Curious About Mongolia? (Part 1)

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Ever wonder what it’s like to stand on the Mongolian steppes and feel the wind on your face, looking west? Ever wanted to go there? For some reason, I’d always wanted to see it, so, because there was a solar eclipse and the very BEST viewing was in the western part of their country, Mongolians opened up for tourism and a friend and I went …

Mongolia is absolutely not for the timid or the tender!

Living there takes tremendous determination and considerable survival skills. Traveling there requires great patience, good shocks, suspension, tires, and navigational skills because there are no road signs! The only paved roads are in the capitol city (say “OOOOlan BAHtur”… but it’s usually shortened to “U.B.”) and around the little airports. If you’re going anywhere else, prepare for jutted, rutted, ooopsy-daisy, kidney-shattering bounces! This means it takes a painfully long time to travel short distances if you’re in a mini-bus. Since Mongolians have traditionally used horses, camels and yak-drawn carts, they just create a new path when they need one. Now they’re using motorcycles, which probably shatter their teeth!
Flying over the country shows you the land’s been tortured by geologic events, glaciers, wind, etc. It’s wrinkled, uplifted, and torn. There are roughly three areas … rugged mountains, grass-covered plains (“steppes”), and deserts, including the Gobi. In prehistoric times, it was a vast, inland sea and there are many deposits of dinosaurs still waiting to be discovered and excavated. (I had a lot of fun imagining the big beasties, roaming around the “Flaming Cliffs” area. And I felt tremendous respect for the people who’ve been digging there for decades—it’s hotter than the proverbial hinges of hell out there!)
When you go to Mongolia, be sure to see the skeletons in the Natural History Museum—they’re well-prepared and the locals are very proud of them. Roy Chapman Andrews, an American, made some significant finds in the 1920s, which helped create a worldwide interest in dinosaurs that continues today. We drank a cold beer for good old Roy—he probably would’ve welcomed one!
Speaking of liquid … it’s a good thing I’m not a very “dignified” person—I peed alongside the mini-bus more than a few times, as did we all. “Women on the right—men on the left.” Luckily, I was one of the few who didn’t get what I was calling “Gobi Gut.” Being wracked with diarrhea on a seven-hour drive must’ve been miserable! As in many parts of the world, public toilets don’t exist. If you do find a toilet, you cannot put toilet paper into it—it’ll clog—so you toss it into a reeking bucket and hope the toilet will actually flush. Sometimes they do … other times, not. Mongolians must have OLYMPIAN knees, since they use “field” toilets out in the country. (“Squat and scrape, friends.”)
The benefit of all this, I suppose, is that a Mongolian journey is a real TREK, and getting there gives you a sense of adventure and satisfaction we don’t experience here! (Always looking on the bright side.)

There are less than three million people in the entire country, and around half of them still live the traditional nomadic/herder life, following their goats, sheep, camels, and horses as they move to find pastures during the changing seasons. One of the more brilliant inventions of that society must be the ger (say “gair”), or yurt. It’s a clever thing—you tie a lattice-like arrangement into panels which fasten together to make a circular frame for the base. The top is another umbrella-like system of spokes, which fasten to a central two-pole support. A heavy rope with a weight (maybe a large rock/concrete block) holds the frame together in stiff winds. You cover this with heavy felt, which you’ve made yourself from beaten sheep wool. Cover that with canvas and tie it on with ropes. You’ve got a decoratively painted door with hinges to fit into a wooden frame … and … BINGO … instant house. The Mongolians all say you can tear one down/put one up in about two hours. Obviously, they don’t use a lot of “stuff,” personal or household.
Gers are furnished with narrow, wooden cots and thin (oh so PAINFULLY thin) “mattresses,” and a few chests to hold personal belongings. Carpets or linoleum pieces cover the floor. There’ll be a stove in the center of the ger during winter. In summer, they build a separate ger for cooking, to keep the living ger cool. The felt insulates surprisingly well and we were comfortable in both the hot afternoons and the (downright) cold desert nights. If you think of an igloo made of felt and wooden lattices/spokes, you’ve got the concept of a ger. Because there aren’t facilities for tourists outside the cities, when you go to Mongolia, you’ll sleep in ger camps if you’re with a group; otherwise you’ll have to bargain for lodging with a Mongolian family in their ger. If I’d known then what I know now—I’d’ve taken a small, buckwheat pillow. Mongolians believe that hard surfaces are good for the back—adults sleep on the cots and children usually sleep on the floor. (The first appointment I had on my return was with my chiropractor!)
You can drive (or fly) for miles through empty space and then see a couple of gers off in the distance. Nomads move about with freedom to camp anywhere they wish. The only limits seem to be available water and pasture. Families sometimes move together or among a small group of friends.
Because it’s such an isolated life, Mongolians are always happy for visitors and their hospitality is legendary. We stopped twice to spend an afternoon with nomadic families. This was NOT one of those “canned” let’s-meet-the-natives kind of thing! They didn’t know we were coming. Our translator stopped and asked if we could meet the family and we were suddenly sitting inside the ger! The women of the family brought out a few bowls of mares’ milk, clotted or fermented (I know, I know), and we all passed them around. They also gave us big chunks of very hard and very STRONG cheese they’d made themselves. One family had some rolls they’d baked over a dung fire; they were quite tasty, really. It’s considered offensive to refuse food, so you have to at least put the bowl to your lips. We were fairly adept at passing the cheese chunks to the few of us who actually liked the stuff and I don’t think our hosts noticed. It was what they had to eat and they cheerfully offered it to us. I think they were pleased by our interest and I think they were interested in our lives, as well. Tourists aren’t common yet and the children were obviously curious about us.
It was a little uncomfortable, at first, but once our translator began to ask questions (it went both ways,) I found it very interesting and friendly. It seems Mongolians like to sing and they asked us to sing a song. (“You are my Sunshine” worked.) They sang for us, too.

One home had a solar panel, which allowed them to have a small TV. The woman of the house told us she’d been married forty years and had only had a battery/electric power for the past six years—prior to that, she’d lived, worked and raised her family by candlelight. I figure she was about my age but didn’t want to ask, since her poor face was as wrinkled and weathered as the rocks outside.
I’ve thought a lot about her life—what she has and what she doesn’t have—how she meets the challenges we all face as women. I wondered if anyone had ever waited on her or put her first. I wanted to bring her here, show her my kitchen, and cook her a meal. I wondered which of us is the most comfortable and contented.
Three of her children were in boarding schools, in college. The youngest boy is eighteen and he’s still at home helping his father care for a large herd of goats, some horses and some camels. His mother wants him to go to college, too, so he can have a better life. I wonder who will care for the parents in another fifteen years.
I wonder what will happen to Mongolia’s society and economic system if or when young people turn away from the traditional life and go to the city to seek their fortune?

The stars out there are jaw-dropping, bogglingly BRILLIANT, and I spent many hours outside my various gers, looking up at night and thinking about the young boy Temujin, later known as Genghis Khan (say “Chinggis”) who had looked at those same stars and dreamed his dreams. I wonder what today’s Mongolian kids dream about, looking at those stars after they’ve turned off the TV…
Once, I was sitting outside the ger in the almost-darkness of the starry night and an animal jumped into my lap! I couldn’t see what it was! Carefully, I turned on my little flashlight and found it was a house cat! (Or, a ger cat, if you prefer.) In typical cat-like behavior, this one looked at me with an “I’ve no idea who you are but your lap’s warm and my butt’s cold” attitude, so we sat together and watched a meteor shower.


Part 1 ‌| (Part 2)


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