This past summer, I went on a horseback-riding trip in northern Mongolia. In spite of my best intentions to learn some basics of the language prior to embarking on this adventure, other preparations took precedence. I headed over knowing only how to say "Sain bain uu?" ("How are you?") and "Bayarlaa" ("Thank you").
Eight of us were on the trip - a woman from Uruguay, a man from Germany, and the rest of us from various locations in the United States - including my sister, who had talked me into this adventure. In Mongolia we were accompanied by two wranglers, Nymhuu and his brother Nimdalaa; the trip leader, Mishig; our cook, Maggi; and our interpreter, Enktuul.
Our goal was to meet up with the Dukha people, reindeer herders who live in northern Mongolia. The Dukha live a nomadic life - moving every few weeks in search of fresh moss and grasses for their reindeer - in an environment that is extremely harsh and unforgiving.
After a three-hour flight from the capital, Ulan Bator, and a four-hour boat ride on Lake Khovsgol, we were ready to start the 13-day horseback-riding portion of the trek.
I quickly realized that we were going to have to be creative in order to communicate. Unless our interpreter was nearby, communication was a series of charades.
In the days spent riding across the Mongolian Steppes, I found it frustrating not to be able to communicate with Nymhuu and Nimdalaa. I had lots of questions I wanted to ask. Did they like being wranglers? What did they do when they weren't guiding tourists? How did they find our horses each morning after they'd let them loose - free to roam the countryside - each evening? And how did they survive the 40 degree below zero F. winters that we'd heard so much about?
On the second or third day, when Nymhuu and Nimdalaa began to feel more comfortable with our group, they started singing, and we realized our wranglers were budding Pavarottis. They had rich tenor voices that blended in a harmony achieved through years of singing together. They said they loved to sing and would sing all day long when it was just the two of them herding their horses.
There was a sweetness in how natural it was for these young Mongolian cowboys to sing in front of a group of foreigners they had just begun to get to know. They asked us to teach them American songs, and we quickly realized that singing was not a part of our daily culture. We struggled to find a song we all knew the words to and that was not too complicated for our Mongolian friends to learn. Finally, Eike, the German in our group, came up with a two-word song called "Tomaten Salad." These two words are sung over and over in different pitches and at an increasingly fast pace, until they become a nonsensical tongue twister at the end. The brothers loved it and quickly picked it up.
Nymhuu and Nimdalaa tried to teach us a Mongolian song. I don't think we ever mastered the words (I have forgotten the few that I learned), but I do remember the laughter and friendship that was shared as we "fa-la-la-ed" our way through unpronounceable Mongolian words while we cantered across grasslands dotted with edelweiss on our way to our next tent site.
One night after dinner we sat around the campfire and had an old- fashioned sing-a-long. Each group would start a song - in Spanish, German, Mongolian, or English - and the rest of us would join in as best we could. Since we were there during the Athens Summer Olympic Games, we decided that each group would stand and sing its national anthem. Four national anthems were offered up to the Milky Way that night on an evening that many said later was the most memorable of the trip.
When we finally met the Dukha people up near the Siberian border, we were awed by the simplicity and ruggedness of their lifestyle - living in tepees, herding and milking reindeer, and migrating with them to warmer pastureland when cold weather moved in.
We again struggled with how to accommodate ourselves to their lives without feeling like gawking tourists. Soon children gathered around us, and someone in our group handed out paper and colored pens. My sister asked the children if they would draw pictures of their homes, and we soon had a group of children camped at our feet drawing elaborate pictures of reindeer and tepees.
Then one 7-year-old stepped forward as leader and decided the group should give us a concert. After whispered negotiations among themselves, they joined hands. Then, swaying to the music, they sang a song about reindeer in pure, crystalline voices. After several songs had been sung in unison, the conductress pushed each of her young friends forward with instructions on which solo to perform. Again, we were impressed by the confidence these 3- to 7-year-olds showed in singing before a group of total strangers.
This interaction broke down the initial awkwardness both groups of adults had felt, and we were soon invited to participate in some of the Dukha people's daily activities. The concert had been our introduction. It also taught me a valuable lesson: Music can bridge a gap when words are unavailable. A shared musical experience can create a closeness among people from which friendship can emerge. This bond extends across cultures as it strikes a universal chord deep within people.
Bayarlaa, Mongolia, for sharing this with me.