The smoky brown haze of Ulan Bator disappeared behind us, trapped in its basin, as we headed southwards to Terelj National Park.
The smooth rolling hills gave rise to fantasies of multiple blue runs on the wide treeless slopes. The snowed road unfurled before us and corralled camps of tourist gers (yurts) punctuated the clear white landscape. Eagle eyes spotted two black shapes, wolves we were reliably informed, racing along a hill's ridge, disappearing over the crest in pursuit of unseen quarry.
Clumps of firs, possibly spruce, increased with the strange rock formations still visible under their snow caps. The van bucked and bounced over the rutted track as we veered off the road. A black dog wandered out of the trees, curious to see the source of disturbance in this otherwise silent landscape. The crunch of the tyres stopped and we pulled up outside a perfectly positioned ger nestled under a stony outcrop. Canvas coverings tightly lashed with ropes covered the outside with a tidy plume of smoke emanating from the middle.
Naraa stood as a welcoming committee, her high burnished cheekbones even higher with the smile of welcome. She wore
a faded blue tunic wrapped snuggly at the waist, a patterned cotton scarf tied around her head. I felt an inexplicable welling of emotion, with tears threatening to spill as my boots crunched through the snow. I had dreamt of this for so long. To make contact with a way of life fast disappearing on the snowy steppes of Terelj National Park. She ushered us into the middle of a traditional nomadic herdsman's ger. Not a tourist camp ger with hot and cold running water. A ger with an overworked woodburner in the middle and a toilet au naturel downstream from the ger.
Divested of their thick outer gear the family work in leggings and t-shirts offering us first snuff from a small round brown bottle with an orange top. Lumben, the patriarch, viewed us gravely, his currant eyes searching out truths in our faces. We drank yak milk tea from bowls and ate pancake rolls with yak butter Naraa and Darii had prepared earlier.
Shaking off snow and ice their son Bayan had returned the goats and sheep from their daily visit to high pasture. His bland expression belied knowledge of English and
several times in the conversation he grinned before the translator began her work.
As mother and daughter placed a wok of water onto the revealed hole in the top of the woodburner Lumben dressed in traditional dress with a long blue coat wrapped around the kidneys with a string belt, bells at the collar and prostrated himself several times in front of the golden shrine with offerings of pancakes and yak milk and took up his brown gnarled prayer beads and lifted up a silk-wrapped box. Clutching these to his chest he murmured mantras and circumambulated the outside of the ger and the animal stockade several times to ensure our safety from wild animals in the night.
The ger's dim interior is lit by a naked energy efficient bulb powered by the solitary solar panel outside the ger. The warmth from the woodburner is almost overwhelming. The carpets on the interior walls aptly depict wild horses. I stare at the radiating wooden roof struts decorated with folkloric paintings. These must be handed down family to family I say but Lumben says no the whole ger was bought from a factory. This ger with all
its furniture, shrine and carpetings is taken down 4 times a year as the seasons change and taken to a new location. It takes a very short time to dismantle but 2 to 3 days in all to reassemble. The winter location is sheltered, nestled under some rocky outcrops to protect them and the animals from the cruel winds. The wooden pens remain for them to return to next winter.
The universal SOS sound of an incoming text message broke the absolute stillness when Darii the daughter came in from feeding the goats. Taller than both her parents she shyly says hello. It's just like Weeping Camel, I keep saying stupidly as I try to digest all. I ask Darii what she is studying and she replies that she would like to be a lawyer. She is at university and only returns to the ger at the weekend. Bayan, on the other hand is the hope of the family to maintain the way of life. He wants to be an English speaking horseman, he says. Two younger children of 14 and 16 are living at school in Ulan Bator and return only occasionally during term time and
during the holidays. In the summer the second smaller ger is used to house all the family.
Later whilst sharing bowls of Mongolian water, a fermented yoghurt wine, we are cross-questioned about life in Australia. Graeme talks fast and our interpreter struggles to follow his ideas. We speak to Lumben, the father, of his 2 horses, his 70 yak and 500 goats and sheep and he asks us about our livestock. We laugh and show them a picture of Snowy. At least she has credentials as a kelpie cross and could herd sheep!
A baby goat comes inside to join us whilst he has his tea and then stands quietly next to the TV which Ankha our driver was looking at. All solar powered, he won't be able to view Mongolian Idol for long! Everyone stops talking and leans forward listening intently when parliamentary proceedings come on. Many promises made by the present government have not come to fruition explained our interpreter, Ariunaa. She had been a mine of information on the journey. One million of the 2.75 m inhabitants of Mongolia live in Ulan Bator of which 85 – 90% are Buddhist. The
change to democracy 4 years ago has brought its rewards and disadvantages of course.
We talk about our families, show them photos of our girls, learn about their daughter and family in Japan, and discuss farming in both countries as best as we can. Can anyone tell us the present price of Australian wool?
TV over and conversation exhausted, bedding is rolled out and spread cosily around the ger. Heavy woollen blankets are unfolded and shared our.. Eight of us slept that night very comfortably, well I can say that as I was on a bed on my own, and woke to the sound of Ankha turning over the car's engine and stoking the fire to an even greater heat. All the cosmetic items which had been left overnight in the car were frozen solid we later discovered and took 24 hours to defrost!
Rising late as the sun had not yet risen we wander downstream to 'look at the stars' and see the moon weakly through the trees and possibly suffered the worst bottom freezing of our lives. Over a breakfast of milk tea, pancakes, egg and bread Graeme ventures
that this is better than a five star hotel. Ankha who had been decidedly disgruntled at having to spend the night guffaws and says at least it was real life. Real life it was and for Bayan the 22 year old son it was time to take the goats and sheep to higher pasture. A daily task, 3 kms there and 3 back he spent the day out with them and did not return until about 6.
We volunteer to join Bayan and set off up the rocky slopes. The sheep and goats toddle off quite happily bar a few teenager goats who decide this might be a good time for some sparring and bang heads quite fiercely until encouraged to break it up. With aching lungs and quite concerning shortness of breath we climb up about 1 km with difficulty in the rarified air and then say our goodbyes. Marvelling at the jewelled ice crystals underfoot and finding the descent easier we revel in the quiet. Back at base camp, a builder is making an outhouse for the front door. Ever a teacher, Graeme takes time to improve his hammer swing and to show him how
to use hair oil to smooth the nail's entry into the cedar logs. Sceptical as they seem, they listen politely to him and question our interpreter. Heaven knows what they really think!
The views were breathtaking, the silence magnificent and the experience of trying to for just a few hours to understand a completely different way of life amazing. One of the best days of my life I ventured and Graeme said that if he had said that I would have reminded him of our wonderful beach wedding! I stand uncorrected. We leave with ideas of returning in Summer, camping and staying for a month, teaching local kids English and learning more of this simple, glorious way of life. Naraa laughs. If you stay for a month, even I might be able to learn English. Why is it that we humans always desire that which we do not have?
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