I started to hear the word "picnic" used in conversations with my students by late October. At the time, I wondered what they could possibly be talking about. The river was starting to freeze, all signs of green had been gone since before we arrived in September, and the sun was getting ominously low in the sky. Surely "picnic" has a different meaning here.
It does. The basic idea is the same, but because the conditions are so different, the details of a picnic get fleshed out differently. At the heart of it, a picnic is an outing that is fun. (Thus the idiom "this is no picnic," which means that something is not fun, not that there won't be any grass stains or potato salad.) It involves traveling to the nature
and getting away from town, whether you walk to the river or ride in a car. A picnic can involve food, which also seems familiar, but there doesn't seem to be any real restriction to the kind of food that you will eat on a picnic—it isn't just burgers and hot dogs.
Our first picnic was in early November. Several of my students arranged for a van to take us to Har Us Noor for the day, where we walked around on the frozen surface of the lake and listened to the ice thunder as it expanded across the surface. The food that I remember was eaten in the van, but all the other conditions for a picnic were satisfied, including the part about having fun. It turns out that Mongolians are very good at picnics.
Picnic season is in full swing now, and I've been on several over the past few weeks, both close and far away. Except for the fun part, each has been different. We have dined at a stone table beneath a cave once inhabited by ancient painters and at the site of more recent petroglyphs. We've also faced winged and four-legged competition for our food—and I'm not talking about chickadees and chipmunks.