A visit to a herder’s ger
After lunch at the co-op, we piled into the Land Cruiser and followed a car full of co-op members to the ger belonging to Altan, a herder and member of the co-op board. The field in front of his ger was full of beautiful horses, but the first thing I noticed was the solar panel and satellite dish standing right in front of the ger. That’s right — here I am in rural Mongolia visiting a herder…with solar electricity and satellite TV. In a region where I hadn’t seen any technology more advanced than a cellphone, it was a pretty amazing site.What was even stranger was that at the same time, two men stood in Altan’s field using a strange home-made apparatus to soften a cowhide strap that would be used as a horse tether. Dangling from a long horizontal pole was some heavy twined ropes, and at the bottom of the ropes was a tire. You pull the strap through the ropes and the weight of the tire helps soften the leather. A solar panel, a satellite dish, and softening leather using ropes and a tire. In Mongolia, anything can happen!
After all the guests had arrived — mostly the co-op members we had met earlier in the day — we were welcomed into the ger. This was the first of several gers I would find myself in during this trip, and it was surprizingly spacious and comfortable. There was a bed, a table, two beautifully decorated boxes which served as a stand for pictures — one of pictures of Altan’s family…and another of what seemed to be religious icons…and a trophy Altan received for his herding prowess. Above the latter box, medals mounted on red velvet hung from the ceiling…as Altan later explained, they were for horse-racing. And in the corner, a solar battery and TV monitor. Sarah and I were given the seats of honour – two small stools right in front of the table, while the other guests sat on the floor or stood around the sides. While most gers have a stove in the A big bowl of airag was passed to me, I took a sip, passed it to Sarah, who drank from it and passed it to the next person until it went around the room, Then Altan’s wife brought out a heaping tray of dairy products — remember we had just eaten lunch at the co-op — and of course, I was obliged to nibble at it. But it wasn’t until they brought out the big bowl of mutton and potatoes that I realized we were having lunch…again! I gracefully took a mutton bone and chewed on it; it was actually very good and I finished it even though I was full. But tht wasn’t the end – the next course was a bowl of delicious mutton soup, passed around the room just like the airag. And you really can’t say no, lest you insult your host.
But I knew what was coming next, and that was more of a problem, Altan opened up a bottle of vodka, filled a glass and passed it to me, I took a sip and passed it to Sarah, although I realized everyone expected me to chug it down. Aware of my stomach’s sensitivity to hard liquor, Sarah did the honours (thank you!) and my moment of shame passed. But the vodka kept going around until the bottle was gone, and each time, I took a polite sip and passed it on. Better that than my usual response to too much alcohol. It may have been discourteous not to empty my glass, but I think it would have been nore discourteous to throw up on the floor of the ger!
During all this, Altan told us (through Tiggy, our interpreter) about his herding — he had won the trophy for having more than 1,000 animals: horses, cows, and sheep. He told us about his racing and his grown son, who had won numerous wrestling competitions and lived in the ger right next door. His little granddaughter — about 3 or 4 years old — was there too, pretty in pink and sitting at her grandfather’s side. My fear of vodka notwithstanding, it was a lovely afternoon.
That night, I got an opportunity to fint out for myelf what living in a ger was really like. We spent thee night at a ger camp, one of many travel camps that can be found throughout the country. Sarah and I shared a beautiful ger, with a wood stove and extremely comfortable beds. But before going to sleep, dinner was waiting for us in the camp’s main building, which also had flush toilets — with seats — the first I’d seen all day. Dinner? After all that eating? It was some kind of chicken stew and it was pretty good, but I only managed about a third of it. I went to bed and slept for about 10 hours…the best sleep I’d had since I arrived.