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.
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.
As the days passed, I began feeling like a loon on a lake, drifting in silence, resting in the rainbow colors. I collected water occasionally. I watched the family saw firewood, hang mutton strips, and milk yaks. Tsendsuren and I and several grandchildren enjoyed playing with the gifts I had brought. Tsendsuren and I giggled as we bounced the small red ball, trying unsuccessfully to pick up jacks from an uneven cheese board balanced in the grass. Her grandchildren, like mine, had mastered the task quickly.
Early one morning, I saw Tsendsuren dragging her iron stove through the narrow door of her ger. It was moving day. As I watched her scrub greasy soot off the stove, I wondered: What sustained her? Where did she find strength when she was tired?
Huhkhuu and their oldest son, Gambat, circled the ger, peeling away layers of yak felt, exposing a lining of flowered muslin. Wooden lattice ribs, poles, and a wheel-like spoked dome supported the windowless, one-room home. The ger was soon collapsed, folded, and loaded onto pack animals, leaving the interior of their home exposed.
It was a picture without its frame; one round room for sleeping, dressing, eating, entertaining. I never knew how many people slept there. Multicolored blankets were stacked underneath metal bed frames. Family photos, a shortwave radio, and a gilded statue of Buddha rested atop colorful storage trunks. Woven yak rugs covered the earthen floor, and a wooden washstand with shelves for cups and cooking pots stood by the door
Next Tsendsuren carefully packed her family photos. I had given her a picture of my children and grandchildren weeks before. She had clutched it to her breast like a precious jewel, slipping it between the wooden lattice above her bed. On moving day, she tucked my photo next to hers. I felt sad. Our time together was ending. i knew we would never talk about our common experiences as mothers and grandmothers. But I felt something. I could not put words around it yet.
As we prepared to go, one of her sons-in-law handed me the reins of a chunky chocolate-brown-and-white gelding. Tsendsuren's twinkle told me I was getting my chance to gallop a steed on the steppes. How did she know?
We parted where we had met, on the pastures dotted with white gers and purple gentian. During our final campfire, when the men had finished singing folk songs, I looked over at Tsendsuren, gesturing for her to sing. I don't know why. I had never heard her sing. Her deep brown eyes, reflecting the firelight, stared searchingly at me. No one spoke.
She stood up, straightening her dress, shuffling her boots, inhaling deeply. She lifted her eyes to the sky, the most sacred of all Mongolian spaces. Slowly, vibrating alto notes resembling a Gregorian chant rumbled from deep within her throat, as if all her hidden strengths were harmonizing. My spirit soared with each prayerful phrase. I had always tried to listen with my eyes, to see with my heart. That evening I heard our common heritage resonating.