On May 1, six days before we were to leave Russia for our trip to Mongolia, two people died on the border from bubonic plague.
Despite this and other concerns — we’d miss a critical episode of Game of Thrones — my wife and I stuck with our plan to board the Trans-Siberian Railway with our two kids and spend six days in yurts on the Mongolian steppe.
Since last September, we had been living 2,600 miles east of Moscow in the Siberian city of Irkutsk, population 600,000. Haley spoke fluent Russian for a 4-year-old, while Kiera-Lee, 2, whom we call Kiki, was beginning to speak English with a pronounced Russian accent. We had come from Alaska on a Fulbright grant, allowing me to complete a book about the Russian-American Company.
I was turning 41, and Rachel and I wanted a last adventure before we returned to Alaska in July. Kids ride free on the Trans-Siberian, and tickets for a sleeper were reasonable — $150 for adults. Using her computer, Rachel found a “Nomad Family Homestay,” run by Anuk, with spectacular pictures of goats and the Milky Way. Despite the warning that there would be no smoke detectors, we booked.
“Dad, do they speak Russian in Mongolia?” Haley asked a month later, as she kept one eye on the street for the tramvai, which she normally rode in the opposite direction to kindergarten.
A reasonable question. Mongolia, landlocked between China and Russia, had been a Soviet satellite country before the dissolution in 1991. “Probably.”
On the train, the expanse of Lake Baikal, the world’s largest freshwater lake, passed out our window. “Mom, can you do my zee-per?” Kiki asked, her blond curls shaking in the breeze.
My phone binged. “I read about the bubonic!” texted Haley’s principal. “Will you still go?”
She was concerned about Haley giving the entire class the plague. I typed back that we planned to do everything we could to avoid eating raw marmot kidneys, apparently the source of the sickness. But service was already gone.
At 6:50 the next morning, we stepped onto the platform at Ulaanbaatar, the coldest capital city in the world, with an average high temperature of 31 (in May, 50). “Dad!” Haley squealed, pointing at the red Cyrillic letters. “There is Russian!”
A smiling, dapper man in Levis waved us over. This was Bataa, whom we had contacted through Airbnb for an apartment. He threaded us through Ulaanbaatar’s legendary traffic, a sea of Toyota Priuses dotted with the occasional Soviet-era UAZ jeep. His apartment, just a dollar more expensive than the yurts per night, was quiet and clean, and we promptly zonked out.
The following day, beneath a bluebird sky, we ran a gauntlet of abattoirs stacked with bundled sheep and goatskins into a rolling expanse of golden hills. Horses dotted the khaki landscape. Our driver, a soft-spoken woman named Sarai, explained how Anuk, our host, had grown up on the steppe until the age of 7, when she moved to Ulaanbaatar to start school. We were on our way 120 miles outside town — but first, wild horses.
The Toyota Crown’s suspension chattered away as she turned onto a scalloped red dirt road. I tried to read from a 1997 Lonely Planet I had found in a café, but the chalky smell coming from the vents made breathing difficult.
“The wind,” Sarai apologized as we gained elevation.
“Are we close to the yurts?” Haley asked.
“In Mongolia, we say ger,” Sarai gently corrected.
At Hustai National Park, a UNESCO-recognized biosphere, we crouched in the grass to watch lowshaddy, as Kiki called them — tawny, ash-muzzled wild horses, one of the last populations on the planet. I took Rachel’s hand, and we had a moment of peace, though to be honest I was thinking of Genghis Khan’s infamous Black Banner, raised to signal total war, made from black horsehair.
“We go,” said Sarai. “Soon the sun drops.”
As we bumped along into a river valley that could have been a film set for Thrones’ Dothraki Sea, Sarai explained how Delger, Anuk’s uncle, moved the gers twice a year, between the mountains and the river splitting the valley. She guided the Crown uphill into a gulch, sheep and goats scattering as we pulled up to four cream-colored spheres.
A pretty woman with thick black hair greeted us. “Please,” she said, holding forth saucers of white liquid. “Fresh from the cow.”
This was Oyunaa, Anuk’s aunt. Buzenkhuu, Anuk’s grandmother, dressed in a traditional purple wrap called a deel, guided us to the central ger, decorated inside with an altar of brass chalices and a golden statue of the Buddha. This was the homior, oriented to the north, I recalled from my book.
As the girls examined the statuettes of horses, set up in front of faded family photo, Oyunaa’s niece Nandaa, 2, spoke Mongolian to Haley. Haley responded in Russian, and the two seemed to understand each other perfectly. “Sit,” Oyunaa said, pointing to a low orange table.
I had read that movement inside the ger should mimic the path of the sun, and I attempted to pass on the west side, but bumped into Oyunaa as she scooped thick, doughy noodles flecked with green from a pot. After dinner she gestured uphill toward a pit on the hillside — the “half-bath” mentioned on Airbnb.
“Careful in the dark,” she said, pointing at two brown horses, and making a kicking motion with her heel. I caught Rachel looking into the valley at the receding dot of light that was Sarai’s car.
Inside our ger, lit by a single bulb powered by battery, the air was sweet and toasted from the cow paddies in the stove. The girls selected their beds on the north side, spots traditionally reserved for elders and shamans — but if they were putting themselves to sleep, I wasn’t going to argue.
Soon their breathing blended with the nickering of baby goats snuggled against the warmth of our ger. I dropped in a few more paddies, light as astronaut candy, and they caught with a whoosh. The listing on Airbnb had read “Heating not included” — apparently untrue.
“Like 600 years ago,” Rachel murmured, taking out a puzzle of the Eiffel Tower, slipping on a headlamp.
Outside it was as if the sky had been poked through with an awl. What would we do if one of us got kicked by a horse? Ride the horse to the highway? As I stood there beneath the stars, I found myself trying to remember the number of breaths in CPR.
The next morning, Oyunaa served fingers of fried bread with lingonberry jam, alongside hot water in a scarred Thermos with a foil stopper. A slit-eyed critter poked his head through the door.
“Goats!” Kiki shouted.
We spent the rest of the day chasing goats in the sunshine. Nandaa challenged Haley to climb the fence to pet baby calves, but Haley couldn’t negotiate the bark rungs.
In the bronze of late afternoon, Delger, also in a purple deel, came up from the valley zigzagging behind a rag of colts. In the corral he lassoed a chestnut, whispering to the horse as he slipped on a bridle and red leather saddle. “Soon he takes you,” Oyunaa said, and I’m sure it sounded more ominous than she meant it.
The next morning, the sun rose as a white disc in a scrim of wind-whipped clouds. In the ger the kids did puzzles and “Letter School,” Haley playing Connect Four with Nandaa.
My 41st birthday, I awoke before the dawn and followed a steep route up the ridge pocked with hoof prints. At the peak, marked with a cairn, I spied racks of deer silhouetted on the horizon. A falcon soared at eye level. Down at the ger where my family slept, smoke whipped off the stovepipe.
When I came back, the girls held the door shut while Rachel lit candles on pound cake. Oyunaa brought in hot water, and we bathed the kids, squeezing warm water over their shoulders.
On our fourth day, the girls woke with the wan light, and began buzzing around the ger like wasps. A squall of snow swept through the valley, leaving a daisy-like scatter across the plain. Haley did puzzles and ripped them apart again. Kiki hid pieces of Rachel’s Eiffel Tower under the bed, cackling away.
Perhaps sensing the onset of cabin fever, Oyunaa invited us to her ger, setting Haley to rolling out discs of dough and then spooning meat slick with marinade onto the circles. These were buuz, she told us, typically eaten when guests arrive. The dumplings cooked for 12 minutes on the firebox, and we ate them with soy sauce and shredded carrots, the only raw vegetable we had since arriving.
Our next-to-last day, Delger made good on Oyunaa’s prediction, pulling Haley onto the chestnut he had broken a few days before. As the three of us rode beneath a cloud-scraped sky, I recalled my worries over CPR — and here Haley was laughing so hard that she could hardly catch her breath.
That night we sipped broth in our ger, Rachel’s black hair glowing in the candlelight. “What do you think the meat is?” she asked, holding a spoon to the flame.
She gestured me over to the door. Delger was sitting in front of his ger, running his knife along a hide.
“Baby cow,” she whispered.
When we woke, Rachel kicked the kids out so she could start packing. They ran among the goats, expertly scooping them up. Haley scampered up the fence beside Nandaa to pet the remaining calves. Buzenkhuu, the grandmother, caught a chocolate-colored goat with disquieting speed, and brought the mewling creature into our ger, along with a plate of delicious honeycombed cheese. We were unclear whether the goat was meant as lunch.
“Dad?” Haley called from outside Delger’s ger. “What’s this?”
She stood by a carcass, skin neatly peeled back at the cheeks, then started to drag it by the hooves, ribs scraping the sand.
“Haley sweet. Let’s leave him be.”
“Dad,” she said, dropping the calf’s legs. “I think it’s a girl.”
We all slept that final afternoon, exhausted by something I couldn’t put my finger on — though when I think back on it now, perhaps we were turning a bit wild. I had stopped reading. The kids were coated in a layer of dirt. Rachel admitted that she could live the rest of her life without internet.
The next morning, sunny and warm, Sarai drove us the two hours back to town. I knocked on Bataa’s lacquered steel door for the key to the apartment where we would spend our last evening in Mongolia, bathing and washing clothes before the overnight train to Irkutsk.
He answered on my third rap, in sweatpants and a T-shirt.
“Sorry!” he muttered, handing off the key, closing the door. “Game of Thrones!”
Brendan and Rachel Jones both grew up in the Philadelphia area. They and their children now live in Sitka, Alaska.