Finding Christmas in Mongolia

I woke up to another day in a village called Uliastai in western Mongolia. Wrapped in the warmth of my sleeping bag, I shimmied over to my wood-burning stove in the icy dark pre-dawn hours and gingerly lit a fire with the kindling I’d set aside the night before. Lying back down with my stocking cap on, I watched the flames dance around the circular walls of my tiny felt tent (ger). I thought about my family on the other side of the world, preparing a pot roast for our traditional Christmas Eve feast before heading to midnight mass. I was glad for the twelve-hour time difference: I could pretend I was already over the big events I was missing back home.

Once my dwelling warmed to the point where I knew my toothpaste had thawed, I pulled myself out of the cocoon of a government-issued sleeping bag and poured a bowl of steaming milk tea, which had been simmering on the corner of my wrought-iron stove. Stoking the fire and sipping my tea, I stared up through the octagonal opening in the center of my ger. It was almost time for school, yet it was still pitch black. The idea of tromping out into the snowy cold chilled me to the bone.

I pulled my heaviest camelhair sweater and wool pants over thermal underwear and wrapped my warmest down coat around my body. After slipping stockinged feet into sheepskin boots, I pushed the squeaky wooden door open and forced myself outside into the cold, dead air.

School was just a stone’s throw away from home. I joined the stream of neighborhood youngsters bundled up from head to toe, sliding their way over the icy dirt road onto the schoolyard, shouting, “Sain Ban O, Bacshaa!” (Hello teacher!) as they passed me. I wondered what today would bring, and if anyone else knew it was Christmas.

I walked through the crooked schoolhouse doors just as that week’s honorary bell-ringer made her way up and down the hall, signaling the beginning of first period class. As usual, the electricity had not come on that morning, and the shiny orange-painted floors only reflected the light of the moon streaming in through the windows.

Taking a deep breath, I thrust my shoulders back, my chin up, and opened the door of the fifth-grade classroom. Inside, a sea of rosy cheeks and bright brown eyes sparkled in the light of candles burning on every desk. Upon my entrance, every student stood in unison like soldiers standing at attention, each boy in a black suit and every girl in a bright blue jumper. I found it too cold to remove my overcoat.

“Good morning, students,” I exclaimed. “Good morning, teacher!” they chanted. “How are you?” “I’m fine, thanks, how are you?” “I’m fine. What’s up?” “Not much.” And so the morning ritual went.

It had taken the first four months of my Peace Corps service for my students to master basic greetings. My dreams of strumming the guitar while angelic, young voices sang carols were dashed, and my instrument, itself, was lost somewhere along the 6,500-mile mail route from Atlanta.

By ten o’clock, the first rays of sunlight flooded through the frosty classroom windows– Christmas dawn. I taught my way through the rest of the day, spitting on old dried-up hunks of chalk to spell out the Roman alphabet on worn blackboards usually covered in traditional Mongolian script and Russian Cyrillic.

After school, I walked alone to my freezing ger. There was no sense in starting a fire yet, because it would burn out before I could return from my daily trip to the river, where I fetched water. So I fastened two metal buckets onto my wooden pole, which I hoisted over my shoulders for the walk into the valley.

With an ice pick and a soup ladle, I worked through the layer of ice covering my faithful watering hole. The wind whipped through the valley from the north, from Siberia. The mountains, which jutted upwards on the western and eastern sides of the valley, provided no buffer to the Siberian wind. Fetching water during the Mongolian winter is like descending into hell to fetch a match.

Water sloshed into instant icicles hanging from my silver buckets as I trudged slowly up the hill, passing a few still yaks whose thick, gnarled hair hung in frosty chunks. I kept my eyes peeled for marauding wild dogs.

By the time I returned to my ger, my frozen fingers felt like they were burning, and the pain of building a fire with them was dizzying. Cursing like a sailor, I lit my fire and hovered over it. By the time I thawed, the sense of relief was so grand that I forgot about the pain I’d just experienced. 

I sought the companionship of my short-wave radio: my Western world trapped somewhere in the ether. Fiddling with the antenna, I flipped through static, Morse code, Russian broadcasts, high-pitched Chinese yodeling, and German cabaret music until I happened upon the Voice of America, from which the Mormon Tabernacle Choir rang out in angelic harmony. I sighed, remembering it was Christmas.

I walked outside and stared out at the vast expanse of snowy landscape, now illuminated by the white moon. Across the valley, where the twinkling light of candles dotted the hills, a cluster of homes resembled the little town of Bethlehem. I thought about families gathered around the warmth of their fires. 

Just as the first tears of homesickness welled up in my eyes, I heard footsteps outside my door. With characteristic brusqueness, the door flew open, and several of my favorite students poured inside. Carrying Russian Christmas cards, tinsel, a stuffed teddy bear, and plastic flowers, they hollered “Merry Christmas, Bacshaa!” in various accents and immediately began decorating my home.

I turned up the music on my radio, lit all the candles in the ger, and placed a pot of milk and chocolate bars over the fire. My “brothers and sisters,” the youngest generation of the neighboring family, also came over. Bearing gifts of the Magi, they resembled the Three Kings. My oldest sister, Sergelen, carried a mammoth frozen sturgeon on her shoulder, which her father had caught after he learned that fish was my favorite food. (Mongolians don’t normally eat fish.) Ulzijargal, the consummate folk singer, brought her old guitar, and their younger brother Pujev carried a tiny fur ball, which, to my surprise, was my very own puppy.

As I popped corn and stirred hot chocolate, Ulzijargal began strumming, and everyone joined in on traditional Mongolian folk singing. They sang and sang until she handed me her guitar. Mongolians believe that only those who can sing have found their soul, and so I froze. I thought my entire village had accepted the fact that I had somehow lost my soul en route from the United States. 

I had no choice but to try, and so I strummed and lifted my voice in the opening verse of “Silent Night.” On that special evening, during my first Christmas spent on the Steppes of Asia, I found my soul.

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“Sunset at the Railroad” by PCV Nicholas Baylor Hall. Namibia, 2011.