A taste of life on the Mongolian steppe

by Tracey-anne Yuki

We didn’t speak a word of Mongolian, we knew no one in the country and we made no prebookings, but we befriended a family of nomadic Mongols living traditionally on the steppe as herders and discovered an idyllic way of life.

Artca (right) with friend Ulchua in traditional Mongolian dress.

In a world that has progressed, consumed and polluted to such an extent that it threatens its own sustainability, Mongolian herders live self-sufficiently, in harmony with the environment and each other.

It took my husband and me three days on local trains to arrive at the Mongolian capital, Ulan Bator, from Beijing. Upon arrival in Ulan Bator, we flew a further 671 km northwest to Moron, the capital of Hovsgol. There were no buses or taxis at the airport, and since our only plan was to venture into the wilderness, we sat in a nearby field to ponder our next move.

Eventually a Mongolian in a jeep drove up, a woman who could speak Japanese riding with him. The driver was a jovial fellow and after agreeing on a fee of $20 (exorbitant by Mongolian standards; the train fare from Beijing to Ulan Bator was only $27), he drove us straight into the grasslands.

Jolting across the rocky plains, we soon were enfolded by mountains. We could hardly contain our excitement as we wove through a scattering of gers (circular white tents). We begged the driver to ask permission for us to camp among them, but the inhabitants refused.

As we returned a family of children smiled and waved, and once again we asked the driver to ask them to let us stay. The family consented on the condition that a Mongolian accompany us, and our interpreter, Oggie, was nominated, much against her wishes.

The family stood frozen; they looked as nervous and excited as we felt. I offered them chocolate, which they ate immediately. Still they did not move. Finally one rushed into the ger and returned with a notebook. Flicking frantically through the pages she blurted out:

“Me name Artca. You name?” I could not have felt more relieved and the feeling was mutual. Artca’s rosy wind-bitten cheeks and shining white teeth beamed as she repeated our names again and again.

Inside the ger, cheese hangs from the ceiling and milk products dry in sacks above the hearth.

Artca lived in one of the gers with her two younger brothers, Ampo, 8, and Gare, 6. Their father had died and their mother, for reasons too complicated to communicate in the limited vocabulary we shared, lived in the town. They did not look unhappy though; in fact, Gare looked the happiest person alive as he ran barefoot up the hill to herd the goats in for the evening.

Just 10 meters from Artca’s ger lived another family of four children and their parents. It is customary for three to four households to join together, depending on the time of year, and share the work of looking after the animals. Their neighborhood consisted of four gers, the other two located about 100 meters away. The relationship between the main family and Artca was close; they freely entered each other’s gers and I assumed that the main family was looking out for Artca and her brothers in the absence of their parents.

The gers were quite dark; light came only from a smoke hole above the hearth and through the doorway when the door was open. Life revolved around the central hearth, where a pan half a meter across, filled with fresh milk, seemed to simmer away permanently.

We drank endless cups of warm milk, and various other milk-based products. Drying cheese hung from the rafters, a communal bowl filled with auruul (dried curds) occupied the center table and Artca’s yogurt was the most delicious I had ever tried. Even the alcohol that Mongolians drink, airag, is made from mare’s milk.

In summer the Mongols traditionally live on milk products; they make over 150 different products from milk, and though it is difficult for us to conceive of a vegetable-free diet, dairy food is rich in vitamins, fights bacteria, is effective against lung and stomach diseases and improves the appetite and digestion.

Our Mongolian friends lived the traditional lifestyle. Healthy and robust, content and happy, their songs and laughter breathed with life. The fact is, though, that of a population of approximately 2.2 million, more than 25 percent live in Ulan Bator. A further 4 million live in China or Russia. Our interpreter Oggie was repulsed by the herders’ lifestyle and refused even milk. She was from a rich family and had been educated in Russia; her dreams stretched farther than the visible horizons.

Whether it be the lure of progress, comfort or unfulfilled dreams, more and more Mongols are leaving the land for life in Ulan Bator, hoping to find something better but not often succeeding.

According to the Ulan Bator Post, Mongolia’s independent weekly English newspaper, 1998 saw 60 percent more people aged between 18 and 39 resettle in the capital than in the previous year, contributing to rising unemployment and an overburdened social service system.

In addition, limited access to clean water and washing facilities and changes to the traditional diet have led to malnutrition and chronic illness.

As we walked around the city, we attracted the attention of numerous children, hands outstretched. One young boy, dressed in filthy rags and about the same age as Gare, sat beside me and sang and sang until I offered him some money. I wondered why it seemed unusual to see beggars in a capital city, then realized it was because it seemed so unnecessary. The self-sufficient alternative of life on the land, tried and tested by time, beckoned from the plateau, offering dignity, health and happiness. But as someone who knows the pleasure of hot showers and central heating, who am I to say?