We got up at 4am, and were ready and waiting outside in the cold by 5am for our minibus. We were setting off for Bulgan, approximately 500km north of Ulaan Baatar, into the countryside to meet with a school and stay with a nomadic herder family. All a bit tired, but excited about what was ahead.
For me I felt like we were heading into ‘real’ Mongolia. This was one of my dreams to stay with true nomads and get a very small taste of their life.
What was supposed to be a 5 hour journey turned into a 9 hour journey as our rather old and tired minibus struggled up the climbs of the mountains. As we headed out of UB the sun came up behind us to slowly reveal mountains, gers (Mongolian yurt, pronounced geir) spotted amongst them, and scatterings of horses and other stock. Most of the bus slept, while Kirsti and I sat up front capturing as much as we could on camera, each occasionally sleeping for a few moments, only to be woken by the other’s gasp and nudge as we spotted a new sight. By the end of our journey we had seen more horses than I have seen in my whole life (there are 15 horses to every person in Mongolia), cows (often wandering along the road, often very nearly missed by our minibus), a pack of vultures (still trying to find out what the collective noun for vultures is – does anyone know?), eagles, ground squirrels, and yaks. By the end of the weekend we had added camels to this, the Mongolian Bactrian camel, a two humped, shaggy coated beast, still used by the nomadic herders to carry their worldly goods when on the move.
After 9 long and very hot hours we eventually pulled off the road onto a dirt track where we were met by 3 minibus loads of very excited children. We formed a convoy of minibuses and sped cross country deeper and deeper into the wilds of Mongolia it seemed. Our poor old minibus struggled to keep up with their more superior ones, struggling to see our way in the cloud of dust left behind the ones in front, and swerving to stay on the slightly treacherous track; most of us being flung about the bus, once so extremely that Kyle managed to break the plastic covering on the ceiling of the bus with his head (I didn’t think of that one in the risk assessment!).
We arrived at our destination at about 4 o’clock, 4 hours later than planned, but no-one seemed to mind. We were in the small community of the north Sum of Bulgan, a collection of wooden shack type houses, some gers and what looked like a large wooden shed, which was in fact the community centre in which our lunch awaited us – the traditional milk tea and ‘broth’ (a bit like Welsh cawl but with less veg). The vegetarians, vegans and milk intolerant amongst us politely passed our food on to others, and discretely slipped outside for a meat-free picnic.
After lunch we set off with the group to a large open space. Our workshop had been prepared with a classroom and projector in mind, so again the group quickly adapted on the spot and delivered a brilliant workshop in the most beautiful setting with some of the most enthusiastic kids I have ever come across. It was a huge success and at the end the children sang to us, in return demanding entertainment from us, so the boys sang and Rosie danced. As the sun went down we picnicked with the kids and adults and shared our stories. Gifts were exchanged and we left for out next adventure, armed with a selection of very strong smelling dairy products.
By now it was virtually dark, and we were off again over the treacherous terrain in our mini bus, this time in search of the gers that were going to house us for the night. Our guide impressively navigated his way across country with no obvious signals as to which way we should be going, his knowledge of the landscape was incredible, even in the dark.
Eventually we pulled up at a small group of gers, and were ushered inside one. Melody had been informing us all of the do’s and don’ts of ger life. Do walk around the inside of the ger in a clockwise direction, don’t talk for too long in your own language, don’t step on the wooden threshold as you enter and leave, do wait to be directed by the head of the household on where to sit, do sleep with your feet pointing towards the door, don’t lean against the support column, don’t touch another persons hat (?!), the list goes on. In light of this there was naturally a slight nervousness as we entered the ger. The head of the household did direct us where to sit, and then as he staggered back to his place explained (with translation) that he was a little dizzy as he’d had a few friends round and they had been drinking the famous airag (fermented mares milk)!
The moment we had all (except for Robin) been dreading arrived as the bowl of airag (fermented mare’s milk) was passed our way. I had managed to avoid the milky tea (milk with salt and a film of grease on top – yum!) earlier in the day, but knew there was no getting away from this. I closed my eyes and tried not to breathe as I swallowed (yep, totally gross), and then passed it on quickly.
Fortunately soon after this the girls were taken to their ger, and we left the boys with the other boys and a vat of airag. We were to stay with a woman and her daughter, who’s names I ashamedly cannot begin to pronounce, let alone write here.
And so, 11 women, of varying ages, from different parts of the world and very different lives, speaking different languages, all spent a night together in a ger in what felt like the middle of nowhere.
We were welcomed into a strangers home with incredible warmth, but also as if this was the most normal thing in the world, to have 9 visitors stop by for a sleepover. The ger was beautiful inside, a round room, of probably about 16 foot diameter, that contained all of the family’s belongings. The structure consists of wooden trellising for the walls and a beautifully carved and painted central ceiling piece, like a cartwheel, with lots of poles going between this and the wooden trellising, and two central support pillars, to hold the ger up, then covered in felt (insulation) and canvas. Opposite the door (which always faces south) is the most important area of the ger, known as the khoimor; it houses a piece of furniture which acts as an altar, housing family photos, images of the buddha and other sacred objects. This is also the place where the head of the household sits, unless guests are invited by him/her to sit there instead. There were two beds, one on either side, some cabinets and a kitchen area to one side of the doorway. In the middle was a large wood burner, roaring away. Around the walls and ceiling the families possessions are tucked between the canvas and the wooden trellising and poles, anything from toothbrushes to books to horse equipment. As well as this, chunks of raw meat hung from the walls, a large bucket of meat sat between Rosie and I, and by the door sat the head of a sheep that I presume the rest of the meat had been taken from. They certainly don’t waste any of it. Time to get over my squeamishness about raw meat.
Eventually we snuggled down, most of us on the floor round the fire, all squeezed in closely providing each other with a bit of body warmth. It was the best night sleep I had had since leaving home.
I awoke early in the morning to the sound of the fire being lit. It was really early, but a bit like on the journey out here, I was so excited by this experience, I was not going to go back to sleep. The door was open and I looked out across a vast landscape with mountains in the distance. Time to get up and make the most of this extraordinary experience.
A little while later the cows had been herded and it was milking time. The milk is brought straight into the ger to begin the various processes of tea making, yoghurt making and curd making. Every drop is used, nothing wasted.
Next breakfast is underway - a noodle soup with meat from their own sheep and some potato and cabbage (vegetables are delivered from the village where we had been the day before). I have to say, this is the only time in 23 years of vegetarianism that I have been in the slightest bit tempted to eat meat.
But I didn’t.
But if I was going to, this would be the way I would do it. These people rear their animals in a humane way, and then kill them themselves, and by the looks of things use every single part of the animal; I can fully accept meat eating in this context, I just couldn’t face actually eating it myself.
My time with these nomadic herders was brief, but affected me enormously. These people have a very very small impact on the world. They live a simple existence, only taking what they need, and nothing more. They live in a truly sustainable manner. They are also completely dependent on the environment and its elements. They described how climate change is making their winters much colder – and not cold in the sense we think of cold in the UK – this is seriously cold; -40° plus wind chill factor and getting colder. This is making the nomadic existence harder and harder to maintain, in fact impossible for many of them. 50% of Mongolia’s stock has been lost in the last 5 years due to increasingly cold winters. When a herder looses their stock, they have lost everything except their home, they have lost their livelihood. They have nothing else to live on, and there is no benefits system to fall back on. They have no choice but to move away from everything they have ever known and set up their ger on the edges of Ulaan Baatar, which is causing a whole load more problems. But that’s another story.
I know that our actions, predominantly in the west, are affecting others all around the world. I have been aware of that for a long time, I wrote a PhD on it, I have worked for 10 years with young people spreading the message and trying to encourage them to change their lifestyles to reduce the impact. But it’s not until you are there, with those people who’s lives we are impacting on that you really get it.
The nomadic herders in Mongolia are just a few of the many victims of climate change.
They have the smallest carbon footprint, but are being the most affected by others’ footprints. Spending this brief amount of time with them, really brought home the damage that humans’ greed is doing. Because it is basically greed that is causing most of the problems. These people are kind, loving, hard working, with very strong families and communities, no social problems, and most noticeable of all, they are incredibly happy. Yet they have none of the material items that we in the west, and increasingly elsewhere in the world, convince ourselves we need. They live in extreme conditions for a substantial part of the year. They are completely dependent on elements totally out of their control, like the weather. If only more of us could adopt some of their principles and ways of being.