit. Musicians played traditional music. A table was set that was fit for royalty; this was punctuated with a large white fatty sheep tail dangling over the end. Toasts were given, speeches made by elders and gifts bestowed.
“You know you will be expected to sing a song?” Esse said. “Everyone does, it is a part of our wedding tradition. I will let you know when your time comes.”
Six hours into the wedding, Esse asked “Have you picked a song to sing?”
“Then it is time.”
Esse announced me and away I went.
“You fill up my senses like a night in the forest, like the mountains in springtime, like a walk in the rain.”
At the end they generously gave me a huge applause. Esse said: “Nice song, who sang it and what do they words mean?”
“John Denver, they were written for love, the same love they share today.”
“A toast to love,” Esse said, holding up a small glass of vodka. “Let’s go home.”