I just got back from terrific day in the Mongolian countryside. My dad’s colleague Munkhbaatar took us on a day trip to visit his family. Munkhbaatar’s family are nomads, who live a life that is a mixture of old and new. Like most nomads, they live in a ger (a Mongolian tent) and spend their days tending to their livestock. Unlike nomads of decades past their ger is equipped with satellite television, and when it comes time to move to a new site, they load their possessions into a truck.
However, the new technology does not mean that life is any easier for nomads. Last winter Mongolia experienced one of the harshest winters on record. Months of extreme cold and snow (called a zud) killed over fifteen percent of the livestock in the country. Many nomads lost their entire herd, and many have chosen to move into the city. Munkhbaatar’s family lost about half of their herd; throughout the winter they braved the freezing temperatures, snow, and extreme wind everyday to care for their remaining animals. They say they have heard that this winter might be even worse than the last.
One the drive up, I got a crash course in nomadic customs– don’t step on the ger’s entrance barrier and don’t receive of pass anything with your left hand. Simple enough, I thought. That was until Munkhbaatar’s grandfather and grandmother passed us their snuff bottles. Snuff bottles are a prized possession, the bottle is often used to indicate status and wealth, and traditionally guests are handed the snuff bottles. The expected response is that you will take some and pass it back to the host. We found ourselves suddenly caught in what can only be described as an awkward moment, not wanting to take the snuff, and not wanting to offend our hosts. We did our best to pretend, although I fear it may have been painfully obvious that we were only faking.
Later, Munkhbaatar took us outside and introduced us to the family’s horses. The first thing most Westerners notice about Mongolian horses are their size; they are much smaller than the horses that we are used to seeing. However size is deceptive, and these horses are incredibly strong and fast– after all Genghis Khan captured a large part of the world riding them! I haven’t ridden a horse since I was a small child, and even then it was tame horses at birthday parties and the like, not wild Mongolian horses. The horses are quite spirited, but fortunately Munkhbaatar kept a backup reign on my horse, and I survived intact.