The worst part about the warmest place in the tent
The morning began at 3:30 for me, as it always does. I woke up to frost lining the inside of my Nemo Kunai tent. To this point, the Kunai had done a superb job of protecting me from intense wind gusts on a high pass and the curious noses of goats, sheep and cows while doing a home stay in Western Mongolia.
I was near the end of five weeks in this extraordinary country. I had three days to ride the hardy, native Mongolian horses before moving on to the crown jewel, the Eagle Festival, before I wended my way back home.
If you know anything about this country, know that by late September, it suddenly starts getting very cold at night. As in brutally cold, especially in the Altai mountains.
I was snuggled in a minus-twenty degree Sonic sleeping bag. The night before there had been a big party held by the guides for all the Westerners on their extended horse ride. I'd picked up a plastic beer cup for my dentures, filled it with water and my toothbrushes and settled the cup next to the tent zipper in case I had a rough night.
Now, in the dark early Mongolian morning, I slipped on my headlamp, flipped the switch and located the toothbrush handles.
And lifted a denture popsicle.
There were my pearly whites encased in a solid block of ice.
I had three choices.
First: Stick the denture popsicle into the warmest place in my tent to warm them up: between my thighs.
And IMA NOT GONNA DO THAT.
Second: Pick an arm pit, the second warmest place in my tent.
And IMA NOT GONNA DO THAT.
Third: Wait a while.
Not for dawn or sun. It's too cold for that.
For the Mongolian woman, Khaltmaa, who warmed the mare's milk and boiled the water for coffee for us Westerners. She arrived at 4:30 am, to light the fire in the shed about a quarter mile from my tent.
At 4:30 sharp I donned my warmest down, then scraped through the frost and fog to knock on the shed door, where warm light from the fire was dancing on the walls.
She let me in, then sat on her stool looking at me expectantly. I had my denture-sicle behind my back and my right hand over my mouth.
I mumbled, "May I have some hot water?"
There was a long pause.
Then Khaltmaa made a tactical error.
She asked, "What for?"
So I showed her.
She promptly fell off her stool onto the floor, her eyes wide as saucers, as she stared at my frozen grin-in-a-cup.
I collapsed in laughter, upon which she immediately saw that those teeth needed to get into the gaping hole in my mouth.
Whereupon she leapt up, grabbed my jacket sleeve and pulled me onto the stool next to her.
For the next half hour, Khaltmaa carefully ladled hot water over the glacier which gripped my grinders, until I was able to safely snap them back into my mouth.
The private joke and the takeaway
Every time she and I saw each other for the rest of my stay we collapsed in laughter. Nobody else knew the joke but for the other Mongols, for whom tooth loss is normal, and dental plans an abstract idea.
The Eagle Festival was fun, but nowhere near as funny as that early morning dental disaster.
Khaltmaa had saved my dignity, but I also learned a very good lesson:
When it's that cold outside, put the dentures into a watertight container inside the sleeping bag and between my legs before it's a glacier-with-a-grin.
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