This place tells many stories: I could have written of the wind ruffling the tall grass of the steppe, of horses galloping into the sunset, of the eagles sweeping in search of quarry, or I could have written of hardship, of the bitter cold winter and hunger, of a land where people die because there are no hospitals for miles.
I could have told the story of Ulaanbaatar’s ger neighbourhoods, of the people who end up there.
But I’m leaving those stories for somebody else. I want to talk about him. Whatever that means.
One of the most stereotyped concepts: The white picket fence idea of home; the first step on the ladder. Home is where the heart lives. Home is where the rump rests.
We think of ourselves in relation to our homes, our homes speak of us. Where we live is how we live, how we live is who we are.
Truth is, we all started out as nomads.
Some of us still are: in Mongolia, 40 per cent of the population still lives a nomadic lifestyle.
Mongolian Kazakhs live in the in the western corner of the country, where Mongolia and Kazakhstan almost touch. In addition to herding animals, they hunt with eagles in winter. They live in large tents, sleeping twelve people or more. Sometimes they have an image of Mecca hanging on the wall. There is no call to prayer in those latitudes; they know when it is time to kneel.
In the Gobi desert, nomadic Mongolian families live in small groups of two or more tents, herding horses, sheep, goats, and camels. What do you do, I asked them? Young and old, men and women and children: the answer was always malchin. I’m a herdsman. Wealth isn’t judged by bank accounts rather the amount of horses one owns.
Once in a while they build a log cabin, then another, and then a hamlet is born. But most of the times they pick up their homes and move on.
A Mongolian home is a ger, a round-shaped felt-lined tent. It can be put together and taken apart in one hour. Rolled up, it can be transported on the back of a horse-cart or if so fortunate to find one, a truck.
Home is not a physical place, with latitude and longitude. Home is what you carry: wooden poles, felt lining and waterproof covering; one’s belongings, in a painted chest. Home is the hearth that sits in the middle, once the tent is up. Home is the songs and the snappy notes of the horse head fiddle. A Mongolian émigré told me, home is a bowl of ayrag, fermented mare’s milk – the reason why she wanted to move back home from the United States.
Home is the herd, the family, and the community. Home travels with you.
More and more Mongolian nomads settle down each year moving to Ulaanbaatar (the capital) and other cities, as there is no livelihood in herding anymore, they say. They find work in the mines, owned by conglomerate corporations whose tentacles are spreading all over the planet, so big that they’ve given their name to airports.
Some are lost in vodka; you see them staggering around Ulaanbaatar or passed out in puddles.
Sometimes they adapt well; women especially as they find work in offices and maybe their kids will have a chance to study.
With their first salary, they buy horses.