Click, one sheep’s ankle bone chinked against another. I lost another round of Shagai. The wood-burning stove hissed as a drip of melted snow fell from my woolly socks. It was our first day away from the cracked pavements, smoggy chimneys and block buildings of Ulaan Bator. Outside the Ger tent the sun shone over the ragged mountains and snow swept plains of Terelj National Park, but at -40 degrees, we were confined to our canvas room with nothing but a bag of sheep bones to keep us busy.
“Another round?” Eduard asked in his thick South African accent. Two days before, when we stepped off the train and were hit with the raw cold of Mongolian winter, I’d never seen anyone look less like they wanted to be somewhere. Group tours are supposed to be a “great way to meet like-minded travellers”. They are also supposed to involve a group. Eduard and I had barely exchanged six words.
The fire died to embers and cold started to seep through the tent walls. There were only two of us staying at the Ger camp that week, what if the caretaker had forgotten all about us? Eduard’s breath rose from his nose in spirals, like a dragon. I didn’t fancy cuddling up to him for warmth. “Maybe it’ll be warmer in the dinner tent,” I said. Eduard shrugged. A thousand tiny fingers pinched my cheeks and frost settled on my scarf as we waded through snow. Entering the dinner tent, there was no smell of steaming mutton dumplings, no gust of warmth from the fire, just an empty kitchen and a tapestry Ghengis Khan staring back at us. A chunk of my hair had frozen solid.
“Hello!” the caretaker’s smiling face peered through the door flap. “Tonight is New Year. We have Tsagaan Tsar feast with my family.” ‘Feast’ conjured images of wild roast carcasses, wine and a roaring fire.
“Bayarlalaa,” I said – Thank you. Crammed into the caretaker’s tent were his three daughters that cooked, his wife that tended the fires and our driver. The caretaker was dressed in a silk purple robes and little black hat. His family sat on beds around the circular walls, daughters clicking away on pink, breeze-block phones. The table was laid with deep red dried yak meat and dried fruit. In the centre was a tower of sweet bread covered with sugar cubes and solid mare’s milk pellets.
“Bayarlalaa,” I said, stomach growling like a hungry snow leopard. Biting into a milk pellet, I nearly lost a tooth. The caretaker announced something in Mongolian and removed the lid from a boiling pot on the stove. Saliva pooled in my mouth as I braced myself to be hit with the smell of slow cooked meat. It never came. Instead the caretaker ladled milk tea into ornate bowls. I accepted a bowl with my right hand, and let the weirdly salty liquid send warmth to my bones. After I’d chewed a bit of dried yak meat for a few minutes, the caretaker stood up and the tent fell silent. He sang in whispery Mongolian, a tear creeping to the corner of his eye as he placed a hand on his heart. “The Mongolian national anthem,” the driver whispered. Even the youngest, sulking teenage daughter stopped looking at her phone and listened. “Bayarlalaa,” I said as he sat down. The caretaker gestured to me. Panic rose in my chest – my best singing voice sounds like a chorus of cows in labour. There was no way I could follow the caretaker’s delicate ballad. I waved my arms in the universal sign for “no, no, I couldn’t possibly,” but was pulled to my feet anyway. “I really can’t stay…” I started. Eduard got to his feet. “Baby it’s cold outside,” he replied in perfect tenor. By the time we reached the chorus the scowl that seemed like it was chiselled in ice on Eduard’s brow had melted completely. The crowd went wild. As we both bowed, the smell of cooked meat filled the tent as a daughter carried in a tray tottering with slippery mutton dumplings. I accepted a plate piled high as though it were a Grammy, repeating “Bayarlalaa,” over and over to the warm, happy faces around me.
We spent the rest of the night filling hollow stomachs with dumplings and listening to the caretaker and his family lilt through ancient folk songs. The driver gave us a song sung right in the back of his throat. Eduard and I lurched through Hey Jude, making everyone join in with the nanananas. We spun a web of in-jokes and instant friendship. Thank God for the caretaker and his family, thank God for warmth, music and laughter. But most of all, thank God for mutton dumplings.