We were fluent in a silent speech
The day I reached Tsendsuren's family compound near the village of Ulaan Uulin in northern Outer Mongolia, I was surrounded by a kaleidoscope of color. The family's gers (yurts) dotted the meadow like giant marshmallows. Lime-green grasses sprinkled with purple gentian, yellow Shasta daisies, and edelweiss rippled in the breeze. Pinkish-orange rays of sun shimmered across the Hordil Saridag mountains, providing a backdrop for baby cashmere goats frolicking across log piles. Dappled gray horses, black yaks, and sheep grazed nearby. The scene soothed this travel-weary tourist.Skip to next paragraph
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A tiny, middle-aged woman wearing a purple dress, black rubber boots, and a flowered head scarf stood in front of a ger. Her arms were wrapped around two small children. Her warm smile welcomed me. Her name was Tsendsuren.
My husband and I and three other Americans would spend the next month traveling with her and her husband, Huhkhuu (pronounced "hoo-hoo"), seven grown children and their spouses, 13 grandchildren, and 200-plus assorted animals. As I gazed across the silent steppes, I wondered: How would we converse? We shared no common words.
Guiding our group to a nearby knoll, Huhkhuu, a slim man with rounded shoulders, pointed to where we should pitch our tents.
The next morning, he handed me the reins of a sullen gray mare. She didn't look like a descendant of the Takhi, the last true wild ones of Mongolia. Where was my galloping steed of the steppes? I smiled approvingly, hoping my disappointment didn't show.
Soon I slipped into the rhythm of nomadic life, surrounded by soft winds and gentle morning light. I watched the grandchildren herd yaks into milking pens and collect buckets of water from a distant, stagnant pool. Tsendsuren often invited us to her ger for a cup of hot milky tea which she served with cubes of hard and soft cheese. We brought popcorn. Tsendsuren ate one kernel at a time, turning it over in her fingers like a child expecting something to pop out. She only needed her hands and her smile to tell me how she felt. Was I doing the same for her?
She reminded me of my great-grandmother, who raised her children on the open Iowa prairies in the mid-1800s, living off the land without running water or electricity, indoor plumbing or central heating. Tsendsuren and her family ate what they herded goats, sheep, yaks and their byproducts cheese, yogurt, butter, mutton fat. I ate freeze-dried beef and chicken dinners, peanut butter, and instant oatmeal.
Most afternoons, Tsendsuren carried a pot full of fresh, lukewarm yogurt across the pasture to our camp, her thin frame listing to the left. She would wiggle a wooden ladle around the edges, watching it gradually sink beneath the rich, vanilla-colored crusty rim. I knew I could not say no, anymore than I could reject the sad mare I'd been given to ride.
These gentle people of the north are a blend of Turks, Uighars, and Chinese. Their high cheekbones, long noses, and weathered skin reminded me of American Plains Indians. In a land larger than most of Western Europe, they can ride from one end of their country to the other without encountering a fence.