A Life In The Day
It was 7am and sunlight was just beginning to filter through the plastic apex at the top of the ger in the Gobi Desert in Mongolia. Outside, the temperature was -15⁰ C. Inside it wasn’t much warmer, the temperature having dropped dramatically since the stove had gone out at around midnight. We were lying in beds, each on the opposite side of the ger from the other, inside sleeping bags and covered with blankets and duvets, just our noses poking out from the abundance of bedding. We hadn’t had a shower for three days. The outside toilet would involve a 50m walk in sub-zero temperatures from the ger to a hole in the ground. Mitch was lying in bed thinking, “What have I done?” Colin was lying in bed thinking, “What has Mitch done?”
This was a trip that was going to be a challenge.
There are some 165,000 nomadic families living and working in Mongolia and they still employ largely traditional farming methods, albeit using modern technology. Sheep, goats, horses, cows and yaks are the most common livestock kept and they are sent out to pasture every day. The nomads may need to relocate their herds three or four times a year and move to pastures new which means that they pack up their housing and all their possessions.
We had travelled from Ulaan Baatar across the vast Mongolian countryside in a Furgon van along roads where tiny Brandt voles would scuttle across from one side to the other and vultures circled in the sky scanning for prey. There were no road signs. Our driver just knew when to leave the road and head across the sparse desert landscape to our destination.
The previous day we had visited the town of Erdenedalai in the Gobi Desert to meet the singing weatherman. The weatherman monitors the location of all the nomadic families in the area and they communicate by radio to warn each other of potentially adverse weather conditions. The map shows the contact details for all the families in the area. The weatherman also has a range of guitars and gave us an impromptu concert.
We were visiting Nergui and family who live in the Erdenedalai area, in the middle Gobi Desert in Mongolia. They kept cows, sheep and goats. The wooden pens for the animals are a permanent feature and the family move between different grazing locations several times a year. The gers are constructed alongside the animal pens. They can be taken down and put up in just a few hours – a really clever design.
Our hosts had kindly given up one of their gers so that we could stay in their home. Just after 7am, they came in to start the fire. After a quick breakfast we offered to help with the family’s chores. First of all, the sheep and goats needed to go out to pasture. We were visiting in early springtime and many lambs and kids had been born over the previous few weeks. The youngsters were too young to go out so our job was to separate them out and put them into a pen – the nursery – for the day. (Don’t worry, they are reunited with their mums at the end of the day.) Lambs and kids are unbelievably lively little things and particularly good at evading visitors so catching them used a lot of energy! The temperature had risen to a balmy zero so we were toasty warm after all that chasing.
Once the lambs had been separated the older members of the herd were sent out to pasture. They were left to roam together and would be brought back via quad bike at the end of the day.
Then it was time to clean out the pens. We needed to rake through the wool and hairs amidst quite a significant amount of poo and gather it up.
Then we sent the teenagers out to pasture.
Next job was to water the cows. We drove to the nearest well which was several kilometres away. In the Gobi Desert there are precious few roads and we were constantly amazed at how the local people knew how to navigate across vast areas of desert and still find their way to the destination. The cows also have this in-built navigational ability as they were already waiting for us.
The sides of the well were frozen but the water was fine. It was a manual process to draw the water using a bucket.
The water is pure and can be consumed without filtration. As the ger didn’t have running water we collected some for ourselves as well.
On our return to the ger camp, we needed to collect dung for the stove. The family have a dung storage area, located away from the main ger camp where the animal poo is collected and dried out. The family have a lot of animals which produce a lot of dung.
Cooking Dinner In The Gobi Desert In Mongolia
Then it was time to make dinner so we headed back to the ger. The stove is really adaptable and each are pretty much identical in terms of size and construction. Family kitchens will have various additional parts – a deep stewing pot or hob – which are interchangeable and offer a variety of cooking methods.
Tsuivan is a rustic dish, simple to make but it is delicious and filling. It comprises Mongolian noodles, vegetables and meat. First of all we set about making the noodles.
We made a dough using plain flour and water, kneading it until it had a soft, pliable texture and then let it rest for a few minutes.
We then took a golf ball sized ball of dough and rolled it out very thinly, repeating the process until all the dough had been rolled into thin discs. The shape didn’t matter but we did try to make them as thin as possible using a rolling pin.
The noodles-in-waiting then need to be cooked briefly. They grill on the hob of the stove until lightly toasted – just for a few minutes, then they are turned over and the other side grilled.
In the meantime we prepared some mutton and vegetables – potatoes, carrots and onions – by chopping into chunks. The stove was so versatile that the same heat source can be used as a pot or a griddle. The hob of the stove was then switched for the cooking pot – which fits over the fire perfectly – and the meat browned and vegetables added to fry in the meat juices.
Then water is added to allow the food to stew. The seasoning was simply salt, you don’t get a variety of herbs and spices in Mongolia. Whereas we are used to eating lamb in the UK, mutton is more common across Mongolia. It has a lot more flavour than lamb and, although the meat isn’t as tender, it really benefits from being cooked for a long time over the heat. The taste of the mutton was so good that it meant we didn’t really need additional seasoning.
While the mutton and veg were stewing we stacked the toasted dough and cut it into thin noodles.
These were then laid across the meat and veg and steamed in the heat until they were soft.
Time to serve up. It’s a delicious meal. We all ate together.
After our hearty dinner we sat down with the family and played silly card games. The family also offered some of the last of their airag, an alcoholic fermented mare’s milk drink. We had been keen to try it, although we knew we were visiting outside the mare milking season, so considered ourselves to be very lucky that the family were willing to share the remnants of last year’s brew with us.
Any fear of the unexpected that we had felt that morning had vanished. Yes, it had been challenging to experience a lifestyle so very different to ours but it was a fantastic challenge. We were very privileged to have joined this welcoming family and to have shared a day in their lives. They very kindly told us that we had genuinely helped out and had done a good job cleaning the pens.
And so to bed. But before we hit the sack we were joined by this little one.
She was just 10 days old and our hosts decided that the overnight temperature was going to be too low for her to survive outside. So we fed her and let her prance around the ger. She bleated in the most delightful way throughout the night.