Mongolia is a massive and sparsely populated country. With an area of 1.564.115 km2 and just 2,800,000 inhabitants, the density of the country is reduced to less than 2 persons per km2. However, in real terms, the density is much lower, since 1,300,000 of the total population of the country, live in Ulaanbaatar, the capital. The result is a country where nature in its pure state is experienced almost all times but, except for the desert regions, is not an empty nature but one that is inhabited sparingly. Half of the country's population is nomadic and semi-nomadic, the latter being those who practice nomadism seasonally, settling in villages to spend the winter. Nomads and their lifestyle is something that has intrigued and captivated me from a very early age (it is no coincidence the kind of life I live) and it is one of the main reasons why I wanted to cycle in this country so much
Our encounters with the nomads began shortly after leaving Ulaanbaatar, but were becoming more and more intimate as we moved into more remote parts of the steppe. As you cycle along this immense lonely green mantle, the gers, nomad’s dwellings, are little white dots breaking the uniformity of colour.
As an architect, I find vernacular architecture as the most intelligent and perfect of all forms of architecture, as well as one of the most fascinating and appealing aspects that a culture produces. The gers are the paradigm of the nomadic housing, the mobile housing taken to the ultimate perfection.
They basically consist of a circular tent made of a lattice with diagonal cross-timbers tied with ropes, which curves forming a load-bearing wall. Then there is the doorframe of 1 m in height, always oriented to the South. A series of cylindrical timber braces radiating from a central compression ring on the roof, usually 108 (Buddhist meaning), are assembled radially resting on the lattice. The whole system is wrapped in tarps made of sheep wool. During summer, they "roll them up" to let in the wind and keep the house cool while in winter the tarps reach the ground. The floor can be the very same prairie grass but usually, plastic or rubber covers and, sometimes, even wood is used. Inside, everything is organized strategically, with the wood stove in the centre, the cabinet of relics on the side opposed to the door and a bed on each side. The space for tools, airag bag (see next post), clothing, kitchen items, and others, occupies the rest. The whole system is assembled and disassembled in just a couple of hours only. They are infallible against extreme cold, and cool in the summer. The interior is tastefully decorated, with roof braces and hand painted furniture in bright colours and walls covered with carpets. Times have evolved for them also and today, many have their satellite dish and can watch TV, which they plug into a battery that is charged during the day with a small solar panel.
The ring is supported by two wooden columns and is an essential element, which serves as a solar dial. Not only it allows ventilation but according to the sunlight that filters through it, nomads know what time of day it is, reminding them what is the task to be performed and whether they are late for carrying it out.
Throughout our week on the way to Erdenet, we went getting, little by little, into the nomadic life, because the nomads do not skimp hospitality, they are hospitable by nature and no one but them, understands better the difficulties of their environment. We just had to cycle past near their gers and, always, someone sighted and invited us to come inside. Reception is as though we are honoured guests. To enter a ger is already a special moment in itself, it is to fully go into this simple one-room dwelling so infinitely rich that represents the universe of nomadic life. The light comes from overhead and gives a very beautiful quality by letting in the sun rays that make the colors of the decoration vibrate. Immediately after, they serve us tea, which like in Tibet is with milk and salted, although, in Mongolia, they don't put butter in it. Then they bring trays of aro, a goat cheese that is hung to dry inside or outside the tent.
Nomads live and depend on their animals, their life revolves around them, and, it is for them that they have moved for centuries throughout the entire steppe taking them from around the pastures. Herds of horses, cows, goats, sheep led by a nomad on horseback can be seen grazing across the steppe, offering a splendid scenery accompanied by the beauty of an absolute silence, filling the soul with peace and serenity. In Mongolia everything is seen in the distance, the horizon is always infinite and all is viewed from afar and, in this immensity, one feels just like another fluff blowing in the wind.
Technique to approach a ger The animals are so important in the life of a Mongol that it's no coincidence that the first words that we have had to learn to try to communicate, are: horse (by far the most important), goat, sheep and cow. The communication is very difficult, one of the most difficult I have experienced in years of traveling around the world. The Mongol is a language that I have the certainty, should be among the most difficult in the world. Their words, phrases and sounds, are incomprehensible and unpronounceable (at least for the average westerner). Whereupon, we had no other option but to resort to the infallible universal language: signs and gestures. But, of all the basic survival vocabulary, it is essential to learn this phrase:
During the first week, in one of the many times we did not know what track to follow, I stopped the bike and walked about 600 m to a ger while Julia waited. As I approached, a dog starts barking at me, but it was not threatening. However, when I sighted the door of the ger, and began to call "sain bainu, sain bainu! (hello, hello), another giant and furious dog I hadn't seen came out of his sleep and showing his teeth in fury, confronts me. There we were, him and me, the people of the ger still wouldn't show up, I could not stop releasing adrenaline, with goose bumps, paralysed and the dog with bristly hair and fangs gleaming. I took a shot and walked towards the door begging to be seen by the owner but at that very same time the dog jumped at me like a hungry lion. I started screaming NO NO NOOOO NOOOOO, and in seconds the owner comes out the door and grab the dog's neck when he was in the air while in matter of seconds I already could see myself with half a leg less. With the heart throbbing out of control, I try to relax and introduce myself. The man, sorrowful, kindly invited me to his ger; I ask for indications and went back. Julia, 600 m away had heard me scream, and it took me half an hour to make my skin stop compulsively giving me the goose bumps.
The moral of this story is that nokhoi Khorio! Is one of the most important phrases to learn in Mongolia and means "Hold the dog." In fact, between Mongols, to say this phrase is synonymous to saying "hello", it is common that all say it when approaching a ger and it is a way of announcing their presence.
Each day, we have sought to camp near the gers. You should always ask for permission and it is always awarded with kindness and enthusiasm. On some occasions we have been invited to dine and sleep in them. The Mongolian diet is a diet of strong and robust men, a diet of an inhospitable place where vegetables do not grow. It consists of meat, mostly sheep and whether or not there is sheep meat, practically everything tastes like sheep fat anyway. Dishes combine this meat, sometimes with dough cut into noodles shape, sometimes with potatoes, and if some miracle happens, carrots. You eat the meat, eat the fat, eat the entrails, the eyes, the brain, everything. The geographical and climatic harshness of Mongolia do not allow the fruits and vegetables to grow and even though they are forced to eat meat exclusively, nomads love their animals with devotion and sacrifice them only by necessity and never in excess or by gluttony. Because of Buddhist influence, they have slaughter techniques that minimize the suffering of animals.
For breakfast and to wash the taste of sheep fat, there is nothing better than the milk boiled immediately after being milked. After the first week of fabulous steppe, we could already feel a physical change, a change in our general mood. There is something that is very difficult to define but which I could already feel in that first week. I don't know if they are the shapes, the colours, and the omnipresent harmony in everything, the smooth go around of nomadic life or all together. It is the communion with nature, the slower go around, and everything seems to have an effect within one filling the soul with serenity and tranquillity.
Thus we arrive at Erdenet, which with its 80,000 people is the second largest city in the country. A city that lives 100% off a monster copper mine, which is so important and valuable that the Soviets, in times of invasion were responsible for falsifying maps putting it in other coordinates. Nowadays, it is open pit exploited and from there comes almost all the copper that buys China. Know this, look at your cell phones, because in them, like in almost every mobile phone around the world today, it is likely that inside, there are torn pieces of Mongolia.
Erdenet city is a horrifying sight from near and very picturesque from afar. By all means, it includes its own collection of drunks and also of Russians who have taken root there. From Erdenet we did a lightning one day round trip by train to Ulaanbaatar to finish a bureaucratic formality and from there we continued towards the high steppe, in the forests of Hövsgöl, near Siberia. By this time, for the rest of the trip we could already forget about cities and formalities, it was time to become immersed in this beautiful tale and leave reality for another time.