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A day in the life of a nomad

Tue 18 Jun ’13 – day 38  Once I had dropped off I had a superb night’s sleep, which must have lasted for about nine hours without a single break.

I woke at 05:40 hours and having dressed went to the long drop, but when I was using it the whole building started shaking, a quick step outside just in case the floor gave way and I saw the reason for the agitation; the goats had been licking the moisture from the guy ropes and wood.

Having done what I needed to do, I then headed to the shower tent where I had a cold shower and flannel wash before cleaning my teeth – lovely.

I am the only one up and it is so peaceful and the goats now going off into the distance are the only things moving.

It was still slightly cool as a breeze was blowing, so I sat outside my ger wearing a jumper while I updated my diary.  The sun was very bright so I had to put my sunglasses on; there was not a cloud in the sky and the air is crystal clear.

The family were the first to rise and once the outside fire had been lit, Batborg rode off on his motorbike to tend his animals.

When Munkheresez rose she made breakfast for all the camps occupants – Mongolian tea or coffee, pancakes, yogurt, butter, milk and jam.  All the dairy products were made from goat’s milk and the butter and pancakes were delicious.

We ate Al Fresco while the children came across and sat in the cooking ger eating their food; the breeze had died away and so it was already hot and because the sunshine was so fierce sunblock was needed.

We had some free time so having tidied up the ger I had a short snooze.

Having refilled the water bottles and packed my rucksack we then walked two miles across the steppe to another ger where the lady of the house showed us how goat’s cheese was made; any spare liquid is ladled off and saved for other uses.

The son appeared and we were told that he was fourteen years old and had just finished grade school so would be off to high school in September; he helped his Mum for a bit and then headed off on his motorbike to help tend the herds.

Ankhaa explained that education is free and compulsory for all children in the country from the age of five until the end of the school year in which they were sixteen, so just like the UK.  There were no exceptions for the nomads or other small minority tribes that lived in the mountainous fringes of the country, but predominantly along the northern and western borders.

Nonuunaa who will be five in September would go to the school in the village where we had bought our gifts, but because it was too far to travel on a daily basis would become a weekly boarder.  The house mums and dads were local villagers employed by the government, as were the school support staff.

Every village has what we would call an infant school, with towns having grade and higher schools depending on the size of the population.  University education has to be paid for and is all centred in Ulaanbaatar and this was causing a problem as it was pulling all the well educated people into one place, so the government had a policy to grow the population of the biggest eastern and western cities and then move whole university departments out to these locations.

Children from minority tribes or a nomadic background do not have to pay for a university education and anyone taking a teaching degree gets an 80% discount; however when teachers graduate they are allocated to schools by the government, these will always be away from where they were born and lived, so normally in one of the many villages that dot the countryside.

Another problem is that 80% of all university graduates from non-technical colleges are ladies and so there is the issue of a much better educated female population.  However we were told that Mongolia had been a matriarchal society all the way back to the time of Chinggis Khan, because went he took the men off to war the country was first run by his mother and then his wife.

Even today while the men look after the animals, the lady of the ger will take care of the family finances and she will also sell or trade the two cash crops each year.  The first is in late March or early April when they sell wool, cashmere and animal skins; the second is six months later when the animals are sold; the sheep cattle, goats and horses are bred for meat and if an animal becomes sick then it is slaughtered and generally left of the steppe.  Wolves and other predators kill a number of the young animals every year, but the nomads consider this to be just part of their normal life cycle and so no effort is made to catch the animals at the top of the food chain.

While Ankhaa had been explaining about the countries education system, the cheese mixture had curdled; it was removed from the pot, placed in a muslin bag which was then put between two boards which were tied tightly together so that all the moisture would run out and this was collected in a pot.  Nothing is wasted.

While the cheese was setting, the lady of the ger scraped some butter that was “on the turn” into a wok like cooking dish which she placed on top of the stove, she then mixed in a small amount of flour and when this was stirred together oil was produced which was then spooned out into a jar; butter oil costs 10000 togrög (about £5) a litre and the lady will sell or barter what she does not need.

After all the oil had been extracted, sugar was added to what remained in the wok and then stirred in; we were offered some of the resultant mixture and it was delicious.

Having passed on our thanks for the demonstration via Ankhaa, we said our goodbyes and walked back across the steppe.

Ankhaa said that Tour Mongolia promotes sustainable tourism and so does not and will not organise hunting or other such trips.

The firm is also helping to sustain the nomadic way of life by giving young married couple 50 one year old yews so that they have something to start their life with.  When the yews start to give birth to lambs in their second year, the couple will return 20 or so (depending on the conditions etc) and this will continue until they have returned 200 animals.  So this is a self-sustaining programme that helps the nomadic people make a living so that they do not need to move into the cities and towns in order to exist.

After a freshen up it was time for lunch; Munkheresez had produced a fresh vegetable salad from the box of goodies that Ankhaa had brought in the mini-bus and yet again sufficient food had been prepared to feed everyone.

As we are finishing lunch the males from across the valley have herded all the horses in to an area in front of our gers and then put on a show of how to herd and catch the animals. They are superb horseman whose lineage goes back well beyond Chinggis Khan and they interact with horses from almost from when they are born.


All the unmarried teenage girls in the area have turned up to see the young lads perform and prove their prowess on a horse.  I have run out of superlatives to describe what I have seen.  When the show was over the young girls climbed on to the motorbike pillions and the lads then roared off across the steppe.


Once the display had finished it was blazing hot and so it was time for a siesta, for we all retired to our gers which are cool as the hot air escapes out of the hole at the top where the chimney would normally go.

Once it had cooled down David and I stood chatting while watching the men produce the evening meal – a Mongolian BBQ.  Chunks of lamb are put on top of hot coals in a ‘wok’ shaped thick steel dish and then potatoes and carrot are added; the whole lot was then covered by thin bread (simply flour and water).  A metal cover was placed over all the food and the edges of the cover had wet cloths placed around the rib to stop any steam or juices escaping.  The ‘wok’ was then placed in the hole on top of the outside stove and just left to cook.

While the cooking process was ongoing a steppe eagle appeared overhead and it was out hunting the huge numbers of small mice type creatures that live in burrows and scurry around in the early morning or late afternoon.

After a couple of abortive attempts the eagle caught something barely fifty feet from where we were standing; plunge, talons out, grab and then fly off to the nest.  Nature in action.

When the dinner was ready we were joined by the German couple and their two boys although the lads had already eaten.  Roderick and Helena live in Thailand where he is a logistics manager.

Roderick had bought a couple of two litre bottles of Russian beer in the local village and so we had a BBQ and beer – just like anywhere in the world.  The meal was simple but superb.

After dinner Ankhaa, Chris, David and I decided to walk to the top of the hill behind the camp.  We had to wade the river and I didn’t bother to take my boots off and then walk through some very tough and wiry marsh type grass before we reach a few trees and the base of the hill.  It was about six or seven hundred feet and covered with lots of different types of rocks – we needed a geologist.

Near the summit I came across a small snake and am not sure who was more surprised; I certainly moved away very quickly as did the snake which soon disappeared.

At the top was what we would call a cairn, but which the locals say is a memory rock; the origins go back to the time of Chinggis Khan when the warriors would take a small rocks with them when they went off to war.  Every so often they would build a memory rock and these were supposed to be able to guide the men back to their homes.

The views were magnificent and we could see more gers away in the very far distance.

As the sun had now set it was time to make our way back down to the encampment.  Wet feet again, but not worried.

Time for bed at the end of yet another fascinating day.