Howard Wong - Nomad Project in Mongolia
My host family lived in a river valley, about 70km from Ulaanbaatar. It was June and the rainy season hadn’t started yet. The riverbed was dry, but the grass was green and wildlife was buzzing all around. By most afternoons the day had grown hot and, while our hosts stayed indoors after a busy morning, us volunteers would go for a hike, eager to explore the landscape around us.
From a high vantage point we could see amazing views unfolding in every direction. Small cairns dedicated to the spirits were piled on hilltops, and horses were gathered in the sun. Only one thing was missing, trees. We could see miles and miles of grass stretching out to the next mountain range, because there were no trees to obscure our view.
Without trees, the family’s main source of fuel was cow dung. A typical morning exercise saw me piling the dung left behind overnight by the cow babies (as the family called them) and their mothers, in some neat piles outside the yurt to dry. Then sheep and goats were released from the pen and I cleared the stray wool and burnt it.
My Nomad Placement
No two days were the same. One morning, we were tasked to catch the goats for vaccination. “How?” I asked and, with my limited Mongolian, I didn’t really understand their answer. But seeing my hosts catching them by the horns seemed straightforward. That is, until I tried laying my hands on those elusive creatures myself. Who wants to be caught? On other adventurous mornings, I was surprised to be served boiled mutton and vodka for breakfast, or fetched a new-born cow baby on a truck that had half a steering wheel.
Shearing wool was another job. While some of the sheep were sheared with hand shears (no electricity), we dealt with the others using the more unconventional method of simply tearing a layer of wool from their fleeces. I didn’t find it as squeamish and inhumane as I expected and the wool came away easily in my hands.
The things that will stay with me the longest, however, were the times we would make the hour’s walk to see our nearest neighbours, or herded the animals on horseback. And once a wolf turned up right before our eyes and took a small goat while the dog, who had been misbehaving, was chained up.
My Mongolian Host Family
When we first arrived, the whole family was there: host father and mother, with their daughters, sons, grandchildren, sheep, goats, dogs, horses… Some of them live in Ulan Bator, nomadic Mongolia’s only city, but they had returned as usual for summer to help out and relax.
Their life, without little electricity or modern facilities, might seem simple, but they love their lives and enjoy it to the full. They were friendly and approachable, and I felt at home with little worries. I often reflected on the disparities between what they and I felt. Sometimes computers and TV keep people apart and keep them reliant on them.
Meals were also simple. They were mainly a rotation of lovely buuz (a kind of dumpling filled with mutton), mutton noodle and boiled mutton. Here, vegetables were scarce and highly valued. Milk, however, was in abundance.
Sometimes, as the sun gradually sank behind the hills, the sheep and goats would miraculously return near to the yurts of their own accord. Cow babies also appeared with their mothers, who needed to be milked. The actual milking was not a problem for me, as this was deemed to be women’s work. But instead I was given the challenge of catching the cow babies and tying them up so their mothers could be seen to. One particular cow baby I came up against time after time seemed to have grown so much that by the end of my time there he was just too strong for me. We’d end up in a stalemate, staring at each other for several long minutes at a time.
Baby Ekchin had grown, too. She was just seven months old, and I often was handed her to babysit. By the time I had to say goodbye, she had learnt to walk, though she still couldn’t tell me when she needed a wee when I was holding her, leaving me with a wet patch on my knee.
The older children were great fun. They would come into the yurt to learn bits and pieces of English and kept on telling me, “chi muu”. I only realised what it meant after three days when I said it back to them. They didn’t like it, because it meant “you bad”.
It was hard to say goodbye to them and the rest of the family when it came to leave. A lot had happened in that month and my life had changed remarkably. I was out of my comfort zone, with only a phrasebook designed for city life to help me communicate in Mongolian and no Internet.
Mongolia was part of my career break, but I left me with much stronger impression than any of the rest of my trip. If I get another month off work, I would send my host family word to let them know I was on my way back. If you get the chance to go, jump at it.