Sunday, April 19, 2009
A Sunday at the park, part one
Nara calls it traveling Mongolian style. For every seat in the car, there must be at least one person. So, when we began our trip to Terelj National Park, there were fourteen of us packed like, well, Mongolians, into two cars. Oh, and there was Barss, Nara's faithful German Shepherd.
Tracey and I are there, of course. And Nara, too. But we also have three smaller guests. Nara's granddaughter, Yeroo, age eleven, and her cousins, Altangana, about the same age, and Haluna, four, who sings to us from the back seat.
It was snowing when we left and by the time our convoy was crossing the first bridge out of town the road was just a narrow ribbon of black unrolled across a blank white landscape. No horizon. No up, no down. Just white.
We opted not to climb to the top of the Ginggis Khan Memorial, our first stop on this wintery Magical Mystery Tour. You couldn't see anything from up there anyway so why spend the money? Instead we posed for pictures in front of a giant statue, perhaps twenty stories tall, of the greatest Mongolian leader, on horseback staring defiantly into the blowing snow.
We throw snowballs. The little girls squeal. Barss lopes in a picture of canine bliss through the snow.
Then, Nara is fumbling with a packet of what looks like flowered Dixie cups and there is a small commotion around the tailgate of one of the cars. At last, they find what they have been looking for, a bottle of vodka. But, before you drink in Mongolia, there is a ritual. You must first give a little to the Gods by dipping your right ring finger into the cup and flicking a bit to the heavens and the compass points. And then it's bottoms up. An empty cup is not tolerated especially when, it seems, it is mine, and I am quickly feeling no pain.
Doors slam and we are off again, backtracking this time. Without the snow we would cut across the landscape, fording the River Tuul, but with the snow we decide to keep to the road.
We stop again, this time to wait for Nara's car. We wait. And wait some more. I have to pee. Should I go now? We wait and finally I can't take it any more and sieze the moment. And here I am, in Mongolia, marking my territory in a sea of white. It's another one of those "I can't believe I am here" moments.
Nara's car has arrived and, yes, it's time for more vodka. This time it is in the shadow of a billboard at the side of the road. No matter. Again, my Dixie cup is brimming and again, we dip and flick. I am bold and brave. Smiling. Warm.
Nara wants me to join her car for the next leg of the journey. It is a rolling teachers' lounge. Laughter, questions. The landscape shifts and huge rock outcroppings loom out of the snow high above the car. We see horses.
"How do you call horses?" I ask.
They demonstrate and I give it a try, surprising myself with a trilling my R.
Laughter. "It is perfect," Nara says.
"It's the vodka," I say.
More laughter. No translation needed.
"What do you see up here?" Nara asks. I peer through the windshield into the white and there, unmistakably, is the great gray shape of a turtle. We are at turtle rock.
We get out. More snowballs. More vodka. I hoist Halunga onto my shoulders. I miss Marcus and Chloe. I gallop and she giggles. I whinney and her giggles become a laugh. I really miss Marcus and Chloe.
And then back in the cars.