It was an amazing experience, spending nearly a week with our eagle hunter and his family but it was just that, an experience. For them and many others in the countryside this is part of their everyday life.
The eagle hunter’s family are nomads. They are not poor itinerant people although many herders struggle to make ends meet. They pick up their gers and move four times a year. Most live in the gers during three of the seasons. The fourth season, winter, they usually spent in a hard wooden structure. This is one of Erbol’s sons winter camp.
They are typically built somewhere where they are protected from the winter wind and snow. (It gets cold in Mongolia. It’s capital claims to be the coldest country capital in the world.) These are framed buildings with dirt mixed with water to form a stucco-type surface. When they dry they have cracks in them just like our ground does in July…but more so. There is still no running water, electricity or toilet facilities. There are squat toilets or pit toilets. A pit in the ground with boards on either side to stand on…and squat. They don’t have much furniture: a table and a couple of chairs, some low stools along with a cabinet or two, maybe a bench, beds and rugs to sit on. There are very few wall decorations other than family wedding pictures and a couple of pelts from wolves they’ve shot. You won’t see a house full of furniture! What they own they have to move four times a year.
Here’s a picture of our cook’s parents. You’ll notice at the very top of the frame you’ll see a pipe running along the ceiling. That’s their hot water heat. There is also one that runs along the floor.
Even homes in the village are built the same way. The “brick” walls that form the property borders are constructed with handmade “bricks” and held together with dirt mortar. Homes in the villages do have electricity. Despite the convenience of electricity in town, they still have a pit toilet in the yard…usually some distance from the house.
There are three families supported by the herds that they run. Erbol’s and his sons. Together they have about 650 sheep and goats, about 150 yaks and cattle and about 60-70 horses. Every night the yaks and sheep and goats come back to the camp and are protected from wolves by several dogs.
There are no fences anywhere. Everyone knows where everyone else’s property is. I don’t know how much land Erbol has but it’s significant. Property lines are set up as from this mountain to the end of that mountain, etc. We rode horses for eight hours on the first day and I don’t believe we were ever off his property. Maybe when we went higher into the mountains to look for the ibex and the Agalie sheep.
Every morning the yaks are milked by the daughter-in-laws.
The yaks hind legs are tied so they don’t walk away from the milkers. While mom was milking the five-year-old daughter dragged a bucket around picking up dried dung for the stove. One of the sons with a yak. And a group of yaks.
The yak provides meat, milk and fur that is used to make warm clothing. Much like wool from the sheep.
The herders families were extremely hospitable. The second night I were there we were invited to one son’s house for dinner. We entered the ger and removed our shoes. We washed up before dinner. One of his daughters walked around with a pot of warm water and a bucket. She poured warm water over our hands and we washed them, then cupped our hands and filled them with water which we sloshed around in our mouths and spit into the bucket. We then sat on rugs with a vinyl tablecloth in front of all of us. (sorry, no pictures as I wasn’t expecting this celebration meal.)
That morning, as an honor to me as a visitor, they had butchered a sheep, cooked part of it along with some boiled potatoes and served it to us on a large platter. Several of the others took the knife and starting cutting meat from the head and slicing the rest into small pieces that we ate with our fingers from the platter. It was very good but it took a little getting used to. Following dinner, we were served a bowl of broth the sheep was cooked in to drink followed by milk tea. That’s 30% yak milk and the rest is hot water with a little tea and sugar. It is served with about everything.
The following night. After our cook had prepared fried chicken for dinner, the other son’s daughter, who is about 5, came to our ger and invited us to tea at their place. Well, tea turned into a freshly butchered goat. And we repeated the dinner from the night before but with goat this time. I was ask to say the blessing and cut the first piece off the goat’s head sitting in the middle of the platter. So we had a second dinner!
So what happens to the parts of the sheep and goat that wasn’t cooked for dinner those two nights? During the summer when flies can be a problem raw meat is hung on a line that goes above the stove. The smoke from the stove keeps the flies away from the meat. After fly season is over….like now…the meat is hung on the inside walls of the ger.
When our cook prepared each days lunches and dinners, she would select a piece of meat and take it to her cutting board and cut it into the right size pieces and cook them. It all seems rather unsanitary but I never had an upset stomach and the food tasted very good.
One day we went into the village to our cook’s parents house to charge my computer. When we arrived as happened when anyone came to visit, all the food in the house is served up.
There’s fresh homemade bread, homemade butter, cream, both white and yellow cheese, cookies and candies. After Dauit, my guide, and I walked around the village we returned to the house to find lunch on the table.
A communal bowl of pasta, potatoes and …..horsemeat.
I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t ask.
Followed by a bowl of milk tea.
According to Erbol, herding has become easier over the last several years. No longer do they have to walk or ride horses to move their animals from one grazing area to another. They use motorbikes. There are no Harley’s, that I saw, or mopeds. Every nomad herder has a car or truck and a motorbike. Some herders are still seen moving animals by horseback but there are more and more that are using motorbikes to speed up the process.
Even though herders are nomadic and move during the season, their kids still need to go to school. Usually they go to the village and stay in dormitories. Classes run from 9-5 Monday through Friday. All of Erbol’s children went through university. These are not dumb people moving around the country. They may not be as advanced as some of our ranchers and farmers but they are educated. As I mentioned previously, Erbol’s youngest son is a math teacher but is looking to expand his knowledge and learn either Russian or English. Teachers, I was told, make the equivalent of about $200 US a month.
This is his youngest son.
He and his wife and a newborn baby live with Erbol and his wife in the village.
I was also told that there are no nursing homes/assisted living facilities in Mongolia. The youngest son is responsible for looking after the parents. (Keep a spare room open for us Derek).
Well, I’ve probably ran a bit long on this post but my visit with Erbol and his family was more than I was expecting. While it was also more basic than I was expecting it was an eye opening week. I know this was part of a tour but I appreciated the hospitality shown to me by Erbol and his family. All of them were interested in the pictures I took. I felt like, for a short time, I was part of their family. It was a unique experience!
One last image to end this post!
I leave for Vietnam tonight on an overnight flight through Seoul, South Korea.
Talk to you in a few days.