Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Nomads, Idiots, and Saints

John and I and two other North Americans from our train were met in Ulan Bator by a woman named Bagah who piled us into a van and drove us about an hour outside the city to a ger (nomad tent) camp. But first there was a short tour of U.B, just enough to give us a taste of this quirky city. Most of it is very Soviet looking, with ugly square apartment blocks and ponderously sprawling government buildings. There’s a huge Tiananmen/Red Square sort of central plaza, tailor made for revolutionary rallies. There are men falling-down drunk at 2 in the afternoon. But there are also pretty, brightly colored gingerbread buildings, some deco facades, and lots of eccentric statues—the one outside the main bank looks like it could have been designed by Gaudi, one of my favorite architects.

The ger camp consisted of about 30 canvas and felt tents pitched in the middle of an enormous valley surrounded on all sides by low, rolling, completely treeless green hills. They had electricity, and I’d been told that these gers stayed in one place all year round, so I was starting to feel like I was getting a little bit of a Disnyfied experience. But the next morning, our guide took the four of us campers on a mile long trek across the valley floor to drop in on a nomadic family that had set up their tent there about a week before. To my surprise, their ger looked exactly like mine, with the same framework, felt covering, metal stove, and even furniture. Except that theirs didn’t have electricity, it was really the same. Well, of course mine didn’t have a baby goat living in it, but otherwise, I think I got a little taste of rural Mongolian life.

The nomad family invited all of us in, and gave us cookies that tasted like pie crust served with a thick, custardy cream on top (yummy), and milky, salted tea (not so much). They didn’t speak a word of English, and the one word we all knew, bayar-lalaa (“Thank you”) only went so far. But our bilingual guide translated. The family wanted to know where we were from, whether or not we were married, and how old we were. They probably thought our questions were a little wide-eyed, too (“Um, why is there a baby goat living here?”), but they displayed the kindness of saints. It turned out we were the first group of foreigners they’d ever entertained at home, so it was a learning experience for everyone.

(We were hardly the first foreigners they’d seen though; it turns out that the answer to the baby goat question is that the family raises cashmere goats for their fur--the harvesting process is non-lethal--and several times a year they travel to Ulan Bator to sell it.)

Having tea with real-life nomads was exciting enough, but as we were leaving, we realized that a new family had just parked their yak next door and were preparing to put up their tent. We watched, and got to help a little bit, although we were probably more in the way than helpful. The tents go together ingeniously, and it only takes a group (even a group including North American city folk) about half an hour to erect a large ger, including several layers of felt, a roof, stove, smoke hole, and wooden door. Afterward, we hiked back to our camp realizing we’d participated in something none of us had expected to participate in: a Mongolian barn-raising.

Here's my Mongolia photo gallery.


Anonymous said...

Now Grandpa can relax! He knows you made the train and are well into your journey. Don't bring me any cashmere, I don't have enough years left to handle raw cashmere.

Queen of Tea said...


Mary Lou from Noho here....any chance you could bring me back a crude Mongolian or Siberial tea brick ? Not the 5 kilo version but something small, grotesquely simple but beautiful? The pride of the Buriats ? Your trip sounds wonderful !

Mary Lou

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