Sunrise On the Steppe: A Mongolian Funeral

Om mani padme hum

I remember the day I met Choijamts. It was my first August as a Peace Corps volunteer in Omnodelger. It was a hot summer day. Cloudless blue sky. It was sunny. Really sunny. I was bustling back and forth around my ger, the Mongolian yurt dwelling I now called home. I had just received furniture. I was scurrying back and forth trying to organize my life into the small space I’d be calling home for the next two years. Bluegrass music twanged from my laptop. My ger door hung open. The sun’s ray’s burst through to soak the vinyl floor in its brilliance. I was so caught up in giving my Mongolian home some American flavor that I didn’t even hear him come in.

“Oui!” My head shot up, startled.

I looked towards the doorway and squinted against the vibrant rays. A hunched silhouette filled the entrance to my ger. He shuffled out of the sun’s grasp chuckling to himself, having caught me by surprise. Dressed in a dark purple traditional Mongolian deel, camouflage pants, and a tattered cabbie’s hat the aged figure came towards me. He grasped my hand introducing himself. He gripped my palm and patted my wrist with his other weathered hand.

“My name is Choijamts,” he said.

It was hard to understand much after that. My poor Mongolian mixed with his low, mumbled voice caused me to strain to understand every word. He said the weather was nice. It was hot. It was sunny. He gestured towards the bright doorway slowly with a crooked finger. Did I like the furniture? Do I need more? Is there anything else I needed? Can I make a fire? He said he’d come back when it got colder and teach me. Just like that he was gone. He shook my hand again. Waved goodbye then moved at a snail’s pace onto the sun dried grass and back into the street.

I stood in my sunny doorway and watched him go.

A creaking. Plastic and wood stretching, then a clatter. Metallic rustling of knives, spoons, forks and utensils tumbling down as the shelf of my food cabinet collapsed in on itself.

“Damnit, again?!?” I shouted aloud.

My furniture had been on its last legs for months now. It was the middle of winter and the Chinese furniture I inherited from my predecessor was worse for wear. My kitchen cabinet’s shelves continued to collapse and break apart on regular intervals. My clothing dresser was also in shambles with the doors detaching every time they swung on their hinges. I decided to take action. I stormed off to school. I found a co-worker, Kherlen. Explained my predicament. The American wanted furniture and he wanted it now.

She just shrugged at me. “Lets go see Choijamts.”

So we did.

We trudged from the school through the snow to the dormitories where we entered a tiny room upstairs. I was met with the sound of a rasping cough as I entered. Simple Mongolian furnishings lined the walls. A painted chest, carved coffee table, a decorated mirror. I passed an altar with piles of spent incense. There in the back of the room on a wooden bed was Choijamts. For the first time I noticed I could see my breath in his room. It was freezing. He was huddled on the bed clutching the purple deel up to his chin and stifling another cough. I could see he was ill. He reached up to shake my hand from the bed. Suddenly my trivial problem of cheap furniture was forgotten.

Forget me, someone get him a blanket! I screamed in my head.

But it was already too late. Kherlen, without any introduction began rambling off my grievances. I waved my arms behind her whispering under my breath for her to just forget it, it wasn’t important. The point had already come across though, he nodded from his bed.

“I’ll find you good Mongolian furniture.” he said, coughing into his deel.

I remember being so grateful, I didn’t know how to show my gratitude. I don’t know why but I said the first thing that popped into my head.

“Do you like to play Mongolian cards?” I asked.

His eyes lit up. “Of course!” he exclaimed.

“But I have no cards.” he added, downcast.

Fifteen minutes later I was back in his room, having fetched a deck of cards from my home. He sat up on the bed and we played cards on the tiny coffee table. I never won.

The next day I was in my ger grading papers. A knock resounded against my door.

No sooner had I opened it then a convoy of school workers burst through, all carrying beautiful pieces of Mongolian furniture. Setting them down where I asked, they turned to leave. As the last worker exited my ger he turned to me.

“Choijamts says if you need anything else please tell him.”

Days went by. Weeks went by. A year and five months went by. Every time I saw Choijamts he greeted me with that handshake. Always sporting his signature purple deel and cabbie hat.

“Do you have enough wood?” he’d ask.

“Do you need more coal?” he’d inquire.

“Lets play cards!”

When I encountered him on the street he’d greet me and walk with me to school. He’d wrap one hand into the crook of my arm and I’d walk at a snails pace with him chatting the best I could while minding the ice. As my second Mongolian winter set in, he came with a bundle of cardboard, pulled up a stool next to my stove and proceeded to make a fire.

Between one of our frequent card games I paused to demonstrate a card trick to him. He cackled uncontrollably, rocking on his stool with laughter after the convoluted magic trick finished and I revealed the only remaining card on the table to be the one he had chosen. Times beyond counting I remember being seated somewhere in our teacher’s room. Caught up in grading or lesson planning, mesmerized in some task, when I’d look up to see his hunched figure over me. Hand extended. Ready for that handshake.

This year I celebrated Christmas in the Gobi Desert with other volunteers. After the holiday was finished I made the trek back east, alone. A fifteen hour car trip, I sat on the bus and listened to music. Snow drove out of the sky, whirling outside my window and beating against the road. My daydreaming was interrupted when I pulled my phone from my pocket. I had a text message. It was from my neighbor, Tuya. It was about Choijamts. Two words together stuck out to me. The first being “nas”. The second being “barsan”. Separately I knew them both, (age) and (expired). I didn’t need a dictionary to understand that when you put them together in Mongolian it translates to “deceased”. Downcast after confirming my suspicions with Tuya. I just rested my head on the window, let the music drone on, watched the snow drive on, and let my thoughts carry me on to Omnodelger.

I dragged myself from my bed at seven in the morning. Bundled up as warmly as I could. I trudged out into the morning darkness. I headed to meet at Kherlen’s home, not understanding why I was instructed to leave so early. I only knew we would meet to say a last goodbye to Choijamts. The morning was cold, the air crisp and frozen.

I walked across town and met Kherlen outside her yard. Together we walked to Choijamts’ family’s ger. As we approached I saw how crowded it was. People huddled in deels and winter jackets congregated outside of the yard’s wooden fence. Cars were parked at every which angle all throughout the street. It seemed as though the whole town was here. Either through tiredness or the somberness of the occasion people were quiet. Hushed whispers and mumbled conversations. We stood and waited with the crowd. I bounced back and forth slowly on two feet to keep my blood moving.

“Whats happening?” I asked another co-worker, Enkhtor.

“What are we waiting for?”

She gestured with her hand towards the eastern horizon.

“We are waiting for the sun,” she explained.

“Then we can say goodbye.”

The beauty of what she said dazzled me. I didn’t know how to respond. I could only nod. From the crowd the school director’s wife, Naranjargal took me and three other teachers by the arm.

“My home is right there,” she said, pointing at the yard over.

“Lets have tea and wait inside, its warm.”

We drank tea in her house in silence. I sipped the white milk tea slowly, letting the steam rise and warm my face. Pulling back the curtain Naranjargal turned to us.

“It’s time, lets go.”

When we got back outside everyone was lined up side by side flanking the entrance of the wooden gate. We stood in with the long rows of people and waited. Everyone was quiet. All eyes to the horizon.

At first just stains of pinks and oranges. Long streaks of watercolor yellows and reds. Then suddenly, a burst of illumination came from the peak of a distant mountaintop. Then another. And another. Until the tell-tale rim of humanity’s most precious star lit up the horizon.

As if on cue a chanting began sounding from inside the yard. As the sun continued to rise a procession exited. Men bore the simple wooden coffin on their shoulders as they made their way from the gers and into the street. Behind them walked two monks, bareheaded and in simple red robes. Chanting in Tibetan and ringing an old tarnished bell. Behind the monks walked two women in deels. One carried a large platter of Mongolian boov, a ceremonial arrangement of fried dough and milk curd. She held it out in front of her, moving the plate in tiny circles. The other woman carried a bowl of milk and as she followed the coffin she ladled little droplets out, tossing them up towards the sky.

The coffin was hoisted into the back of a waiting microbus, the men jumped in behind it to hold it in place, then the large van pulled away slowly at a crawl. The crowd turned and followed. The deel clad people of Omnodelger clutching their prayer beads and walking in silence followed the procession towards the town’s limits. The monks chanted. The bell rang. The women offered their boov and milk. When we reached the edge of town the microbus picked up speed and drove out towards the steppe. No doubt silently giving one final goodbye to Choijamts, the crowd stopped and we all looked on.

I stood on the sunny street and watched him go.

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