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Published: February 13th 2015
As we continued on our way to our ger camp, our guide Nemo, told us many other interesting facts about Mongolian life – both about the traditional nomadic herders as well as some of the more modern aspects of the country today with some of these being:
Mongolia is basically a dry country as it gets only about 250mm rain each year.
There is a 1 year compulsory military service for males which is non-paying.
Mongolia has a 98%!l(MISSING)iteracy rate which is 2nd
only to Japan and schoolchildren have a 3-month summer holiday each year from 1 June to 1 September.
The nomadic herder’s way of life is under threat these days as often, the children of these families will go to the city to study but will then remain there after their education and university studies are complete, with many of them not wishing to return to their herder families at the conclusion of their studies and so continue on with their traditional ways. Consequently, these days, cities in Mongolia, as an emerging nation on the world stage, are struggling to keep up with the demand for housing and other infrastructure as their populations continue
Mongolian babies are born with a small bluish mark just above their bottoms or on their backs (something like a birthmark) which will fade over the next 3-4 years during infancy. This is commonly known as the “Chinngis Stamp” and features on all Mongolian babies. Although, if a woman marries a foreigner, this feature will gradually disappear over the years of future generations of any offspring born of this union.
Since 2006 the Mongolian Government has given each family 0.7 hectares of land free of charge. If they want a larger parcel of land, they have to pay accordingly. They also have no choice in where their land will be located.
Of this, each family is entitled to one house and one tent. The house is usually the summer house and is built of timber. Their winter house or tent, is a “ger” which is the traditional round tent “house” of the nomad.
These provisions are for the poorer families of Mongolia whilst, wealthier families can have more houses if they wish but, have to pay for the privilege.
Those families who live in the city have the usual city conveniences as well
as a city water supply. This also includes central heating for the winter. There is no central heating in country locations and residents must get their fresh water from lakes, springs, rivers, etc.
Winter temperatures in Mongolia can easily reach minus 35-40 deg, sometimes even lower. On the steppe, minus 50 deg is not uncommon in a very severe winter. There may not always be a lot of snow but it is always windy.
Seasons do vary but, 30-40 cms of snow is quite usual. In really severe winters, 1-2 million stock can die in these extremes which then puts a lot of strain on the nomad family because, their herds of stock are their livelihood. These include goats, cows, horses, camels and yaks and, with such severe losses, these families can face financial ruin.
The nomadic way of life is still very much part of the fabric of life in Mongolia. Herders will only remain in an area whilst the availability of water and grazing lands will provide for their animals. Once either of these begins to diminish, they will move on to more abundant pasture. Nomadic families can move as many as 3 or 4
times a year in pursuit of suitable grazing land.
Most ger “camps” will only consist of maybe one or two tents. Three or 4 tents is usually the maximum because, more than this will put too much strain on the available pasture.
These days, technology has also reached the isolated areas of the steppe and, it’s not unusual to see a solar panel or two, or a satellite dish sitting beside the tent with the family watching TV inside the ger, which itself, is sitting like an island in the middle of the Gobi Desert or some other desolate part of the country. Also, everyone seems to own at least one mobile phone. Having had mobile phone coverage all the way as we crossed the Gobi Desert, it is apparent that technology is alive and well in Mongolia no matter how isolated the area!
In days gone by, when a city family member wanted to visit their nomadic relatives, this was made very difficult because nomads are always on the move, and, knowing how and where to find them in such isolated areas, was a bit of a hit-and-miss exercise with most only being able to be
located by word-of-mouth through the nomad society grapevine – a bit like “the bush telegraph” we refer to in Oz.
These days, with the aid of technology, this is now made much simpler as everyone uses a GPS! This then enables the visitor to be able to pin-point their relative’s location quite easily once given their co-ordinates.
Nemo, our guide, was telling us that this is how he always finds his nomadic family members these days when he visits and with a twinkle in his eye, told us that Mongolians don’t call GPS “GLOBAL Positioning Systems” but, refer to them as “GER Positioning Systems.”
We were now only about 20 minutes from our ger camp where we would be spending the night when, Oggie, our driver, pulled to the side of the road and parked our mini-van as we had come across a herder’s camp where there were quite a number of sheep, horses and yaks, grazing on the lush green grass of the valley. It is all free-range grazing in Mongolia so, no fences to have to worry about.
One of the things that I had really wanted to see whilst in Mongolia was a
yak and, before leaving home, hoped that we would get the opportunity see some, somewhere along the line.
We were free to wander around and look and take some photos but, Nemo warned us to keep a minimum of at least 20 metres (60 feet) from them as they are very unpredictable animals and like bulls, can charge you at any given moment if you get too close. Heeding his advice, there was no way I was going to get any closer than that for, I figured that, he (the yak) could probably run a lot faster than I could!
They are big animals and quite scruffy-looking. Not unlike normal cattle in many respects but, with much longer, shaggier coats to help them survive the severe winters in Mongolia.
As we were now nearing the end of Spring, many of them were still losing their thick winter coats and looked quite bedraggled as though they were moulting which, in effect, they were. They had bits of straggly hair of varying lengths hanging off them everywhere. I had always thought that yaks were always a browny/blacky colour but, some of these were a creamy white as well as
some being totally black.
I had seen one rather nice looking specimen (for a yak) lying down on the grass enjoying the sunshine so, said to Jenni, “Go and stand over there and I’ll take your photo with the yak” – still retaining a respectable distance from the animal, just in case.
The yak seemed quite unconcerned and had been dozing in the sun and, I had only just managed to get Jen lined up with the camera and had taken one photo, when he suddenly clambered up onto his feet and walked away.
We both started to laugh for it just looked as though the yak, whilst eyeing us off as we had been moving about, thought to himself, “Tourists!”
We arrived at the ger camp around 1pm and were all shown to our respective accommodation. The ger camp was a tourist camp for holidaymakers – with the gers themselves a bit like on-site cabins of sorts and comprised about 25 individual gers (yurts) altogether.
Each tent was set on a circular concrete base with 4 steps leading up to the one and only small door which we had to stoop down to walk
through. There are no windows in a ger which helps to retain the warmth inside in the cold winter months. The design is round which makes it more stable in strong winds and the blizzards of winter.
The outer and inner walls of the ger are usually made of canvas with a thick layer of felt sandwiched in between (more layers in winter and less in summer). This is then stretched over a collapsible wooden frame.
In hot weather, the walls can be rolled up from ground level to enable air flow or lowered again, according to the season and the temperature. Mosquito netting is used to cover this opening in the summertime.
The roof is of a cartwheel design which allows the chimney from the stove to protrude through and also has a retractable covering to be able to allow airflow and also let light penetrate the dwelling. This is usually operated by ropes attached to the outside of the ger and can also be closed during inclement weather. Gers are also transportable in real life. Because nomads are constantly on the move in search of suitable pasture, everything has to go with them, including their
Nemo had explained to us that, the nomads are so expert at this practice that, a team of 4 men can dismantle a ger in the space of 20 minutes! It is then packed onto (normally) an ox cart for transportation to the next site where it will then be re-erected in about 2 hours and, all being completed in the same day!
Inside was quite roomy and had 3 king single beds and a stove. There was also a small table. The internal wooden framework was very decorative - painted orange and gaily decorated with hand-painted designs. It was all very snug and comfortable.
After we settled in, we had lunch in the dining room which consisted of a small salad – a couple of slices of tomato, cucumber and a devon-type sausage. Then came a very tasty vegetable soup then little pastry parcels similar to empanadas with a meat and vegetable filling.
After lunch, a break of about half an hour then Nemo took us on a hike, down from camp, up through a “pine” forest of Siberian Larch which has very soft “needles” unlike other pine trees and small pine cones about
as big as a cherry tomato.
As we walked on, here and there, the mountainside was covered in a number of different wildflowers: clumps of yellow crocus, (which wasn’t really a crocus at all but, that’s what the locals call them); tiny yellow buttercups; equally tiny blue forget-me-nots and also clumps of rhubarb growing wild. There was also a purple crocus.
There were azalea shrubs about 1 metre to a metre and half high growing on top of the mountain. When in flower (May/June) locals will sit under one for 20 mins/half hour to cure headaches. Any longer than that and it has the reverse effect.
We hiked up and over the mountain, getting a good view of our ger camp way below us from the meadow we passed through, to a small abandoned monastery, now only used as a meditation monastery these days for visiting monks or individuals who wish to spend some time there. A “caretaker” is there throughout the day to keep an eye on things and to collect the money for you to go inside if you want to take pictures.
Once at the monastery, Ted decided to wait at the bottom
of the rather steep pathway to get to the monastery as he has trouble with his knees and, as we had just hiked over the mountain, felt that he probably should give them a rest. Nemo, Neil, Noel, Will, Jen, Fran, Aidan, Matt, Steve and myself all made the trek up to the monastery itself which was a rather steep climb and, finally with several long steep flights of steps to actually reach the top.
About halfway there, we stopped for a drink at a mountain stream on the way to the monastery which was much appreciated as the water was icy cold and refreshing and the afternoon quite hot.
We spent some time in and around the monastery just admiring the view and having a bit of a breather as well as taking the usual photos.
After half hour or so, we headed back via a small suspension bridge to the bottom of the hill where Ted was waiting for us and we came back to find him in the middle of about 10 locals, none of whom could speak English and he no Mongolian but, they had befriended him and had even given him a
beer to drink out of their communal dish that was being passed around.
There was much chattering going on and the shaking of hands and introductions when the rest of us all turned up whilst one of the locals captured the event on his video camera.
I got chatting to Nemo on the hike back home over the mountain again and, he was telling me that he had been a doctor (Urologist) but gave it away 6 years ago. Asked him why, and he said that the pay for doctors in Mongolia was very low and that being a tour guide was much better. We found this quite incredible, considering how much doctors earn in other countries including Australia. Back then, he said, he’d had to make a decision as he had his family to look after so, gave away being a doctor and became a tour guide, a job which he loves.
Getting back to camp around 5-45pm, we had a short break until the dumpling cooking class was to begin at 6pm. Here we would learn how to make the traditional Mongolian steamed dumplings, which would be on the menu for our dinner this evening.
Ted, Jenni, Fran, Ksenia, Aiden and Nemo took part with Nemo instructing. The rest of us were commissioned to take the photos.
Much hilarity was had as Nemo showed them how to knead the dough, make it into a ball; then a donut; then keep on stretching the dough until it was a large ring and about an inch wide.
Laid flat on the cutting board, cut into two equal lengths then into pieces about an inch long. Then it was patted out flat on their hands about an inch and half across and round. Then they had to roll it thin around the edges whilst keeping it a bit thicker in the middle to retain the filling. Nemo then showed everyone how to fill the dough then pinch them together to make the dumpling. There were some interesting variations but a lot of fun was had and many photos taken.
Ted was chosen as the one who Nemo took the mickey out of and heckled for his attempts, with him finally being thrown out of class. All good-naturedly, of course.
An archery lesson followed after cooking class, down at the bottom of the camp.
Here again, with much hilarity as we all took turns to try and hit the target of a hide hanging up some distance away. We all had several attempts and a lot of fun but, none of us felt that Robin Hood or William Tell (or Genghis Khan for that matter) had any cause for alarm in being out-classed by any of us, in their claim to fame. Ted was the only male in our group to hit the target and Jenni the only one of we girls, just going to show that the Davis’ ruled that afternoon!
By now, it was nearing meal time so, it was back up to the dining room once more for dinner and to eat the dumplings that were made earlier.
Some of them may have not have quite looked the way that they should have but, this had absolutely no effect whatsoever on the taste of them or the enjoyment we had in eating the spoils of the efforts of those involved earlier.
We all sat chatting over dinner for awhile and rehashing the day’s events until some of the guys decided to head off into the adjoining room where
there was a snooker table, to play a few games and, from all the noise and sound of laughter coming from there where the game still raged at 11-30pm, it sounded like a lot of fun was being had as I sat in our ger, the closest one to the dining room, catching up on my daily journal.
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