By Luca Peroni, Volunteer of the international organization ProjectAbroad
According to a census conducted by the government in Mongolia in 2010, 67.9% of the population lived in urban areas while this number was only around 44.0% in 1969.
Despite the strong process of westernization, Mongolia still has a strong culture of pastoralism with herding customs which date back to the era of the Mongolian national hero Genghis Khan.
As a western citizen, I have been always fascinated by nomadism and how certain tribes or portions of the population are able to live in harsh conditions and kilometers away from the nearest town.
When I arrived at the ger (which in Mongolian simply means “home”), 5 kms away from the small city of Altanbulag located in central Mongolia, it was 3 pm and Gana and her husband Enkhbold (Henk) were busy milking the horses. Tsendjav, their 5-year-old son, meanwhile was singing and running around the ger. I had to wait a couple of minutes. The arrival of someone at the ger can’t simply interrupt the daily chore of milching cows and horses.
It is summer and it is common nowadays that a modern nomad family uses 2 gers – a smaller one for cooking and a bigger one for guests and family. Being there with my western shiny blue backpack was enough to make me feel like an ‘invader’ of the beautiful landscape that surrounded me.
While waiting I looked around and in front of me lay a vast valley dotted with white spots that were kilometers away. They were other gers where probably friends or acquaintances of Gana and Henk lived.
In front of the vast space around the ger there were around 20 horses, 50 sheep, 40 goats and 10 cows.
No pigs or chickens were present as apparently it would make it difficult to look after them and feed them, especially in winter when temperature can go down to as low as -40 degrees Centigrade.
Gana is coming towards the ger with a bucket full of milk.
I tried to study some Mongolian before starting this experience and it was now the moment to put it in practice.
‘Sain bainuu, minii ner Luca’ (‘Hello, my name is Luca!’)
Gana and Henk are smiling and they reply: ‘Tatai Bain!’ (‘Our pleasure!’)
I still have my shiny blue bag pack on my shoulder and Gana shows me where my bed is.
I enter the ger and make sure I don’t step on the door threshold as this is thought to bring bad luck. My bed is on the left side of the ger which, traditionally, is the male side. The right side belongs to the women.
After giving some small presents to the family and showing them pictures of my family, Gana offers me some fresh horse milk in a bowl and, right after that, fermented horse milk called Airag.
It is a traditional national beverage in Mongolia. It’s refreshing and sparkling and is the result of the milk fermentation process that contains a small amount of carbon dioxide and up to 5% of alcohol.
It’s almost 7 pm and the sky in the east is already dark while in the west the sky is a mix of colors which turns violet to blue to yellow.
Traditionally the painted wooden door is set up facing south. From the open top roof frame, the sunlight then enters the ger and traces a path on the floor which helps the family to determine the daily passage of time.
In the 13th century, Guillaume de Rubrouck, (c. 1220 – c. 1293) a Flemish Franciscan missionary and explorer, in his book Travels in the Eastern countries described the ger houses:
“They put their houses on wheels, and woven rods are used as walls for their homes. The walls are enclosed on the top forming the roof of the house. They are covered with white felt and it is often coated with lemon or bone powder to make it sparkle. They sometimes put on the roof opening a black felt decorated with beautiful designs on different themes. At the entrance of the house, they hang a felt covered with colorful fabrics, and vines, trees, birds, and animals are reproduced in colored felt. ”
The basic structure of the ger remains the same nowadays but transportation, for example, is now done with small trucks.
In a Mongolian nomadic family, the woman’s responsibilities range from domestic matters within the ger to raising the children to milking the animals and taking care of newborn animals. The man’s responsibilities extend more towards the surrounding area where horses and cattle roam. He needs to make sure there are the proper conditions for the animals and he is the one who decides if it is time to pack everything and move to another area of grazing.
Around 7.30 pm the entire family gather around the stove which is positioned in the center of the ger. Oiga, Gana’s brother, also joins us for dinner. He is staying with the family to help Henk with the daily activities during the summer time. Gana is serving dinner even though I will quickly come to understand in the following days that the nomads don’t necessarily follow the western meals timeline of breakfast, lunch and dinner. They eat continuously throughout the entire day.
Guriltai shöl is what Gana serves to me. It is a typical Mongolian noodle soup with mutton and vegetables generally carrots, potatoes and onions.
As a form of respect I take the bowl with two hands. That’s what the Mongolian bon ton says.
The other option would be to take the bowl with the right hand with the left hand supporting the right elbow. This formality will become more natural to me only in the following days, especially when some friends come to visit the family and the traditional and formal distribution of glasses of vodka will remind me of this gesture.
Henk and Gana speak very few words in English as I have been told. It is then my responsibility to find a way to communicate. It seemed like a good moment to say something more about me and a bit excited and clumsy I take out my 3 dictionaries that I bought on Amazon back home and reading the phonetic version of the sentences I say:
‘Bi Itali ulsaas irsen. Bi nisekh ongotsoor irsen.’ ( ‘I’m Italian. I came here by airplane.’)
They smile and I’m flattered I have been able to pronounce it correctly and that they understood. Then followed a short conversation between Gana and Henk which of course I didn’t understand but they look at me and smile so I simply smile back.
In modern days, where communication is not an issue anymore, it is not considered odd for a nomad family to have a smartphone. So, after finishing our dinner, Henk starts to play around with his phone and after few minutes is asking everybody to come closer to him to see a video he found.
It’s a video of bronco riding somewhere in the US. Henk and Oiga start to laugh every time a rider is bucked off badly from the horse.
We all laugh and when the video is finished it’s already 9.30 pm and it’s time to go to bed. As we were in the small ger, I need to go out and move to the other ger. As soon as I step out from the door it’s dark and all the goats and sheep immediately run away from the nearness of the ger. The sky is only illuminated by the moon and by the Milky Way.
I stay with my nose up to the sky for 1 to 2 minutes but at some point I notice a goat is trying to enter the ger so I quickly make a noise and it runs off.
Next day, at 7 am, Henk and Oiga went kilometers away from the ger to bring the horses back to the fenced area. This operation was traditionally done riding horses but nowadays nomads combine old traditions with new more comfortable (or lazy?) ones. As such, pastoral herders now often use motorbikes instead of riding horses to move around.
Despite these new ‘comforts’, daily routine in the Mongolian steppe is still rotating around the ceremony of the mare’s milk collection which is usually early in the morning and late in the afternoon.
When milk is collected in order to produce Airag, the fresh milk is filtered through a cloth and poured into a large leather sack (Khökhüür). In modern days, plastic industrial containers are used. Inside this container the milk gets manually stirred with a masher (bülüür) over one or two days making sure the milk is fermented equally.
In the following days I discover Gana and Henk moved to the current valley few months before.
After a very dry period, they had decided to move close to Altanbulag where water can be easily taken from a near fountainhead and also because a military base was close to that area and they could get goods in exchange for their homemade Airag.
I had the chance to enter the small military base with Enkh. He had to bring to the troop a container of 80 liters of Airag. The storage area for the dairy products at the base is an old United Nations container which was probably brought to Mongolia after one of the peacekeeping operations the Mongolian army participated in with US soldiers in Afghanistan or Africa.
As an exchange Enkh got a decent manger for his horses and cows. This was not the only occasion where I saw the use of bartering instead of money. Being in a vast area where distance between people is measured in kilometers, the bartering of goods becomes an occasion to have a chat, sit around the stove and talk about daily life.
Hospitality and dedication to guests are often the basic principles of nomadic populations and Mongolian nomads are not an exception.
Every daily activity except milking the animals would be put on hold or postponed if a new guest came to the ger and if a guest was staying longer than a few hours then they would have the pleasure of participating in what we already called the ceremony.
It seemed that in a Mongolian nomadic family the woman will be particularly busy if guests are coming. She will be the one cooking, preparing the proper space for the guests to sit, serving the dishes on top of taking care of the normal daily tasks. From this perspective Gana was not an exception. Mongolia has a long history of sex egalitarianism, perhaps reflecting the sharing of duties in the traditional herding household.
There are examples of Mongol women, especially in the eras of the Great Khans, with high status, influence and responsibility within the empire.
Also during the Soviet period equality between women and men was promoted as part of the communist doctrine. After the 90s with democracy, political parties set up their own women organizations.
In my host nomadic family, Gana was quite often busy but also seemed ready to ask her husband if she needed some help which Henk was quite always ready to give.
Nomad life follows the gentle rhythm of nature. For a western citizen it might be difficult to live a day where ‘there is nothing to do’ but as I wonder myself: are these moments really useless? Can’t you simply take a walk in the astonishing surroundings, looking at the clouds or checking how the bed of a river changes while running to the valley? Yes. It is possible.
The feeling a western citizen might have during these moments might be a mixture of enthusiasm, euphoria and fear being surrounded by the astonishing landscapes. Feelings which probably a herdsman from Mongolia would find unusual.
In 2011, Mongolia was the country with the highest increase of GDP in the world (+17%) but is now facing a slowed increase (+2.3% in 2015 and +1% in 2016). New mines of raw materials like zinc, copper and gold take up to 20-30% of the national GDP which may lead the national economy to potential instability due to the fluctuation of commodity prices.
Nomadic culture is also affected by this new development in the country.
In the Gobi Desert, in south Mongolia in 2001 a joint venture between the Mongolian government (34% share) and a Canadian company founded the Oyu Tolgi mining site in an area where the largest copper deposit in the world was found.
Mongolian nomads were forced to resettle in areas not adequate to feed and protect their animals. The scarce water resources were jeopardized without considering that the nomads utilize the summer pasture in order to optimize as much as possible the access to water for the animals.
Although recently this year, with the help of the international organization CAO (Office of the Compliance Advisor/Ombudsman) the herders were able to fight for their way of life. They were able to make Oyu Tolgi sign 50 separate commitment documents dedicated to protect the nomad families, animals and the natural environment around them.
Nomad tradition has 3000 years of history. In the last century, the western life style and globalization started to erode, in every corner of the world, local traditions of small population which not necessarily would like to have the latest smartphone available or an expensive car.
On one of my last days with the family I asked Henk two simple questions:
“What is your biggest dream you have?”
Henk replied: “I hope one day I will become the best herdsman in Mongolia.”
I only discovered later when I went back to the capital that next to State Merit medals for lawyers, economists, athletes or teachers, the Mongolian government also appoints every year a State merit medal for Herdsmen.
The second question was even more simple:
“Are you happy with your current life?”
His answer was: “Yes.”