Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

July 8, 2006. Jalman Meadows again

I can’t believe I only arrived yesterday - it feels like I’ve been here forever. Or at least for a while. Jennifer – the Swiss woman – left in the morning, and now I’m the only guest. So it’s me and six staff. I eat my meals in state in the dining ger, waited on by a young man who knows little English and also seems to have a speech problem. But he’s very nice.

It’s very quiet, being here. I didn’t go horseback riding – turned out the horses had gone away, no one knew where. They graze at will, but usually they stay nearby. This morning, however, they

took off on their own. The staff of the ger camp set up the spotting scope that usually sits it the library, and gazed across the distant meadows, but there was no sign of the horses. So after breakfast I went for a walk instead, along the road we drove in on. It’s a pretty good dirt road, running along the valley parallel to the river. It was good to walk, and much less frightening than a horse. But all of the sudden the flies were just too much, and I headed back.

After lunch – a sort of Chinese-style fry of meat, peppers, onions, mushrooms, and potatoes – we had a thunderstorm. It threatened us for a while, and early in the afternoon we ran to “batten down the hatches” on all the gers in the camp. When the weather is nice they open up the gers – pull back the thick felt pad covering the hole in the roof, and peel back the pads at the bottom of the walls to let the breezes in. It’s quite nice with the ger opened up – fresh air blows through, and the gauzy curtain that pulls across the doorway flaps and dances. The roof lets in plenty of light, and having the “windows” down on the

ground is cool and comfortable. With the ger closed, on the other hand, it’s as dark as night inside, and I had to light my single candle just to see where I was going.

This storm looked menacing, covering the mountains to the east in a thick layer of cloud and mist, the sky rumbling with constant thunder. Once all the gers were closed I settled in my now-dark little home and waited for the rain to start. And waited. And waited. An hour later the sky brightened and I pulled back the roof pad to let in some light. Off to the west the skies were now dramatic and dark, but the rain seemed to have passed us by.

After another hour the thunder resumed, so I closed my roof but let my door open, reluctant to return to the darkness and the light of my candle. Big mistake. When the rain hit it was torrential, and pools came running down my linoleum-covered floor. Someone had tied my door open to keep it from banging in the wind, and I didn’t want to get soaked going out to untie it. Instead I propped up the rubber door mat and put my little plastic trash pail by the open doorway in a useless attempt to

trap the rain, and mopped up puddles with a small blue towel as fast as they formed. Forty five minutes into the storm, the young man who served lunch appeared, sheltering inside a long hooded rain coat. In sign language I asked him to

please untie the door. After only a few soggy tries I got my candle lit, finally managed to dry the floor, and settled in to wait for the rain to stop.

When it finally did, it was cool outside, and the flies were gone. A few delicate yellow flowers were beaten down by the rain, but most of the meadow was soaking up the water. When I was sure it would be safe, I pulled the roof pad back again and lashed it back with its horsehair rope. Light flooded back into my ger.

Our camp is on a plateau, the road curving up from the river to reach us. In the evening,

I sat by the river, swollen by the storm, and read a book, pleased to be able to stay in one spot without a dozen flies settling on each arm. On the way back up, I saw a car on a distant road, and wandered to the edge of the plateau to follow its progress. Below me was such a strange scene – ordinary for Mongolia, but strange to me. Nearby, in the very green valley below me was a single ger, smoke coming out of its stove pipe. A man sat on the ground outside it, splitting logs into small pieces to feed the stove. Three or four boys circled him, watching, trying to split wood themselves, playing on a bicycle with a level of agility and balance that could only come from being on horseback from almost the time they could walk. One waved to me, and I waved back. But they were far below, and I couldn’t see their faces – perhaps he was just swatting at the flies circling him?

Further down the valley a herd of horses grazed, and beyond the dirt track that constituted a road cattle dotted the slop up to the plateau. A single yak, a huge, shaggy, dark brown creature, meandered among the cows.

Even further down the valley stood three more gers, against a backdrop of the mixed greens of the mountain, the cloudy blue-gray sky, and the ribbons of streams cutting across the meadow.

The whole scene seemed to be a realization of an image I have carried in my mind’s eye since I was a child – of Narnia. It’s a strange thing, that. You read a book – or seven books, in the case of The Chronicles of Narnia – and they images that, if the book makes an impression on you, you take with you wherever you go. So I have carried images of Narnia with me since I was young – flowering meadows, green hills, rivers flowing jewel-like through narrow valleys, sailing ships bouncing on the waves,

birds soaring above mountain passes to scout what lies beyond. And every now and then I see something that looks like that image – a painting, a photo, or a real place – and I feel I’m just on the edge of reaching something that perhaps I saw once in a dream. The gers in the valley below were, to me, the tents in the soldiers’ camps in Narnian battles. When one of the horses rolled on its back, its feet in the air, it had to be Bree, wondering whether Narnian horses roll, and having one good one while still en route, just in case he’d have to forego that pleasure when he got home. Seeing those images in real life, in the valley below me, was almost like actually being there.

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