Tina’s 1983 Adventures in Mongolia

Portrait of a 19th Century Cossak Horseman

Cristina Kessler Noble, PhD. On one of  Tina’s long solo trips through China, she spent several weeks exploring remote, traditional regions of Inner Mongolia and Mongolian Tibet. Among her many adventures was gifting her wristwatch to the Panchen Lama in front of an audience of several thousand.

But the story I most treasure is her account of pushing her way through a crowded train station in a remote Mongolian town. Suddenly, she was startled by loud, prolonged laughter from a deep male voice. (Han Chinese simply don’t do such things in public, ever.) She turned and saw a tall, mustachioed, middle-aged man with high leather boots, colorful tribal clothing, and Caucasian features. He was looking right back at her and roaring with laughter.

She shouldered herself toward him and stared up into his face. “Why are you laughing?” she asked in Mandarin. “I am Kazakh,” he boomed. “And all my life people say I am ugly. At last,” he said, eyeing her pale hair and blue eyes, “I find someone uglier than me!” They became fast friends and traveled together for several days.

When you hear “Kazakh,” think “Cossack,” the Russian name for the fierce, independent raiders who for several centuries dominated the borderlands between Russia and China. The Cossak rider’s picture, I found here: http://www.flamesofwar.com/Portals/0/all_images/Historical/Za-Stalina/Cossack-05.jpg

Here’s a brief excerpt about that trip directly from Tina’s journals:

Sunday, September 25, 1983: On the Multi-day Train Ride from Beijing

At 6 AM, the lights go on in the train and loudspeakers crackle to life with deafening revolutionary songs. We stop at Kangzhuang to take on water and let off passengers. The sky is already bright. Distant mountains are outlined against a rosy dawn.

Two teenagers come out of the train station to hook up hoses to the boilers: a tiny girl who looks no more than fourteen but handles the hoses like a pro, and a fresh-faced boy who yawns, glances up at the sunrise, then throws back his head to sing as he works.

In the train, I rub sleep from my eyes and look around at the sixty faces that surround me, some sleeping, some blinking out the windows at the dawn. Low chatter and the high music of babies. The woman next to me on our bunk is deeply asleep, her face close to mine. Her six-month-old baby is asleep beside her on the narrow bunk, his chubby hands tangled in her hair.

These are the people who only ten years ago our government refused to acknowledge diplomatically, who our people feared as ravening communist hordes. These are the same people who ten years ago considered me their mortal enemy. War: how trivial in motivation, how economic in origin, how insanely illogical. Unless actually invaded, how can any nation justify the slaughter of human beings whose only difference is their skin, or their belief, or their political membership. How easily, at any time in the last turbulent century, we might have found ourselves at war with these same people who sleep and stir around me.

Sunrise now, as we pass through enclosing mountains, glimpsing crumbling fragments of the Great Wall that catch the early sun. The train is alive with kids and cries of “ma!” The air fills with cigarette smoke and the human noise reaches ‘normal’ levels, a mix of earnest conversation and blaring propaganda. At one end of our car is a single sink, a small boiler of hot water, and a tiny closet with a hole in the floor through which you can watch railroad ties whizzing by a couple of feet below your bum. People patiently wait their turn to clean up, to make tea in mugs or jars they have brought with them.

There is such quiet cooperation among these sixty strangers packed together like sardines, such gentleness and assumption of mutual consideration: men, women, and children of all ages, soldiers and policemen, herdsmen and farmers and bureaucrats. Everyone but the infants have slept tightly bundled in their clothes in this still-prudish country, but bare baby bottoms are everywhere.



  1. Desiree Storch said,

    May 29, 2010 at 7:19 am

    What an amazing journey that must have been, I’d love to read more of Tina’s journal. Wow.

    • Bill Noble said,

      May 29, 2010 at 8:49 am

      We promise: more to come, from China, Canada, Peru . . . 🙂

  2. Irene Brady said,

    May 29, 2010 at 8:48 am

    Thank you. This is wonder-full.

  3. Dorothy Cox said,

    May 30, 2010 at 10:56 pm

    Is this the first time that Tina”s journals have been published? She writes like a real pro- like someone that Michner would write a novel about. (Or maybe Hemingway????

    • Bill Noble said,

      May 31, 2010 at 5:00 am

      It is, actually, this brief excerpt from one of three notebooks full of tiny, meticulous script — just from Mongolia. I want to take a little time each week to post other passages. I’ve been reading to her from the box full of notebooks and she takes immense pleasure from that, but posting it here has been even bigger. And it’s a way of making it easily accessible to family, which is what feels most important to me.

  4. Jude Hebert said,

    June 5, 2010 at 4:42 pm

    I so enjoyed reading this — I look forward to more Tina — a very talented and loving person. I’m so glad I’ve been able to know some of her in recent years and now hear her voice from before. Thanks, Tina and Bill

    • Bill Noble said,

      June 5, 2010 at 4:46 pm

      One of the best things about our the friendship between our two couples has been the ‘look-back’ — the chance to get to know our partners before Alzheimer’s. I feel as you AND Peter have given us a remarkable portrait of Peter and his life. ❤

  5. September 27, 2011 at 11:47 am

    I cannot wait to read more, she has a style that takes us right along! Thanks for posting this Bill.

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