She lay staring at the hotel ceiling, listening to the cars occasionally passing on Genghis Khan avenue. Despite the exhausting flight, she couldn’t force herself to fall asleep. In her head, there was a whirlwind of pictures: of passport control in Moscow, where the border guard was obviously trying to flirt with her; the drunken dances at the office New Year’s party, which still made her feel awkward; and the elementary school teacher rebuking her for chewing her nails in class.

This trip, which she initiated herself, now seemed pointless to her. It didn’t promise any career opportunities or breathtaking adventures. Not like the trip to Croatia, where their TV-crew was sent to make a program about the dolphins’ marital behavior. They spent a week riding on a boat from one island to another, plunging into the warm water of the Adriatic Sea and shooting scenes of marine mammals’ intimate life. That release became very popular, dramatically boosting the show’s ratings; she was even recognized a couple of times on the street. In a brief moment of sheer enthusiasm, she decided to make the next program in Mongolia, the country she dreamed of from childhood. But now, lying on the bed in Ulan Baatar and anticipating the hours-long trip to the icy steppe, she regretted her impulsivity

The mustachioed Leonid snored in the next bed over, hugging his video camera. He began this habit many years ago when touring with a famous rock band as a documentarian. After filming some successful performances at a major foreign festival, he drank too much and fell asleep right on the floor of his room. Coming to his senses only after the hotel manager came to evict him, he found that his equipment had disappeared, and the group had flown to another city for the next gig. Since then, Leonid ceased to love rock music and preferred to keep his camera at hand, regardless of his physical condition.

Getting tired of tossing and turning in the bed, she got up and approached the window. The bright rose-colored dawn was rising above the city, and the sharp shadows looked like black velvet paper cut-outs laid on the pavement. Rare passers-by rushing to work were being blown away by a gusty wind — the eternal companion of the steppes and deserted city squares.

The view of the open space and the silhouette of the mountains in the distance comforted her, and she made another attempt to fall asleep. Closing her eyes, she tried to perform meditation exercises from the book about Buddhist monks she read many years ago. The monks lived in a secluded monastery, ate a handful of millet a day and spent their life painting mandalas with colored sand. Their existence was easy and beautiful, absent of morning meetings with bosses, paying mortgages and pointless texting with the exes. Repeating to herself over and over again that your body is getting heavier, and the mind is watching all this, she noticed her muscles were beginning to relax and the frantic video clip of thoughts in her head were starting to slow down.

She fell into a dream.

* * *

Tyyr Bagan was neither like his stocky, grim father nor his mother, dry and thin as a stem of bitter wormwood. Only occasionally this emaciated woman, with eyes that didn’t know how to cry, allow herself to stroke her son’s prickly hair.

In the steppes of Northern Mongolia, where death can fall from the sky or enter a house right from the ground, where winters are so fierce that only few can survive them, there is no place for such tenderness.

But this clumsy reckling, the “last born child,” had an amazing aptitude for life, despite rarely having enough food or nurturing. He loved to stand in the steppe, listening to the singing of the lark and admiring the ocean of fluffy, feathery grass swaying in the golden sun’s rays. The warm air and the smell of flowers filled him with inexplicable hope.

When the sun started descending and turning red, a whistle was heard over the plain. This was a sign to go home.

“The night steppe is not the place for us,” Tyyr Bagan’s mother often repeated.

According to her, the evil demon Erlik Khan went hunting for belated peasants at dusk to satisfy his hunger. Erlik Khan had a bull head with three eyes, a band of skulls around his neck, and a fiery sword in his hands. Some said that this sword had eliminated the entire neighbouring village, with only sparks of fire flashing over the steppe.

But it wasn’t yet dark when trouble came to Tyyr Bagan’s home.

One day, the sun became so hot that the crystal streams dried up, the juicy grasses turned to ashes, and the fertile soil became harder than stone. Scavengers, black birds with hooked beaks, circled over the Tyyr Bagan house and patiently waited for the next victim to fall from exhaustion.

And then Tyyr Bagan heard his parent’s conversation.

“What if we never see him again?” For the first time in his life, Tyyr Bagan heard his mother crying.

“Stop wailing, woman. There he will be fed, taught to read and write. This is what you want for our son, isn’t it?”

Thus, at the age of five, Tyyr Bagan became a novice in a monastery. A month later, a strict lama with dark, piercing eyes ordained him as a monk.

And, only a year after his departure, Tyyr Bagan learned that a severe black illness had ravaged the entirety of his native village.

Since then, melancholy had settled in the heart of Tyyr Bagan. During meditation, he often dreamed that instead of laboring through boring ancient alphabets and Tibetan medicine books, he could live a simple life with a beloved wife, surrounded by plump, giggling children who looked exactly like him.

And really, what kind of prospects did he have in the monastery? To become a skilled healer? A ridiculous thought, given that, he overslept during all of his herbology lessons as a teenager.

To strive for the career of the Dhamma teacher? That wouldn’t make any sense, since only the best of the best can claim to be a Dhamma teacher. He couldn’t even memorize a single sutra. Furthermore, he had once broken one of the monastery commandments — he ate a handful of millet from his friend, Brother Tuulay, when he left the classroom for a minute.

But, there was another way. The bold thought alone made Tyyr Bagan stop breathing.

Once upon a time, one of the monks told a legend about a lama who lived on the shore of a great lake. Two hundred years ago, he immersed himself into the great meditation of non-being. Since then, his body remains alive, and over the place he ascended to, Nirvana, a rainbow shines throughout the year.

He was a real saint, not like some fake ones. What was the name of this lama? Tyyr Bagan couldn’t recall. It’s no surprise that father called me blunt as a stump, he sadly thought to himself.

Tyyr Bagan believed that if you are in a right mood, everything will work out as you want. To become enlightened is not necessarily to know all the sacred texts by heart. It is more important to feel the state of internal silence, and he knew how to achieve that.

But, if his idea fails, will he become the laughing stock of the entire monastery? Hopefully, Buddha won’t let it happen.

This idea totally captivated Tyyr Bagan. He began to spend days and nights in the library. He stopped eating, sleeping and he even lost some weight. The cheerful Tyyr Bagan everyone knew had faded away. Neither the abbot of the monastery nor the monks could recognize him.

“What happened to you? Have you fallen ill?,” asked Tuulay.

“Oh, brother, you could say that. I need to immerse into a meditation for a week or two,” Tyyr Bagan sighed. But, how can you achieve mental silence when someone around you is constantly snorting, stomping and chewing?

“I understand,” grinned the skinny Tuulay, showing yellow teeth that made him look like a hare.“I’ll show you one place. But promise me you won’t tell anyone where it is — I’m hiding food there.”

The monastery was so ancient that no one remembered who founded it, and when. The ancient inhabitants only left the name of the place — Shooron Dov — which meant “an underground house” in their language.

From his history lessons, Tyyr Bagan remembered that a thousand years ago this hill was used as a refuge from the enemies of the East. Later, when the Buddhist disciples came to this land, bloody wars no longer prevailed and the shelter became a monastery.

Every spring, those thrilling events were replicated during the Tsam Feast. That day, the entire monastery would get turned into a battleground where the evil King Dharma, who was eager to destroy the Buddha’s teachings at any cost, was killed by the young monk. The abbot of the monastery portrayed the hated King Dharma, and the older lama played the role of the faith defender, Jamsaran. They both wore ritual masks: the abbot put on a giant blue bull head with a tongue sticking out, while the lama wore the red headpiece with three bloodshot eyes and a crown in the form of a flame.

Everyone in the monastery was excited about Tsam Feast. This day all the meditations were cancelled, and everyday millet was replaced with delicious sesame seeds. The smartest novices were entrusted to participate in the ceremonial procession or to help the abbot get dressed up, while the rest of the inhabitants breathlessly observed the preparations.

Tyyr Bagan never took part in the ceremony, but he adored watching the abbot depicting the cruel king in the ritual dance. He was jumping, shaking his staff and growling. The youngest novices squealed with fear and hid behind the backs of the elder monks. But Tyyr Bagan could not look at that dance without laughing — when someone you know well pretends to be a demon, you simply cannot take him seriously.

“There are a lot of places in our monastery that no one knows about,” Tuulay reported, squeezing into one of the distant underground passages.

“But how did you found out about them?,” Tyyr Bagan asked, astonished. He sincerely believed that Tuulay was only interested in food and the opportunity to sleep.

“I read about them in some historical manuscript in our library,” Tuulay snorted. “Each abbot wanted to expand the monastery, ordering to dig out more and more prayer halls and storerooms. So, welcome to my little room M!editate here as much as you want. The only condition is not to touch my food!”

Tyyr Bagan found himself in a tiny room with a pile of millet on the floor. The walls were covered by images of faith defenders named Dokshits. They fiercely stared at the millet, showing their fangs.

“This is to scare the mice. I don’t want them to steal my grains,”Tuulay explained.

“Thank you, brother.” Tyyr Bagan could barely keep back tears. “I will never forget your help!”

* * *

“Ira, for goodness sake, let’s be quick.” Leonid, shivering in the icy wind, angrily glanced at the winter sun shining in the ultramarine sky. “Action!”

The TV hostess elegantly threw off the heavy sheepskin coat, tossed her curly red hair, and said enthusiastically:

“Good afternoon! You’re watching “Wild, Wild World” and me, Irina Pustovit. Today, I will tell you about an amazing animal, the Mongolian marmot, also known under the Latin name Marmota Sibirica. You may be wondering, what is so interesting about this unremarkable rodent?

“First of all, the marmot is known for its phenomenal approach to construction! Its burrow is a gigantic underground structure, something like a multi-level parking area in a shopping mall. By the way, at the moment I’m standing right above such a marmot den.”

The camera’s eye slid down, pausing on her fur boots before returning back and capturing her theatrical smile. She continued:

“In their burrows, marmots build quite human-like comforts: bedrooms, storerooms and even restrooms. Such serious shelter is necessary for them, because these guys spend most of their lives in hibernation. Safety during this process…,” Irina paused for dramatic effect, “is crucial for the marmot’s life. When a marmot is sleeping, its pulse drops down to five heartbeats per minute, and its body temperature lowers to four degrees Celsius, or 40 degrees Fahrenheit! And, as long as some carnivorous ferret doesn’t penetrate into the hole and the frost isn’t too severe, the marmot can happily sleep for six to nine months until the spring comes.”

“Cut!” the scream swept over the steppe.

“Gosh!” Irina gasped, putting on the sheepskin coat. “I need cognac! Urgently!”

“I still don’t understand why you’ve brought us here,” the operator muttered. “Here is the flask!”

“Leo, you do not understand, they’re amazing,” Irina wholeheartedly protested. “I wrote my Master’s thesis about marmots. Just imagine, they are capable of controlled hibernation, like in those fantastic movies about space travel. It’s like if you could put yourself to sleep for as long as you want — a week, or even a year. Humans can only dream about this!”

“Ira, you are such a dreamer. Space, hibernation?! Maybe they even read books, your furry friends?” Leonid smirked. “By the way, give my flask back, we have a lot to do today.”

After returning to the city and eating a thick mutton broth complemented with famous Mongolian milk moonshine, Irina and Leonid started to prepare the program. The endless steppe was alive in front of them. They saw horsemen riding yaks in the white glaring snow, Buddhist flags clapping on the wind and ancient mounds hiding their years-old mysteries.

Irina thought to herself that, in comparison with these desert lands, laid-back and provincial Ulan-Bator looked like a hectic megalopolis.

Suddenly, she pointed to the computer screen and screamed.

“How did you come up with the idea to take a picture with the rainbow above the mound? Leonid, you’re a genius!”

“Oh, come on, there is nothing special here,” muttered Leonid. “I just decided to add something to the picture, these empty desert landscapes are boring as hell. Croatia is totally different: the sea, dolphins, girls with bikinis, all that stuff. There, every shot looks like a glossy magazine cover.”

“But I like it here, you know,” Irina sighed, anticipating meeting with the boss and his sarcastic comments about her voice and how she works in front of the camera. “I could have lived here in some monastery, but they do not accept girls, I guess …”

The operator stared at her astonishingly and then burst out laughing, nearly spilling the tea brought by a silent hotel maid.

* * *

Tyyr Bagan did not remember how many times he had repeated the prayer of immersion into non-existence. At some point, he realized that he was far, far away from the monastery, his native steppe and past thoughts. He didn’t even notice when the air around him gradually became freezing cold.

With each exhale he felt calmer, the anguish from his chest evaporating and giving way to a ringing sweet emptiness. Tyyr Bagan saw himself soaring in a black space, surrounded by huge stars and shining comets. They pulsated and formed patterns, reminiscent of mandalas from ancient monastery manuscripts.

Tyyr Bagan decided to catch the nearest comet up but it flew away, playfully fluffing its red tail and showering him with icy sparks.He waved them off with his weakened paw, but one of them spun and fell on Tyyr Bagan’s long black whiskers.

He caught it with his mouth and laughed happily.