Living with Mongolian Nomads

Our workaway with Mongolian Nomads got off to a rocky start. We had arranged for our driver to collect us at 7pm and take us to his family’s homestay in Ulanbataar, before leaving early the next morning. This was all arranged through a third party via Facebook. So when we recieved a message the day we were supposed to be collected saying the homestay had family visiting, we started to worry. After a few messages we sorted out that we would stay at the driver’s apartment for the night. Our driver’s brother arrived just before 8pm and we were on our way. The apartment was large but sparsely furnished, and although we got our own room we were sharing a single mattress. It wasn’t the best nights sleep but is was ok. More worryingly, we waited a couple of hours for breakfast and around 11am it arrived. It seems that Mongolians eat large portions of everything and Matthias munched his way through five of the six eggs before it was time to leave. Our driver’s brother continually asked for all of the money for driving us to and from the nomads but we stuck to our principles and paid only half (just in case we were stranded in the middle of nowhere with no ride home). 

Finally on our way to our workaway we were expecting a long journey of around 6 hours. Despite several stops for the driver to tighten a bolt in the bonnet, we made it in just three. The last town we drove through was Baganuur which appeared to exist purely for a ginormous hole in the ground otherwise known as a pit mine. After the town we crossed the river and set off along a river valley across mud, rock and sandy tracks. It was a bumpy ride and at times quite uncomfortable. 

The emptiness of the steppe

Eventually, we pulled up at two gers with another two just a few hundred meters away. We were ushered inside to meet our hosts and a few of their friends and of course drink some milk tea. Mongolian milk tea is made of roughly half milk and half tea with salt added to taste; something we were both going to need to get used to. It was Sunday, and so there were quite a few visitors including our hosts granddaughter who spoke great English. This at least helped us find out that we would be helping with milking and that grandma Mika was the boss. We would be staying in Mika’s home for at least the first night and then would have to see what would happen as Mika was due to move back to the city to a nice warm apartment instead of spending the freezing winter in a ger. 

The party ger

Once all the visitors were gone the ger was pretty quiet and we were finding out about our charades abilities. At first it was really difficult to work out anything useful or communicate anything about us but we slowly got some things across. Our first nomadic meal was a yummy tsuivan – fried noodles with carrots, meat and potatoes, seasoned with Maggi. It is probably the most commonly served dish in Mongolia and never fails to fill you up. Stuffed, we made up our double sofa bed and got our sleeping bags out to Mika’s disapproval. She insisted on also giving us a handmade blanket stuffed with sheep’s wool that weighed us down to the bed. We were in bed by 7pm and had been promised an early start the next day. 

Our home for ten days

Day 1

Around 6:30am Mika got up and started to make a fire. We got up fairly quickly and drank some tea. Mika kept presenting us with more food to eat and soon the table was covered in bread, biscuits, cookies and jam. We ate enough and then set off to start work. The cows are brought home by a herder on a motorbike. They were moved into the enclosure and the calves were let out individually from a neighbouring enclosure where they have spent the night. Once the calves found their mothers they were left to suckle for a minute before being led away on a rope and tied to the fence. The cows hindlegs were tied together to prevent them kicking but most of them were so good natured that they didn’t even try. All the milking is done by hand into a pail and then the milk is collected in a large canister. We were really impressed by the speed and skill of the herders when they were milking and although we both had a few attempts we were well below par. Once the miking is done, the calf was released and ran back to mum. This seemed to work surprisingly well and was a big contrast to the factory style farming in Europe. At the end of milking around 90l of milk from 60 cows were taken to the nearest ger. 

The lovely mongolian cows amd calves

During milking we helped tying up and releasing calves which was pretty tough and required some strength. The calves ranged in weights from 60kg to 300kg and some of them were really keen to be at the milk bar. Sometimes it took two people to move them away and tie them up. Another inevitable job was shovelling up the cow poo to keep the milking pen clean. This task only came to an end when the pen was empty, but on their way out the cows lightened their load and made a little more work for us. With the pen empty we followed Mika’s lead and cleared up the poo around the gates, throwing it all onto a large pile. 

Zoë shovelling in her borrowed Mongolian costume (deel)

Since we showed some ability in shovelling poo Mika decided our next job would be to clean the pasture by constructing a large poo tower. First we made a circle on the ground and then built walls with the round cowpats. The rest was thrown into the centre. It was a surprisingly satisfying job as we could see the difference we were making. Mika also explained that the cowpats stop the grass from growing. Mongolia is so dry that cowpats dry to hard discs and take years to disintegrate leaving a patch of bare ground behind. The cowpats are only good to burn once they are dried but not crumbling and if wood is easy to get the nomads tend to leave the cowpats on the field. With plenty of shovelling done we were ushered back to the ger for lunch. We had some bread and jam and then went back out to work. 

Midafternoon one of the herders came by and picked up Matthias with a motorbike. They collected a barrel from an island in the river and went back to the herder’s ger. In the ger the real work was starting. The milk was heated on the stove before being poured into a machine. The machine was a hand-powered centrifuge and turned at a constant speed. Inside the milk is separated into milk and cream and these came out of different spouts. This is hard monotonous work and separating the 80l of milk takes about 2 hours. Seperating the milk required the correct and more importantly constant speed of about 60rpm. Matthias and one of the herders took turns at this so that they could have a break and cool down away from the roasting hot stove. The next step in processing was to make yogurt from the milk. The milk was warmed and mixed with a starter culture before being stored in a large barrel in the warm ger. We both had a bowl of yogurt and it was delicious. 

Separating the milk and cream

We returned to Mika’s ger to find dinner was being prepared. Tonight it was a yummy noodle soup with carrots, potatoes and beetroot. Most of the cooking is done in a huge pan on the stove and this seemed to mean giant portions for both of us. Thankfully we were both hungry after all that work. We thought that was the work done for the day but Mika had another idea. At 6:30pm we went out to collect wood for the fire from the trees along the river. It was already cooling down outside but we kept busy breaking branches and admiring the sunset. We walked back to our ger and lit a candle as it was already dark. We stayed up for a little while talking about our travels and Mongolia but by 8pm we were in bed and falling asleep. 

Day 2

Our second morning was pretty much the same as the first day. Thanks to our hand milking skills we decided just to go with cleaning the pen, tying up calves and letting cows out of the enclosure. We learned that, unlike us, the herders have their breakfast after the milking is finished. Like yesterday today was quite frosty with a cold wind. Matthias had gotten an extra furry cashmere jacket to wear while Zoë recieved Mika’s spare deel (long traditional Mongolian overcoat). It proved to be very versatile and warm. 

Once the milk was collected and the cows on their way to their grazing grounds we moved onto cowpat shovelling and building for two hours before being ushered back to the ger for lunch. Mika is quite a workaholic and despite her 70 years has still plenty of energy. She kept working for another hour leaving us wondering what would happen. After some leftovers warmed up in milky tea (typical Mongolian style) we headed over to the herders to help with the milk processing. This was basically a two-person-job with one turning the crank and the other pouring in milk on the top. Occasionally a third person is required to lift heavy milk jugs or give the cranker a break. Zoë helped with the lifting but played with the cat and the baby of one of the herder women. After a while we managed to escape the hot ger and go back to clearing up the shit near the herder’s gers. Today we learned that after some time in the barrels the yoghurt gets heated up again to kill the bacteria and filtered through a cheese cloth to be then left to dry. Another while later this gets then hand pressed into forms. The cheese is then left to dry outside. That was also the time when flocks of magpies started to hang around only waiting for the right moment to snatch some of the fruits of hard labour.

Matthias all a blur as he spins the crank to separate the milk and cream

We spent about an hour and a half shoveling before we decided to call it a day and head back. Mika was slightly upset because she called and waved at us earlier to come for food but we had completely missed her. Today’s dinner included rice instead of noodles but was otherwise the same. Before settling down for the night we had to do our daily water run and collect wood for the oven. Our host also had a past-time in collecting waste water in a big bucket and pouring it down one of the countless mouseholes nearby.

Getting water from the river

We were both really tired after all this work so we went to bed early after only a short chat despite our hosts slight disapproval.

Day 3

As with most farming, our days were a little repetitive. We were totally up to speed on the milking routine and starting to get quite accomplished at calf wrangling and poo scooping. Matthias was sent to do some cow herding too which he was pretty good at. Our new task for the day was to dismantle some the old piles of dung which had been hardened by months of the Mongolian sun and and wind. To do this easily we would have used a pick axe but given that we only had shovels, it took a lot more effort. After a couple of hours of breaking up rock hard soil and spreading it across the open ground it was time for lunch. Lunch was fairly simple and then it was time for milk processing. This time we brought the cream back to Mika’s ger for her to process further. But first we had dinner which was Hoshod, very similar to pasties but made with dough and mutton. They were much tastier than the ones we had eaten in restuarants.

Mika had a little task for us before the sun set. We set out with a shovel and a Mongolian wheelbarrow otherwise known as a large metal bowl with a long string attached. We reached one of the piles of old dung filled the bowl and then dragged it 800m away to fill a hole. This seemed utterly pointless to us and we really struggled to understand why we were using a bowl on a string instead of a cart or wheelbarrow. It seems the Mongolian way is simple, traditional and also slightly more complicated at times than it need be. 

Ted’s got the cream from 4 days of milking

After washing up Mika started to heat the 15l of cream on the stove. It takes quite a while to come to the boil and we all got a little distracted. Before we knew it the cream was rising rapidly and it was a race to get it off the stove. Sadly we were too slow finding a place to put the round bottomed pan and something to lift it, so we ended up with cream all over the stove, surround and floor. This would be easy to clean up in a kitchen but in a ger it was a little tricky. The cream burnt on the stove filling the ger with smoke and then seeped through the wood surround and poured out of the bottom. Once the clean up was finished we all needed a cup of tea which we also managed to neglect and let boil over. At 9:30pm it was defintely time for bed. 
Day 4 

Following the cream disaster we were awoken in a smokey ger as the stove got fired up. Mika gestured to us that it was too early to get up and later explained that it we went to milking to early we would be sat around without enough work to do. Either way we did as we were told and arrived to the cow pen an hour later than the day before. By this time there was plenty to clear up and one of the herders was missing. The previous day it had been his job to let out the calves and clear up the calf pen. Since he wasn’t there Matthias took over letting the calves out to the calls of neg (one), hoyor (two) and goro (three), while Zoë cleared up the extremely dirty calf pen. Milking took a little longer with only two milkers most of the time so afterwards it was already time for a big lunch of beef noodle soup. Our breaks were getting longer and longer, probably because Mika was worried that we were getting worn out and worked too much. In actual fact we were happy being busy and bored in the ger during the breaks. We took the initiative and went to find something to do. Matthias had decided to fix the base of the milk separating machine as it was mounted on a rocking creaking crate. It was so wobbly that the cranker (or somebody else) needed to stabilise it in order to avoid the milk spilling out the top. He asked for nails but none of the men showed any desire to fix anything until it completely fell apart even if it would make their lives easier. Instead he found an old ger door and some screws so that he could attach two diagonal bracings. Once done the crate no longer rocked and the herders seemed quite shocked and amazed that it could be fixed so easily. Matthias very helpfully started to do the milk processing and found that he was doing all the work while the herders relaxed. On the plus side the workout startedto pay of andcthe work was quite a bit easier than on the first day (also partially due to the stabilised box). Seeing this we decided to start another cowpat tower instead and enjoy the warm sunshine. Mika was very surprised and quite pleased when she saw the second pile the next day.

Our cowpat tower

Day 5

We woke up to be told to stay in bed for a while longer again. Already wide awake and raring to go we stayed in bed for less than an hour before we got up for breakfast. We went milking again and saw how they mark their calves to prevent them being stolen. It was a little brutal to cut a slit in the ear with scissors but understandable since animal stealing is very common in Mongolia. With a population of just 4 million (1.3 million im Ulanbataar) and a livestock population of 60 million it’s surprising that stealing is a problem. We found out from Mika’s granddaughter that when Mika lived closer to the city one of her favourite cows was stolen. She searched everywhere for her and sadly found her head and udder on the hillside. After this Mika moved further away from the city to where she lives now. After milking we were sent for lunch, mainly because the herders wanted to fix the cheese ger which was falling down at the back. They had brought new panels and wooden wall structures the day before, but to change them he whole ger needed to be dismantled and reassembeled. This meant removing the felt insulation, taking out the roof supports and then taking out the old panels. It was quite interesting to see from a distance how the ger was fixed together and how simple it’s construction is. Once the ger was finished it was time for more milk processing and then a stranger turned up. At first we didn’t know who he was but it later turned out that he had bought a sheep and was here for collection. some of the herders had selected a sheep for slaughter. We were advised by the workaway organiser that the women and children do not normally see slaughters and despite the guys best efforts we watched. It may seem morbid to watch but it is part of thier lifestyle and actually very different to in the western world. We were expecting them to cut the sheep’s throat but instead they made a fist sized hole below it’s ribs. One of the men reached in and tugged on the aorta. The sheep died pretty swiftly and there was no blood to be seen. The sheep was skinned skillfully and butchered without any care for cuts of meat. Later the herders brought over a large pan full of stewed kidneys, heart, liver, intestines and a blood sausage. Despite everyone saying how delicious it all was Zoë didn’t fancy trying any so Matthias had to at least taste something. It wasn’t bad but very basic. 

The arrival of a container to store Mika’s gers during the winter

Day 6

The next morning we went milking and shovelling again before being invited into the herders for breakfast. They offered us tea, stewed offal and some fried dough. Cold offal covered in hot milk tea was a little too unappetising. It seems there is nothing in Mongolia that hot milk tea can’t improve. After breakfast the family turned up for the day which meant that the party ger was going to be fixed so that the door would finally close. Mika’s family all live in the city and her son is head of a large electrical company. They visit each weekend and offer Mika a shower and bring supplies. In return she cooks a Mongolian feast for the whole family. Matthias was sent to help with the milk processing while Zoë peeled a mountain of potatoes, chipped and fried them. The banquet consisted of three hour boiled mutton ribs and bones, glass noodles and then dumplings. Mika’s son distributed the meat starting with us first as guests and ending with the children. The noodles were prepared with chips, cucumber, tomato, pak choi and mutton; an interesting combination. The dumplings were a fairly big undertaking. The mutton was chopped very small, mixed with onions and then wrapped into dough with a hole at the top. These were steamed for around 20 minutes before everyone dived into them as though they hadn’t already eaten two courses. The leftover dough was rolled out covered in oil and then rolled into a tube befoee being steamed and chopped into noodles for tsuivan the next day. The family left just as the snow began to fall outside. 

The youngest smiliest nomad

Day 7

We woke up to a totally white steppe with snow drifts outside the gers and it was fairly chilly. We were told to stay in bed and managed to for around an hour. We were expecting to go milking but also wondering if it would happen given the weather. Soon our question was answered and we were destined to spend our day staying in the warm ger reading and chatting. We appreciated a day off but felt quite lazy considering that we were here to work. One drama during the day was that we were unable to get into the party ger which meant Mika could not access the freezer. Without getting to the freezer, we had a Mongolian disaster… not enough meat for dinner. From somewhere Mika found about 600g of meat but told us the meal was bad because she would normally use at least 1200g. Meat in Mongolia is as much as a staple as mik and both are dirt cheap. We honestly didn’t mind a low meat meal and we were already looking forward to ordering vegetarian or white meat dishes in the Indian restuarant in Ulanbataar. Later our translator left too and we were back to charades and keeping warm. 

Our ger in the snow

Day 8

Uitse and Angkha our herder friends

Our final full work day wasn’t really much of a work day at all. Outside the snow still lay thick on the ground and it was pretty cold. We spent the morning relaxing and reading since there was little else to do. Then Mika decided Matthias should clear the snow and ice from the party ger so that it dries out and is ready to be stored sooner. Due to her age Mika now spends the winters in an apartment in the nearest town Baganuur but couldnot leave until both gers weredismantled and stored in the container. The clearing would have been easier with the right tools but all Matthias had was a long wooden pole with a dustpan attached and a shorthandled broom. While Matthias was freezing outside Zoë was given the job of rolling out dough, covering it butter and then rolling and twisiting it. Once twisted (like wringing it out) the dough was squashed back together before being rollled into a circle and deep fried. This made lovely layered bread/pastry to go along with the soup for lunch. Once Matthias was finished we all sat down to a yummy lunch. For the afternoon we read a little more before going on a walk and collecting some firewood. When we got back Mika asked for some more water so we went off to the river picking up the herders cannisters on the way. Getting water is hard work in the snow and we felt the herders were being pretty lazy since they only live 400m away from the river. Anyway we did our part so everyone had enough water. Back at Mika’s we tucked into another bowl of soup each and tried to call our driver for the next day. The two brothers are totally useless and wanted to collect us in the evening despite the fact we are paying them to get us and assumed we would be back in Ulanbataar in time for some shopping. After a lot if hassle we worked out they should pick us up at around 1pm but we would have to wait and see if they kept to this. It also turned out that they had told the nomads that we were staying for 2 weeks instead of 10 days so Mika got quite a surprise when we said we were going to Ulanbataar the next day. We were starting to think we should have got the bus and a taxi from Baganuur. Either way we would find out soon enough. 

A snowy drive along the valley

After 10 days of not showering or changing clothes we were ready for a nice hot shower and a bit of variety in our food. We had really enjoyed learning the ways of the Mongolian nomads and getting to know Mika and her extended family. We may not have been able to speak to each other due to the language barrier, but we had still worked together and laughed together. We are very glad we took this oppotunity and honoured that Mika thinks we make better Mongolians that the ones that live in the city. Who knows we might even see Mika again if she comes to visit our home. 

2 thoughts on “Living with Mongolian Nomads

  1. Vielen Dank für dieses ausführliche Tagebuch. Es hat uns sehr viel Freude , beim lesen Eurer großen und kleinen Erlebnissen bei den Normaden bereitet. Der Gegensatz Zivilation – Normadenleben ist wohl der groß.

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