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In the dim penumbra, a shiny kettle wheezes on a battered stove. My hostess, Ayurza, on the Zimmer side of seventy, squats on a small chair. She counts the names of her grandchildren on her fingers, looking up to the tonoo now and again for inspiration.
"Sixteen," she finally concludes with a chuckle.
A good number of her clan smile out from the two large photo frames which take pride of place on the dresser to my left. Next to them lies an array of Buddhist paraphernalia. Around the wooden trellis walls, reins and bridles, household im plements, the odd piece of clothing and a plastic pink toothbrush holder. Everything wooden is painted in garish hues of orange, blue, red, pink and green. The tent was a wedding present from Ayurza's brother. Its paint has faded and worn like, I imagine, her love for her husband. But it's still standing, sixty years on.
Mongolia is known as the Land of Blue Heaven. Blue is its most sacred colour. On every dirt track (asphalt is as rare as lettuce), and from every hilltop, stone pyramids topped with hadag, blue scarves, and littered with shattered vodka bottles appease local spirits and bring luck for the road. To nomads of the steppe, the sea must seem like the skies of the mythical Buddhist kingdom of Shambala.
On the way to the great lake of Khovsgol in the north, we were invited to a farm for the day. We rode horses across the steppe. Swathes of purple willow herb echoed the smoky greys of the distant mountain ranges. Herds of tan horses and coveys of white gers punctuated the horizons. Black and white sheep and goats moved across the plain like speeded-up chess pieces. We attempted to laugh off the pain of riding with only a thin matt between us and the bony back of the pony-sized animals.
Inside, we were invited to sit on nursery-size stools, then loaded with dumplings and urged to drink large amounts of airag, which was served in pot-bellied china bowls. Airag is to the Mongolians what tea and biscuits are to English country parsons. It is a mildly alcoholic fermented mare's milk, and tastes sour and fizzy. Mongolians only endure their frost-bitten winter months with the promise of airag by the vat in the summer.