Friday, August 26, 2011

Our Ger Stay in Mongolia: A vanishing way of life?

This shaggy beast is a yak, often herded with cattle.
Their thick long-haired coats ideally suit them as snow-breakers! 
Dave and Deb from The Planet D are off on the
Mongol Rally, as you will have read here -
Mongol Rally , stirring our memories of our time in Mongolia in 2005. The throatsinging CDs are loaded up in my stereo system on random play, and this week wonderful Mongolian and Tuvan tunes are blasting out in my workshop, and I am wandering the vast, grassy steppes again. Even my dog howls along when those Tuvan boys from Huun Huur Tu open up. Not sure why my dog loves the tunes, but her ears go up, a gleam appears in her eyes, and then the howling starts as she sings along with them.
While you read this post and browse some  photos taken on our Mongolian ger stay in 2005, click on this video link and enjoy the richness of Mongolian throatsinging and Morin Khur or horse head fiddle.


 In 2005 Kay and I were homestayed with a Mongolian family while on an exchange with Friendship Force , an international organisation promoting friendship and goodwill through a program of home hosting, or exchanges. After catching the Trans-Mongolian Express from Beijing and travelling non-stop through Mongolia to Irkutsk at the bottom of Lake Baikal in the Russian Federation, we met up with the rest of our Friendship Force party and all 25 ambassadors re-entered Mongolia heading to Ulaan Baatar, the capitol city. A few days later our Mongolian hosts drove our party to Khar Khorin by rented bus, and 4WDs.
Roads are rough: we often saw broken down vehicles, usually with suspension problems. You'll note the sway on our bus in this photo. At that time there was just 80 KMs of sealed road in the entire country. A broken suspension but a quick-fix weld up and we were bouncing over the steppes again.

Inside a nomadic family's ger.
 After visiting the Buddhist temple of Erdeen zuu at Khar Khorin, our convoy drove along a scarcely defined track deep into a vast valley where a few ger tents of nomadic herders were. This was going to be the ger stay, but no pre-arrangements had been made; our drivers just drove up to a ger at random, the exchange leader hopped out and disappeared into a ger, re-appeared a few minutes later and delegated 2 of us to that ger. The convoy drove off into the darkness, seeking out more unsuspecting families to disgorge unexpected guests upon.

  Mongolians accept unhesitatingly an unexpected guest - a traveller's survival in their harsh desert or winter conditions depended on being able to find shelter and food at any ger they came upon. This customary courtesy was extended to Kay and I, who were left to our devices with a family who spoke no English. We of course had to communicate by sign and expressions, until a school age kid from a ger a few kilometres up the valley arrived. English is taught at school and luckily it was summer school recess: all the kids were home from boarding school in the city and later that night many piled into our ger. It was a fun night, and our early model Sony digital camera was a hit, being able to take photos and show the kids their smiling faces broke the ice and created bonds of friendship.

Making buuz,
steamed and fried dumplings stuffed with minced lamb.
 Our new hosts found their famished invaders a meal. Dried cheeses of various varieties and their famous tea. This is shaved off tea bricks - blocks of compressed low grade tea. Salt and milk are indispensable components of Mongolian tea and the milky drink can be surprisingly refreshing once you get the taste of it. Fermented mare's milk called airag is another staple drink. I loved its slightly acidic bite. And then we sampled distilled airag called araka, which was even better being very alcoholic almost like vodka! You need lots to finish off a plate of dried cheeses: some are really tasty but the very plain white one disproves the old saying .. "as different as chalk and cheese!"

Our ger family's nieces and nephews
from all the gers in the valley.
Sleep that night was in a very comfy bed. We were under instructions not to go outside during the night as the guard dogs would chew us up. But in the early morning the araka was prompting a call of nature. In pitch black I felt my way around the tent, found the door, and wandered out in the dim moonlight to the horse line, and let it flow. Just in time I saw the horse in the dark a few metres from me that took exception to me peeing on his grass within his circle of leash restraint! I managed to leap away before his  teeth crashed together barely missing my shoulder. Perhaps the dogs paid him to guard while they skived off duty?

A cute yak calf.
Hure`( pronounced Kuray), our tent's owner, slept the night in his parents adjacent tent. We shared with 3 of the children who overnighted with us. When we awoke all were off about their early morning chores. Large flocks of sheep and goats were released from the holding pens to graze, and cattle and yaks were being milked. 5 kinds of animals are milked - mares, yaks, cows, sheep and goats.Yaks are a valuable animal as they open up the deep snows to allow cattle, sheep and goats to find grazing during the long winters.
 Nomads move camp 3 times a year to new pastures, and will have a wintering over area where there may be some rudimentary shelter for their animals. Animal husbandry as we know it with purpose built barns and masses of harvested hay or silage is  not practiced; the animals are often left to fend for themselves to find grazing during winter. This sounds harsh but has resulted in breeding of very hardy strains of domestic animals ideally suited to their conditions.

Horses are very tough, withstanding the sub-zero freezing
snows of winter and the heat of summer, without shelter. 
 The nomadic herder way of life may come to an end with Government moves to allow private ownership of land to encourage them to settle in one place and become agriculturalists. With around 70% of the 3 million population living in UlaanBaatar and other main towns, producing enough food in the short growing season is a problem. Nomadic families rarely plough the ground, except perhaps for potatoes for distilling vodka. Leaf vegetables are considered animal fodder. Dine with a nomadic family and their diet is based on what their animals supply - plenty of meat, fat, lots of meat, and more fat, served with rice, and the occasional pickled gherkin, and of course the obligatory dried cheese.

 This may be a move fraught with unforeseen consequences. Much of the desertification of Inner Mongolia which is now part of China, is because the vast plains have had their grass top cover destroyed through resettlement programs and the associated agricultural 'improvements'. Once the grass cover has been broken open, the exceptionally strong cold seasonal wind worrys the exposed area, lifts out the soil and sandblasts the bare areas wider, lifting particles into the air and creating dust clouds that cover as far away as Beijing...where citizens wonder about climate change causing desertification, when the truth is man's inappropriate farming practices. I wonder if anyone there could be shown the Dust Bowl' era in the USA's Mid-western states of the 30's?
A Mongolian tourist camping ground.
The showers and toilets are communal blocks,
and there is a central restaurant.

How to erect a ger. Also referred to as a yurt.

 A way of life that has existed for 1,000's of years is under pressure to change, as Mongolia enters the modern world and urbanisation draws more children away from the nomadic life to jobs and careers in the city, mainly the capital. Fewer young are content to carry on the hard way of their parents. Coca-Cola and french fries are taking over from meat and dried cheese perhaps?

What hope that the Mongolian traditional nomadic way of life will continue?




eigroj said...

Very informative,,, Will

sheril benedict said...

Every time i used to think ,better to quit the city life and go to a village area and spend my life there .But after reading your post it seems like its tough to live .Do these people are exposed to urban life or technology ??

Karl said...

the modern lifestyle has finally caught up with the nomadic way of life there huh? i first learned of what a yak was through Sesame Street. the episode was brought to us by the letter Y.

AJ said...

What an amazing experience, Jim!!! Saw a NatGeo docu about this, except that the "invading" guest was Julia Roberts. She pretty much had the same wonderful experience, minus the close call with a horse. Haha!

I sure hope they could preserve this culture and way of life, but change is inevitable. But if the Amish can survive in 21st century America, then I think the ger-dwelling Mongols can.

photos by jan said...

How sad that "civilization" is taking over a centuries old life style. The culture and once again the ways of family are ignored for the profits of some. Great read Jim, thank you.

Bec Owen said...

What an amazing adventure you and Kay had there, Jim! I so appreciate visiting and reading your blog, and being a 'virtual' tourist on your travels! Thank you for sharing them with all of us :)

Kiwivic said...

Fascinating, staying in a Ger is still n my list of things that I want to do - one of these days it will happen

Michael Figueiredo said...

Fascinating story, Jim. Terrific photos too!

Anonymous said...

There's a reason архи tastes like vodka. That's what it is!

Jim said...

You're probaly right, they make it out of all sorts of stuff.

Melissa Tandoc said...

I hope we keep on asking those questions Jim. I hope they'll balance tradition with modernization of Mongolia.

I was struck with putting 'salt' on tea... really?

I would like to taste 'araka'...I wonder if it tastes something similar to anything we have here...

Oh wonderful experiences Jim...really first hand...

My desire to go to Mongolia also wishful day, perhaps....even in dreams, i'd be content.