A Day in the Life of a Mongolian Nomad

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

Breakfast

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.

Sustainable Nomadism

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.

 

 

36 responses to “A Day in the Life of a Mongolian Nomad

  1. A good tale. Don’t worry about knowing your purpose, just face each day with an open mind and heart. I understand exactly how you feel. 🙂

  2. What an epic landscape! There are very few culturally “pure” experiences these days. Anyone who has access to the digital world is shaped by modern ways. Whether for good or ill, this is a fact. I think in pursuing tourism of this sort, it’s most important to arrive with no expectations and to bring a huge dose of respect for the hosts. Future visitors may not have the rustic experience you did, but they will surely still enjoy getting to know the locals of Mongolia and sharing wonderful moments with them. Was there a reason the nomads had to pay for the extra tents rather than the travelers?

      • Hey Boggie! So good to hear from you! I’m so glad you loved our account of the trip. Please feel free to share the post on your page. Hope you’re doing well! Thanks a bunch for stopping by. 🙂

    • I agree. I’m wary about cultural experiences (like these) because of their authenticity or the stereotypes they thrive on. But, if you look beyond what’s shown to you, you’d see real people. Essentially we’re all the same. Just trying to survive this world. Our ways might be different. 🙂
      I’m more into nature, fortunately, there are few places, on this planet, that cannot be doctored. Mongolia is one such country! It is shaped by the elements and takes your breath away.
      Gers (for tourists) can be quite expensive and the nomads can’t afford buying multiple gers at one go. So, the company buys it for them and they pay back the company in installments. Eventually, the nomads will own the spare gers. The nomads do receive payment for the food we eat and our stay with them. And that’s how they earn extra money. The main source of income comes from the sale of their livestock.

  3. Looks like an interesting adventure, nicely written up. Somehow, that last shot of the car out there in the wilderness seems a bit jarring, as if there should only be horses there. (Even if I know you didn’t ride a horse to get there)

    • Thanks, Dave. I’m so glad you (someone) noticed the car! It was definitely jarring to see it parked next to our ger. Took me by surprise. It made me question what I knew or thought I knew about the Mongolian nomads. I had to write about it or my readers would think nomads ride a horse to the local town. 🙂

    • You could say that, Anubhav! 🙂 The second night was much better. I agree, it’s hard to beat those views. I’m so glad you’re enjoying the virtual journey.

  4. A fascinating look at a nomadic lifestyle. I guess there’s always going to be the positives and negatives of living that way but I think it’s inevitable that modernism slowly takes over eventually. Nevertheless, living simply like this occasionally is still a good break from our usual hectic lifestyle. Now that Mongolia is off your list though, where else is next? Haha 🙂

    • One gets this feeling of simplicity when you see pictures, but living that kind of lifestyle isn’t easy. The elements can be very harsh in Mongolia. By mid-August the weather can change without warning. I expected a more moderate climate and was left unprepared for that kind of cold. I’ve got a lot of respect for people who choose to follow tradition and live in the lap of nature — when the world is changing rapidly around them. Making peace with modernism could be the answer to striking a balance. 🙂 I want to go everywhere…Kenya, Tanzania, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt are firm favourites. But, because we’re on ‘this side’; I think our next trip (only in 2018) will have to be in Asia. 🙂

  5. Pingback: Ancient Volcanic Eruptions, a Gushing Waterfall, and a Sky Full of Stars. | twobrownfeet·

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s