It was within the pages of a Steve McCurry coffee table book that I received the summons. Three men on horseback dressed head to toe in furs called out to me. Each had an eagle perched on one arm, reins loosely clutched in the other hand. Behind them lie a never ending range of peaks and valleys, some snowcapped, others the colour of burnt amber.
The fur-laden-eagle-clutching men belonged to a group called Kazakhs who have roamed the mountains and valleys of Western Mongolia since the 19th Century. They were probably the coolest people I’d ever locked my eyes upon and I decided there and then I had to go and visit these people in real life.
Skip a few chapters of this enchanting book (Before They Pass Away – Steve McCurry) and you’ll find another of Mongolia’s ridiculously cool nomadic tribes. The Tsaatan people – or Reindeer Herders as they have become known. Inhabiting the remotest subarctic taiga, they rely on their reindeer for most of their basic needs: transport, milk (for tea, cheese, yoghurt etc) and antlers for carving into tools. I didn’t need any more reasons to visit this magical kingdom, I was already sold.
I continued to watch documentary after documentary (including Wild Horses of Mongolia with Julia Roberts – a change of scenery from her usual Hollywood set!) until my bottom occupied seat 40C of a Boeing 737 en route to the cold capital, Ulaanbatar.
Despite reading every blog post I could find (there weren’t too many) I could never have painted an accurate picture nor have been prepared for what Mongolia had in store for me.
Mongols tend to live a nomadic lifestyle moving with the seasons, and having very little possessions. Outside of the Capital wifi is a rare treat and electricity is a privilege. During the seven weeks I spent travelling around Mongolia I chose not to chase Western luxuries and live life as closely to theirs as possible. This meant only drinking water out of lakes and wells, finishing the meals I was served which was generally boiled meat and bones and fat! (I drew the line at horses head and faked stomach ache at this point!), drinking the milk of every animal milkable (as well as eating the cheese, yoghurt, butter and curd too), riding horses and sitting in cramped shared jeeps for hours on end, peeing in the open with nothing but a shirt round my wait to hide my dignity, and sleeping on hard wooden beds, or mats on the cold floor.
Mongolians are know for their hospitality – every car is a taxi, every house (ger) is a hotel. I wouldn’t blink an eyelid at hailing a car in the middle of the night and travelling for hours in the dark with strangers whom speak no mutual language but had an irrational fear of falling down the long drop! It is considered rude to knock on the door of a ger, as guests are always welcome, instead, they will call out “Hold the dog”. You will always be offered tea and something sweet.
I learned how to start fires from scratch, picked wild berries in the forest, I milked cows, yaks and a reindeer. I became enviable of their simple lifestyle. One that knew how to use their surrounding environment for survival. They required very little, and wasted nothing.
My showering habits reduced themselves from once a day to once a week, and even then it resembled the ice bucket challenge more than an actual shower, crouched naked behind some kind of sheet in a field with a pallet of water you’ve just fetched from the lake. Mongolia is probably the only place you’ll go where you get wished good luck before attempting to freshen up.
Forget the backpackers who take a three week trip around the watering holes and temples of South-East Asia and then refer to themselves as ‘Nomads’ afterwards. These people are the epitome of the word. Outside of the Capital, the only traffic you’re likely to come across has four legs and a fur coat.
That’s what I think I liked most about Mongolia; It’s raw, no bullshit attitude to life. Caveman style living, you won’t hear any-one bitching about feminism, vegetarianism or some distant political decision that has no impact on their current status of living.
If there was a job to be done, it would get done by whoever was available to do it, be it old, young, male or female. The focus wasn’t on religion, or temples, or buildings and museums…it was on the people, the animals and the landscape. Nature as it was intended. Yes they eat their animals. They also use them for milk, transport, clothing, tools and convert their stools into burnable energy. They do not treat them as pets, nor do they mistreat them. They aren’t shy about taking a dump in the middle of a field in full view of the bus the are travelling on because pooping is nature and everybody does it.