Do As The Nomads Do: Herding With Mongolians

Saturday morning, my eyes shot open at the familiar but unrelenting sound. Shuffling, wood trying against metal. Someone was continuously pulling on my ger’s door handle, impervious to the fact that it was locked. I rolled out of bed with a groan, pulling on pants as I hobbled towards the door, shouting “Hen be?” (Who is it?). No sooner did I release the latch then Shijirbaatar burst through the threshold into my ger. Ignoring my “frazzled and just abruptly awakened state” he fired off into a monologue. “Justin, will you help me?” “My brother is sick, I need to herd his goats.” “There are many goats, with one person it is difficult.” I pondered this, I was sick myself, looking forward to a weekend of recuperation and spending little time outside in the subzero temperatures. I have found that it is often hard to say “no” in Mongolia when someone asks for help, and I often never regret the decision. “Yes, I’ll help you.” I exclaim as I quickly get myself ready to go. Reaching for my winter jacket he stops me, “No, it is cold outside.” Without saying anything I begin wrapping myself in my Mongolian deel, he nods in approval and instructs me to bring my camera. “The countryside is pretty today” he adds, and with that we trudge out towards the edge of town.

We entered a large hashaa filled with goats and a small ger. Shijirbaatar brought me inside where I was greeted with the sight of a man laying in bed, much older looking then his younger brother and at our entrance he scrambled to get up, jostling over to the kitchen area to make us tea. “How are you feeling?” I asked as we sat down and I was handed a hot bowl of milk tea. “Alright”, he answered “I just need rest” he exclaimed stifling a cough. After being introduced by Shijirbaatar the man nodded his thanks and finished our tea and back outside into the January morning. I opened the gate while Shijirbaatar funneled the goats through the opening waving a stick and hollering. We were soon joined by Shijirbaatar’s friend and fellow school coworker, “I heard your brother is sick, I came to help.” As we walked out away from the town Shijirbaatar handed me a handful of bread nuggets. “Show them these” he explained “and they will follow you.” He demonstrated holding a nugget out in his hand and the goats immediately clustered around him, none attempting to stray off or run out into the steppe. I followed his example and was soon engulfed by goats all rustling against each other standing on hind legs and using my body for leverage as they strained to reach the bready prize in my hand. After we had lured the goats far enough from the town and our nuggets had been expended we stood and relaxed while they grazed from the tall steppe grass that had somehow managed to poke its way up through the snow.

As we stood a man on a small white horse rode up from a nearby herd of cows and beckoned us good morning. After conversing with Shijirbaatar he climbed down from the saddle-less steed and instructed me to get on the horse. “You can ride my horse” he said with a gesture towards his mount. So with a boost from Shijirbaatar, I climbed atop and expecting a pony ride waited for him to grab the reins to lead me around. Instead Shijirbaatar gave the horse a light pat on the rump and it began walking along leaving me as the sole driver and briefly terrified. My last horse riding experience having been many moons ago on a family vacation to Yosemite I was not exactly comfortable on the beast. After nervously trotting about I managed to steer the horse back to Shijirbaatar where he promptly made me pose for a “Mongolian picture” before stepping down from the animal. Relinquishing the horse back to its owner the herder said goodbye and with one fluid motion was back atop his horse and galloping off towards his cattle.

It was quiet, I gazed out at the steppe, the mountains, and the sky, never ceasing to be amazed by the expansivness of it all. Goats grazed around me, a horse brayed in the distance, the sun gleamed off the snow. It was so meditational, so peaceful, a landscape that always makes me feel happy and content. Shijirbaatar broke the silence, “Lunch time.” With that we circled around the herd and led them back towards the hashaa. When the last goat cleared the gate Shijirbaatar patted me on the back, “Mash ikh bayarlalaa, Justin.”(Thank you very much, Justin) He repeated this several times, thanking me again and again for my help. I shook his hand and thanked him instead. He gave me a confused look. I could only laugh. He had done so much more for me that day then I had done for him.

Categories: Mongolia | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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