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We had been lost. A girl had leaned forward, pointing into the void that evolved into a herd of yaks, one solitary ger amongst them.

Now, steam from dumplings rises towards the ceiling. A black stove pipe stretches out the top; stars are visible between the orange spokes that meet in the middle.

The father exudes Mongolian hospitality. In a country where a quarter of the population is still nomadic, it is custom to ensure that visitors are made welcome, kept warm, and fed well. He is wearing a Chicago Bulls beanie and the cuffs of his navy del are stained with wear. He attempts to fill my bowl with a heap of dumplings, but I assure him three is a good number. I suck grease out of the first bite and chew on cartilage. Grisel worms its way between my teeth.

 He is thanking the driver for bringing his daughter home. They will celebrate New Year’s together; he hasn’t seen her since she left for school in September. 

In the time since she left, her family had guided their herds across the steppe. Folding up their woven rugs, white canvas walls, and collapsible trellis panels, they had moved with the changing season. As we searched, negative forty-degree winds had streamed through the cracks in our Russian van. Mountains had appeared out of the darkness, like looming giants hiding in the night. When we had finally found the ger, we all sought its warm refuge.

Entering a ger feels like a sacred act. It is a home that has preserved centuries of tradition in every wooden beam. Ducking my head, I am careful not to set foot on the hearth (a great offense) and step deeper into the circular abode.

Heat from the fire washes over me. My shoulders relax and I breathe in deep. The earthy smell of burning dung wafts through the air as fresh fuel is ignited inside the zuukh, a black metal stove. Consuming the center of the ger, the contents of the home are positioned around it with precision. A wooden board for a bed is to the left and right: one bed for the men’s side, one for the women’s. The men’s side stores horse saddles, a traditional bow and arrow, and a moorin khuur, or horse head fiddle. The women’s side has clothes, drying meat, buckets of water and milk, and cutlery. A long low table is next to the burning stove. The fire is the heart and lifeforce of the ger; rubbish is never allowed to be burned inside it.

Moving clockwise is the only acceptable direction to move in a ger, like a one-way street, so I step with caution. I walk to the left side of the zuukh, obeying a cultural norm that isn’t my own.

At the northern most side of the ger is the alter. A tapestry of Chinggis Khan, the Mongolian conqueror, watches over us. His bearded face looms above a framed photo of Ochirvaani Burkhan, the god of our province’s mountain. Littering the tops of orange painted chests are black and white family photos. Generations of herders stare back at me with steely looks of determination.

I sit beside the driver in a space reserved for guests while the girl continues clockwise. She is wearing a sheep lined del and thick leather boots. Her hair is plaited to her waist. Her grandmother sniffs her cheeks as she joins her on the female side of the ger. I realize, we had never really been lost, we had just been helping her find the way home. 

Her mother brews us salty milk tea on the stove. Using a large metal ladle, she brings the milk up into the air with sweeping gestures. Milk swirls and cascades from the spoon, splashing softly into the boiling mixture. Once it reaches a scalding temperature, she serves it in small ceramic bowls. Holding my tea in both hands, I admire the ornately painted wooden beams and lattice walls that support the ger.  Milk curd, aruul, is passed around. I take a miniscule piece that is hard enough to chip a tooth. I relish the tangy sweet flavor that is slightly grassy, letting it coat my tongue,

The grandmother, dressed in a pink flowered del, her bald head wrapped in a Russian scarf, hands me homemade bortseg, or fried dough. I dip it in my remaining tea, thanking her. She smiles at me, and asks me what I do. I tell her I’m an English teacher. She gives me an approving thumbs up, saying mundag! and shuffles back to her seat on the hard bed beside her granddaughter.

The little brother, who had been hiding behind his mother, finally gains enough confidence to approach me. His name is Saikhanbeleg which translates to ‘good gift.’ He has a playful, almost wicked, grin as he tugs out a massive bag of shagai. He empties it, and hundreds of sheep ankle bones spill out. I sit on the rug next to him. We flick the bones across the floor, hammering them against our nail beds with a sharp snapping pain. Each side of the bone represents an animal: horse, camel, goat, or sheep. Saikhanbeleg is well practiced. The bones clatter against one another sounding like glass marbles. He gains points until, at last, the game is his. He asks to play again, but the driver stands up, announcing our departure. 

Finishing my clockwise loop around the fire, I thank each family member. The mother gives me a handful of hard candies. The grandmother sniffs my cheeks before setting me free into the winter wind. I hesitate as the cold cuts through my layers, and for a moment, I wish I could stay. The warmth of the fire matches the love I feel from a family who, a few hours ago, were strangers. 

“Bayartai,” I call in farewell making my way back to the van; a translation that literally means, with happiness.

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