Arranging My Son's Wedding
Alongside of Botswana, Cuba and our upcoming shoot in Syria, this trip was revelatory in a way that few trips ever are. Do you know anyone who spends a lot of time in Mongolia?
Mongolians live off the grid in a profound way, the capitol of Ulaanbaatar is a city of over a million people with a few 20-story skyscrapers and live animals herding through mid day traffic jams outside the Russian Market. Need a camel head for soup? No problem. Want to spend a week without seeing another soul, or even a jet contrail in the sky? Easy. Care to get your five-year-old married off over a bowl of fermented mare’s milk? Careful what you ask for.
So I land in UB and set out the next morning for a GPS mark 10-hour drive from Mongolia’s only big city. Not a town or a village or even a place. Just a geographic piece of numeration that represents Dashka’s stopping point for a few months. Like many Mongolians he is nomadic, kids work as soon as they can walk, living in a felt tent, tending his flocks, living a life as un-tethered from modern society as you can find. Well, just don’t look up at his satellite dish on the ger’s canvas gable. Dashka and his family like TV.
Anyway, the crew is living in a tent city about a quarter mile down the valley. I am in the guest ger, heated only by a small tin stove that is fueled solely by dried animal dung. Every day Grandma and I collect air dried cow, goat and horse turds for our cooking and heating needs. I kid you not. One night I hear loud laughing and head to the tent next door and Dashka and his family (they all sleep in one room) invite me to stay for a bowl of fermented mare’s milk and a game of bone rolling. Like dice, marbles or tiddly winks, there’s a trick to this and I don’t know what the heck it is. But I try and we are having fun. I take the opportunity to show the family pictures of my home, wife, pets and son. I mention to Dashka that his 5-year-old daughter and my son would make a cute couple. For me this is polite cocktail chatter, for him… not so much. He smiles and we laugh and he tops off my cup of rotted horse milk and offers me a hand to shake at the same time. For a well heeled internationalist of the highest order, I am at that moment completely unaware of what is happening. My guide, Enke, begins to pull my arm, but I have no clue what he is doing and I push him off and hug Dashka, sip milk and smile. I think I have cracked through the icy veneer of the family. Enke starts shaking.
I ask what the deal is. Mom and Grandma seem to be celebrating something. Mom runs outside to toss sour milk on the house and on the animals as if to bless them. Enke says, “You just sealed a marriage contract between Noah and Dashka’s youngest daughter, congratulations!” There is more than a trace of sarcasm in his voice. So, I guess I have that wedding to look forward to.
After 4 days and nights on the Steppe, I make a guest appearance on MTV (Mongolian Television) at their top rated reality show about a wrestling school where guys get voted out for not being able to carry 1,000 pounds of sand in oil drums with enough gusto. We don’t see a vegetable for a week. We return to Ulaanbaatar and are all coughing from all the coal dust in the air of the capital city. We watch 9-year-old girls at the National Theater bend themselves into pretzels. We wander the streets at night, looking for any restaurant where we can eat something that our stomachs can safely digest besides lamb and beef which is 99% of the local diet. The other 1% is cheese and milk. Sound weird? Far from it. I can’t wait to get back to this amazing land and the most gracious people on the planet. And remember, my son’s new in laws live somewhere out there!