Nomads of the Gobi Desert survive Mongolia’s freezing winters in portable tents which may lack modern plumbing but are kept cosy by the closeness of family life. Words and photographs: Chris van Ryn.
“I NEED TO LOOK AFTER my horse.” Inside a ger in the middle of the Gobi Desert this is considered the polite way of asking to visit the toilet. Copious small bowls of warm white tea, tasting like sour milk, have precipitated this crisis. The tea half-fills a large, shallow, tin bowl atop a small, square, cast-iron stove fuelled, of course, by dung. A pipe extends upwards to exit through the tent ceiling... a stove and heater in one. The blue-vinyl-covered dining-table was a few moments ago the scene of a game of knuckle-bones – not as we know it but using real bones, the knee-joints of slaughtered sheep.
Along with the herd of fat-tailed carpet-wool sheep, a pair of wretched-looking small horses and a couple of goats, the ger and its contents represent the sum total of this family’s worldly belongings. No walk-in wardrobe. No television or radio. No news of the world. Entry to the ger is via a vestibule, an effective thermal barrier between us and the –25°C temperature outside.
The tent is held upright by two thin but sturdy posts. I step between the posts on my way to the exit. There is a plainly audible gasp. “What did I do?” I ask, concerned that I’d caused some damage to their humble home. “You came between the husband and his wife,” explains Eggii, our guide and translator, patting the two posts. Ouch. “Never come between a husband and a wife,” a group of shaking heads admonishes me.
For the nomads of the Gobi Desert, the ger is a portable home which they relocate in sync with the seasons, moving between pastures for the benefit of their herds. Across the snug, warm space Ariunaa, our chubby, red-faced hostess, smiles at me from the bed. Her hair is covered in a blue bandanna and her 25-day-old baby, Oyumaa, sucks vigorously on her breast while her equally chubby younger sister looks on approvingly. A wide-eyed gumbooted little boy leans against Ariunaa’s thighs, squeezing one of them for comfort. I approach him and squat down. He bursts into tears. His mother laughs loudly, explaining that he doesn’t get to see
She unwraps little Oyumaa and flips her over, proudly showing me what looks like a sizeable blue bruise on her buttocks. Grinning broadly, she explains that this clearly means Oyumaa is a descendent of Genghis Khan, a hero to all Mongolians. Directly above Oyumaa hangs a small figure of a fox which her father fashioned at the time of her birth. This serves to protect the baby.
The head of the household, Dondog, reaches into his pocket and produces a small glass snuff bottle. Guided by Eggii, with a tiny spoon I place a few grains of brown powder on my wrist and inhale once through each nostril. It produces a tingling, warming sensation, readying me for the wall of freezing air outside. As I emerge from the ger, an angry Siberian wind bites at my face and threatens to crack my lips. I pull my woollen hat down over my ears and wrap my scarf tightly around my neck.
Four hours by Land Rover, a rugged journey from Ulaanbaatar, the smoggy, crowded capital of Mongolia, had brought us to the Gun Galuut Nature Reserve. We had climbed over beautiful, monochromatic, sculptured hills, shaped by the artistry of winter, the vehicle pushing its way through banks of soft snow until it came to a wheel-spinning stop. The driver had got out to investigate and had immediately sunk as far as his knee. Without a moment’s hesitation he had flipped onto his back, flailing around like an upturned beetle, prising his boot open to clean out the invasive snow that threatened to freeze his toes. He had circumnavigated frozen rivers rather than cross them. When this had failed to get us to our destination, we had piled out while he braved a segment of frozen river deemed strong enough to cross.
The river had complained with eerie cracking sounds that ricocheted under the thick layer of ice. We had followed behind, our feet searching for stability on the ice. “You’re crazy to go there in winter,” we had been informed. The Mongolian winters are very harsh. In the Gobi Desert temperatures can drop to as low as –30°C. Sudden snowstorms can bring the entire country to a halt. Nomads survive the winter and flourish in the summer.
But out of this harshness tremendous beauty is forged. The winter winds are a sculptor’s chisel, hacking away at the surface of endless dipping and rising mountain ranges. The first rays of morning sunshine create exotic jewels of frozen dewdrops: crystal earrings hanging from tussock grass. The few shrub-like trees are covered in thick, white, snowy caterpillars.
There is also the beauty of a simple lifestyle, although it is not without its pressures and dangers. Dondog fell from his horse one evening and was not found until the following afternoon, by which time he had a frostbitten arm and leg. Now his tracks in the snow leave one footprint followed by a drag mark. There are around 870,000 Mongolian nomads but their numbers are diminishing with the increase of industrialisation.
The toilet transpires to be nothing more than a barren section of frozen soil on the slight incline of a hill a short distance from the tent. Fishing through all my layers of clothing was something of a challenge, but I am happy to report that I managed to successfully see to my horse and return to the warmth of the ger with no frostbite danger to any part.