Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Chapter One of The Steppe

The steppe is like the sea. When you are out upon it, it and the sky are all you can see. It is as wide as it is long; it forms a far horizon in every direction.

I crested the small hill with my two horses—riding the one and leading the other as a packhorse—halted, and looked down into the shallow, narrow valley and at the ger at the nadir of it. The day was ending, and shadows were filling the valley.

I rode to the ger. Inside, the approach of the horses must have been heard. The colorful—blue and orange, with wide vertical stripes of red and yellow—short wooden door swung open, and an old man bent through the jamb and stepped out. I raised my hand in greeting as I rode up, and called out, “Sain baina uu?” Are things well?

“Things are well,” he said. Sain, sain.

I drew the horses to a halt and climbed slowly out of the saddle, my knees sore from riding. I tied the leads of the horses to the zel, a rope strung two meters off the ground between two poles, set up beside the ger. Two other horses were tethered to the zel, one of which was saddled.

As I walked to the old man, I reached into the front flap of my deel, found my tobacco bottle, pulled it out, and unwrapped it from its cloth bunting. I offered it to him. He reached out his right hand to accept it, and suddenly grinned. Closer to one another now, he could see my facial features clearly. He accepted the tobacco bottle, pulled the cap open just a bit, held it to his nose, and sniffed.

He pushed the cap almost closed and handed the bottle back to me, asking, “Where are you from?”

“From Ulaanbaatar,” I answered, holding the bottle in my hand without re-wrapping it.

He grinned again. “Ti russki?” he asked, in Russian. Are you Russian?

“No, no—I am American,” I said, in Mongolian.

His grin was large and cheerful. He turned to the door, opened it, ducked down, and went through. I bent down and followed, even as he turned slightly to wave his hand at me and say, “Come in, come in.”

As I pulled the door shut and straightened up inside the ger, the old man was saying laughingly to the women inside, “Look! It is another American.”

An old woman and a young woman were at the stove. They had both looked up from their cooking, their faces blank, their mouths hanging open. I spoke quickly. “Things are well? Are your animals fattening up well?”

They both grinned, and the young woman said, “Very well, very well.”

There were no other men in the ger, so I tightened the cap on my tobacco bottle, wrapped it, and tucked it into my deel.

I walked around the women at the stove, between them and the saddle rack against the wall, and sat on the short stool at the left side of the low, orange table. The old man had seated himself at the top of the table and had found his tobacco bottle. He proffered it to me, still grinning.

I took it with my right hand, touching my right arm at the elbow with my left hand. I opened the cap slightly, sniffed, then replaced the cap loosely and handed it back to him.

“You speak Mongolian well,” the old man said, pushing the bottle into his deel.

“Thank you. It is a beautiful language.”

They all three laughed. “If you say so,” the young woman said. Then she spoke to the old woman, and they began chatting between themselves.

“What is your name?” the old man said through his smile.

“Radnaa,” I said.

“That is a Mongolian name!”


“What is your original name?”

I told him. “Eh?” he said, bending his head down and leaning his ear closer to me.

“Call me Radnaa.”

“Yes, yes,” he said, grinning. “That is actually a Tibetan name.”


“Where did you get it?”

“A friend gave it to me in Ulaanbaatar.”

“That is good, that is good,” the old man said, nodding his head in approval.

“He told me that many Mongolians have Tibetan names.”

“It is true! We are very connected to Tibet. We are both Buddhist countries.” He asked, “Are you Buddhist?”

“More or less,” I said.

He laughed. Then he leaned closer to me, conspiratorially, and said, “Me too!”

He had poured two glasses of vodka and set the bottle in the center of the table. He handed one glass to me, then picked up the other glass from the table, raised it, and said in Russian, “To health!”

I raised my glass and said, also in Russian, “To Lenin!”

He laughed. “Yes, to Lenin, to Lenin!” We drank the shots and set the glasses on the table. He immediately refilled them.

For a moment, the ger was silent.

“So who is this other American?” I asked...

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