Waking Up in Orkhon Valley
It was the fourth day of our trip in Mongolia. It had been incredibly hard to sleep in the ger, after the misadventure of the previous day, and the biting cold of the long night. Our ger had room for 6 people and was the most spacious ger that we’d stayed in so far. But the amenities were rudimentary — as we had been forewarned. There was no electricity or electric point and heating was provided by a wood furnace. The cool wind kept us awake through the night and ruffled the flaps of plastic. The 3 blankets and flickering furnace were rendered useless and were no match for that sneaky gust of wind. In the morning, we woke up to the sounds of neighing horses. It took us some time to get our bearings and appreciate the early morning alarm bell. When I looked up, I found the cause of the cold draft. The flap of the rooftop was left open, probably for circulation of air or to prevent a buildup of smoke inside.
Soaking in the First Views
By the time we reached the ger, on the previous night, the entire valley was plunged in darkness. So, we couldn’t see our surroundings, or for that matter, when Boggi (our guide) pointed to the long-drop toilet (in the distance) — I couldn’t see what was she talking about. In the morning, we realised the epic scale of the location we were based in. Mountains rose above the horizon and the endless plains were painted in verdant green. But the sky still dominated the landscape and dwarfed the land below.
The long-drop toilet was hard to miss in the morning. A couple of wooden planks, nailed together, formed a protective room around a hole in the earth. Given the surroundings, it is an ingenious idea to bury human waste and it removes the need for plumbing. It makes sense since the nomads would stay there only for a couple of months. A continuous supply of fresh air ensures there is no residual odour. Well that’s the practical part, but it’s easier said than done when you’re using one. Squatting isn’t easy when you have a painful knee. Besides, you never know who’s going to come knocking on your door — human or animal.
Milking the Yak
Life as a nomad isn’t easy. At 6.30 am, almost everyone, including the young kids, were up and had already started doing their chores. Boggi wanted me to try milking the yak and I wasn’t too kicked by the idea. So, I did what I’m good at — I observed. The young calves were rounded up in an enclosure whilst the nomad’s wife milked the mother. And once she was done, the calf was reunited with its mother, and it happily latched on.
The Mysterious Effects of Fresh Air
There’s something magical about fresh air. It’s a high that takes a long time to wear off. And it was interesting to study the effect it caused on every living being that took a whiff of it. In the sky, a kite glided gleefully and couldn’t seem to get enough of the wide expanse of blue.
On the ground, a horse started displaying some unusual animal behaviour. I wouldn’t really blame it. When you’re surrounded by so much beauty — it can be a tad difficult to process.
Animals were not the only ones displaying strange behavioural patterns. Humans, city slickers in particular, were ditching acceptable societal norms in exchange for impulsive behaviour. I guess, that’s what pure oxygen does to you. It gets the blood flowing in your veins and your brain all pumped up. You start to question every rule in the book of acceptable human behaviour. You realise that you’ve been drugged with polluted air far too long and that makes it easier to follow the herd. And for once, you know, it’s alright to break those chains and live your life — without a care in the world.
Boggi had set a table outside our ger. Saikna, our driver, was late to wake up and joined us later. The sun was out and I appreciated the warmth. The nomad’s wife joined us for a quick bite and rushed to complete her chores for the day. We were fortunate to just sit there and take it all in. According to the itinerary, we could either head to the hot springs (a 20 minute journey from the ger) or just observe nomadic lifestyle. We chose the latter. I had made up my mind and was pretty sure I didn’t want to do or participate in any activity. The previous day had been really long and I wanted to get some rest. Basil wanted to try herding the livestock and Boggi was happy to have one enthusiastic traveller.
Apprenticing as a Herder
Step 1: Getting Started
Basil was excited to sign up as apprentice to the nomad. As with most jobs, there were some initial hiccups and getting the horse to move was Basil’s first challenge. His boss was a very patient trainer and quickly set things into motion. His wife smiled as they finally started moving towards the herd.
Step 2: Learning to Gallop
It wasn’t Basil’s first horse ride, but it had been so long ago that it probably took him time to relearn how to ride. The terrain was uneven and was interspersed with lava rocks and river crossings.
Step 3: Rounding Up Yaks
Beyond a point, I couldn’t see them anymore and had to use the zoom to spot them. I wasn’t sure if Basil was truly helping, but he was doing a good job of staying on the horse, whilst his trainer did the hard work of rounding up yak.
Step 4: More the Merrier
And suddenly, from nowhere, Saikna hopped on a horse, and started galloping towards them. Saikna lived in a city in north-eastern Mongolia, but loved the countryside. He had developed a taste for nature on his visits to his grandma’s house. I was happy to see Saikna finally have some fun, instead of the bored look on his face — whenever he waited for us.
Step 5: Concentrating on the Task Ahead
Once the yak were rounded up, it was time to gather sheep together. Basil had carried my phone along and this is how his view looked. I’m glad I didn’t get on that horse.
Step 6: A Job Well Done. Or Sort of!
After roughly an hour or so, the three men: trainer, apprentice, and helper came back to the ger. They seemed to be happy with the job done. The trainer was all smiles and the apprentice was proud of what he had accomplished. Could the apprentice, perhaps, leave his corporate job and trade it for a job as a herder? Judging by what I saw, from this side of the lens, I’d say he’d be getting ahead of himself.
Spotting Lava Rocks
Sometime during the herding endeavour, I walked away from the action, and turned my lens towards other interesting objects. Lava rocks were scattered all across the landscape. The night before, our vehicle was actually driving on top of this rocky minefield — in the dark!
Some rocks were arranged in a circular pattern. Turns out these sites were ancient burial sites.
In the Company of Animals
Why Mongolia? I lost count of the number of times Boggi asked me this question. I thought it was a silly question. I had been dreaming about this for years and after moving to Seoul — I knew we had to visit it.
But, it’s also possible that Boggi sensed something more. The past year had been incredibly tough for me and I fell into an existential crisis of sorts. I needed to resort to escapism or understand the meaning of life. As I walked around, my problems didn’t disappear, neither did I understand what my true purpose was. But, as I looked at the countless goat grazing peacefully on the succulent grass, I realised: just being can be good enough.
Lunch at the Nomad’s Ger
By 12 pm we had all assembled in the nomad’s ger. Our hosts (I wish I knew their names) would prepare a meal for us and Mongolian noodle soup for themselves. In a ger, there are rules for seating and how you must move about. It’s considered rude to stand whilst everyone is seated. There’s also a special place reserved for the patriarch of the family.
However, with foreign guests, these rules are relaxed. So, we sat where the patriarch (or nomad) should have been seated. There was a division of work in the ger. The nomad’s wife prepared part of the meal on the stove and the nomad prepared another dish on a portable stove. I was happy to have a delicious meal of veggies and rice, but felt a little guilty for increasing their workload.
How many heads does it take to assemble a car?
Gifting is a common practice in Mongolia. On Boggi’s recommendation, we bought gifts for our hosts and their children. The youngest child, a boy, was fascinated by his toy car and couldn’t wait to play with it. There were few issues with getting it started though. Saikna (ex-basketball player, sports educator, and daredevil driver) became the man of the hour and solved the problem. Sadly, the car had a very short lifespan. The boy was so enamoured with it that he washed it with shampoo and quite naturally it stopped working by evening.
Learning to make öröm (clotted cream).
Basil couldn’t get enough of öröm (clotted cream) at breakfast. In the ger, he was happy to take a lesson in making Mongolian clotted cream. Yak milk is heated in a large metallic container — directly over the wood furnace. The wood furnace served a dual purpose as heater and cooking stove. After the milk is reasonably thick, it is placed aside to cool. The creme is them removed and folded into sheets. You can eat it with bread or as a desert.
Nomadism is a slowly dying tradition in Mongolia. Many nomads are shifting to towns or gers — outside the city. Tourism could play an important role in adding to the livelihood of the nomads. Our tour company bought extra gers for our hosts to house travellers. The nomads would pay the company back in instalments until they covered the cost of the ger.
Meeting more people from the outside could alter the traditions of the nomad. For e.g. the nomad and his wife had picked up French greetings. That could change the experience for the next traveller. But, it’s a small price to pay for the experience.
Modernism could also bridge the gap between tradition and sustainence. In the parent ger, there was a charger for electricity, a compact fridge, and even a small TV for the kids. They also owned a car and motorbike for easy transportation to the nearest town.The kids studied at a local town school and lived in boarding — visiting their parents only during the holidays.