Living the nomadic life in Zahkvan

*Unfortunately several great pictures of everyday life in Mongolia were lost when Quentin’s phone was stolen in Mexico (unexpected, eh?), so many good memories/funny moments can’t be illustrated*

Day 9

After another night freezing in the tent, we leave early and continue our trip to the Zakhvan province, in central-western Mongolia. Zakhvan is mainly composed of wild steppe and desert that hasn’t seen many tourists yet. On our way there, we stop for something we’ve absolutely been craving for: a shower! In a little town, we find a public bathhouse with 3 rotten shower rooms, but there’s even warm water and we feel like we’re in Eden’s garden. After 9 days, you can definitely enjoy the shower. Refreshed, we continue our way and have a light lunch because half the bread is rotten. Well, just makes it tastier… Tom tries making a cherry tea out of a Russian powder he bought but it turns into some kind of poisonous pink jelly, which makes us laugh but doesn’t quench our thirst.

Our car breaks down again… Ironman tries to figure out the problem by replacing one, then two wheels, driving the last 30 min with a scary “cling-clong” every 20 meter. We finally make it to our host family for the next 7 days: two gers nested on a hillside between a lake and a forest. Two families welcome us into their homes, but one leaves directly for the city because the wife is due to deliver her baby soon. We thus receive their ger where we will sleep for the week.

Meanwhile, three men have unbuilt half of the car and found out that one piece in the wheel axle is pulverized. Ironman joins some people leaving for the city to go look for a spare part and we won’t see him for the next couple of days. We thus have no car nor driver, but we have horses, and they certainly snore less than Ironman! 🙂

 

The plan was to spend two days living the nomadic life (although we are kind of doing it by moving around every day with our tent), and 4-5 days doing a horse trek to a famous lake with a sand dune in its center. However, the first thing the family asks is whether we can ride fast, because the round trip would take minimum 4 days. We look at each other, look at the wooden saddles that look as comfy as a chair carved with a rusty fork, and quickly agree that rushing four days on a horse is not a good idea, especially considering the last time we rode was 5 years ago… Instead, we plan to do daily excursions and explore the surroundings by horse, sleeping in the ger at night and helping the family with daily chores.

We spend the evening playing cards with the three boys (with rather unpronouncable names: Chimbat, Khureltulga, Erkhembileg), having fun and eating sweets. They are quite different from each other. The oldest one is rather calm and shy. The middle one has the cutest smile, looks a bit like a monk with his shaved head, and would continually talk to us in Mongolian for the next days, not realizing that we couldn’t understand a single sentence. The youngest one, Chimbat, loves candy and his teeth unfortunately match the statement. Big smiles help to overcome any language barrier, and they have a lot of fun repeating bits of our conversation in English like little parrots. They all ride horses like they were born on the saddle, even Chimbat although he is still too small too climb on the horse by himself.

 

The ger

The ger’s floor is about two third covered by some worn out carpets, the other third being just plain grass. The wall’s decoration is composed of a hanging carpet with stitched horses and the rest is covered with some shiny golden blankets. Two painted wood chests are the main furniture and serve as a little buddhist altar and tv-holder. A 12 Volt solar powered battery keeps Korean drama running on the TV. On the floor, a bucket full of all kinds of intestines from which you can snack whenever you want. A sheep head lays on the grass floor next to the bed (apparently cut a few days before our arrival) while some intestines filled with blood (sausage) hang drying above the bed head. The central element remains the dung-fueled oven that also functions as a trash burning machine. No place, except for maybe the altar, is off limits for dirty riding boots. You come inside the ger, walk on the carpet, and lie on the bed with your boots full of dung. Imagine the contrast for us who were in Japan ten days before Mongolia! 🙂

It is usual to just sling open the door and make your way into the ger of your neighbour or even of someone you don’t know. During our nomadic life survival week it is most often the kids that would come running in, observe what we’re doing, grab some sweets if they find some, and go out.

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On a wooden bed covered with some carpets is the most peaceful thing: a little sleeping baby, wrapped in blankets like an Egyptian mummy. All family members treat this little cute pack with great care, caressing, kissing, hugging & singing for the baby.

 

Day 10

We wake up too late for milking the animals but it was good to catch up some sleep for once (especially Rebekka, who didn’t sleep more than a few hours in the last days of camping). After a “light” breakfast – a pile of steamed noodles with boiled sheep meat – we saddle the horses and leave for what will be a 6 hour tour, or rather 6 hours of butt torture for Quentin… We herd the horses and cattle to a river where they get fresh water. It might be necessary to precise that all horses appear to be free and wild in Mongolia, as they just run around freely in the nature. However, all horses belong to someone that – usually – knows where to go find them.

After a short stop, we ride further across the wide landscape – it is mostly grass and stones covered in pieces of wool and bones. Spontaneously, we decide to ride to “the village”, Yaruu, and buy some cookies. Dark clouds lurk in the horizon and on the way back to the ger, strong winds start blowing, bringing the clouds closer and closer. We suddenly find ourselves in a rainstorm and in a matter of seconds are wet to the bone. A few minutes later the storm has died away and the sun starts shining again. By the time we reach the gers we are almost dry. A good excursion, but it might be relevant to precise that we almost fainted due to the pain induced by those wooden saddles. Quentin has bruises as big as a palm on both thighs, and bleeds from different spots that aren’t necessary to describe.

 

In the evening, we help the grandma milking the cows, and feed a bottle of milk to a little goat that had lost its mother. It quickly becomes our mascot. The family then gathers in our ger to hear our story. We talk about our journey and the grandmother follows with juvenile excitement, asks many questions and encourages us with warm smiles. It was just cute to see them all lean to look at some pictures on our laptop or phone.

 

 

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Day 11

More sheep noodle soup for breakfast. After, it’s time for work! We take a metal comb and brush some goats to collect their winter fur: Cashmere! The family sells it for 37$ a kg, against 2$ for sheep wool. We help them “harvest” 7 goats and get an impressive amount of cashmere, but in the end a big bag barely weighs a kilo or two.

It is impossible to ride a horse today. We suffer from muscle pain as well as open blisters after yesterday’s ride. In the afternoon, we collect some dung for the fire and attempt to walk to the lake but we’re stopped about 100 meters away from the water by a wall of flies.
That evening, the grandparents invite us to their gers that is about 300m away and we help prepare loads of meat dumplings. This turns out to be one of our most delicious Mongolian meals, generously enriched by some vodka that the grandpa wants to share with us. Cultural barriers break after a few glasses, and grandpa seems very happy to drink with us. He starts making “manly” jokes and touches Quentin’s balls repeating some untranslatable things about male strength, reproduction etc. while his wife hits him on the back out of indignation.

 

Day 12

It’s a rather lazy day, and so we spend collecting branches a few hundred meters above the gers, in the woods that cover the top of the surrounding hills. We cannot avoid but look suspiciously at the forest because we just heard from the neighbors that wolves had killed 4 of their sheep last night. That also explains why the dogs were barking throughout the night. Collecting the firewood in the forest also makes us think about how hard it must be to live in the Gobi desert, where not only water is scarce, but also wood is non-existent, forcing you to rely on dung that burns real quick.

The rest of the day isn’t very active, testament to the slow pace of nomadic life. Dagva, the family father, takes us and the boys around the lake by car – originally planned on horse but our butts vetoed it and the rain didn’t make it very attractive either. Dagva shows us an abandoned group of wooden houses that used to be a tourist resort by the lake. You can still imagine the charm it once had before closing 7 years ago because of corruption: a restaurant, a hotel, a little hospital house and – a little unsuspected – a disco. Well, no one to complain about the loud music in this remote place.

Day 13

The kids rush in at 7am to tell us their father is slaughtering a sheep. We come out to see the dead animal laying on its back. They had killed it by making a thin cut on the chest and plugging a hand in to reach the heart’s main artery. The dad carefully cuts open the skin from head to tail and Quentin helps him pulling away the skin from the inner tissues. It requires strength and a good grip because the tissues are slippery. Then, the guts and organs are removed one by one and thrown in a big bucket. Almost everything will be eaten, so not much is going to the dogs that stare patiently. The stomach is huge and filled with half-processed grass. It will be emptied, cleaned and eaten as well. Once the insides are removed and the blood scooped out of the chest cavity, the whole body is separated in two pieces (three if you count the head) that are then casually hanged inside the ger. The head is casually left on the grass floor next to the other head that has been waiting there for more than a week.

While we’re eating breakfast (noodles with sheep meat, as usual), the mother puts the offals, intestines, heart, liver, kidneys, lungs etc. into a big pot and boils it all for an hour or two. Once cooked, everyone sits outside on the grass, pulls out their knives, and dig in the big bucket of guts: a real feast! We feel brave and try a bit of everything but some flavors and textures are unusual to us and hard to stomach.
After that second breakfast, we hop on the horses and herd the sheep and goats to the river 1 hour away. We feel like real cowboys, but on the way back Quentin’s horse reacts abruptly to a sudden swarm of flies, jumping back and throwing Quentin down, pulling him over several meters as his foot remains stuck in the horse’s stirrup. Luckily, he manages to free his foot and the horse runs way. Nothing broken.

 

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During the day, we also get to help the family building a new ger – a task that can be done as fast as in 30 min with some helping hands! We first lay the outside wall and door, then connect a hundred of colourful poles to the central frame before covering it all in felted sheep fur and a layer of waterproof cloth.

 

Day 14

On day 14, we drive to Mongol Els. As expected, the 1-hour expected car ride takes over 2.5 hours, crossing several beautiful valleys. It would have been a long way on horseback! The place, however, is definitely worth the trip: the “black lake” is surrounded by white sand dunes and its waters look turquoise blue when hit by the sun. It’s name probably comes from the black sand carpeting it. We get in the water for a bit but quickly go out because of the suspicious insects, worms, and shrimp-looking creatures that seem very interested in our feet. When leaving, we pass next to some perfect looking smaller dunes between which a river runs. The abrupt cut from green pasture land to sand gives this valley a beautiful contrast of colors.

 

 

Day 15

On our last day with the family, there’s not much to do so we go hiking into the forest, climbing to the top of the mountain behind the gers. As usual for distances in Mongolia, it is much further than expected but we eventually make it to the top while checking on all sides for wolves hanging out, mistaking us for lost sheep (especially considering Quentin’s hair). Our reward is a beautiful view over the valleys on each sides of the mountain. Back to the gers, we help the kids gather some wool scattered all around for that they would be rewarded 2$ per kilogram, that they would save to buy a bicycle.

 

Before saying goodbye, we visit grandma, help her with the milking of cows as well as the preparation of some more dumplings. We show some last pictures of our travels to the family and take some pictures with them. It’s already time to say goodbye and we are sad to part, but more adventures are awaiting us!

All in all, this remains an incredible and very special experience to us, having gotten a bit of an insight into the fascinating but tough nomadic lifestyle. Looking back on it, it was a truly unforgettable experience and we are grateful that we had the chance to come here!

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