15 Mar 2013

Mongolian Nomads: Ger-to-Ger: Our first few families

We had found Ger-to-Ger in our guidebook, they described themselves as providing “'Social Enterprise' comprised nomadic travel routes, rural cultural home-stay programs that aim to expand greater community based and managed cultural GeoTourism initiatives” and we felt that was exactly what we were after.  We were excited to be booked in to a 6 day, 6 night stay with nomadic families and en-route to finding out what this way of life was like and what we could learn from it.  We were placed on the bus towards Terelj National Park, where we were told we would need to take the bus, then change to a micro-bus and at UB-2 stop in Terelj Park our first family would be waiting.  So, armed with the key phrases we had learnt in the “lesson” the day before with Ger-to-Ger, we headed East from Ulaanbaatar.

Day No.
Kms travelled
Kms Running total
Hours travelled
Night accommodation
Terelj National Park
Bus & Ox-cart
Ger to Ger - Mr Bold & Mrs Battsetseg
Terelj National Park
Ger to Ger - Mr Bolortogoo
Terelj National Park
Ger to Ger - Mr Zorigt

The journey took just under 2 hours and it was the microbus experience that gave us most insight into way of life and community.  We found the microbus after asking around and were told to hop in – even though it wasn’t quite clear to me whether they had understood where we were asking to go.  We set off and after just a few metres on the road, we were off road and heading towards a bumpy road into what looked like the middle of nowhere – soon it became clear that we were on a few errands for various people in the bus.  We stopped to drop off shopping, to buy cigarettes and to go to the bank and then ended up back where we had started to pick up some more people.  This was the community bus.  The “microbus” could seat 10 people, but this didn’t seem to deter anyone.  The microbus always stopped and people always got in.

As promised, the ox-cart was waiting for us, and our hostess Mrs Battsetseg did a good job of tucking us into the blankets.  Then began the long and slow journey to our first “ger” (or Yurt as they are more commonly known in England!).  The cart bounced fitfully over stones and equally hard lumps of frozen ox dung.  After an hour we were both losing the feeling in our feet, and by the time we arrived at the ger we were chilled to the bone.  We had been led to expect milk tea, or the infamous yak butter tea that Mongolia is renowned for, but we were instead greeted with “normal” tea as well as a milk tea option.  The milk tea is tasty and very nutritious but rich and hard to drink in any real quantity.  It is a small amount of regular tea mixed with raw horse, yak or cow’s milk and a good dose of salt.  We tried both milk and “regular” tea.

It was then time to “put the kids to bed” – our roommates for the night were 4 baby goats, a lamb and a calf.  The latter looked on unconcerned as dinner of gristly beef and homemade noodles was prepared in a large wok on the central hearth.  Beef noodles were to become a familiar theme over the next week.  More tea, and then it was the lamb's turn to play it cool as a bag of sheep ankle bones were brought out for the very traditional but un-originally named “ankle bone game”.  Basically the ankle bones are thrown like dice and can land on one of four sides.  Each side represents a sheep, goat, horse or camel.  You then have to collect as many ankle bones as possible by flicking them into others of the same “species”, which are then “caught”.  When you hit one of the wrong “species” the turn passes to the next player.  Best at this game was the host’s niece, who had been adopted following her mother’s death.  She suffered from learning difficulties but enjoyed helping with the housework and was certainly better than us at this game!  Once the fire went out, the frost crept quickly into the ger – it was about -20˚C outside.  We followed the traditional sleeping etiquette – John slept on the West side of the ger and Josi on the East.  The kids and lamb slept in a pen near the door (which always points South) and the calf was tethered next to them.  It was cosy in the night listening to animals chewing cud and moving around in the straw – the kids and lamb had all made themselves very comfortable all piled on top of each other under a blanket.  They certainly looked warmer than us!



The sun didn’t break over the hills until about 7.30am and a thick frost lay over the ground.  The fire was re-lit for making breakfast – milk tea with a type of hard biscuit/bread.  Fresh milk is a precious commodity in the winter so we were privileged.  Cow’s milk was then prepared for the goat kids as their own mother’s winter milk was not nutritious enough.  Josi fed the baby animals with a bottle.  The 2 year old grandson of our host came last in the feeding order!

At about noon we said our goodbyes and set off on a short ox-cart journey to Mr Bolortogoo, his wife and 5 year old son. After a lunch of meat and potatoes we hiked up to a high point to look out over the woods and river valley, and then Josi learnt how to sew a small bag with the traditional Mongolian pattern.  We then followed Mr Bolortogoo to herd his cows.  Somewhat to his embarrassment it seemed he couldn't find them.  He gave a shrug of the shoulders and then gestured us to head back to the ger – it was starting to get dark.  He indicated that we merely had to follow the “path” (which was two faint ruts in the snow).  So, while he continued to look for his cows – which seemed a hopeless task in endless bush and woodland – we set off back.  After about 15 minutes we came to a fork in the tracks – not good.  

We chose the route that looked most used, but after a while realised that it was wrong as we were going too far towards the river.  The darkening landscape was pretty featureless, but we did recognise the rocky outcrop we had hiked up to earlier that day.  We left the path and made a beeline for the outcrop, pushing through thick undergrowth as the sun cast its last long shadow in the valley.  Being white and squat and with only a feeble bulb running from a solar charger, ger’s are a pain to find in the snow.  It was only the wisp of snow coming from the chimney that eventually gave away its location.  We were relieved to open the door (knocking is not customary as the dog usually announces anyone’s arrival) and be greeted with more tea and meat.  Some time later, to his credit, Mr. Bolortogoo returned with his cows.  He then play wrestled with his son, while explaining to us that they move ger only twice a year – in October to the winter site and in April back to the summer pastures.  It is only a 10km move, but involves packing the ger and all its contents onto ox-carts.  That’s a stark contrast to the fully nomadic tribes in the West who are forced to find new pasture every 2/3 weeks throughout the year.



"Jarlon" - the toilet - one of the best ones we encountered!


We slept in late until 9am, when the sun hit the walls of the ger.  It was just warm enough to sit outside in the sun.  Then another ox-cart to Mr Zorigt, his wife and their spoilt and very cheeky grand-daughter, who within minutes of our arrival was taking great delight in poking us in the ribs and trying to bend our fingers backwards.  She also had a horribly sweet tooth, even pouring sugar into her rice.

Lunch was meat and potato stew and dry yak curd.  The latter is stored throughout the winter, and this particular example had developed a veiny green mould on it.  Feeling adventurous, John tried a bite, only to realise it was stone hard – it should be either sucked or dissolved in milk tea.  As usual the plain biscuits were the most appealing item on offer. 

Mr Zorigt had the kind of face that could only be the result of misfortune or a lifetime living in harsh conditions – sunken, tired features, heavily lined and with a gaping whole were most of his teeth should have been (no doubt the dried yak curds were partly to blame for that!)  He looked ancient, but turned out to be only 54.  He also spoke with a rasping shout which gave us the distinct impression that he was hard of hearing too. 

After lunch Mr Zorigt beckoned to John to help him to cut wood.  This turned into quite an experience.  His pride and joy was an old Chinese chainsaw, the chain of which had about as many teeth left as him.  He pulled a Fanta bottle of petrol out from his jacket and shouted “Mongolian Vodka!” before tipping it into the saw.  He then showed John where to hold each log, which was about 6 inches away from the slack chain which bucked and danced its laborious way through the wood.  Before each cut he winked his one eye reassuringly, which heralded a spray of woodchips which forced John to turn his face away and wait for the ordeal to be over.  Most disconcerting, and strange, was the neatly severed horse’s leg, complete with hoof, which lay on the woodpile.  We couldn’t help wondering whether this was a remnant of one of his previous assistants.  All digits still intact, John then helped him change the oil in the gear box of his Hyundai pickup.  He seemed suitably impressed. 

Meanwhile Josi discovered that she has a real talent for feeding and herding cows.  She set about them with a big stick, shouting “Uusch, uusch!”  She impressed both John and Mr Zorigt by getting them all fed and into their pen.  Dinner was fried patties filled with gristle and potato – they left a thick layer of lard on the plate and did not sit too well.  After dinner, more latecomer cows arrived home by themselves and we herded them into the pen in the moonlight – a magical experience.  Wolves are a real threat to them here, so this is an exercise that is taken seriously.  Josi wealds her stick with gusto.  The stars are spectacular, but as the fire goes out in our (beautiful) ger, the relentless frost creeps in again.



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