Two weeks ago I was hiking up the river to see how far I could get before dark. The sun now sets at around 4:30, but it doesn't get really dark until after 6. So I can still get four hours of hiking in if I can pry myself away from work by 2. My original goal was to get to the place where the Buyant River turns straight north from its northeast course, out of the mountains to the southwest. I wanted to look up that hidden valley, around the sharp nose the river makes coming from its source. On that afternoon, I didn't quite get there.
An hour and a half upstream and just south of the airport, I stopped to take a picture of the fourth airplane I have seen in nearly three months, as it took off and climbed through the haze. In my (200mm) frame was a herder with his small herd of cows. Not wanting to disrupt his charges or his duty to them, I gave them a wide berth. And not wanting to appear unfriendly, I waved as I passed. The herder waved back, then signaled for me to come his way—reaching his hand toward me and pulling it back toward his chest. As little Mongolian as I know, this was something I could understand. I turned and headed his way.
When I approached, he plopped down on the ground, and gestured for me to do the same, as though he was inviting me to sit down in his living room. ( In a very real way, that's what he was
doing.) It didn't take long to establish that he spoke Mongolian and no English, and for me to convey that although I spoke Angli
, I did not speak enough Mongol
to do us much good. As luck had it, he was a good sport and did not let our deficiencies get in our way.
First things first. For all I could tell, he had never seen a caucasian in the flesh. He looked at my face, then reached out and touched it—and laughed out loud. I'm still not sure what particular part of me was so funny, but I am guessing that the gray stubble on the side of my cheeks had something to do with it. Although Americans shave to get the Fu Man Chu
effect, most Mongolian men just have it. As useful as a full beard seems like it would be in this climate, it is the one genetic advantage I can think of that falls in my favor. For a real laugh, I took off my hat. "Goroh uce," he said, drawing 39 in the sand and pointing to himself. "Zorgah teg," I replied after erasing his age. Six zero. He raised his eyebrows.
Once the introductions were over we got down to business. Yes, I had come from Khovd, now distant against its neighboring range of mountains. I was headed for the bend in the river, marked by the nose we could point to in the distance, as an obstructing ridge bent down to its method of erosion. He pointed to the sun, his herd, then drew in the sand to show that he had to get his cows back home before the sun disappeared behind my destination. I pointed to the nose, then back to town, trying to explain that I had a long way to go too. At some point he got a curious look on his face, trying to imagine what it was about that point that made it my destination. I pulled my camera from underneath one of my layers, trying to imagine how one might explain the problem of being a photographer, and what its demands are. No problem. "Would you take a picture of me?" he gestured. Then, "Would you take a picture of me and my cows?" He did not need to ask twice. When I had shown him what I had done, I knew that this was not the end of our relationship. I pointed back to Khovd. I pointed to my watch, then spun my finger around a few times. I made the "come to me" motion that got me there to begin with. "Teem" he said. "Teem," I replied. Yes. Before I left I also learned that he has a cell phone, and that he likes Mongolian mystery novels, which he keeps tucked into his deil, or long traditional coat.
During the next week I had prints made, and on Sunday I set out to find my new friend. It was colder and I didn't have as much ambition for distance as I did the week before, but once moving I warmed into the beauty of the whole situation. If I were in town, it would be easy to shrug me off as someone who didn't understand the predominant language. I would be such a minority that those who had no desire to communicate with me would also have no need to. That, of course, is how many English speakers in the United States have dealt with immigrant populations. Here, between the dry branch of the Buyant River and the branch that is solidifying on the ground, we are on equal footing. Neither of us understand the others' native language but both of us are interested in learning more. But as I wander out into the Buyant's plain, it occurs to me that there may be better things to be doing with my Sunday afternoon. Warmer things, anyway. And it occurs to me that I may not find the herder whose prints I am trying to deliver. Far in the distance I can see two blips on the horizon, clearly people because nothing else here stands so tall. But there are no cows. Much closer are animals and a herder, but the animals look too small to be cows. I veer closer to get a better look, try to check out the herder. At some point he looks my way, and I give a wave. He waves back, and with the same gesture he gave me a week ago, invites me to his living room.
Again, we sit down. This week he is herding goats instead of cows. (I can't explain why... sign language only goes so far.) As I dig into my pack to find his prints, his herd of goats is warming up to me, moving in to see what all the commotion is about. It is windy, and as a kid checks out his prints, the herder drops them on the ground. It is the first time I have ever had goat hooves damage my prints, and my client wasn't even concerned. He picked them up and slid them into the edge of his hat. We got up, and I walked with him for a while, helping to reign in some stragglers and keep them all heading in the same direction. Eventually, it was time to go, so I said my best Mongolian goodbye, pointed back to town, and shook his hand.