In Mongolia, two Westerners learn what selfless giving is all about

Several years ago, my wife and I rode the trans-Mongolian Express to Ulan Bator, and then hitched a 17-hour tooth-shattering ride to the outpost of Moron. Perched near the Russian border – where the mountains, larch forests and clear lakes of Siberia collide with the central Asian grasslands – the city was a maze of dusty streets, high wooden fences, abandoned Russian factories and horses hitched everywhere. A lone dog sauntered past, clutching the bloody, severed head of another hound firmly between its teeth.

We had come to ride horses – something neither of us knew a thing about. Seeking Nara (the friend of a friend of a friend), we were soon dragged into his one-room cabin. Salty tea was boiled and heaping bowls of yogurt pushed toward us.

Nara, who had no idea we were coming, would hear nothing of us spending the night at a nearby guest house. We must stay with his family. Eat his food. Sleep in his bed. Arrange the journey from his home. Stay for months if necessary. Forever if we chose. Such is the way of the steppe: unstinting generosity toward all. It is a tradition born of the nomadic lifestyle. Always offer shelter and food to strangers, since you never know when you might need it yourself.

The next day, Nara and four brothers offered a selection of steeds from their family’s herd. Mongolian horses may be as tough as nails, descendants of a cavalry that once conquered the known world, but they did not inspire confidence at first glance. They were small and scruffy, with unshod hooves, boney hips and awkwardly large heads. We bought three; two for riding and one for packing gear.

“Much luggage,” Nara said, shaking his head as we tried to load up. We’d come with just the basics – a tiny tent, one change of clothes, an ultralight cook set. But add journals, a chessboard, headlamps, a fishing rod, plus a collection of other seemingly indispensable items, and we had a real heap. I was once again reminded of Wilfred Thesiger’s sage words: “The more possessions you have, the more you are robbed of your freedom.”

The plan was to head north, toward Hovsgol Nuur, one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world. After that, who knew? We had horses, time and the ability to pack more than 20 days of food. We were travelling NITWIT style: No Itinerary, Wing It. Nara would ride with us as far as his mother’s hut, five days away, to make sure we had the hang of travelling with horses.

Spring downpours had turned the grasslands electric green. It was lambing season and milk was flowing. Wildflowers of every colour and shape carpeted the rolling land. Swaths of blue irises grew so dense as to appear as ponds until we drew close. Yellow mustard, white anemone and ruby lily spilled across hillsides. The horses wove through towering delphinium and larkspur. Falcons swooped before us, their shrill cries piercing the air. From gin-clear rivers, grayling rose to our flies on every cast, and we stuffed ourselves upon fish cakes, wild onions and bannock.

Despite the loneliness of the steppe, visitors proved common, for herdsmen have superb eyes. And every one came bearing gifts. Children struggled beneath great pails of yogurt. (In one heroic effort, we guzzled down eight litres at a single sitting so the bucket could be returned.) Men brought flasks of airag (fermented mare’s milk) and left stumbling drunk but still able to ride like the wind.

A steady procession of gifts poured forth from every passing ger (the white, semi-permanent tents better known by the Turkish word for them: yurt). We received a pair of silver earrings (the old woman’s only pair), a cooking pot, a family painting, a young boy’s carving, a hand-embroidered snuff bottle pouch, a bowl emblazoned with Genghis Khan and heaping bags of aaruul (dried yogurt curds.)

In return, we offered a few meagre tokens – needles, hats, old sunglasses and T-shirts brought from home – but these were second-hand offerings, things no longer wanted or needed. The Western regifting tradition: Give away what you don’t want, keep what you do.

Upon reaching Nara’s mother – a poor woman living alone in an isolated hut – Nara delivered a package, her only mail of the year. It contained a brand-new, golden del (a traditional robe). Without pause, she turned and held it out to Christine. Attempts to refuse the humbling generosity were shaken aside. What could we possibly offer in return? The hair bands and bobbins of thread brought from China as thank-you gifts now felt embarrassingly meagre. Christine pulled a silver bracelet from her wrist, and still feeling guilty, tore off her only wool socks (a far bigger sacrifice in her eyes I was sure).

The parade of generosity never ceased and, at last, we realized our only hope was to out-Mongol the Mongols. We gave away mitts, hats, fishing lures; handed over compasses, watches, necklaces, even binoculars to astonished visitors. Of course, we never missed the stuff. And packing got easier with each passing day.

The fact that those with the least always give the most is among the most beautiful lessons or revelations of foreign travel. A thought worth bringing home as Christmas nears; when some walking among us have hardly enough.

Source: The Globe and Mail newspaper of Canada


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