A Mongolian Dream
You are more Mongolian than Mongolians,
The Start of Every Day
my colleague Bayaraa from the State University of Arts and Culture joked when I told her that we—Judy, her son Andrew and his partner Bonnie visiting from the US, and I—were headed for Khovd and Bayan Ulgii for a week, and that on our agenda was an invitation to spend time with mal
—goats, sheep, cows, a few horses, and many camels as well as malchin
, their herders. She ignores, among other things, the fact that I speak only the barest rudiments of her language, but if you can stretch your imagination, there is still a little truth to what she is telling me. I am flattered, and yet a little embarrassed.
Because of our jobs and connections, I have had the good fortune to see more of Mongolia than most life-long Mongolians. I am learning by seeing what many modern urban Mongolians only learn by reading, or by listening to their parents and their grandparents. To be sure, there is a lot I am not catching because culturally, I am not prepared to capture it even when it lands in my lap.
Several weeks ago in a conversation with teachers from the School of Design at the State University of Science and Technology I listened to a discussion on what Mongolian design is, and how it might be described to an outsider like me. They struggled to explain it in a way I could understand, so I offered an example I've noticed, one of several details of ger construction that are elegant, simple, and make use of material at hand. The looks they gave each other told me right away that no, that is not what they are talking about.
They tried again, explained that at the heart of every Mongolian, whether they live in the city or the country, is a desire to be nomadic; that that desire influences everything they do; that there are so many problems in the city that many consider giving up their lives there to return to the countryside and raise animals; that there is a proposal floating around calling for the government to reduce expenditures to most aimags in favor of concentrating development in the triangle between Ulaanbaatar, Darkhan, and Erdenet, where city dwellers will be encouraged to re-settle when they leave for the country. My face must have given away my surprise and the fact that clearly I am not Mongolian enough to imagine this. With chalk on the board they tried to sketch it out to help me, but it is not the geography that caused my confusion. It was the idea of thousands of city people escaping their problems in Ulaanbaatar to a life of unrelenting manual labor, enormous risk, and the need for specialized knowledge that isn't learned in the city.
Weeks earlier, Judy had just returned with our air tickets to Khovd when my phone rang, a call from our friend Davaa, who speaks no English but who regularly reads our minds. "When will you come to Khovd?" she asked. As best as I could, I let her know that at the end of 3-month, we Khovd to go will. Squeals and laughing came from the phone. Then a succession of other questions, each a little shorter than the previous (to which I repeatedly answered medegui
, I don't understand) until finally she asked "Temee oo?" "Camels?"
—Camels, yes, I told her. We would like to go to see her family's camels.
So last week, after staying in her son's ger for the night, we traveled to her family's land near Zereg Bag, two hours southwest of Khovd by brand-new black road
, then another forty-five minutes out into the scrubby flat land at the base of Jargalant Uul. Over the next few days we ate with several families there, and spent two nights in the ger belonging to Davaa's uncle, Zamdankhuu, and his wife Baigal. (Their son Miigaa found another place to sleep, with other relatives or possibly in the meat house.)
Trying to Save An Injured Calf
Although we wanted to be useful, most of the chores went on, with or without our help, and despite our ignorant interference. Before light, Zamdankhuu mixed feed for the horses, built a fire, heated water for breakfast of bread and tea. One by one camels were caught, their hind legs bound so they could be milked. And one by one their calves, rounded up each night and tied to a line, were set free to join them for a while before they are separated to graze for the day. Goats and sheep were sorted, those without mothers nursing them were hand fed, adults were separated from young and set loose to graze. For one group of animals after another, water was drawn from a well by rope and bucket and emptied into troughs for waiting animals. Throughout the day the herders kept track of the various groups of animals with binoculars and telescopes, so they could be rounded up in the evening. The young camels were tied to their line for the night, the goats and sheep herded into the hasha. Cows were milked before they bed down in an arc surrounding the ger. During all of this other routine chores are squeezed in—water brought from the well, dung gathered for heat and cooking, meals prepared, veterinary emergencies tended to—in time for sleep, and to start it all over again the next morning.
Before dawn, in the perfect weather we enjoyed on our three day visit, I could imagine for a moment being able to get used to this life, but in the clear light of day there were reminders of the certain disappointment that must punctuate the unrelenting routine. A horse's severed head discarded beside a path, a stack of still frozen sheep and goats that didn't make it through an unremarkable winter. A newborn camel unable to stand, probably from damage to its neck during birth.
Herders are cut from very tough cloth. Although she lives in Khovd, Davaa becomes even more alive when she visits the country, and dives into each and every chore with enthusiasm. Perhaps all Mongolians know
how to be herders, but living in apartments, driving heated cars, and taking weekends off would probably make a refresher course useful before modern urban residents try to rely on the nomadic life themselves.