I find the Mongolian nomadic culture completely fascinating, as it is a world away from how I grew up and have lived my life. I met many nomadic families during my month long horse trek. I camped near their gers for safety and was invited in for food and tea but the I would pack up an continue on my journey. I wanted to experience more of the culture and what better way to do that than throw yourself in the deep end and live with a Kazakh family for a week in a remote part of Western Mongolia.
The family I lived with spoke no English, and I spoke no Kazakh. I found the hardest part of this to be all the burning questions I had about their life that went unanswered. But it was an incredible experience. It was like watching a foreign film without subtitles, and then realising that you were also in the movie. It is quite amazing what you can communicate to other people only using sounds, actions and drawings.
They were an eagle hunting family that also herded sheep, goats and yak. They had competed at the recent Golden Eagle Festival where I had unknowingly even taken photos of their son and his eagle while competing. We didn’t go on a hunt while I was there, but that is because the hunting is usually done during winter when the fur of the foxes and rabbits is thicker and makes for better pelts. But I did get to see their beautiful eagle who came inside for ‘dinner’ every night and on my last day with them, they dressed me up in their traditional clothing, threw me on one of their horses with the eagle on my arm. I think they had just as much fun laughing at me as I did on the horse.
The family lived in a valley south of the small town of Sagsai (Bayan-Ölgii province) in a large beautifully decorated felt ger. The Kazakh style is very colourful and patterned and every morning the eldest daughter would tidy up the ger, make the beds, fold clothes and blankets into a stack at the end of the bed and drape embroidered cloths and lace over them. The floor of the ger was dirt, covered partially with felt mats (that the mother had made) and plastic/vinyl sheets. The floor nearest to the door was left bare (I suspect so there was a spot where it was ok to spit on the floor 😉 ). There were four single beds placed against the wall, a basic kitchen and a chest of drawers.
In the centre of the ger was the stove. The most important part of the home as it provides heat and food and most importantly tea 😉 I have never drunk so much tea in my life! They made the traditional suutei tsai (salted milky tea) and it is drunk out of a small bowls. I think i averaged 15 bowls per day. I have never been so hydrated and concerned about my blood pressure (from all the salt) before. Behind the stove was a small low table and a couple of small stools, but we mostly sat on the floor. The stove was fuelled by yak manure. It burns quite well and provides a fair bit of heat, but you need a lot of it. The eldest daughter spent most of the day keeping the fire going, collecting water from the river and making copious amounts of tea.
There is no running water and only a small amount of electricity from a solar panel that charges a battery to run a small light, the phone and the laptop at night where the kids watched movies before bed. This and mobile phones were the only obvious western influences in this family. At exactly 8:55pm every night, the mother would turn on her portable short-wave radio, lie down on a felt mat infront of it and listen to her daily show.
They had one motorbike and three horses for transportation, and from what I could gather a couple of shared vehicles between them and the other families in the valley that they used when needed. Those vehicles were super old school and so cool! They had to be started by winding them up from the front and were so rattly that they sounded like they would fall apart at any point as we bunches along the steppes! They toilet was a pit dug in the ground surrounded by a small circle of rocks. Although if you needed to pee, it seemed ok to go wherever you pleased.
Including myself there were nine of us sleeping in the ger at night. The family consisted of the mother and father, two daughters, two sons and two grandchildren. The grandchildren belonged to their other daughter who was away working in town at the time. I was very kindly given one of the beds to sleep in, while the youngest co-slept with the parents and the sons slept on the floor. The youngest child was a 2 month old baby that was spent most of it’s time literally strapped into its cot.
This family moved their ger twice per year to new grazing land for their animals and in the winter they packed it up and moved into a small mud brick home, as the temperatures in this region can plummet to -40C in the winter.
Spending almost a week with this family I got to really observe their daily life which was so great. Every morning the yaks were milked. Then the sheep/goats and yaks were herded to grazing pasture for the day. The rams/bucks wore these little leather skirts to prevent them from impregnating the females because if they did at this time of year, the babies would be born in the very harsh cold winter and would be unlikely to survive. So clever! A chastity belt for animals!
I watched the father prepare a sheep skin. He spent hours striping the connective tissue from the underside of the fleece, stretching, massaging, and bashing it until it was white, smooth and soft. It was mesmerising and very satisfying to watch. The mother would make her own yarn by hand spinning it from a pile of wool. The felt mats and wall hangings she made were used in the home and sold at markets.
The yak milk was used for tea, to make their own cheese, cream (orum) and butter and the curds were dried to make aaruul. They slaughtered two goats while I was there. As a veterinarian I have been exposed to a lot and didn’t have any issues watching this process and it was so efficient and quick. As the people living here in the Bayan-Ölgii province a predominantly muslim (including this family) the goat was slaughtered in a halal method involving a single cut to the throat using a sharp knife. This was different to the method I had observed in the east, where an incision was made into the abdomen just below the sternum, and with their hand reaching into the abdomen they would pinch off the aorta, stopping the flow of blood and the animal would become unconscious and then die (a bloodless death as was done in the time of Genghis Khan).
After the goat was killed the entire family would take part in preparing the carcass. They all had their known role and barely needed to speak to each other as the fleece was removed, the viscera taken out and parts were sectioned and washed and then hung up inside the ger.
The men spent a couple of days working further up in the valley collecting dried yak manure from the winter yards. The thick manure layer had dried out during the summer and was now being carted down to the gers for winter fuel.
I watched them shoe one of their horses which was quite the experience! The horse is roped to the ground, has its legs hog tied and is sat on while they nail on the shoes. I told them about how we shoe horses in Australia and they thought that it was really funny that we do it with the horse standing ;). The horse didn’t seem to mind too much, it laid there pretty quietly until it was untied and allowed to stand.
They were very social people. There constantly people coming and going, and we went and visited many of the other families in the valley. Sometimes the conversation they had got so intense that tea was spilt, and food went flying out of mouths (probably because so may of them are missing so many teeth due to their poor dental hygiene and love affair with sugar) and I thought they were having arguments, but then they would all smile and laugh, so maybe they were just telling very dramatic funny stories. I will never know.
Every time someone visited or we visited someone we would have tea and an assortment of small bowls and plates would be placed on the table. Biscuits, sugar cubes (that they ate like they were going out of fashion), peanuts, sultanas, cheese, aaruul, fried bread and candies. And everything gets dipped in their tea – bread, cheese, aaruul, meat, sugar.
The eldest daughter made dough most days out of flour and water and either turned it into boortsog/baursak (‘national bread’ – the dough is allowed to rise before being rolled out, cut into pieces and fried in lard), shelpek (the dough is rolled out, cut into pieces and fried without letting the dough rise) or home-made noodles. And this was one of the staples of their diet. This and boiled meat and other body parts.
We only ate one meal per day (dinner) and otherwise it was a lot of tea and fried bread. One night we had a feast of meat and offal, that was it. Meat, liver, kidney and heart was diced and boiled and served up on a communal platter. As it turns out, I really don’t like boiled liver and in the very dim light I was not able to see the difference between the meat and liver before i put it in my mouth. With a 50/50 chance of the piece being liver, luck was not on my side. I cringed and quickly washed down the liver with tea without doing too much chewing.
Usually everything was put on a large plate to share, and here there was no time to be polite! It was just a matter of grabbing what you wanted before someone else did and not a skerrick of meat or fat was left on the bones.
Other than meat, wheat and dairy their diet consisted of little else. During my whole time there the only vegetables we had were a few potatoes and some small onions and a little bit of garlic. The only products they bought were oil, flour, sugar, salt, oil, tea, peanuts, candies and sultanas. I don’t know how they manage to look so healthy on such an imbalanced diet. I was worried I would get scurvy in just this short time ;).
It was a very unique experience spending time with this family and really getting to immerse myself in their way of life. I was even asked to marry one of their sons 😉 I have so much respect for them and their ability to live in a remote place in a very harsh environment. Our western world is so materialistic and we can learn a lot from these people who live a simple content life and do not waste anything they come by. It was a very humbling experience and I am very grateful that they let me into their lives.
The nitty gritty:
- The lovely owner of Travellers Guesthouse in Olgii organised the homestay for me and helped organise my transport to the family.
- Take care with how much dairy you eat, I managed to upset my stomach because I went a bit gung-ho at the start.
- I paid them to stay there but also gave them some small gifts – some pocket knives, sew-on australian flags, perfume samples and moisturiser. In hindsight it would have been nice to bring along a bunch of fruit and vegetables for them.
To read about my other adventures in Mongolia click on the links below:
- My Solo Horse Trek in Mongolia
- The Tavan Bogd Mountains, Western Mongolia
- The Golden Eagle Festival, Western Mongolia
- Ölgii – Western Mongolia