On arriving at the small international airport on the snowy outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, capital city of Mongolia, I had my Saturday afternoon and evening well planned.
Check in at the hotel downtown, catch up with the world news on BBC, find a nice restaurant for dinner and return to the hotel in time for the highlight of almost every Saturday and Sunday night in East Asia – English Premier League football live on some channel or other, in some language or other.
But when your Mongolian hosts are into the fourth day of their Lunar New Year – Saturday, February 25, to be precise – any thoughts of spending time alone are simply out of the question. As a guest in their country, you are part of the family and most definitely part of the celebrations.
“Welcome to Mongolia,” said my host, whose name has far too many combinations of consonants to write here without painstakingly copying his name card. Thankfully, everyone knows him simply as Oto.
“Nothing is happening at the hotel today,” said Oto, “so we will drive 20 kilometres into the mountains and celebrate the Mongolian Lunar New Year with a nomadic family in their yurt. They are friends of mine from many years ago. It will be a new experience for them, to celebrate Mongolian New Year with an Englishman,” said Oto.
“It will be a new experience for me, too,” I replied. “And what’s a yurt?”
“It’s their home, like a tent. They move around the countryside with their cows, sheep and goats and spend the four seasons each year in a different place. One camel carries their worldly belongings.”
The drive was incredible. With wild horses in the snow-covered fields, colourful ribbons decorating the new year prayer poles set in rocks on the roadside and the bright winter sunshine suggesting warmer temperatures than the minus 16C on the display panel in the SUV, this truly was a new world, never mind a new experience.
When we pulled up to the yurt, the cows were enjoying the sunshine outside their enclosure, the sheep were on the mountain top and the goats were foraging for food and bleating shrilly.
This left the dogs – or were they wolves that surrounded the vehicle?
One order from the host family and the dogs disappeared in an instant, clearing the way for the Englishman to step out on to the Mongolian steppes and represent his country in as dignified manner as possible when being offered sheep’s eyeballs, cow’s stomach and various parts of a male goat’s nether regions.
With Plan A out of the window, and Chelsea-Bolton Wanderers a distant dream, I quickly formulated a Plan B: Drink as much vodka as possible as quickly as possible, close your eyes and do your duty for the Queen.
It’s new year, after all, and it would be rude and extremely snobby for a British subject to reject someone’s hospitality in their own home.
It turned out, however, that I had been watching far too much National Geographic channel in recent weeks, and there was not an eyeball in sight, so to speak.
Slices of cold lamb, steamed beef dumplings cooked in a pan heated by lumps of dried cow dung, fermented horse milk (very tangy), vodka, vodka and, for dessert, vodka.
There was also a basket of sweet, sticky rock – exactly like Blackpool rock, but without Blackpool running through it (presumably, but I didn’t check).
The lady of the house was a sprightly 73, dressed in her shiny Mongolian finery, the mother of seven children and owner of 10 cows (or was it the other way round?).
She sang me a song of greeting, and other family members joined in. Then came more folk songs, one of them dedicated to a brave, strong horse of legend, and I swayed in tune and smiled in gratitude while trying hard not to appear as the village idiot.
The lady of the yurt toasted me again, and asked me to sing something melodic and melancholic to them in return. I was stuck.
Auld Lang Syne? No chance. It’s February 25, not 00:01 on January 1. And I can’t stand that song anyway.
Silent Night, Holy Night? Possibly, but I’d be struggling after “bright”.
Careless Whisper? Your Song? Karaoke favourites, but not really appropriate here.
Oto came to the rescue.
“Jeremy does not have this tradition in England of singing folk songs about the life of a nomadic family in the Mongolian grasslands,” said Oto, forgetting to mention the dried cow dung part, too.
This seemed to do the trick, so to escape the silence I asked if I could go outside and take some photographs.
The orange sun was setting behind the snow-covered peaks; the sheep, without being called or instructed, were winding their way down the mountain to the enclosure in single file; the cows had gathered in the shed to feed on the abundant supply of hay; and the children of the family were laughing and playing with a fluffy black puppy.
There was no need for a camera.
This was a moment – a scene, an experience – I would always treasure.
I went back into the yurt and told the lady of the house exactly that. It was my song to them.