They don’t do birthday cakes in Mongolia. At least, they didn’t where I was staying. The round, sturdy gers are supposed to be easily transportable, and ovens are heavy.
Kitchen appliances aside, there simply is not much to work with in the way of ingredients. The terrain of the landlocked country nestled between Russia and China is arid, and dinner mostly consists of what the nomads can glean from their animals and gather from the steppe: mashed lamb, fermented horses’ milk, maybe some ketchup brought in from town. Almost all the food I ate in Mongolia was shit, and almost all my shit was — well, it wasn’t pleasant. Given my digestive woes, a cake was really the last thing I wanted for my birthday.
I did, however, get a song. Nothing especially exotic — my hosts had learned “Happy Birthday” in English class. So on that evening, I heard the same slightly out-of-tune melody I had suffered through for the previous 18 years, except that this time I wasn’t sitting at home with family; I was crouched over a tiny spring in a gorgeous and empty canyon, collecting semi-potable water with a trio of sisters, aged 3 to 14 years, whose English was limited to the names of domestic animals.
My birthday serenade marked the beginning of the end of what, to me, was an enormous journey, a trip that started as a chance to live and work in Shanghai and led me through various cities and friends’ apartments as I traversed the eastern coast of the continent from Hong Kong to Ulan Baatar. And no, I don’t speak Mandarin. Or Mongolian.
This northernmost stop, Terelj Park, was described by the Lonely Planet author I met at an English pub in town as a “playground for urban-weary Ulan Batorites.” My friends working in the city got flak from their boss for never venturing beyond the land of the “Chingus Khan Country Club” to real Mongolia, the most scarcely populated independent nation on the planet. With only 2.9 million of them, Mongolians would be outnumbered three-to-one by New Yorkers. The nation’s capital, home to 40 percent of its citizens, was a curious mix of decrepit Soviet barracks, shanty yurt villages, Tibetan Buddhist temples and a few new developments. One of the buildings going up was a Sheraton or a Hilton, the country’s first major American chain.
Despite its accessibility by public bus, Terelj wasn’t exactly suburban. My friends and I had stood for three hours until reaching the end of the line, a little village that gave the area its name and boasted a ramshackle convenience store, a ger camp and easy river access. The last virtue was the spot’s most important — after renting a two-man kayak in town and hauling it onto the crowded bus, we were eager for a locale that would make the morning’s put-in as straightforward as possible. The next two days brought stunning views, white water, near-hypothermia and not much of anything in the way of civilization.
But the home where I had chosen to spend my last night, alone now, was in quite a charming neighborhood — a smattering of gers across a valley complete with pick-up basketball games on a patch of dirt with a home-made hoop, a stunning outhouse (two three-by-fives over a 15-foot pit) and even a truck or two.
Securing lodging turned out to be one of the easier transactions I had ever made — pick a cozy-looking ger, walk inside, make head-on-pillow hand and head motions, fork over 10,000 turgivs. I probably offered too much ($9) but, to be fair, I got more than just sustenance and shelter. I got entertainment. The oldest daughter kicked my ass in basketball and allowed me to redeem myself in a foot race. Her sister challenged me to a gymnastics exhibition. The toddler took my new Facebook profile picture — me grinning and waving stupidly against their magnificent backyard — and then insisted on accompanying me on my walk up the nearest mini-mountain, puffing up behind me until her mom yelled at us to come back.
I even got a little maternal TLC from Grandma, who made me a cup of tea that evening and tucked me into bed while she built a fire. She was back poking at the coals the next morning as I stirred, rather grumpily. It was my birthday, I realized. I was in Mongolia, I was 19 years old and I had an accented version of “Happy Birthday” stuck in my head. There were crackers and ketchup for breakfast.