Embrace the space

Mongolian Gers @Sam Greenhalgh

Visiting Mongolian Nomads

Sometimes, as the taxi glides through the Beijing night. And the neon lights flash: Eat me, buy me, desire me. People pass by, so many of them, appear and are gone again before you have even begun to read their faces. When it’s honking and roaring and roaring all around, the sensory overload becomes so great that the city begins to spin like a merry-go-round. Then it’s suddenly there. The dream. If you live in Beijing like I do, you sometimes long for the simple life.

Getting up, stepping outside the door, being embraced by space. In my dreams I gallop across the plains, watch the horses graze, in my dreams I live with the Mongolian nomads. Under Genghis Khan, they succeeded in establishing a world empire, one that was unheard of at the time, based on the exchange of knowledge, religious freedom, free trade and communication. They were so much more than the bloodthirsty hordes of horsemen that the West describes them as. To this day, the Mongolian nomads live as large parts of humanity once did. I want to return to these origins.

Together with my best friend, I book a tour with the Mongolian agency Ger to Ger, which was founded by an American. „On horseback to the Hujiriin volcano“. For six days, we will be largely on our own. We will have to make our way with our hands, our feet and with the help of a small guidebook that lists the most important Mongolian phrases. There are no guidebooks on Ger to Ger. The travellers live with nomadic families, one family leads them to the next – sometimes on horseback, sometimes in an ox cart. The travellers spend the night in gers, the traditional round tents. At the agency office in Ulan Bator, we are given an introduction to nomadic behaviour and an emergency number that should theoretically be available 24 hours a day – if you have a network, which won’t be the case for six days.

At eight o’clock in the morning, we set off in a colourfully decorated bus towards Tsetserleg, the capital of the central Mongolian province of Archangai. Our fellow travellers smell of milk and butter, the perfume of the steppe. Tsetserleg is a place of enchanting sleepiness, colourful houses creeping up a hill with gers in between. A sky-blue Russian bus takes us on a half-hour journey to our first host family. Grassland. Hills as soft as if they were covered with velvet. A few scattered gers, white and light, seem to drift across the plain like sailing ships on a summer’s day. A small stream babbles past, surrounded by wide-spreading trees. Animals graze freely and without fences, yaks and horses, sheep and goats. Our ger camp consists of three tents: the family tent, the cooking tent and the one we will sleep in.

We spend the days and evenings together in the family tent, only retiring to our own ger to sleep. Experienced campers can erect and dismantle a tent supported by wooden pillars, slats and struts within an hour. There is room for beds, a table and chairs, there are small chests, cupboards and a house altar, the walls are decorated with carpets and sometimes posters. The children hang on our arms and legs. They want to play! The ger has its own etiquette. Don’t bump your head on the door frame when you enter, it’s bad luck. Just like whistling in the tent. Always walk in a clockwise direction. Do not lean against the supporting posts. Don’t play with fire, fire is sacred. Take everything that is offered to you with both hands, or at least with the right hand while the left supports your elbow. Our host mother Erdenetsetseg welcomes us in green shorts and a green spaghetti strap shirt; she is a Mongolian teacher. Her husband is visiting his mother, so Erdenetsetseg has been joined by a relative and her two children. She serves us butter tea. It is creamy, salty and heavy in the mouth. Some people say bad things about butter tea, but I love it from the very first moment. We try to make conversation. We flick back and forth through our book, trying out different pronunciations of each sentence. It goes – transposed – something like this: „What do you do for a living?“ – „Yushalush.“ – „How?“ – „Jilabash.“ – „How?“ – „Journalist.“ – „Aaaaaaah.“ The conversation soon petered out into sipping tea.

The children take the initiative. He, a rascal of four, his hair cropped short, a little tail at the back. He wears sunglasses because of Psy. Solar-powered televisions carry South Korean pop to every last corner of the grassland. She is two years older, her hair a dark wheat blonde, as is the case with many Mongolian children, only later will it turn a dark colour. They hang on our arms and legs, they want to play! To be thrown into the air! Being spun round in circles! We let ourselves be chased by the enthusiastically stumbling children and in return pretend that they are always getting away from us. They just don’t get tired. We try to sneak away a few times, but each time they catch us, with the instinct of a shepherd dog tracking down a runaway sheep. They tumble over us, laughing and jeering. My notebook fills up with drawings of horses, elephants, yaks and goats. I slowly learn a little Mongolian: Mör for horse. Jama for goat.

The evening paints huge shadows on the grass, yak shadows, cow shadows, horse shadows, enveloping the plain in twilight and giving the mountain peaks a final glow. So far the sky. There is not just one spectacle, there are four. In the east, the clouds are heavy with rain; in the south, they dance, drunk with light. In the north, they move across the sea of sky like a mighty fleet, while the west rehearses the sunset. You could become addicted to this light, golden and soft, in which things seem so light, as if they could float. Children circle over the grassland with their arms stretched out wide, goats climb onto the firewood, a two-year-old runs across the grass in a rolling playpen.

Later, a neighbour passes by, although the word neighbour is a broad term in Mongolia. This one is the closest to the family, he lives about a kilometre away. He shows us how to shoot a bow and arrow, which is part of the concept of this trip: with each family, the guest learns a skill from nomadic life. I am nervous. The last time I shot a bow was as a child in a western town and I failed so miserably that I was locked up in the western town prison, the punishment for super rivets. I put on the bow I made myself, tighten the bow rope until it trembles a little, let go and with a soft whirring sound the arrow shoots far out into the grassland, past baffled gawping yaks. I shoot and shoot, this time it’s easy, perhaps because there’s no super rivet prison in the grasslands. That night we snuggle up in sleeping bags on the floor of our guest ger, and the next morning another neighbour picks us up in a bullock cart. An old man, gnarled like a tree, he smokes home-made cigarettes that he rolls out of newspaper and sometimes sings a song to his ox. The ox is a fearsomely large animal, horseflies suck on its nostrils and legs, a walking feast. We travel through the grassland, over hills and through rivers where frogs croak, the ox is up to its belly in water.

Never before have I seen so many varieties of grass. Yellow, stubbly steppe grass, fresh mountain pasture grass, cobalt green marsh grass, summer meadow grass. It smells of herbs and lemon balm, the morning smells different to the midday heat. The grass feeds shaggy yaks by the roadside and bleating sheep. Herds of horses trot past us. Meerkat-like animals scent on their hind legs before disappearing into their holes at lightning speed. Huge grasshoppers buzz through the air, green, brown, yellow and red, making a loud clacking sound. The grass determines the life of the nomads, the families move with the grass. Once the animals have eaten the summer pasture, they move on to the autumn and then the winter pasture. In the fertile province of Archangai, they are often only a few kilometres apart. However, nomads who keep large herds of animals often walk hundreds of kilometres in winter until they find a place to feed their animals. Many families have a winter house or a ger in the city, where the children live with relatives when they attend school. I get off the cart and walk. With every step, I feel as if something is falling away from me, left by the wayside, by the yak skulls bleaching in the sun. My thoughts disappear, my head clears.

At our next camp, a whole dozen gers are lined up along a river where summer holidaymakers from the capital are bathing. City dwellers also like to spend their holidays in the grasslands. Around half of the almost three million Mongolians live as nomads, and many of those who live in the capital today grew up in the grasslands. Our host father Batdelger is an impressive man with an even more impressive nose. He is a famous horseman, and the medals his horses have won in races are enthroned on the house altar. The family jockey is an eleven-year-old who acts like a real bloke. He frowns boldly, walks with his legs apart like a prizefighter. He moves with the self-confidence of someone who knows that he has to defend the honour of the family. By being bold and riding like the wind. We watch him and his relatives drive the horses into the corral. Magnificent animals, long and strong with shiny coats. The boys shoo them into the gate, jeering. Now the horse keepers have to get the foals out so that the mares can be milked. The jockey prances barefoot between the horses‘ hooves, pulling the foals out by their manes and tails. His cousin swings onto a horse that has never carried a rider before, it rears up, neighs, races across the plain, it wants to throw him off, but he claws at its body and laughs. Dust swirls up, it’s a devil’s dance.

This is exactly how I imagined my nomadic life.

In fact, it would probably be more like that of Iyma, 24. She is one of the six children in our host family, wears leopard leggings and probably has the most stunning smile in the whole of the grasslands. She is studying dentistry in Ulan Bator and speaks English, spending the summer outside with her family. „On holiday?“ She sighs: „No, this is definitely not a holiday.“ She gets up at five and milks the horses, then cooks, washes, churns butter, „I can relax again at university“. She leads me into the cooking tent. Milk everywhere you look, in troughs, pots and horse skins. Cow’s milk, yak’s milk, horse’s milk, goat’s milk, sheep’s milk. It is processed into butter and cheese, into airag, the fermented mare’s milk, into yoghurt and vodka. Stirring, churning and churning is a back-breaking job. Under Iyma’s aegis, I try my hand at milking a yak. I carefully pull on the teats and push the milk down, but while Iyma’s milk shoots out of the udder in a powerful stream, mine is just a pitiful trickle. I would have to spend hours here for a piece of cheese.

The storm comes in the evening. You can see it coming from afar. It whips across the plain, chases the horses in front of it, they gallop away with their manes flowing. It tears at the tents, brews heavy storm clouds, the end of the world seems near. But as quickly as the storm has come, it is over again. What remains is a rainbow. A cow is grazing right where it meets the ground. And she is probably pooing a pot of pure gold at this very moment.

The next morning we ride with our host father Batdelger to the next family. I have a powerful little grey gelding and my heart is pounding in anticipation of a wild gallop. The gelding obviously sees things differently. Whatever I do, he trots. Slow trot, fast trot, very fast trot. At some point it starts to rain. Soaked through, we reach the camp of our next family. Batdelger lies down on the bed next to the new hosts‘ sleeping baby and starts snoring seconds later. My eyes fall shut too. The wind rattles the tent, the wood crackles in the stove. A ger is a wonderful world. If you close the hatch through which the smoke from the cooker escapes, it is dark and cosy inside, like a cave. But when you open it, everything becomes light and airy. I wake up to the sound of crickets chirping and the sun shining on my face. Next to me, at the table, sits Nerguibaatar – mid-30s, pockmarked face, short hair as thick as that of an animal. His laugh is warm and broad. He lives here with his wife and four daughters. Nerguibaatar is a vet, eager to learn, he wants to learn English. He takes hours to talk to us. A little English, a little Mongolian, a little lost in translation. We point around in our handbook, gesticulate, draw when we can’t find the words. Laughing when nobody understands anything. He rummages in his cupboards, shows us his photos, certificates, badges. A whole nomadic life. Military service, marriage, visits to Ulan Bator, the birth of his first, second, third and fourth child. On a walk across his land, he proudly shows us the winter stables, the common room, the potato field that he cultivates together with his neighbours, who have founded a cooperative. He seems completely at ease. He says with pride and joy: „I am an animal farmer.“ We have made a new friend.

The next morning I want to read, but every two minutes the adorable troop of four daughters marches up and shouts „Anschiiilaaaa“. They drag stones, boards and flowers over, want to cook river soup, demand that I read them the English on cereal boxes, chocolate bars and jelly babies. They want to bathe, play, colour. The sentence „I just want some peace and quiet“ doesn’t appear in our clever handbook, probably nobody would understand it anyway. Living with the nomads means living in an extended family. At lunchtime, we ride off with Nerguibaatar and two small neighbouring boys. I swing myself onto a Mongolian wooden saddle. I’ve been warned, but I want to give it a go. Stupid, extremely stupid idea. We trot up the hills to a row of white stupas, which we circle three times clockwise on horseback, the Mongolian way of praying. Then we trot and trot, for hours, heaven knows where these little horses get their energy from. By the time we reach the top of the mountain, I’ve long since given up the gallop dream. The forest and plain spread out below us. And suddenly my horse’s back strains and we gallop. We chase over the hill and into the forest. The nomad boys at my side sing and whistle to make the horses run even faster. The wind rushes around my ears, my arse, rubbed by the wooden saddle, burns like fire, but it doesn’t matter. Flying.

By the time we reach the next ger, the pain has caught up. My bum is bloody from riding, my thighs ache after two days of constant trotting, the archery has left a bruise on the inside of my right arm. His back is also damaged after nights on the floor and on hard beds. We hike to a river in the plain, with sheep grazing on its banks. In the distance is a sparse forest, the nearest Gers are kilometres away. We bathe in the ice-cold water – there are no showers in the grasslands. And have a completely unprovoked fit of laughter. We giggle like crazy, it’s possible that all that green has taken our minds away. In the evening, our intoxicated state is fuelled by the homemade vodka served to us by our new host Sumyadash, an affable man who happily sings „Merci, Merci, Merci“ every three minutes, usually for no reason at all. To his enthusiastic shouts, we savour the vodka, which still tastes of the yoghurt from which it is made. At night we hear the dogs barking, they are out of control. „Probably a wolf,“ says Sumyadash later. And with grand gestures tells us about survival in the grasslands. About the wolves that snatch sheep, the buzzards that peck their eyes out, about the Zud, the extreme winter cold that kills the cattle. What would it be like to live here forever? The nights in the tent are already chilly in July, I don’t even want to imagine December. Nevertheless, I have decided to come back at some point and stay longer. Maybe then I’ll even learn to milk a yak with a little more grace.

On our last evening in the grasslands, we look up at the sky for hours. Drinking in the blue. Walking with the clouds. We never tire of it, it changes every few minutes. It pulls out all the stops. It builds up towers of clouds, only to dissolve them again immediately afterwards, and lets feather clouds, cotton wool clouds and rain clouds parade. Shows itself in its most lavish sunset colours. The ancient Mongols worshipped the sky, now I know why. Because for all that is good, the sky is the best.

Published in DIE ZEIT on 12th September 2013

Translated by deepl