Mongolia Part 1: Among Nomads

After 17 years of living in Asia, we decided to go to Mongolia.

Mongolia, we heard, was hard on small children and wanted to put off the long, overland travel times until Ava had turned 7 or 8. Some friends of ours did self travel with real little ones (ages 3 to 7), and they paid the price. Let’s face it, the littler the child, the more they need entertaining.

We met our guide ‘Saagii’ and our driver ‘Tugsuu’ who took us to some temples within the city limit of Ulaanbaatar. We were fortunate to walk in during a buddhist ceremony that was like anything I’d ever seen. In the main room, there were about 30 monks seated, 15 in two different groups facing each other with a head monk officiating the ceremony in the center with two assistants behind him.

In unison, the monks would chant in a deep droll and guttural sound (some from memory, some reading scripts) and between verses, the head monk would pour water from an elaborate vase onto a silver collection tray. Chants would be punctuated with cymbal crashes and horns blown from large sea shells. Half way into the ceremony, the monks unrolled tendrils of a long interwoven textile which made its way back to the parishioners. The head monk was the sort of base of this tree, and the 30 ‘branches’ of the textile unfolded and unrolled out into the crowd of devotees, landing on our shoulders. We inferred it was meant to channel some of his power to us. After, we walked around the interior of the temple in silence, not to take attention from the spectacle. I then noticed Lisa crying in silence.

What’s the matter?” I asked.

I don’t know. I’ve never felt like this before.

Into the Steppe

Passing time on long drives.

Just before noon, we had a long drive out of the city. Ulaanbaatar or ‘UB’ as locals call it, is known for its traffic. Soon, the central business district gave way to the industrial outskirts, and eventually buildings dried up and we were in the Steppe. Mongolia has roughly 3.3 million people and 1.5 million square kilometers. To give you a better feel of that, it’s the size of Sweden, Norway and Finland put together, but with the population of the US state of Iowa.

Apparently, Mongolia has been experiencing a marriage divide. Boys will drop out of school as soon as they’re old enough to master basic reading and writing to help their parents with the tending of livestock in the countryside. Girls however, will stay in school, often going on to secondary education and the university. Some may have the means to study abroad where they meet and marry a spouse, leaving their under-educated suitors back home. Usually this gender role is reversed in developing countries.

We drove to ‘Hustai National Park’ and spotted wild horses, marmots and many birds of prey. Along the way, we went over some of the worst roads of my life, and that’s saying a lot. Tugsu took us over a snowbank that got the better of us, forcing him to back up and rock the van back and forth to give us the traction we needed to escape the slush. At one point, the van had a 20 degree sideways tilt and I was certain that we were going to tip over.

Ava, are you sure you’re buckled up?

Daddy, you already asked me that.

Our First Ger Camp

We drove through the park and ended up at a Ger homestead owned by one of the park rangers. He had two daughters, 14 and 7 whose names were ‘Enkhjin’ and ‘Zolboo’ respectively. Ava and Zolboo hit it off instantly.

Their happy place.

Despite the language barriers, they had no trouble pantomiming suggested activities. From mock bouncing a ball to riding a bike, both Ava and Zolboo communicated effortlessly and spent long swaths of time up on top of the roof of the truck pointing at the countryside, laughing and joking. God knows what they talked about.

Ava had brought a doll on the trip that she offered to Zolboo to play with after Zoolboo had taught her how to ride her bike. We suggested to Ava that it might be nice to ‘give’ her doll to Zolboo permanently to say thank you for being such a good friend. When Saagii translated this to the little girl, her eyes lit up beyond belief.

Next, I tried my hand at aerial goat herding which I’m sure will be an olympic sport in 10 years given our current pace of technological innovation. The herd was spread out into two distinct groups and I was asked to get them into one group and move them back to camp. With a bit of maneuvering, I got the two herds into one with the bee-hive like hum of the Mavic pro. I sweept it along the outer perimeter flanking the herd in order to push them back to our camp. The closer the herd got to our camp, the denser the herd became. It was as if they were unwilling to go the final distance, or perhaps they knew that an inevitable slaughter would befall one of them.
Success was dashed at the last moment. With 5% percent battery power remaining, some members of the herd bolted to the north east and the others followed in tandem creating even more work for this family of herders.

“NNNNOOOOOO!” shouted Zolboo who was monitoring my work.

“Wow. You said that in perfect English!” I responded kindly.

Powerless, I landed and retrieved the Mavic. After powering down, Zooboo approached me with her hands on her hips and a curt foot stomp, shaking her head in both disbelief and pity. I offered to help them retrieve the herd after dinner, but they told me I had done quite enough.

Mutton Dumplings

Food was pretty basic meat dishes. Our family taught us to make mutton dumplings which we made in a soup for dinner that night. Families could feed on a single goat for a month, but with guests, had to kill one every couple of weeks. We dined at a basic pop up table and retired early to bed. At night, I walked out of our ger after the moon went down and saw one of the clearest sky full of stars in my life which was a nice consolation as I realized that my future as a goat herder looked as bleak as the Mongolian countryside.

Full Moon over our Russian RV

Related Posts

Mongolia Part 2: Among Riders

Mongolia Part 3: Among the Holy