That particular autumn, Bayar had help in the form of the young woman from India who had flown up from the south on a grant to help with the tracking project. Nadia Qureshi, a wildlife biologist with a PhD on common cranes in Kutch, in western India, had flown from New Delhi, and joked when she arrived in Ulaanbaatar that she had probably traced the winter migratory route of the geese already at jet speed and in the wrong direction.
Bayar at seventy was still strong but had slowed down, and so he was glad for the help from the tall and fit thirty-five year old whom he insisted on calling not Nadia but, very formally, Dr Qureshi, even if he could only communicate with her in his imperfect English.
After a day of mostly driving, in an old Land Rover Defender with a chatty driver, during which she picked up supplies as well, Nadia had reached Bayar’s camp in the slow honey light of evening.
Bayar is a common name in Mongolia, but everyone in the circles that Nadia frequented referred to him by only that name, for in those circles there was only one possible person you could be referring to if you mentioned that name.
Bayar was alone but for a young nephew whose job was mainly to look after their three horses, one of which was for Nadia.
The camp was organised. Bayar was used to having visitors from all over the world. She would have her own round tent, what the Mongolians call a ger and Russians call a yurt. And there were two toilet tents, one exclusively for her. He grunted approvingly when he saw the supplies she had brought. The fresh fruit was especially appreciated.
She would not be there long. The next morning they set out on two horses, with the third carrying the gear needed for the operation.
Their destination was a two-hour ride away across soft ground and through a narrow pass between jagged rocks. The Land Rover would not be able to make this last leg because of the boggy ground; only the horses could. The driver and Bayar’s nephew stayed behind.
On the back of the third horse were stacked bags and boxes containing fine nylon nets and nooses, tags and telemetry equipment for the project. They plodded through patches of marsh and picked their way over rocky ridges as the sun climbed above, warming them.
Around mid-afternoon they reached the field camp, which was similar to base camp but had fewer comforts, designed only for transient overnight stays. But Bayar wanted them to stay a full day and two nights just to be safe, so that the bar-headed geese in the marsh would get used to their presence. That would make their job easier. He told Nadia he had scattered some grain a few days previously, to help gather the geese in an area ideal for catching them. It would still help if they were not skittish at their presence, he said.
He tapped a finger on the side of his forehead. “Geese, they know who is who,” he said.
They ate horse meat that night by the fire. Later, when the flames had died down, Nadia took pictures of the full moon, its cratered surface startlingly clear in the thin air.
Around them in the vastness there was no sound. She slept well.
In the morning, she was stiff from the unaccustomed horse ride, but the sun came out and she slowly recovered as she drank the strong black coffee she had brought with her, with the water boiled in the wood stove that warmed her ger. Bayar drank his Mongolian suutei tsai and laughed when Nadia made a face at the taste; she had never liked milky tea. He sniffed Nadia’s coffee and grimaced as well. “No, no, only for you,” he insisted as Nadia pressed him to try it.
They sat in the sun and Bayar showed her his drawings and paintings, which he carried around in a roll among his things. They were of horses, geese, and cranes, bold atavistic strokes with pencil or charcoal scrounged from countless fires in field camps.
Bayar was a native of the vast Mongolian highlands, growing up on horseback with his father’s herd of sheep and then, in a lucky break, becoming a guide for foreign tourists trekking or driving across the great Gobi. That over the years got him enough money to pay for a good school for his one son, and to buy a small place on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar where his son lived now with his wife and their daughter. His son worked as a floor manager in a hotel.
“You have children?” he asked Nadia.
None, she told him. “Married?” he wanted to know. “Was” she said, with a short laugh. “Married too early, divorced quickly.”
Bayar nodded sagely. He had heard it before.
“You won’t stay here through the winter I hope?” Nadia asked him.
Bayar laughed. “Too old now,” he said, stroking his sparse white beard, his weather-beaten face crinkling in a smile. “I go stay with my son, his place warm. No more ice and snow for Bayar,” he said, his blue eyes gleaming with laughter.
Nadia had felt the cold the previous night, up here where the wind blew harder than at the permanent camp which was in a bowl in the valley. Here, there was a little shelter only at the base of the cliff face, but the terrain was higher, and the wind often picked up and blew a penetrating icy chill. At night she had needed to scoot closer to the fire in the ger, reaching out from her sleeping bag to feed it with more wood.
She had been brought up in the warm plains of western India, where winter temperatures were cold but only rarely dipped to freezing. Here, in the early morning there was already frost on the green grass. In a couple of weeks the temperature would dip to well below freezing. They could not afford to waste time, else the birds would be gone. September was already quite late; the project had been delayed because of unexpected government paperwork and she had been two weeks late in catching her flight.
“We have to tag two,” Nadia said, rummaging through her papers as Bayar laid out the gear in the sun. “Only two?” he said. “Okay, no problem, tomorrow we do. Will not take long.”
“A male and a female,” Nadia said. “And they must be a pair.”
“No problem,” Bayar said. He had already surveyed the flock. Nadia fished out the project guidelines. There was a small fee for Bayar as well, 250 dollars, for his expertise. The cash was pinned to the file in a plastic zip lock money envelope. She gave it to him. He stowed the envelope carefully in an inside pocket of his jacket. “Namaste,” he said with a smile, bringing his hands together.
“Namaste,” she replied, with the same gesture. “Where did you learn that?”
“Indian films first,” he said. “Then Indian tourist come here and teach me some words. Chai, pani, namaste.” He grinned widely, revealing yellowed teeth. “And ghoda,” he said. “Horse.”
They could hear the musical conversation of the bar-headed geese, along with other wetland sounds – the piping of plovers, the plaintive call of a lone lapwing, the occasional trill of cranes. The previous evening, just before dark, there had been a chorus of frogs.
In the afternoon, Bayar showed Nadia the marsh. The geese watched them, alert, as they skirted the lake. Beyond, a group of common cranes watched them too. “See those,” Nadia told Bayar. “That is the bird I studied in India, they come there in the winter.”
“I tagged some of those too,” Bayar said.
“How many birds have you caught and tagged?” Nadia wanted to know, as they squelched through the mud. Bayar thought for a bit and said “If you count all, I think 200, maybe 300. But if only geese and cranes, maybe fifty, maybe sixty, something like that.”
He laughed. “Everybody come to Bayar for tagging,” he said. “Bayar mean happy, so everybody happy.” He found that hilarious and laughed aloud, so infectiously that Nadia too laughed and the geese, necks craned, watched them anxiously.
The next morning, they woke just before dawn. The sky in the east was turning a mottled coral pink as they tugged on their knee-high rubber boots. It reminded Nadia of sunrises over the grasslands of Kutch, but here there was a particular bright, brittle northern, high-altitude light.
She got into her olive-green field jacket and gathered her hair into a ponytail. She wore a baseball cap. The soles of her boots crunched on the hoar frost in the half light. Their breath steamed in the still cold air. She pulled on woollen gloves. Bayar had his backpack and a net and nooses slung over his shoulder. He was breathing into his cupped palms to warm them.
Nadia had her backpack with the tags, and a pair of binoculars, a camera, and a GPS. She gave Bayar two surgical masks and a pair of rubber latex gloves. “Bird flu,” she said. “Must be careful.” Bayar nodded, tucking them into an outer pocket. Avian influenza was a constant concern.
Then under the fading stars, watching the sky in the east turning a coral pink, they walked silently out into the wetland.
Excerpted with permission from Blue Sky, White Cloud: Three Novellas, Nirmal Ghosh, Aleph Book Company.