Culture & Community, Nomad Project in Mongolia by Zoe Jofeh
First impressions of Mongolia
Mongolian hospitality is what stood out most during my first week. When I first arrived in my host family’s ger (the Mongolian word for yurt), my host grandfather Davaa offered me meat and potatoes, tea, vodka and beer. My family arrived one by one after that, and each time somebody walked in I was offered another bowlful.
My first week was difficult – the language barrier was challenging and having so many visitors every day meant that I never got any privacy, or a moment to my thoughts. But that’s something that you get used to. Travellers arrive on horseback, on motorbikes and on foot at all hours of the day. Their arrival usually means it’s time for more food and drink, and more often than not the visitors would try to talk with me. I didn’t meet anybody hostile, or even shy, during my whole time in the country.
Community Nomad Project
For the first week I followed my host mother, Pataa, around. She showed me how to keep the ger clean and tidy, and how to prepare vegetables for the pot. I was often left in charge of her one-year-old daughter, Inkche, which was completely new territory for me.
As the weeks went on I was trusted with more and more. I particularly remember my first day of calf-wrangling as being an exciting one! My family had a herd of cows which were milked twice a day. The calves would first be caught and tied to a rope, and let off one by one to suckle. Catching a calf takes skill and daring. Pataa was heavily pregnant while I was with them, and she could catch three calves in the time it took me to catch one.
My family also kept a herd of sheep and goats. I was taught to shout ‘shoop’ and ‘hoosh’ at the herd and wave my arms like I was swimming backwards, which is not very dignified but much more fun than using a sheepdog. I hugely enjoyed sitting on the back of Davaa’s motorbike to round up any animals which had strayed too far during the day.
My host father, Davapurev, preferred to use horses to round up the herd; there’s no sight quite as Mongolian as a nomad on the back of a stocky pony, with a homemade lasso almost 20 feet long, galloping across the plains.
Even when the men were off with their herds, I still spent a lot of time outdoors doing my chores. These included picking up the sheep wool from the ground, and shovelling cow dung into heaps to use as fuel in the stove. The Mongolian way of life is a difficult one, and everybody in the family needs to pitch in everywhere to keep things running smoothly.
That’s not to say that I was busy all the time. As summer approached and the days got hotter, my family took to napping during the midday heat. It was during this time that I could read, wash my hair, and meet up with the other volunteers.
Volunteering in Mongolia
Davaa’s brothers and their families all lived nearby, and they were host families too. During the hottest part of the day, my Western neighbours and I would often take a bottle of water and a camera and hike down to the river so we could paddle. We were able to share what we’d learnt from our host families, and share stories from our travels. Our afternoons always ended with a game of cards. Before I came I was apprehensive about being so alone in the countryside, but in fact I made some really good friends in Mongolia.
One of the most memorable experiences from my trip was moving the ger and all the animals to the summer pastures. We started at 7.30am and by 4pm this most unusual of houses was up and running again. The neighbours came and went during the day; some stayed to help us and some simply stopped for a chat.
We worked through the heat and were at last rewarded with fresh tea and a meat stew – Basan, my host grandma, had set the stove up outside while we were busy working. It was a funny sight to see the chimney pipe sticking up out of the long grass!
During my stay I kept a book of drawings, photographs, pressed flowers, and a running dictionary. Writing in new words as I learnt them was a bonding opportunity for Pataa and me – I would draw a picture of the word, write it in English, and then ask her to write it in Mongolian.
I am so pleased to have this journal as a reminder of my stay. There’s no better way of describing my experience to others than by showing them everything that happened, exactly as I saw it at the time. I will cherish my book for ever and I know I will never forget a single day of my Mongolian life.