Saturday, August 3

Arkhi to Khan Tengri

Mongolia's nomadic families endure impossibly isolated lives, moving herd and yurt with the seasons, coping with long brutal winters and short savage summers. Nestled here and there in the lee of a hill a ger or two amidst the desolation, at the end of a track of ruts in the dirt, twenty miles from the last flyspeck settlement selling a little benzene and arkhi, the children in boarding-school at the soum, the adults producing and trading airag, mutton or wool.

From the dust-jacket of Hearing Birds Fly:

After two years of working in the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar, Louisa Waugh moved to a remote village called Tsengel, which lies to the extreme west of Mongolia on the edge of an already remote country. Hearing Birds Fly is her story of the year she spent there, living and working with the Tsengel people who have made a home in this stark but beautiful landscape. She describes with unflinching honesty how she slowly learns to fend for herself in a world where life is dominated by the seasons and remains a constant struggle against unrelenting elements.

An excerpt - soon after arriving at Tsengel, Louisa Waugh is taken for a tour of the remote nomad household camps by the young local doctor - who Louisa dubs the "Princess"on account of her imperious personality.

The nomads and I stared at each other, smiling and saying hello while the Princess examined a pallid-looking patient. I was quietly amazed that all the men seemed robust and healthy, with tanned necks, and cheeks the color or sandstone.

'Our winter is very difficult,' one or two of them told me almost cheerfully. 'When the snow is very deep only our horses can climb up here. It is very dangerous for the mal [livestock].'

This interminable struggle to survive and raise a family amidst windswept, snowbound rock was taking a heavy toll on their women and children. One young mother, who I instinctively knew was no older than me, looked particularly dry and haggard, surrounded by half a dozen babies and infants. Her splayed fingers, which cupped her bowl of tea, were embedded with bruised, rotten-looking nails. Rocking on the ball of her heels, she didn't even raise her head when one of her infants howled as Princess placed her cold stethoscope on his scrawny ashen chest. My elation shriveled as the boy rasped while inhaling. His chest was rattling like coins in a tin. Princess turned to his father and quietly shook her head. This kid was going to die.


Princess talked about death with the apparent ease of someone who had witnessed, studied, poked and dissected corpses. Her familiarity with mortality was intimate - she seemed to think of death not simply as an adversary to be conquered, but as a keen an potent presence with whom she lived.

Was this how the nomads survived here, in the thrall of death? A battle that lasted as long as each of them, pitched against the bitter elements, the land and rock? I stood there wondering if you could spend your whole life in combat against death. Surely the battle would wear you down, leaving you weak, sullen and vulnerable? There would have to be a ceasefire, a truce sometimes, just so you could relax your vigilance and reclaim the pleasure of living for its own sake. But if you allowed yourself, and your family, to be careless or nonchalant here, even for a while, would that be your nemesis?


An early extract of my Tsengel journal, written just after this trip, bears the heavily underscored words:

Don't be sentimental. It's not what I expected - there's no romance here. I've never seen people struggle so much just to survive. It can't be like this all the year - the mountain women blank and jaded, the animals emaciated, the kids sick and stunted. Life must get easier.

We chat with the nomad family who give Mr. M a joyride on a camel, one little girl assigned to sit behind him and hang onto his shirt for the ride, and another to lead the camel by its nose. Talk centers on livelihood. Cashmere from the goats fetches $70/kg, but you have to hand-shear the flock which makes for slow going - you can only clear 20-30 kg a year of the finest wool that fetches a premium. Camel-fur can be pulled out pretty easily by children, but it does not get more than $5/kg. In the winter they move to the southern side of the Altai ranges that lie behind us, using their camels to transport their gers, away from the wind that blows in from Siberia; though there is lot of snow even on the other side, the drifts do not quite pile up on the lee of the mountains as high as they do on the windward side. The family might lose 10% of stock to wolves and snow leopards overwinter, but can’t shoot them as they are protected animals; and another 10-20% might not survive the winter due to disease or hunger. But beneath the surface of their land is also gold, and copper, and coal, perhaps the richest of remaining deposits to be exploited on this planet; when we have settled in another ger to sample some airag from the first milking of mares, and progressed by-and-by to the arkhi, the grandma confides she will head to the hills in winter to prospect (privately and illegally) for gold. Lucky strikes do happen, this ger has solar panels, a satellite dish on its roof; the wife scoots around on motorcycle, a tractor ferries the herd. The daughter of the house, fetching the pail from the first milking of mares in the season, is an university student in Ulaanbaatar, home for the summer.

I am asked to lead the toast of arkhi - fermented milk distilled into vodka - and make an offering to Khan Tengri, the Lord of the big Sky.


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