“He is a good driver but a sexist pig,” says my friend Davaasuren, as our driver Ganbaa battles through the anarchic traffic of Ulaanbaatar.
Davaasuren is a pretty young woman from Mongolia with a shaved head and great sense of humor. She also speaks excellent English, a skill fortunately not shared by Ganbaa. Instead, he uses his driving skills to take us safely through horn-blaring lines of asthmatic buses and 4x4s.
We crawl past Ulaanbaatar’s ubiquitous karaoke bars, computer repair shops and the Gandan Khiid monastery, the largest, most important monastery in Ulaanbaatar. It is one of the few to survive Stalin’s religious purges of the 1930s, when clerics were executed and Buddhist monasteries demolished as the USSR squeezed the cultural identity out of its de facto puppet state. Its bright colors are a welcome contrast to the sprawling utilitarian Soviet architecture around it.
Ulaanbaatar may be a rather ugly city but the surrounding countryside is absolutely wonderful. Through the window, I gaze at the fairy tale scenery before me; shimmering steppes roll all the way to the horizon, which is punctuated by rugged, snowy mountains. The weather here is equally dramatic; in the depths of winter the mercury plummets to -35ºC and in summer it rises to 35ºC.
After a few phone calls and some off-road driving we locate the family I have come to visit, who emerge from their ger to greet us.
We really are in the wilderness; there is no other sign of life as far as the eye can see. “They come here in the winter because it is sheltered,” explains Davaasuren, as we survey the ranch. The smell of manure hangs in the air. Goats bleat, cows moo and a horse stands tethered to a nearby post, aggravated by the guard dog, which barks excitedly. We are ushered into the ger to meet the rest of the family – two young children and a mother breastfeeding her baby – who sit around a roaring stove.
Although unable to speak English, the family of eight transcend language with heartfelt hospitality. Through Davaasuren, they quiz me over several cups of the milky brew, which turns out to be a strong, salty drink they called tea. Davaasuren explains more about how they travel around Mongolia with the seasons, shepherding livestock to pastures new on horseback. However, moving children and heavy items requires slightly more horsepower, so in a rare betrayal of their traditions they also use a small family car.
Spanning three generations, they lead tough lives; self-sufficiency might sound evocative but, watching them graft, the romantic veneer soon peels away. From dusk until dawn the women prepare food, look after the children (constant breastfeeding) and make endless vats of salty tea. Outside, the men tend cattle and gallop around on their horses, displaying a flair for riding that seems genetic in Mongolia.
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