Notes from the Steppe: Twelve Varied Observations

Posted on June 1, 2012

2


Fresh from four days on horseback on the steppe and freshly washed, it seems as good a time as any for a new blog post. For those who didn’t know through Der Facebooks, Mike and I got hooked up with a man in Tsetserleg named Gaaj, an entrepreneurial semi-nomad, who offered to take us out onto the steppe on horseback and stay in the gers (round, mobile dwellings made of lattice woodworks and felt covered in drapes) of his friends and family. We had much time, given that no one we encountered spoke English beyond maybe a word or two and our Mongol is restricted to what we can ape out of a pocket phrase book, to just sit and observe much of steppelife. There’s far too much to write down from the past four days’ observations alone, and much of it I will fail to remember. So rather than a large, thematic entry like I like to do, I think I’ll write this one as a series of numbered vignettes, expanding upon the scattered notes I jotted in my notebook. But first, two notes.

Mike, mounted and on the steppe.

Mike, mounted and on the steppe.

The first note on my notebook itself. The first ger we stayed at, one of two close together that owned a herd of yaks and a herd of horses and seemed to belong to Gaaj’s brother from what we could tell, housed a young girl (perhaps six or seven?) whose name is somewhat hard to transliterate from Mongol, but sounds much like Imogen (Dzemudhjen, I think would be somewhat close). Imogen took it upon herself to try to educate me in Mongol from her own schoolbooks, and so read to me a number of stories in Mongol. I reciprocated by pulling out my notebook to communicate with her through drawings and to try to show her how to spell her name in Latin, Nashtaliq, and Devanagari scripts. She liked the notebook more than anything else and ran off with it for the night, drawing this and that and haphazardly labelling her drawings in Mongol (part of my education), so my notes are now crabbed in the spaces between her sketches and labelling and are difficult for even me to make out at points. I’ll try to post some of Imogen’s sketches later—one appears to be of me, and is fantastic for the flurry of scribbles she used to depict my wilding facial hair.

A second note on Gaaj himself. Though 32, Gaaj is a conundrum as he comports himself with a youthful wile and enterprising spirit, but has been so weathered and beaten by the steppe that he looks many years older. He’s one of the few Mongols who smiles readily at new acquaintances, perhaps having learned that we appreciate it and will grant him business for that small Western familiarity. But when he does smile, he flashes one big, pure silver tooth. The smile actually accents another feature—a large and diffuse scar across the left side of his face. I suspect he may have been kicked by a horse at some point, as the bone of his left cheek appears a bit mangled and his eye socket is a bit shifted and distorted on that side, and the area around the socket and cheek bone is crisscrossed by light grooves. It wouldn’t be too surprising as even though Gaaj is himself an experienced herder, we saw him take at least one tumble on his little Mongolian horse when pulling a tight turn while chasing down a yak, putting the horses’s foot into a rut. Hard a man as he is, though the horse seemed to land with full weight on his foot, Gaaj just got up and kept going.

Hard is a good word for Gaaj. Temperatures varied from below freezing to the mid 70s while we were out on the steppe and he weathered it all in a Billabong baseball cap and a wool deel robe tied with a sash of orange silk. (Sidenote inspired by the Billabong cap, did you know that the United Colors of Benetton makes saddle gear? Now you do.) Over the course of his life, he’s acquired a car, which he uses as a taxi cab preferred by many of the tourist-catering hotels and hostels in the Tsetserleg region, a log cabin on a high hill on the edge of town, and steady business guiding foreigners around the countryside, although he speaks no English himself save for a few words (“GOOD!” and “cigarette?” being chief among them) that he has picked up from a beginner’s Mongol-English learning guide that a foreigner left to him a while back. Yet he still maintains close ties with his ger-dwelling family and appears to regularly strike out to help in herding their yaks, goats, horses, cattle, sheep, etc. (the five snouts of Mongolia, as they are called). Gaaj is a fascinating man.

Now on to the vignettes:

  1. What we have in this ger is a case of what I, in a typically snooty and analytical style, will call negotiated modernity. People here have access to the creature comforts we don’t usually associate with nomadism: satellite television, cell phones, and all manner of the trappings of modernity. But they have selectively chosen how and when to incorporate them into daily life. Gaaj, for instance, has a number of nylon leads to tether the horses to a grazing pasture for the night, but only some of them have metal steaks. He just goes out into the woods, breaks a branch, uses a small iron hammer and smashes it into a pointed stake, and instead of using the hammer, proceeds to rip out a small tree and use its trunk to smash his homemade steak into the earth.
    Some observations of negotiated modernity: A cell phone hanging from a cord over a wood stove to pick up a signal from the hole at the center of a ger’s roof. Whipping out a cell phone after making a clockwise circuit around a prayer flag-strung wooden ovoo atop a small mountain. Riding a horse to the top of a forested hill to get cell reception. Rejecting windbreakers for modern deels. One man herding goats on a motorcycle, another herding on a horse. One wooden house on a street in Tsetserlegnext to a ger on the next plot, both with electricity, etc.

    Gers we stayed in.

    Gers we stayed in.

  2. I herded yaks and horses. That’s about the entire story. They’re fairly easy to heard, in truth, although we weren’t nearly as fast as Gaaj, or as nimble in swerving through the herds and picking up stragglers. Ironically, the horses Mike and I rode were the two hardest to corral of all those Gaaj herded in on the first day—hence we named them Bucephalus, after Alexander the Great’s notoriously feisty steed, and Zeppo … more on Zeppo in another tangent.
  3. All Mongolians we have encountered thus far are sweet with their children, but they do not coddle them. They encourage individualism and freedom, and let children wander about, make faces, wrestle yaks (Imogen is quite precocious). But when children cry, they don’t fuss over them. They often mimic the crying and laugh over it. Once, when a one-year-old cried when Gaaj (his father) walked out of sight, Gaaj taught him a lesson by picking him up, sitting him down facing Gaaj, and then taking off running in the other direction. Falls, scrapes, and the like are largely ignored and as such the children seem to become very independent very quickly. But those parents we have encountered thus far are quite loving and fun, and those women and children we have encountered broke no shit or foolishness—they are hard, strong, and independent. There are those who are not, certainly, but I am impressed by those family dynamics we have observed thus far.
    But they rarely smile aside from with their own children. Expect no pleasantries. Those do not really exist out here. Nor do they wave, nor shake hands (save after stepping on one’s foot). It can seem cold. That is deceptive.
  4. A note on gers: they vary in size greatly, but all are composed of a round wood lattice work covered in layers of felt and decorated with silk or linen drapes. The ground is covered with linoleum or some manner of plastic tiling. There is almost always a Buddhist altar towards the north, with the door facing south, and a wood stove in the center with its chimney coming up through the hole at the top-center of the ger. Some gers have modern appliances like a television or a stereo, powered by car batteries hooked up to solar panels. One even had three seismetric meters for some reason. Often the woodwork is painted in a very Tibetan fashion with intricate emblems and flowers in greens, yellows, blues, and orange-reds. Most employ low cots or couches throughout and a shelf or cabinet of wood in a corner in which they keep cooking utensils. Clothes and other accoutrements are stored in boxes under cots, couches, beds, or stuffed up between the lattice and felt of the ger’s roof. All are quite colorful, but they range greatly in their spartan or excess, it seems, based on proximity to provincial towns and the personal preferences of inhabitants.
  5. Tourism is killing traditional hospitality. In a nation so vast as Mongolia, you are apt to travel long and hard to your destination on horses small for speed and endurance, but not made to carry many provisions. As such, hospitality was a necessity as there is a ger every few hours on a trek in any direction save into the heart of the taiga or the Gobi desert. But the flood of tourists has led to the overconsumption of resources once reserved for the occasional guest every week or two. The overconsumption has cut into hospitality for tourists and locals alike, and now most gers will charge for their hospitality, unless one travels well off the beaten path and usually in small groups. That is cultural contamination at its worst, but it is better than preserving hospitality to the point that it eviscerates the abilities of whole families to survive.
  6. The steppe is eerily quiet. Just wind and birds. But no one worries about getting caught in the nothing. We came across a man in a denim jacket and a baseball cap laying out on the ground miles from the road (they are far and few anyway, and rarely well paved). He had a small Honda truck full of wood and had broken down on the slope of the hill he’d just taken the timber from. We stopped to help him push his truck a ways until he could turn the engine, and then he was on his way. The steppe is eerie and unending, but there’s no death in that big empty, not for man at least.
    No matter where you go, though, you will find yak and horse shit. My revulsion to stepping, sitting, and sleeping in said feces has decreased by about 1000 percent. But you will also find smashed vodka bottles and the bleached bones of yak and horses. It’s a little terrifying out there at times, stepping over skulls and through shit in miles and miles of nothing but the same.
    The weather varies greatly, with storms descending, rain, hale, snow, lightning, and thunder that crashes hard into empty soundscapes. They break suddenly and then you bake and bake and bake, before freezing one again. The practicality of the breathable but warm deelis readily apparent.

    Mike with the yaks.

    Mike with the yaks.

  7. I taught Imogen the slap game and Mike taught some street children in Ulaanbaatar the snap handshake. Don’t be surprised if those start to take off, as they seemed pretty popular with the kids.
  8. My horse, Zeppo, was the most difficult mount I have ever encountered. I knew the Mongolians would not part with their prize horses for a few days and turn them over to foreign idiots. But this was truly more than I had expected. Zeppo was easily distracted, flinching and bucking and stopping at every sound or sight. It took constant whispers of “tschoo,” the Mongol spurring word, to keep pace with Gaaj and Mike (and the occasional reminder that bad horses become dinner). He often tried to bend over and graze while walking and seemed determined to try to run me into branches in the taiga. He also had an extremely itchy snout and insisted on scratching it on everything from trees to Mike’s leg to Bucephalus’s ass.
  9. We sighted a white wolf by a river in a marsh just beyond a well watered plain. Wolves are rare on the steppe, but have strong ties to Mongol tradition and oral history. Gaaj stopped us to watch the wolf trot off in silence into the taller grasses and shrubs of the river. This was apparently a very auspicious event for our trip.
  10. Goats may be the most hilarious animals ever. We rode through one heard that just would not stop bleating, and it stretched far enough to give us an impression of the extreme range in pitches and durations of goat bleats, and the personalities they represent, from a horse, short, tired Marlon Brando baaa to a high-pitched opera baaa. I now cannot walk past a goat without laughing.
  11. Almost everything in the countryside is made locally and often improvised, although there is an intense fascination with foreign-made goods. Gaaj loved his sister’s Swiss kitchen knife and he and a drunken man on a motorcycle we encountered constantly asked us where our clothes and watches were made and purchased. The drunk attempted to take Mike’s and my glasses and in exchange offered to take us away on his motorcycle to some unknown destination to drink whiskey with him.
  12.  Breakfast is usually little bits of fried bread in milky tea (more milk than tea), usually unpasteurized yak milk with gobs of yak butter and salt in it. Lunch and dinner is usually thick wheat noodles with chewy bits of mutton (dried and stored in sacks in the ger, then pulverized with a hammer and chopped with scissors into the stewing pot over the wood stove), and sometimes onions, carrots, or potatoes. Special food includes a type of steamed, large dumpling stuffed with ground goat, horse, yak, or sheep meat (cows are too precious for milk to kill, and yaks are more numerous). There’s also something like a fried naan bread stuffed with the same. That’s about the extent of the culinary tradition beside various sour yoghurts, sweet cheeses, and milks.

That is all for now, I think. Apologies for the confused nature of it all. There are more photos on the public Facebook album (link in the last post). Tomorrow, onward to Kharkhorin, the seat ill-advised and disastrous seat of the Mongol Empire from the time of Ogodei to Kublai.

Advertisements
Posted in: Uncategorized