Silence of the sheep
No electricity, minimal technology, little contact with the developed world, the lifestyle of the Mongolian nomads has barely changed in centuries. Remote in time, remote in space, it is difficult for outsiders to experience this ancient way of life. But it is possible.
I leave the ger at six in the morning and, with bleary eyes, clamber up the nearby hill. The sky is a brilliant blue, broken only by some wisps of cloud moving slowly in the light breeze. From the top of the hill I marvel at the barren landscape, which stretches forever in every direction. If the Apollo 11 moon landing was an elaborate hoax, it’s quite possible they filmed it here.
Thirty miles from the country’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, is Elstei Ger Camp, a collection of eight gers geared for travellers keen for some fresh air and wanting to learn about the nomadic way of life.
Life on the move has been the Mongolian way for several thousand years. However, recent changes in the climate have made such an existence more and more challenging, causing many to move to the city in search of a better and more comfortable life.
You quickly realise that life out here couldn’t be more different than in the city. Here, your nearest neighbour will be a good 10 miles away. No one will be complaining about the noise — unless you’re a traveller irritated by the sound of 50 sheep bleating at your door first thing in the morning. Electricity? That’s just something that flashes in the sky during a storm. The garden is enormous though — step out of your ger and there it is, thousands of square miles of open, untouched land.
When you survey the deserted landscape of a nation that, less than a thousand years ago, was at the centre of the largest empire humanity has ever known, you can’t help thinking: “Where is everyone?”
Human beings are noticeable by their absence out on the steppes, making the vast emptiness that lies before me all the more striking.
It’s estimated that today about 30 per cent of Mongolia’s population of just under three million live a nomadic existence. A nomadic family will move three or four times a year, to new pastures, taking literally all of their belongings with them to their new location, which may be as far as 20 miles away.
Their home, the perfectly designed felt-covered ger, takes an impressive 45 minutes to dismantle/erect and is guaranteed to stand strong against testing winds and battering storms.
The nomadic people live alongside their livestock, which include horses, sheep, camels, goats and yaks. These animals are central to their existence, providing the nomads with food and materials. The horses are also used for transportation. Horse riding is in the blood of every Mongolian.
Indeed, it is horses that take us from the ger camp across a vast plain to the home of Luwsan and his family. I’m feeling a little apprehensive about getting on a horse. I much prefer a steering wheel to reins, though I feel slightly comforted by the fact that the legs on these horses are pretty short. Being fairly tall, I decide that, if the horse suddenly breaks into a frenzied gallop, I can simply stand up and let it run off from beneath me. The journey takes about an hour, with my four-legged friend kindly sticking to a gentle trot, obviously sensing that his passenger is more of a car driver than a horse rider.
Luwsan is tending to his sheep when we arrive. There are three gers lined up alongside each other. Speaking through our Mongolian guide, Luwsan welcomes us inside the main ger, where his wife, Sunjidmaa, is preparing some suutei tsai — salty milk tea. I’m more of a two-sugars than a two-salts person, and my attempt to disguise a grimace as a grin doesn’t fool them. I finish it out of politeness and, with a knowing smile from Sunjidmaa, a refill is quickly poured.
Luwsan tells us about his family while stirring a giant cauldron filled with a bubbling hot meat stew. He has seven children, from 5 years to 35 years of age. The youngest, Otgonbold, stands close to his mother, carefully checking us out.
Some of Luwsan’s children still live with the family, helping with day to day activities, while others have moved to the city or are engaged in national service. The tasty stew removes all traces of the tea from my tongue and goes down easily following the long horse ride.
We’re encouraged to help out with the daily chores. This includes milking the sheep, though they’re so feisty that it’s hard to get close. Little Otgonbold senses our hopelessness and steps in to help his father.
There’s water to be fetched from the well and dry dung to be collected for the stove. One of my fellow travellers, with more enthusiasm than seems strictly necessary, excitedly picks up a pair of giant tongs and a large bucket and hurries off in search of some fuel for the fire. This astonishingly fresh air perhaps does strange things to the mind.
Two of us decide to head to a high point nearby. Though it doesn’t look like a particularly hard climb, the air is thin, reminding us that Mongolia happens to be one of the most elevated countries on the planet. One of the family’s two dogs follows us, keeping a few cautious steps behind the whole way. It looks far less affected than we do by the steep climb. We reach the top short of breath, but are rewarded with a magnificent view. The three gers, far below us, are the size of rice grains and are the only man-made objects to be seen.
Back at the ger, khuushuur is served for dinner. This fried dumpling, filled with mutton, onion and various spices, is a typical Mongolian dish. It takes only a few of these to fill us up. Otgonbold leaves half a plateful and hurries outside. Later I see him hurtling down a hill on his ageing bicycle. At the bottom he drags it towards the ger. It has no chain. Fortunately he has the hills.
The sun drops behind the distant horizon and it quickly becomes dark. Inside the ger, in the dim light offered by a couple of candles, Luwsan stokes up the fire in the stove with the recently collected dried dung. The place soon warms up.
Through the night, the temperature in the ger gradually drops. By first light, the cold is consuming me. I decide to take a stroll in an attempt to warm up and to savour this awesome place one final time before we have to bid farewell to our generous hosts and head back to a more familiar world.
It’s hard to know, with all the challenges they currently face, if the nomadic people will be wandering these plains in even a generation or two. Only recently, it was reported that the country had lost 10 per cent of its livestock due to a viciously harsh winter. And if that wasn’t bad enough, last summer they had a serious drought
to contend with.
The family emerge from the ger to wave us off as we head back on the horses. My time with Luwsan and his family may have been brief, but it was a privilege to spend time with them and gain an insight into a way of living very different from my own.
• Airlines flying to Chinggis Khaan International Airport include MIAT Mongolian Airlines (Kansai/Narita); Air China (via Beijing); and Korean Air (via Incheon).
• If you have the time, you could fly direct to Beijing and take the overnight train to Ulaanbaatar. This can be booked through Monkey Shrine at www.monkeyshrine.com.
• Stays with a nomadic family can be booked through Shuren Travel, based in Ulaanbaatar, at www. shuren-travel.com.