Electric guitar in hand, the Dalai Lama stood in the shadows. Pink and blue lights crossed the darkened stage, revealing a wooden cart, a dog, and glints of His Holiness’s blessed axe. The fog machine sprayed a jet of smoke, and he stepped into the light. Hard rock blasted the speakers, and the club erupted in cheers. He bounced his hips in time with the bass, and rhythmically brought his hand down to the guitar. Through the smoke, you could catch the slightest shift of his holy, bald, costume piece. The stage light panned over to the cart and fell upon my school’s social worker. Her song was beautiful, but her voice was changed to match the implied youth of her own bald head piece. The crowd’s laughter and applause were transformed into marvel, as the dog surprisingly leapt into the cart to join her. I smiled, but couldn’t help from shaking my head.
Five days before, ten teachers and I were riding in a car to the aimag center. It was early in the morning and people were a bit groggy, but spirits were high with the excitement of traveling for a week of competition and games. Ten minutes outside my village, someone shouted, “Don’t forget the dog!” Thinking I misheard what was happening, I drifted back into my own thoughts. Another five minutes passed, and I heard our driver asking where the dog lives. I sat up a bit straighter and tried to read my teachers’ faces. They seemed sincere. Banzaa, our history teacher, started shouting directions from the back and our driver immediately peeled off road and headed us into the countryside. We bounced in our seats until pulling up to a large hasha. Upon arrival, Batzaya, our P.E. teacher, hopped out of the van and went to knock on the ger’s door. A man emerged and directed him to a small creature covered in mud. It lay submissively on its back before being yanked by its scruff and carried to the van. Placing the muddy dog on a towel in the front seat, Batzaya climbed back in, and we thumped across the steppe towards the main road.
At this point, I was pretty confused. I had been told that the young teacher’s competition was a winter break opportunity for all Khuvsgul teachers below the age of thirty-seven. The scheduled events were volleyball, darts, basketball, shagai ardwal (ankle bone flicking), language exams, and a dance performance. The pup was cute, but its cocker spaniel build didn’t leave me with a ton of hope that it was a Mongolian version of Air Bud. Two hours later when we arrived in Murun, I had come to the conclusion that the dog was part of a coinciding errand that we were helping to carry out. The van door slid open, and while my fellow teachers were getting off, the dog saw an opportunity. It dove from the seats and onto the brisk winter pavement. Then, it took off. Sprinting back and forth through the parking lot, its muddy ears flapped in the chill wind. My teachers and I gave chase, but the little dude was too fast. He made for the city.
Following thirty minutes of running in and out of traffic, jumping over gates, falling off 10ft fences, and slipping on ice, we finally reined him in. Cigarette in one hand, and the dog in his other, our mathematics teacher, Bendeh, shook his head at the pup. The dog responded with a strained smile and some nervous panting. Throughout the week, the dog would come and go. I’m still not entirely sure where he was being taken to, but it always baffled me when I saw that he’d been brought back. He would pee on the floor, and I’d take him outside. We’d stand in the cold and he’d start shivering. His leash was an unwound strand of gold ribbon, and I would give it a couple pulls so he knew we could go back to the warmth of my teachers’ rented bunkhouse. No one had a name for him, and everyone I asked said that they didn’t know who he belonged to. All they knew was that he probably needed fresh air, and that I was his designated handler.
At the entrance of the night club, I gave the ribbon a couple of tugs. Walking him into the venue, we passed people wearing suits, dresses, and expressions of vast bewilderment. Weirder things had happened in getting to this point, so I politely acknowledged their shock and walked on. The dog had to be lucky. There was no other explanation. In my mind, the competition was over. The night club festivities were to announce the medals, to eat a delicious meal, to watch some performances, and then finish with a party. If there was time, I was told we might be able to do our own routine.
Four hours later, I would smile and shake my head in amusement. There was Bendeh, our enlightened rocker, air jamming next to the pup that three days ago was clenched in his freezing grasp, opposite a cigarette. The dog was an integral part of our team’s performance. Given that I had been benched for the dancing portion, and gently reassigned to “Team Manager,” I couldn’t help but to feel a bit of envy. With a graceful, musically in-time, cart leap, the dog milked his spotlight. A star was born.