A fascinating extract from Jane’s last email from Darkhan (Mongolia) – spending some time staying in a traditional Ger.
Last weekend I was invited by a co-worker to join her on a visit to her sister’s family in the countryside. I jumped at this opportunity and also accepted the extended invitation to stay with her family for 2 nights (she was not going to brave the cold for an experience she grew up with and which she does not wish to repeat so I was the only English speaker staying overnight!).
This weekend was brilliant!! It was pretty cold (-20 overnight I think) but I was fine in my sleeping bag and duvet. I felt slightly guilty that they insisted on giving me a whole bed to myself as the other bed had 3 children and the floor accommodated 2 adults and another child. I was very grateful though and my opposition to this plan was not well put forward in my, still very limited, Mongolian. I slept very well though and I managed to communicate in Mongolian as much as was needed.
Photos from home aided my explanations. So what did I do there? I helped (or at least tried not to be a hindrance) with the milking of the cows but my toes were freezing, walking boots were not meant for this weather, so I returned to the Ger before all 12 of the cows were done. I helped to catch goats, which were ripe for the kill, to paint a horn blue, marking them for execution – lots of animals are killed and sold or kept for the winter meals, before winter sets in as otherwise a lot die over winter. Freezer space is not an issue. I then helped to herd the sheep and goats for 2 1/2 hours. This was pretty tedious work as it involves just following the sheep as they roam and eat, directing them when needed, but there is a lot of hanging around as they don’t move fast. It’s fine if you have company that speaks the same language though (unlike me!).
For this I had borrowed a coat and boots. The boots were ‘felt’ made from 100% sheep’s wool and although not very comfortable they were incredibly warm and my toes appreciated this greatly after the freezing they get in my boots. This meant that I was in 3 coats, 2 jumper and 3 trousers so I felt very weighed down and was glad to sit down every now and again as we waited for the sheep/goats to move on.
Back at the Ger I helped the mother to make Mongolian cookies. These are doughnuts (deep fried dough) without the sugar. They are not nearly as tasty as doughnuts so I added sugar to mine and they were delicious! That evening I helped with the milking and was better able to help this time knowing the routine and in wool boots. I was also given the chance to milk a cow myself. This was very slow compared to the experts but the milk came out and mostly landed in the bucket so I consider it to be a success. Other chores which I tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to help with were chopping firewood and collecting dung (fuel for the fire).
I also spent some time sweeping snow from the doorstep, washing up in water warmed on their stove (their cooker and sole heater) and teaching some of the children staying (2yr old, 6 yr old) the names of their animals in English, with limited success as they were so young, but the enthusiasm was there! Their father was a much more apt learner and remembered the names next morning too! I was very sorry to leave, as the countryside is so peaceful compared to life in cities/towns and there was a lot more active work to get involved with. It was so quiet and peaceful with just the occasional shout/call from a farmer to his cattle or an intermittent truck bouncing over the hills in the distance.
The family were so lovely and welcoming and the stars so much clearer than in Darkhan. I am used to the cold now I think. During the day the temp goes from -20 to -3 and back again but it is just cold to me and once in the minuses I don’t really feel any difference. I can definitely appreciate a good animal skin/fur coat, boots and hat and the difference that it makes to ones warmth. If I was staying any longer I would invest but they are actually very expensive here. A teacher just bought a coat of this kind for 200 pounds, which filled me with horror, having never paid so much for any one thing in my life!