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Mom and Dad Potts on the Mongolian steppe near Karakorum.

You get to know somebody when you go to war together, share a love, or compete against each other. But you can also get a greater understanding of who someone really is when you travel together. Contributor Rolf Potts thought he knew his parents -- he did grow up with them. Then he took a trip to the wide-open spaces of a Mongolian steppe with his mom and dad -- and now he really knows them.

Raising My Parents in Mongolia

By Rolf Potts, 6/21/2002

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Walking across the Mongolian steppe, I am mesmerized by the wide-open space. The landscape is stark and simple -- blue sky and grassy curves stretching out to everywhere -- a vision as elemental and bewitching as fire or rain.

As I soak in the grandeur, I suddenly get the feeling that something's missing. Sliding out of my reverie, I realize what it is: My parents, who were right behind me when I started hiking an hour ago, seem to have...disappeared.

I turn in a circle and scan the horizon. I'm not sure whether to be angry or worried. Neither my mother nor my father has much experience in traveling overseas, and I should never have let them out of my sight.

I imagine all kinds of horrible things: sprained ankles and broken bones, bear attacks and highway robbery. I jog to the top of a grassy ridge and finally spot two small figures in the distance

My mother and father are there all right, but one hour into our hike they've only made it about 600 yards from where we started.

Both of them are in good health, so I can only conclude that they've been lollygagging and goofing off. Since we have several miles yet to go before it gets dark, I head back in their direction, determined to give George Dallas and Alice Margaret a scolding they'll never forget.

Ever since this family trip was in its planning stages, the whole parent/child dynamic has been strangely reversed: I've become the stern, seasoned role model, and my parents have been the helpless, clueless innocents.

My father's a retired science teacher who's intelligent enough to write wildlife guidebooks, but for some reason, he was convinced there might not be any hotels in Beijing. My mother, a grade-school teacher who once led a fearless campaign to make the salamander the Kansas "State Amphibian," was worried that she might catch bursitis from a Mongolian marmot.

When I met them in Beijing, it only got worse. Whenever I deciphered a subway map or learned a few words of Mandarin -- things they could have just as easily done themselves -- mom and dad acted as if I had superhero powers.


On the train from Beijin to Mongolia
What's more, my parents didn't know how to behave at some of the grandest sights in China. In the Forbidden City, my mother ignored the immaculate architecture, preferring to sit in the shade and show pictures of my baby nephew to Chinese grandmothers. As we walked to the Temple of Heaven, my father kept snapping photos of buses and billboards and phone booths. I finally scolded him when he took a picture of a McDonald's.

"But it's a Chinese McDonald's," he said earnestly.

I've realized that my parents simply haven't cultivated the sense of sophistication that travel requires. When a guide tried to tell us about Mongolian winter clothing, my father responded with a 10-minute discourse on the merits of polypropylene sock-liners. When my mother learned about the brutal conquests of Genghis Khan, she exclaimed, "He really doesn't sound like a very nice man."

As I hike back across the grassy Mongolian steppe, I notice from a distance that my father is crawling around on his hands and knees. Before I can scold him, he springs up and jogs over with a fistful of wildflowers.

"Look," he says. "This yellow one is just like primrose."

He goes on to show me his other floral treasures: daisy fleabane, bee balm and buttercup. "I'm gonna take these back to my botanist friends," he says. "But I'll pretend I found them in Kansas, and see what kind of reaction I get."

Before I can respond, my mom calls me over to the flattened grass of an old nomad camp. "Look," she says, holding up a piece of metal.

"Oh boy," I say sarcastically, "looks like you found some garbage."

"It's not garbage; it's a piece of handmade chain link."

My mother shows me some more of the cast-off treasures from the flattened grass: sheep wool, horse teeth and melted glass. What impresses my mom about this garbage is that there's so little of it. "It's just like when I was growing up on the farm," she says. "You don't waste anything -- not even water."

I'm about to tell both my parents to get their heads out of Kansas and start seeing Mongolia, but my dad says something that makes me reconsider.

"Your mother sees this place through the eyes of a farm girl," he says. "I see it with the eyes of a biologist. If you brought an artist, or geologist or a historian out here, they'd probably love this place for completely different reasons."

As I consider this, I realize that travel hasn't turned my parents into children; it has simply allowed them to enter a curious playground version of their own lives. While I've been thinking about itineraries, logistics and expectations, they've been deciphering the exotic through babies and buildings, through nomad garbage and wildflowers.

In this way, I guess my parents are still being my parents. In seeing our surroundings through na´ve eyes of wonder, my mother and father are simply setting a good example. They're showing me that a fascination in the tiniest wrinkles of the world can help you find your way as you travel.

Even in the wide-open spaces of this Mongolian steppe.

Savvy Resources:

Rolf Potts' photos of his parents in Mongolia
http://www.rolfpotts.com/images/family/

Rolf Potts' photos from Mongolia
http://www.rolfpotts.com/images/mongolia/

Mongolia Today
http://www.mongoliatoday.com/

Rolf Potts' Web site
http://rolfpotts.com/

Pictures of Mongolia http://edcsnw3.cr.usgs.gov/ip/mongolia/phototour/grassphoto.html

Mongolia WWW Virtual Library
http://www.indiana.edu/~mongsoc/links.htm

More Mongolia links
http://www.greenkiwi.co.nz/footprints/mongolia/links.html

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