(April 4-14, 2013)
(Posted by Xavier, edited by Kristin)
Jenny, who goes by Buya in her family, had texted me that her sisters would come find us in our train cabin when we pulled into Ulaan Baatar. Since my phone had not yet switched over to Mongolian cell service I had not gotten the message – so seeing them appear at the entrance to our cabin came as a pleasant surprise. And that is how we met Jenny’s sisters Chimgee and Oyuka. Chimgee lives in Ulaan Baatar, and Oyuka had traveled from Erdenet (370 kms/230 miles away) to stay with us and serve as translator, since she was the only one in the family who spoke English. Moments later Bayraa, the large strapping brother, appeared, introduced himself, and picked up Kristin’s backpack as if it were a lunch bag. Between the three of them they took all of Kristin’s bags and my smaller ones, leaving Kristin to walk freely. Somehow we managed to communicate with hand gestures and Oyuka’s emerging English skills.
We walked off the train into a rather blustery cold afternoon with a light snow falling on Ulaan Baatar. Immediately I noticed the signs around the train station and knew, at least for myself this was no better than China in so much as trying to read anything. A backwards N, a letter that looks like a spider, and every word was a jumble of letters, symbols and numbers. Russian, Mongolian? Oy! This was not going to be any easier than China!
Luckily Kristin was a Russian major in college (a looong time ago) so she could at least read the words, even if she had no idea what they meant. Since many adult Mongolians learned Russian during the bygone days of the communist era, Kristin was also able to dust off the cobwebs to converse with our newfound family in Russian.
Accompanied closely by, and almost arm-in-arm with Chimgee and Oyuka (it was as if they were her very own body guards or extremely close sisters) Kristin changed some money at an ATM inside the station. We had no idea how much money to get out…at 1400 tögrögs to the dollar did we need to get one million tögrögs for our 10-day stay?
I stayed with Bayraa watching Kristin and her personal bodyguards rush around. I could see that Chimgee and Oyuka were genuinely concerned with Kristin’s health (they had been warned by Jenny that she was under the weather) and wanted us to get out of the train station ASAP.
We hopped into Bayraa’s little car, drove a few blocks, and in a blink of an eye we were getting out again. In no time we were at Chimgee’s apartment, which turned out to be only a few blocks from the train station.
They ushered us up the five flights of stairs, introduced us to their mother Eej (Mongolian for mother, that’s what everyone called her), and quickly showed us to a bedroom. They put our bags down, turned the bed down, and turned to Kristin and told her to get in bed and rest. Oyuka, in her best English possible, made it clear to us that this was our room and to please make ourselves comfortable. “This is your home, welcome, please rest.” And with both sisters insisting that Kristin get into bed, they left the room and closed the door. Speechless, Kristin and I looked at each other with an expression of, “what just happened?”
I arranged our things as best as I could in order to not disrupt what was obviously the parents’ bedroom. But the more I looked around to place things in a orderly fashion the more I noticed many children’s belonging tucked away or set up in corners of the bedroom. I finally stepped out of the room and into the combined living/dining/kitchen room to join the rest of the family and try to somehow communicate our gratefulness for their hospitality. I was greeted with warm smiles, which I can only explain as coming from the closeness of a loving family. I was taken back by their generosity and felt that we were already heavily indebted by their kindness. But we had not seen anything yet. Chimgee, Oyuka, and Eej were all busily at work preparing various dishes in the kitchen area. Rolling out pasta, cutting it into noodles, preparing some sort of stuffing, vegetables and offering me some tea or Mongolian beer.
I sat there watching and communicating in simple English as they repeatedly said that I should relax and get some rest.
Let me pause here and tell you a little about these three wonderful ladies. First is the mother Eej, a pleasantly plump motherly woman with a permanent smile on her face who you would instantly walk up to and hug, and without a second thought, call her mom. She would return the hug with a smile and ask if you were hungry. She was always keeping busy making something in the kitchen and making sure everyone was fed and content. Next there was Chimgee, whose house we were staying in. She was the more serious one of the three, but this was only because she had much on her mind. Taking care of her children, husband, mother, sister, and now two complete strangers from a foreign country — that would stress anyone out. The household was a hurricane of activity, but this only enhanced her beauty as she held it all together in stride. Chimgee was always on the lookout for our health and well-being, taking us by hand or arm in arm; we always felt her genuine warmth and guidance where ever we went. Kristin and I would come to love and respect Chimgee as if she were our own mother (even though she was somewhere near our ages). Lastly there is Oyuka, our saving grace. I say this because she was not only our translator, but she more than anyone else, never left our side during our entire 10 day stay in Mongolia. Yes, her English was very rusty but it was enough to get us understood. She too, would take us arm in arm where ever we went and always made sure we knew what we were seeing, doing her best to explain the history, culture and significance of places and things we were doing. She was our guide, our teacher, and our best friend. She was an absolute joy to be around, and we owe her an unbelievable amount of gratitude. These ladies were some of the most welcoming, warmest, good natured, and loving women we could have ever met anywhere. The fact that it was here in Mongolia made it even more memorable for us.
I sat there surrounded by these three wonderful women getting to know them better, and becoming more and more immersed into their kitchen activities when Chimgee announced something and quickly bundled up and left the house. We returned to our meal-making activities when a little while later, the front door opened and Chimgee walked in accompanied by this little wrapped up, bundled up, walking puff ball of a small child. Hat, scarf, ear muffs, boots, thick socks, coat, sweat shirt, layer after layer came peeling off with the help of his mother, Chimgee. I was laughing to myself as I watched in bemused amazement as this little man child turned and raised one arm, and then the next one, then this foot, and the next foot, now the next layer, and the layer after that one. It was a routine all too familiar, more of a coordinated dance between two loving dance partners than anything else. Finally, freed of his wrappings, we were introduced. “Tergel, Havier.” Rosie cheeks and wide-eyed Tergel held out his hand and we shook. He said something to me in Mongolian and I smiled and nodded my head, not knowing what to say in return. I wanted to pick him up and squeeze him he was so adorable. As we studied each other for a bit, then in came a taller, more slender girl version of this little guy. She didn’t need any help in unlayering. This was the older sister, Hulan. Quiet and a bit shy, we too shook hands and exchanged hellos.
The family atmosphere was just about all set as the women of the house were preparing the meal, Hulan attended to Tergel and anything that her mother might ask of her, and Tergel was doing what all 4 year-olds do, playing. The room smelled wonderful, and my taste buds were kicking into gear. Oyuka then told me that they were ready to bring Kristin something to eat. Chimgee and Eej finished putting together a tray of home made noodles, dumpling, vegetable soup, bread and hot tea. Oh man, it looked wonderful, delicious, and smelled of home made love. We walked into the bedroom, to find Kristin stirring and she asks me, “what smells so good?” They made you soup and here it comes. The scene was of a loving family coming together to care for a sick member. Kristin was overwhelmed and speechless. They made sure she had everything to her liking and then left the room. Kristin and I looked at each other as I was a little choked up by what was happening. “Well, eat up,” I said. And she did. And then they brought her a second helping.
Oyuka then told us that another member of the family was a doctor. They had arranged for him to come by and do a check up on Kristin, but in the mean time I could go with her to the local pharmacy to pick up some medicine. Wow. Oyuka and I wrapped ourselves up in warm clothing, but she stopped me and handed me some thick wool inner shoe pads for my boots. I inserted them and quickly made note that here, getting dressed for cold weather was taken very seriously. We walked down the five floors (no elevators here) and out into the cold, windy, grey day with a light snow falling. We walked around the corner to the pharmacy, where Oyuka explained to the pharmacy lady what we needed. I paid the woman and we left to walk next door to meet Chimgee’s husband, Tumruu, who owns a small convenience store. This solid Mongolian man greeted me with a smile, and with Oyuka’s translating skills, an awkward but pleasant moment of introductions was exchanged.
Tumruu would turn out to be one of the most kind, generous, quiet, mountain of a family man I would come to know in my life.
We picked up a few items and returned to the apartment. I then did my first, and what would soon become a familiar, dance in unlayering clothing once we got home. We all went in to check on Kristin and Oyuka explained about the medicine we had picked up. Kristin was in good hands with three mothers overseeing her wellness.
After a bit Kristin stepped out of the bedroom and met the rest of the family. Tumruu came home for dinner where we all sat around the table to eat together. The home-made meal was wonderful. We all stayed up for awhile getting to know each other and our family’s background.
It came time for bed and Kristin and I realized we were sleeping in the only bedroom available. We motioned that it wasn’t right that we take the only bedroom, but they wouldn’t have it any other way and insisted that it was no problem. We wondered where everyone else was going to sleep – there were six of them!
I can only compare this to times when my parents and I would visit family members in Mexico. Whether in large cities or in the countryside we were always given the master bedroom to sleep in. An old world custom for beloved family members or a level of hospitality lost in our western culture, I don’t know, but it humbled us and made us very aware of our loving surroundings.
For the next ten days the weather would gradually get warmer as the snow melted away into spring. The wonderful clean, crisp, pollution free air and country would gradually work wonders for Kristin’s health, not to mention all the wonderful homemade meals. Our family escorted us around Ulaan Bataar, the countryside, neighboring cities and villages to experience what Mongolia was all about. They hatched plans for us to visit ancient Mongolian villages, stay over night in a ger (yurt), and ride a two-hump camel. All of this arm in arm, and in the care of the most amazing family one could experience. Our Mongolian adventure was only just beginning.