Today I woke up both earlier and later than I wanted to. One of hour hosts came in and built the fire at 5:30, which was a little earlier than I had planned on getting up. But the grey light of the sky told me both that the sun was already on its way up, and that it was too cloudy for us to see much of a sunrise. Since that was what I had wanted to get up early to see, I stayed in my sleeping bag instead, wondering how on earth Mongolian women can build a fire so quickly when they don’t appear to use paper or itsy-bitsies.
The answer, I gleaned from the leftovers of our established fire, is birchbark. I had tried to build a fire two mornings before, but I was unable to bridge the gap between toilet paper and the largish kindling they provided without first going to collect twigs. But birchbark’s longer burn time seemed to make this possible.
She had build this fire to heat, not water for сүүтей цай, as I would have expected, but cream. I watched from my sleeping bag as she assembled the dough for боорцог and set it before the fire to rise. I observed this step with some satisfaction; I knew these small, slightly-sweetened pieces of deep-fried dough were leavened, even though they told us yesterday that they contained only flour, өрөм (clotted cream), and sugar. We had some fresh out of the oil yesterday, and they were marvelous.
We’ve tried a lot of new things this weekend, both tasks and food. Lisa and I try to help with the chores, though I think we mostly just get in the way. I can hold my own when peeling potatoes or washing ger poles, but that’s about it. And even peeling vegetables was a slow business on the first day – not because we were peeling with knives rather than peelers, since a potato’s no different from an apple in that respect, but because Lisa and I asked so many questions. We sounded a lot like three-year-old Элхэ with our constant chorus of “Энэ юу вэ?” (“what’s this?”). But Ану, our six-year-old teacher, was patient and taught us the words potato (төмс), carrot (лоован), beet (манжин), and knife (хутга). In fact, she was constantly trying to teach us new words, but I’ve already forgotten most of them. Mostly she taught us pronunciation, since we never figured out the meaning of many of the sounds we dutifully repeated.
Ану was your favorite playmate, but we also played many rounds of хөзөр (a card game) with the teenaged boy, Баатаар. He broke his arm when he fell off his horse last week, but that hasn’t stopped him from working or playing. While he abstained from joining his sisters on the nightly ride out to round up the cattle for milking, he was still an integral part of the milking process. It was he who released the calves, one by one, from the pen separating them from their mothers. Once a calf had run to its mother and begun to suckle, it was he who checked to make sure the milk was flowing, dragged the calf away, and tied it up to allow his sisters to milk.
I had tried my hand at milking once more, but found that I was embarrassingly bad at it; I could coax out a light stream of milk, but nothing compared to the waterfalls the more experienced girls managed. Rather than waste the family’s time and risk spilling the milk, therefore, I joined Баатаар in the calf-wrangling. Even this was more difficult than I expected; the older calves were large, strong, and quite determined not to be hauled away from their evening meal.
But I managed well enough, which is more, I’m ashamed to admit, than can be said of my attempts at riding. Mongolian tack has changed very little in over two thougsand years, and while the bridle is quite similar to a Western one, and there’s no appreciable difference between the traditional Mongolian bit and a modern snaffle, the saddle is another story altogether. They are tiny, and the high cantle and pommel have very little padding in their centers and none at all around the edges. Sitting deeply in one rotates your pelvis forward and under in a way I’m not used to, and while it was bearable at the walk, both sitting and posting a trot proved extremely painful. Cantering was somewhat better, but the trotting required to reach, and then retreat from, that speed left me with angry bruises that would persist for the next week and a half. I longed to have done with the saddle and just go bareback, but given the half-wild reputation of Mongolian horses, to say nothing of Баатаар’s broken arm, I didn’t dare.
Happily, those bruises were the worst injury any of us sustained during that long weekend, but it was a close call; our trip to the nearby stream to get water with Ану and twelve-year-old Саруул was nearly disastrous. The process involves setting an empty, sealable jug in a cart and wheeling it to the stream, settling it securely, then filling it and wheeling it back. The cart is superflous on the way there but entirely necessary on the way back, no matter how rough the ground you’re covering: 60 liters of water weight about 132 pounds, more than I can readily lift and far more than I can carry (in my arms, at least) for the fifteen minutes it took to walk back. Саруул or Баатаар usually performs this task alone, moreover, and I don’t think either weighs as much as the quantity of water they’re trying to transport!
When the car isn’t in use to haul water, the older children often give the younger ones rides in it; Cooper in particular delighted in taxiing Элхэ, obeying her squealed commands of, “Баруун! Зүүн! Чигээрээ!” (“left! right! straight ahead!”). So Ану thought nothing of climing in back with the full barrel of water, and while I resented the extra weight, neigther Саруул no I said anything.
All was well until we hit a bump. Suddenly, the cart tipped backwards; the handle flew up and out of Саруул’s my hands, and the barrel toppled backwards onto Ану, pinning her feet at an awkward angle. She screamed as Саруул and I tugged at the handles, trying unsuccessfully to lift it off of her. Lisa took Саруул’s place, and Саруул moved to tugh at her sister’s armpits; we managed to free one of Ану’s feet, but were unable to extricate her completely until Yoki ran to our aid. With his help, we moved Ану to the side and righted barrel and cart.
Ану continued to cry and rub at her right foot, so I coaxed her to sit up and let me examine her ankles. She didn’t whimper or even flinch when I applied pressure to the afflicted foot, and nothing looked swollen, so I figured she didn’t have any breaks or sprains. I gave her a hug and ruffled her hair, and after a few minutes, she got up and we walked home, with Yoki firmly in charge of the cart this time. We were all a little shaken, but glad that serious injury had been avoided. Countryside kids are one tough bunch!