We travelers to Mongolia came to ride horses, sure, but also to see how the Mongolian Nomad lived. Most of us had done our homework, reading up on Genghis Khan and the Mongol army of over millennia ago who conquered huge areas of Asia and Europe and their peoples. That was college history class stuff. What makes a trip like this interesting is observing and learning about how modern nomads live not from books but first hand, face-to-face and in their environment. What do they do all day? How do they make a living? What are their customs and how do they differ from ours?
Our base in Mongolia, about 10 hours bus ride from capitol Ulaan Baatar, was called Lapis Sky Camp. As the leader of the trek and National Geographic photographer Thomas Kelly liked to put it we were “off the grid.” There were no cell phone towers or Internet connections, electrical power was solar if there was anything. It was in a grass-carpeted valley with a river nearby, populated by the nomads who lived and moved according to the seasons, raised yaks and goats and used the horse as transportation and muscle. These people had lived this way well before Genghis Khan and continued after the decline of the Mongolian empire. They were tough, friendly, self-sufficient.
Each nomad settlement had a collection of canvas and felt-over -wood structures, which were called ger tents. Inside a family would live year round, using it to eat, sleep and prepare meals in. To me the ger appeared to be like the teepee of the Native American except squat in design. Each was about 10 feet high, was 15 feet in diameter with a single southern-facing wooden door for an entrance. In the ger interior and at center was a wood fired stove with the flume pipe jutting above the apex of the roof. Beds, storage and a religious shrine were arranged along the inner circumference. Most importantly every ger afforded a view of the sky, which is something every nomad worshipped. Like the teepee, gers were highly mobile and I was told could be erected very quickly, within hours. The gers we adventurers stayed in at Lapis Sky were plush in comparison as we had wooden floors.
There were a few things about the lives of the nomad I didn’t expect. First was that to them solitude or privacy was alien and repugnant. A few of us clients, myself included, came unaccompanied, with no friends or family and slept alone at night. This fact the Mongolians could not understand about us as they spent their lives always with family or somebody, especially at night.
In America, I live in a house and keep the doors closed and locked. No one comes into my home without being invited. In Mongolia, on the other hand, strangers could invite themselves in to any ger and expect to be welcomed with arak, which is fermented mare’s milk, and maybe some cheese made from yak milk. We went on several “ger visits” and were greeted warmly.
Inside the gers, there was no privacy. Unlike my house where every room has a door, there were no separations. No way for people to be private or intimate without being seen. Remembering a scene from “Dances with Wolves” where a couple made love in a teepee alongside sleeping and not-so-sleeping people, I wondered if copulation was as public or did couples somehow manage to find privacy. I asked our guide about this but he blushed and demurred. Back at Lapis Sky I asked Carroll Dunham, a renowned medical anthropologist, author and wife of Thomas Kelly, if she knew. She said that couples make prior arrangements with their family. When the couple is ready, they erect outside the ger a pole used to snare horses to warn passersby and family to stay away. Funny, I remember college kids doing about the thing in the dorms with a tie or ribbon hung on a room doorknob.
The women spent the entire day tending to the yaks and goats, making cheese to be eaten during the winters and cooking…always cooking. Mongolian women were tough and strong as was obvious when I saw them milking yaks and tossing around their babies with hardly a grunt. They also tended to the children and there were plenty of those around. All looked healthy, well fed and loved.
What was a surprise, and I thought peculiar to this culture, was how young boys age three and less appeared. During a ger visit there a man there and his son and daughter were slaughtering a sheep. The young boy was helping while the daughter, dressed in pink and wearing pony tails watched.
We were observing and photographing the process and I must have pointed to the girl and said something about her, probably that it was odd to see pink clothing around here. Thomas Kelly told me that the girl was actually a boy, under age three. When he reached three a kind of coming of age ceremony was held were the “girl” became a boy, dressed as a boy and his hair was cut as a boy and was to spend more and more time with his father and other males.
As I said, I thought this was peculiar to Mongolian nomad culture. Then recently I read a news article with accompanying old photo of an infant wearing lacy white things, a dress, long hair and appearing to be a little girl. The article said the picture was of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the same FDR who became US president and that in his time it was common to dress boys as girls up to a certain age. Ironic, isn’t it, that two cultures, one the 19th century America wealthy class and the other the 21st century nomadic tribe in Mongolia would have a similar custom for boys? What does this say about the human psyche that this same custom would exist in two so different peoples and times?
The Mongolian men we saw and interacted with were our horse handlers. In America they would be called cowboys. The horses they brought and picked for us were theirs. Most spoke some English, were friendly, rugged. Some of them were drivers and maintained the Russian jeeps used to move our tents and food. They set up and broke down our camp. All were self-reliant, able to fix anything in the field and get it running. As horsemen they could ride all day and not tire.
I liked being Off the Grid, living in the gers. Other trips I’ve been on we were in hotels most if not all the time. If we interacted with the locals it was after arriving on a huge tourist bus. If we hadn’t stayed at Lapis Sky, I doubt the interaction with the local people would have been as illuminating or personal. Mongolians were our neighbors, just a few hundred yards away, not strangers. This is the way foreign travel should be done.