You are slowly waking up on your sheepskin mattress, watching your misty breath in the bitter morning cold as you realize that the fire has been out for hours. The wind is roaring outside while you gather courage and motivation to get out from under the covers, light the stove, and bring some warmth back to the hearth. It has been increasingly difficult for the herds to find food in the pastures they have grazed on for the past few months. Now it is time to uproot the camp and move, heading towards the shelter of the mountains and greener pastures. It is going to be a long, cold winter.
You can only imagine the hardships of a nomad. The nomads will move their camp at least two to four times per year, but this can vary when conditions demand it.
As you traverse the great plains of Mongolia, it is common to see the nomadic families and their Ger camps. They often stick somewhat close to each other while always leaving enough room for their herds to graze effectively. I guess even in the remoteness of the steppe it is still nice (and safe) having neighbors and family close by. The harsh environment and the unimaginable distances when travelling have created the most hospitable culture we have ever come across. You can always walk up to a Ger and enter to say hello, even ask for a place to sleep, and most likely you will be welcomed with a hot cup of milk tea, a curd snack, and maybe some mutton soup. As a nomad you never know when you will need the same gesture on your own travels. We experienced this incredible hospitality firsthand as we needed a place to sleep late one night while travelling north. Within minutes we had a cup of Mongolian vodka in hand and a warm place to park our sleeping bags for the night, right between the grandmother of the family and the little ones already deep in their dreams. The sleep you get while listening to the crackling fire in the oven as it slowly dies out and the Ger turns dark is hard to describe. It is meditative relaxation on a whole other level, rarely experienced in our normal busy lives.
The herders, by our observation, normally concentrate on raising one type of livestock. They will focus on horses, goats and sheep, or camels with some stragglers in between. A herd can range from a few dozen animals to well into the thousands. We visited a horse herding family during our stay in Hustai National Park, an incredible experience that we will cherish forever. We arrived at their camp during the busiest of times. First off, they were just about to have a wedding for one of their daughters, and with more than 150 guests arriving in the next couple of days, the “kitchen” was bustling with activity. Curd was hanging to dry at every available spot on the Ger walls, horse mare’s milk was fermenting under the beds to provide alcohol for the party, and every imaginable dairy product was being prepared by the household. To make this possible the family needed to milk the mares in their 200+ horse herd every two hours throughout the day, an amazing spectacle of skill and perseverance as they rounded up the horses. In addition to their wedding preparations, they were getting ready to move to their winter camp location the following week. Yet somehow they still found time to offer us their utmost welcome and generous hospitality. (For the curious, fermented mare’s milk is not as bad as you might think. It mostly tastes like a watery yoghurt, and the alcohol content is about the same as a light beer—which is how it’s drunk by the locals, and during a couple of hours our driver managed to chug a few big glasses of the milky substance. The dried curd, hmm . . . I will let you decide for yourself if you ever go visit.)
There has been controversy in recent years concerning global warming’s effect on the nomadic lifestyle. There have been several instances of entire herds dying in the bitter winter cold, leaving the herders in great peril. Multiple NGOs have raised funds to help the nomads, with questionable allocation of the money. However, we have heard a different side to this story. Obviously global warming is very real and probably the biggest issue the world is facing in our time. But in this case, it might not be the entire issue. The life of the nomadic herder has always been incredibly tough, involving long hard days of laborious work year round. But in modern times, some herders have started using motorcycles to round up the animals, as opposed to being on foot or horseback. This method works fine during the warmer parts of the year, but as it gets colder it becomes a serious threat to the livestock. Herders are well aware that once it starts becoming cold you have to be very careful not to stress out the animals and make them run and sweat. Becoming sweaty and wet during cold weather results in the animals shedding their wool and not having the insulation they need for the upcoming winter months. When herding in the traditional ways, this is not an issue, but when you round up animals on a motorcycle it is. We were told that herders’ resorting to the “easy” way, using motorcycles to avoid the otherwise very hard labor, is the actual reason some herds are dying. There are instances where an entire herd has died, but the neighbors’ herds were fine—an indicator that this theory might be accurate. In addition, statistics of the winter cold in Mongolia do not point to global warming being the main issue. It is a tough one to swallow. It seems that the only solution is to stick to hard labor as the traditional herders always have, at least during the fall. This fact will be harder and harder to accept, as herders are moving closer to the modern ways.
I think the world could learn a lot from the Mongolians’ hospitality and their kinship towards each other. We feel humbled by their ways and will always think back on the Mongolian people as some of the kindest and toughest around. We have made great new friends and know that one day we will return to the steppe.