Sep 26 2010

Nomadic Homestay, Part IV

Here are links to parts I, II and III.

Unfortunately for my nomadic escape plan, my polka dotted life raft deflated as soon as I finished blowing it up – it had a loose seam that was not quite ready for someone to lie on it without the buoyant support of water. I left it on the ground as insulation anyway, which was a good idea because it quickly became much colder, and any protection I could get between me and the hard, dung-covered dirt was very welcome. Not that it did that much good. I dress like someone who enjoys camping, but that is actually just because I’m not good at dressing myself. Unlike Peter, I actually hate camping. Hate sleeping in tents. Hate drinking iodine-tinged river water. Hate pooping outdoors, and getting up in the middle of the night to pee. Is it obvious I did not sleep well?  I did not sleep well. In addition to the physical discomfort, there is a lot of action at a Mongolian ger camp that can keep you awake, including barking dogs, packs of galloping horses, and an ox.

Oh, the ox. It was tied to a tree near our tent and spent much of the hours between 5 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. bellowing. There’s really no other verb for it. Loud, pained expulsions of sound spaced out by about seven seconds. It was the first time I’ve slept next to an ox, and I feared it might not be my last.

Once it became obvious that sleep was no longer an option, we joined the family in the main ger for breakfast – day-old fry bread topped with urum, which is a type of butter made from skimming the fat off of boiling cream, and tiny blueberries mashed with sugar – our young female guide from the day before smushed them together in a plastic cup with a spoon and handed them to us to use as a type of jam. Combined with the refreshing addition of regular black tea, I was quite happy – if diabetically challenged.

Our goal that day (as was our goal every day) was to get to the next ger, 24 kilometers away by horseback. The shaved head mother was to be our guide, and she arrived outside the ger on horseback with two other horses behind her. Mongolian horses, it turns out, are much smaller than American horses – and I ended up on the same horse that the two little boys had been galloping on the night before.

We weren’t galloping, though. Instead we were walking, at a pace so slow I worried it might take us all day to get there.But before long I was missing our relaxed walk, when the mother eased her horse into a bone-jolting trot that was too bumpy to sit through, but also too jerky to move with. I tried to get the horse to canter, but it responded by kicking its legs up in a preview of what might happen if it wanted to throw me out of the saddle. The only option left was to clamp my legs around the horse and hold myself suspended above the saddle, which is fine for maybe five minutes, but gets to be a bit tiring when you’re holding it for an hour. Making the situation more challenging, the gray sky suddenly erupted into rain – strong, soak-your-pants-through rain that persisted for the rest of our journey.

A ger on a Mongolian plain is a cozy sight to begin with, but it is even more so when you are soaking wet, with spasms in your legs and areas of your bottom rubbed raw. So I was quite happy when we finally reached our next host family, a young man and woman with a 2-year-old son, easily mistaken for a girl because of his long hair.  (Luckily, our hosts didn’t speak English well enough to notice my incorrect pronouns.) As we sat around the hearth drying out and sipping tea, the boy and his 2-year-old cousin played in front of the bed, pretending to ride each other like horses. At some point, a carrot one of them was nibbling on fell out of their mouth and onto the ger’s filthy floor; both promptly threw themselves face down and began licking the ground, to no comment from any of the adults present. Hygenic standards among nomads are a bit different from in America. And before you start talking about how great that must be for their immune system, let me say that there are high levels of respiratory illness among nomads (not to mention a different, if unrelated, health problem: marmot plague).

This is the little girl.

She liked Peter's hat.

Anyway, the mother prepared us a lunch of fresh frybread – delicious, if again a diabetic disaster – and black tea, which we sipped as she showed us her collection of foreign bills and coins (“My hobby,” she announced preemptively, depleting our list of possible questions to ask her by a third). And then, she did something amazing: she offered to let us stay in their spare ger.

Peter in spare ger.

Oh my goodness, was it cozy. Granted, it had no beds – just a plastic cover on the dirt floor, two small cupboards and a low table. But we didn’t care. Perhaps my standards had been lowered by my time spent on my polka dotted plastic sheet, but as I curled up in my sleeping and extra blankets next to a wood-burning hearth, rain pattering on the fabric overhead, I was the closest I’d been to genuinely content on the homestay thus far. Later that evening, the lady of the, well, ger, came to visit, bringing with her a Mongolian/English dictionary, and we did our best to ask questions and learn more about her life. It turned out she was from a small village between Terelj and Ulan Baatur (when we asked her husband where he was from, he laughed and pointed at the ground). Then she returned to her own ger, leaving behind a bag of anklebones for us to play with. Her husband returned from an unknown destination on motorcycle, their son fast asleep against the handlebars – a feat that seemed near impossible, given the terrain (then the motorcycle tipped over and he cried).

That night was a bit less cozy, since the temperature dropped substantially and our stove went out. Also, previously unnoticed by me, my sleeping bag was unzipping from the bottom up. After rezipping it and adding a few layers I was doing okay until Peter was seized by a 4am urge to rebuild the fire. He did so with gusto, creating a small inferno in the stove several feet from our heads. Half-asleep, I became obsessed with the idea that the exhaust pipe/chimney was going to set the top of the ger on fire, and started creating escape plans (the fact that there was only one door made things easier) and asked Peter, if the ger were to catch on fire, to please try to grab my journals.

Breakfast.

The ger did not burn down. Instead we awoke early the next day to the first activity that matched those described on our itinerary: learning to sew a pattern for a national dress (me) and learning to tie a bridle (Peter). For the dress pattern, the woman carefully folded and bent a narrow strip of ribbon onto a geometric pattern she had traced on a scrap of graph paper, then fastened it in place using an iron heated on the stove and chunky, homemade glue stored in a peanut tin and applied with a flat-head screw driver. After it had been properly shaped, she pulled out a foot treadle sewing machine – her grandmother’s, she explained – and sewed it onto a small pouch.

I do not know anything about the bridle.

All of this occurred with a soundtrack of music videos playing from the black and white television behind me, which the mother occasionally sang along to. Her son – whose gender was now obvious, since he wasn’t wearing pants – crouched on the side of the ger, trying to hit a nail into a board with a large hammer (again, he is two). Then, activities successfully completed, the young woman loaded us into her ox cart and we took off across the valley.

Click here for Part V — in which I wrestle with a Mongolian  nomad.