30 Mar MONGOLIA – MEETING A SHEPHERD IN THE STEPPE
Mongolia. The capital Ulaanbaatar is approximately 560 km far from Baruun-Urt, the main city in the Sukhbaatar aimag*, which is also our first stop.
While driving there, we are suddenly stopped by a shepherd with his herd, who asks us to follow him. We are curious. About one km from there, we can see his gher – the typical nomadic dwelling that has survived the years and the changes in society. We cannot help but notice that his gher has a small solar panel and a parabolic antenna, too.
A two-year-old boy reaches us in his traditional clothes. He is probably attracted by our big car and by the biscuits that our driver offers him. Meanwhile, the man welcomes us inside and explains why he has stopped us: his older son Manaljav, who is 15 years old, needs a ride to school, as today is Sunday.
Apart from a small TV linked to a generator, there are only basic furniture and objects inside the gher: two beds, a typical colourful cupboard, pots hanging on the walls, a charcoal stove, some clothes and sheep leather that is dripping and drying-up.
Mongolian people are usually very welcoming, and the shepherd’s wife offers us a bowl of suutei tsai (hot tea with milk) and some aaruul (fermented and dried yoghurt with a strong taste). After talking a little bit, asking some questions and taking some pictures, we have to leave to reach our destination. Manaljav is happy to join us. He explains that every Sunday he hopes to see any car or truck passing near his gher and to get a lift to Baruun-Urt. On Fridays it is usually easy to cross the steppe and go home, as a truck that carries light weights and people leaves every Friday from Baruun-Urt to reach the nearby Dornod aimag.
On Sundays it is usually more difficult to go back to Baruun-Urt. If nobody passes by their gher, his dad needs to take him there by motorbike, but that means crossing miles and miles of steppe. Manaljav has only a small backpack with him, as he usually leaves some clothes at school – that’s where he lives from Mondays to Fridays, sleeping in the school dormitory – while he can usually borrow books from the library when he needs them.
He tells us that his family moves up to 4 times a year, along with their gher and herd. They usually move each new season. For instance, they spend wintertime where even the horses can find a shelter against the cold weather.
After a half-an-hour drive on an unpaved street in the steppe, we eventually reach Baruun-Ort and take Manaljav at his older brother’s, who is married and lives in that tiny town. While Manaljav says goodbye, we notice his mature look; his life is probably very different from his peers’ in the city. He thanks us saying that he was lucky to have met us, although it was probably us the luckiest ones.
* In Mongolia, an aimag is the first-level administrative subdivision. Each aimag is subdivided in sum, which are subdivided into bag.