19 Mar 2013

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

Broke bright and frosty.  Over breakfast of hard biscuits and milk tea our host asked whether we had a car or ox-cart at home.  We answer “car” and show him a photo of TONKA (landcruiser pickup) – he likes that.  Then he asks if we own cows? “no”, horses? “no”, ahh, then you have sheep!

Josi is then assigned the task of milking the cow.  This is exclusively a women’s job in Mongolia and a first for Josi.  It says a lot about what animals have to endure in this part of the world, that the poor creature didn’t even twitch an eyelash as Josi’s icy and amateur fingers moved tentatively over its udders.  This was evidently not an enjoyable experience for either Josi or the cow, and after a few feeble squirts had hit the pale, it was time for more expert involvement.  Mrs Zorigt set to work and jets of rich steaming milk flowed seamlessly one after the other.  This was then taken straight into the ger, boiled over the fire and made into tea, which was stored in a large thermos.  Meanwhile, Josi continued with women’s work – tidying and cleaning the ger, mixing cow food, collecting firewood and feeding the calves.  John, on the other hand was assigned the lowliest task of collecting cow dung from the animal pen, which is dried and used as fuel when wood isn’t available.  These glistened with frost and had to be chipped off the ground with a shovel, although every so often a fresh one would catch John out and add some variety to an otherwise monotonous task.  To add insult to injury, Mr Zorigt called John “chi”, which is a low form address similar to “boy”.

We were then driven in his pick-up 20km cross-country to the next ger.  En-route we picked up 3 adult goats and a kid, the latter of which rode up front in the cab.  One of the goats in the back then urinated on Josi’s rucksack.  Somewhere along the way all four were dropped off in the middle of nowhere.  They all quickly became dots in the mirror in this vast landscape.

Arriving at our penultimate ger, we were welcomed into the home of Mr Enhee and Mrs Urnaa.  We were given a glass of seabuckthorn wine, which was delicious.  Dinner was yak stew with homemade noodles, for a change.  The ubiquitous Korean TV soap was playing in the background, courtesy of the solar panel and satellite dish propped up outside.  We thought how incongruous these would look strapped onto a yak when the time came to move the ger to its summer location.  Dessert was a bowl of yak curds, which were warm and rubbery and tasted like a mix of cheese and yoghurt.  Mr Enhee scrutinised our Mongolian phrasebook, squinting with one eye through an upturned pair of binoculars.  He evidently found nothing of interest in it, and instead laughed and mimicked the height difference between Josi and John.  He said John should eat more yak curd.  And then to bed and the ritual of stoking the fire…



After breakfast of more yak curd and tea, Josi was due to test her milking skills on the yak.  During the night however the yak had given birth to a calf, and it was in no mood for sharing it’s milk.  So instead we were invited to collect wood with Mr Enhee.  Before that, his wife explained that she was the local Shaman and had received this power a year after the death of her 25 year old son.  She certainly had all the paraphernalia for it, complete with ceremonial boots and hats adorned with feathers and a pair of eyes, and the all-important leather drum which she used to induce the trance-like state necessary to communicate with the spirit world.  Interesting, she also had a Buddhist shrine in her ger, so it seemed the two religions co-exist alongside each other.

The journey to get wood began by yoking a yak to the cart, and then draping a thick yak skin over the wooden cross-bars.  The yak seemed to jump at the sight of the skin of its less fortunate comrade.  Then began a long journey up the side of the valley to the tree line.  Accompanying us was a friend of Mr Enhee called “Jumble” who spoke no English but had a great sense of humour and an infectious laugh.  Once a suitable tree had been selected, it was felled by chainsaw and then cut into six-foot lengths.  All but one of these was loaded onto the cart – the thickest length nearest the stump was instead tied to the back of the cart attached by a cable about ten feet long.  As we set off down the steep slope to the valley floor, it soon became apparent that this trailing log acted as a break to stop the heavily laden cart picking up too much speed when it pointed downhill.  Once at the bottom, the load was rearranged and space made for the heaviest “brake-log”.  Then we climbed onto the cart ourselves on top of what must already have been a 500kg load.  The yak strained and panted like a train on even the slightest uphill sections, its sides heaving up and down.  Despite this, its long skirts came almost to the ground, giving it a boxy but almost elegant appearance.  The best description of a yak that we have heard is “a cow on its way to the opera” and this one was no exception. 

That evening Mrs Urnaa scattered milk from a ceremonial bowl to give thanks for the birth of the new yak calf and then she and Josi sang songs by the stove, each of them impressed by the other.

Before departing to our final ger, Mr Enhee and Mrs Urnaa give us a warm hug and invited us to stay with them again.  They gave us their mobile phone number and told us to contact them directly (presumably so they would not have to pay a further commission to Ger-to-Ger).  But they looked at us blankly when we jokingly asked them for their address and they didn't seem to understand why it might be difficult for us to find one nomadic family with no address in a country the size of Western Europe! 

Unfortunately, there is little positive to say about our last night and day, which was spent with Mr Chuluunhuu & Mrs Battsetseg.  Left largely to our own devices, we spent the afternoon making botched repairs to the roof of our ger which was leaking icy air and snow into our beds.


Memorably mainly for the worst pit toilet we have seen so far, this was indeed a spectacle to behold.  The accumulation of four months waste rose dramatically from the dark abyss, the frozen spires of which protruded above ground level like some appalling monument.  This was no place to linger.

Later that afternoon a rabid looking monstrosity of a dog (surely more blood thirsty than any of the wolves it was there to deter?) laid seige to the entrance of our ger, and that was all the encouragement we need to spend the rest of the evening huddled next to the cow dung fire.  With the rapidly dwindling supply of both dung and sense of humour, we were ready to head back to the city.

So next morning, we saddled two horses and rode the 20km back to the road.  After 3 hours the sprawl of Ulaanbaatar opened up welcomingly before us.

Day No.
Kms travelled
Kms Running total
Hours travelled
Night accommodation
Terelj National Park
Ger to Ger - Mr Enhee & Mrs Urnaa
Terelj National Park
Ger to Ger - Mr Enhee & Mrs Urnaa
Terelj National Park
Ger to Ger - Mr Chuluunhuu & Mrs Battsetseg
Terelj National Park
Horse & Bus
Zaya Hostel

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