The day was very dusty, and as always happens in Mongolia, very windy. In a huge bowl surrounded by cliffs and mountains near Uglii, the small city where the main Eagle Festival takes place at the beginning of the Central Asian winter, some two thousand folks gathered around the central area.
The announcers welcomed us in Mongolian, Kazakh, and English, which recognized that fully two-thirds or more of the guests were from some 23 countries. Most of them speak English or enough of it to get by.
Then the parade of spectacularly-costumed eagle hunters, camel riders, and competitors rode their tough little Mongolian ponies by us to begin the two days of competition.
I can tell you that of all the Westerners who populated that huge, happy crowd, a very large percentage was over 60. They had come through Natural Habitat, National Geographic, and with me, Zavkhan Trekking.
Two 60-plus women from Australia had ridden with Zavkhan for nearly two weeks and were going to continue their adventure by rail.
I was finishing up five weeks on a custom Zavkhan tour through the Gobi, doing farm homestays and staying in my tent in the increasingly cold mornings (single digits, most nights) as the light snows began to blanket the high country.
During lulls in the activity, most of us wandered the outside perimeter of the huge arena, looking at the handmade wares offered by the locals. This is their Christmas season, effectively. You can purchase fur-lined deels, the very simple but extremely effective traditional garment that Mongolians wear.
I’d had one custom made, lined with pure white sheepskin. I bought the fabric, a brilliant Chinese silk brocade, and the women in Ulaan Bataar (Mongolia’s bustling capital city) helped me locate a tailor.
The final piece was finished by hand and was much better than nearly all the current designer clothing I see these days. It’s a work of art, and – my god – it’s warm. They have to be. Mongolians suffer -50 degree winters, and the wind is brutal.
That and everyone, even those with modern houses (outside the city) have long-drop toilets. To say the least, nobody is taking thoughtful reading out there when the winds are howling.
During my trip through the Gobi with a guide and driver, I ran into a couple who had been to 85 countries. Jim, a retired Navy man, and his wife Catherine had hoped to come to Mongolia for decades.
Childless, and experienced world travelers, they were as delighted as I was with the expansive open spaces, the unbelievable hospitality and generosity of its people.
But it can be rough. For me, that’s perfect. I spent two different weeks at farm homestays. As a farm girl, herding goats and sheep by horse comes to me as naturally as breathing. You adjust to washing once a week (if at all), the outdoor toilet, and the constant presence of poop.
In fact, you handle poop all the time because – as so much of Mongolia has no fuel – dried dung is the perfect fuel. It dries and burns odorless, and we have to gather it day and night to meet the daily demands for water, tea, and washing.
At one homestay, we had a baby camel named Gogo. This two-year-old darling adopted me as soon as she found out I carried raisins in my pocket. She would delicately remove them from my hand by surrounding my entire hand with her lips, then gently moving her prizes onto her tongue.
I rewarded her by scrubbing her neck and face, removing the rocks and sand that had gathered in the powerful curve of her neck. For this, as camels do, she would press her soft muzzle up against my nose, and we would share each other’s breath.
Most folks are afraid of camels, whose powerful teeth and feet can kill. However, if you are respectful of them (they are much like cats) and teach them what your hands can do for spots that itch, you can be richly rewarded.
Such things are the fodder of dreams.
In fact, since I got home last week, I wake up repeatedly each night, imagining I am still in a ger (the traditional circular white home of the nomadic people) or in my tent in the high country, being buffeted by intense winds.
The night before the festival, we had driven to a small valley, the Tsengel Khairkhun. It is a place of immense beauty, high mountains, and that night, gusts of 60 mph. I struggled to erect my tent, which I worried might spirit me away to Never-Never Land.
It didn’t, but after a night of howling banshee blasts, I woke up at 4am to perfection. The skies clear, the kiss of a new dawn lightening the royal blue sky, the full moon floating just above the horizon. Still windy, but breathtaking.
I dressed in my warmest clothes, put on my headphones, and found a rock cairn from which to watch the sun rise. Those of you who are classical music aficionados will understand my choice: the first movement of Beethoven’s Third, Eroica.
As the moon faded, I flew skyward on those notes. When it was finished, I turned towards the mountains, whose peaks were just being painted by the sunrise.
Then I chose the Ode to Joy Chorale from Beethoven’s 9th. I stood in the face of mind-bending beauty, air-conducting the ethereal and joyful voices like a resurgent Bruno Walter, tears coursing down my face and freezing there.
Ode to Joy is perhaps the single most magnificent musical statement of triumph over suicidal thoughts, depression, and anguish, all of which the then-totally deaf Beethoven had experienced.
This piece, this gorgeous shout to the heavens about the joy of life, exploded my heart in gratitude. This is the stuff of dreams.
What are you doing on your “summer vacation?” What magnificent moments are you allowing to fill the last and best years of your life? What have you given yourself lately which reminds you of how amazing it is to be alive at this age? Please share your stories and experiences with our community.