Into the “real Mongolia”
Back from rural Mongolia after nearly three days without Internet access, so I’m trying to catch up. This post is from Tuesday, August 16:
“Now you’re going to see the real Mongolia”, Sarah said to me as we left UB for the countryside. While there are those that would argue that UB is just as “real” as
anywhere else in the country, it is still a large city that is a lot more modern and cosmopolitan than the rest of the country.
Of Mongolia’s 3 million citizens, about 1.5 million live in the capital. The rest are spread out over as territory that is about the size of Alaska, making Mongolia one of the world’s most sparsely populated countries. Once we left the outskirts o UB, we could see why. Europeans visiting Canada often comment how much open space we have in our country, but Mongolia makes Canada appear crowded by comparison. Riding in a Toyota Landcruiser with our interpreter, Tiggy and our driver, Ulzi, we drive for miles and miles seeing nothing but wide open land and the occasional herd of sheep, goats, cows or horses. Because the dry climate and red, sandy soil sustains little agriculture, there are no farms – and no trees. We are surrounded by mountains covered in short brush; the clouds hang so low that they cast shadows on the mountaintops, making them appear black.
What we did see were ovoos, shrines made out of piles of stones festooned with blue ribbons where people stop to pray. The story goes that if you circle the ovoos three times and throw rocks into it, your prayer will be granted.
Our destination was the Batkhani Uguj co-operative, a co-op which was founded just three months ago in an abandoned building that had been donated by the soum (municipal authority). The building was in very poor repair, and it was renovated with the help of Australian international development funding. The co-op as created to provide livelihooods for some of the unemployed women in the community, and to give herders and opportunity to have the products of their livestock processed and sold. Felt is one of the co-ops primary products, since it is used to cover gers (the tents that most herders live in) as well as slippers, bags, jewelry and other items. The co-op also does weaving, makes items out of horse and camel hair, and even sells such food products as kuuchuur (fried pancakes filled with mutton) and airag (fermented mare’s milk, a very popular drink in rural Mongolia). It also has a small store which sells basic goods and some vegetables.
We were welcomed by Tsolmon, the co-op’s manager who explained that she, like many of the members, had been unemployed before starting the co-op. She gave us a tour of the co-op where we learned about the arts of feltmaking and weaving. Felt is a very important commodity in Mongolia, as it is used to cover gers, the traditional tents in which many Mongolians live . While we were walking around, a herder came in wearing a del, a traditional costume which is rarely seen in the city, but is quite common in the countryside. The herder brought in a new supply of of felt for the co-op to turn into ger coverings, slippers and other products.
It was then time for lunch, and we quickly learned that Mongolians are probably the most hospitable people on earth. There were a few special guests, including Ms. Bumbuyan, the vice-governor of the Erdenesant soum, probably the equivalent of a Canadian deputy mayor. The table was laden with all the traditional delicacies I had read about before coming to Mongolia: a platter laid high with various dairy products such as cheeses and dried curds. Kushuur, which were delicious. Rice. And even some vegetables and fruits, which are not that common in rural Mongolia. It was obvious that we were honoured guests, and we enjoyed the meal immensely. There was salty Mongolian milk tea, and my first taste of airag, which actually was better than I had expected, although it was very rich and I could only drink a little. And then the other Mongolian staple, vodka. I took a few sips to show my gratitude for the co-op’s hospitality, and fortunately, they didn’t make me drink any more, given my body’s lack of tolerance for alcohol. After lunch, we all gathered in front of the co-op for photos, then headed off with the entire group to visit Altan, a herder who is a member of the co-op board. A visit to a herder’s ger is always a highlight of travelling in Mongolia, and I was looking forward to this new experience. But that’s for another post….