New Year's Eve in Mongolia

  • The cabin on the steppe. Photo: Lauren Knapp

  • The herder's cows coming home after a long day in the pasture. Photo: Lauren Knapp

  • Our van successfully crosses the partially frozen stream on the way to Khentii Province. Photo: Lauren Knapp

  • The pink hues of dusk give the barren landscape an alien look. Photo: Lauren Knapp

December 20, 2013
First published December 21, 2012

For most of us, celebrating New Year’s Eve means champagne, noisemakers, party dresses, and Times Square on television. But one New Year’s Eve, Lauren Knapp found herself in Mongolia, ringing in the New Year by appreciating the simplicity of a night on Earth.  Now she is completing her documentary on rock music in Mongolia titled "Live from UB."

I was living in Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia.

Tired of the city smoke and bustle, a couple of friends and I decided to take a roadtrip. We would head out east to celebrate with a herding family in their one-room cabin.

Our ride was minivan circa 1996. An hour into our 7-hour-long journey, we were already off-roading it—following tracks in the snow carved by previous cars and trucks. 

We drove through half-frozen rivers and into snowy ditches. We blew not one, but two tires.

Mongolia is a vast country. Only 2.8 million people inhabit a land mass more than twice as big as Texas. And the winters are cold.

By the time we neared our destination, It was minus 25 degrees outside—fahrenheit. So cold, icycles form on your eyelashes.

At the cabin, an elderly woman greeted us. She wore a fur hat and a deel—a traditional Mongolian coat. The house was roughly the size of a large American living room. She shared it with her husband and son. We slept there on the floor that weekend.

The woman made us hot salty milk tea, a Mongolian staple. Hot tea is more a necessity than indulgence in those temperatures.

For supper we had homemade dumplings filled with onion and horse meat—surprisingly tasty, like venison.

We spent the next few days exploring the snow-covered valley on foot and horseback while our hosts went about their daily chores.

The old woman milked the cows and goats and prepared food. The men took the livestock out to pasture.

In between chores, there was a lot of quiet. Neighbors stopped by on horseback for a chat and some tea. The elderly woman sewed while her husband sat and smoked his hand-rolled cigarettes.

Over the course of my time in Mongolia, I met several herders like this family. I would ask them why they stayed on the steppe, instead of move to the city. Everyone agreed there was nothing greater than the freedom of living off the land—an ancient right that has remained mostly unchanged since the days of Genghis Khan.

But some things had changed.

On New Year’s Eve, our host turned on his black and white television. The old man had hooked it up to a satellite dish and solar panel—almost every herding home has these now. He sat, quietly watching the New Year’s Eve events in Ulaanbaatar’s main square. They had organized an outdoor concert, which, looking back seems insane given the temperature.

As midnight approached, we got out the sparklers we’d brought from the city and lit one for our grandmotherly hostess. This was clearly a new tradition for her. She loved them.

For me, New Year’s Eve has always been about going out with my friends and dancing until dawn. It’s a party. But here I was in the middle of nowhere—our sparklers the only things disrupting the cold night.

And all I could think about was how happy I was to be here instead.

What better place to reflect on the passing of time?

A place where the completely limitless horizon and slowed pace of life is a reminder of where I fit in the world and what truly matters.

And that’s how you start a new year.