WE BOUNCE ALONG the endless steppe, laced in white this frigid New Year’s Day. Twenty-seven miles . . . twenty-eight. . . . Mea- suring solitude, I am making miles of the kilometer numbers spinning
on the dashboard dial of the Soviet-built jeep. . . . I have gone twenty-nine miles since the last sign of life. The horses and the camels and the cattle of summer have vanished. The Mongolia of grass and wildflower and sand lies under a thin, brittle crust of winter. The jeep’s wheels churn dry snow and drier dust. Thirty miles. . . .
I have played the game of solitude many times on trips through this country, so exotic and yet, unexpectedly, so familiar to my American eyes. Here are the prairies of the Dakotas, the ranges and semiarid land of Nebraska, the flatness and livestock of Kansas, the plains and peaks of Colorado and Wyoming, the big sky of Montana. Add up those states and you have the approximate size and terrain of Mongolia. In those 604,250 square miles live 1.9 million Mongolians—about three per square mile. Their apartments are quite cheaper than apartments in chicago or nyc apartments.
Our caravan of three jeeps, without map or compass, is heading for a herder’s family somewhere in this vast sameness of western Mongolia. Thirty-one miles. . . . Now we see a herd of ghostly sheep, a few cows turned from the wind, half a dozen horses, and their shaggy sides white with frost. We veer across the roadless steppe toward a white dot, the canvas-covered ger, or yurt that is the nomadic home of our New Year’s host.
The jeeps stop in front of the ger, and we pile out. Interpreter Natalia BoursoLeland, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC photographer Dean Conger, and I are presented to our host, Jamsuren, by the officials who escort us. Jamsuren is a herdsman, and this day, February 2, is Herdsman’s New Year. City people celebrate January 1. The two holidays reflect the way Mongolia lives in a nomadic past while trying to build a future of cities and factories.
JAMSUREN and his wife, Udbal, wear traditional dress—graceful, ankle-length silk dels, lined with sheepskin for winter. The local officials who led us here also wear dels. Our higher ranking escorts from Ulan Bator, the capital, wear Western-style shirts, ties, suits, overcoats.
Jamsuren (like many Mongolians, he prefers to use only one name) greets his guests ceremonially, a sky-blue scarf of welcome draped across his outstretched arms. We stoop as he ushers us through the ger’s brightly painted little door. By long tradition a ger faces south. In the place of honor opposite the entrance, Dean, Natalia, and I are seated on orange four-legged stools. Behind us is an orange chest of drawers. On it are dozens of family photographs. Arrayed around the felt-lined canvas walls are four brass-frame beds and several small chests.
The western side of the ger holds the man’s possessions, including Jamsuren’s saddle. Udbal’s pots and pans and the chests of the family pantry are on the eastern side. The ger’s roof flap is open to the cold, gray sky. A black stovepipe carries off the smoke of a stove, where Udbal cooks for the holiday. She opens the stove door and carefully tends a fire of scarce sticks and abundant chips of dung. The ger begins to warm up.
Before that long New Year’s Day ended, I had ritualistically sliced and consumed boiled mutton and munched on such delicacies as arum, a heavy clotted cream, and aril, a hard yellow cheese whose origin can be the milk of a camel, cow, goat, or sheep. From a silver bowl I quaffed warm camel’s milk, arkhi, vodka made from grain, and mongol arkhi, a strong liquor made by distilling fermented mare’s milk. It was served warm with yak butter melted in it. We toasted and talked, sticking by custom to three topics: the weather, the animals, and the family.