Click, one sheep’s ankle bone smacks against another during a round of Shangai in the Ger tent in Mongolia. Outside the sun shines deceptively over a world of ragged mountains and the vast snow swept plains of the Terelj National Park. Since going outside would result in frozen hair and near loss of fingers, we stay huddled by the stove.
Nobody else is at the camp so the Caretaker invites us with a toothless smile to his Tsagaan Tsar (New Year) feast. ‘Feast’ conjures images of wild roast carcasses and wine, so we apply our seven layers and trudge through knee-high snow to the Caretaker’s tent. It feels like a thousand tiny fingers pinching my cheeks while a thin film of frost from my breath has settled on my scarf.
Everyone has crammed into the tent; his three daughters that cook, his wife that tends the fires and our driver. The Caretaker himself, in a Mongolian silk purple smock and little black hat sweeps a proud arm around the tent. The family sit on beds that surrounded the canvas walls, smiling as we enter. His daughters click away on pink, outdated mobile phones. The table is laid with small offerings of sliced meat, dried fruit and the Mongolian staple – soft pork dumplings. In the centre is a Jenga tower of sweet bread covered with sugar cubes and solidified mair’s milk pellets. The Caretaker waits for our approval. We only take a few bits because, even though we’re starving, there’s hardly enough for three people, let alone eight. Biting into a solidified milk pellet, I nearly lose a tooth, which brings smiles to the faces of our hosts. The Caretaker gets out several large bottles of Mongolian vodka. We accept each one with our right hands, a cry of ‘Toktoy!’ getting louder as each shot goes down.
Ten shots in and we’re giggling and red faced. The caretaker stands up and the room falls silent. He begins to sing in Mongolian, staring straight ahead at the wall, a tear creeping to the corner of his eye as he places a hand on his heart.
“The Mongolian national anthem,” the driver whispers.
Even the youngest, sulking teenage daughter has a hint of pride on her face. I’m finding it hard to focus, but I understand how important this song is and how proud he is of his country. Unaccustomed to straight vodka, I clap the loudest.
Vodka glasses are topped up and The Caretaker gestures to me. Panic rising in my chest; I can’t remember the words to the British National anthem. There is one song I do know though.
“Oh flower of Scotland…”
It’s not the delicate ballad the Caretaker had offered, it’s not sung with a tear in my eye, but definitely with a drunken hand on my heart. I even do the audience participation…by myself. I slump down with a proud, lopsided grin on my face and accepted another shot of vodka with my right hand screeching “Toktoy!” to the happy, blurry faces around me.