Tracy Powell - Culture & Community, Nomad Project in Mongolia
Mongolia, Land of the Nomads.
About ten years ago, I was cleaning out my spare room and found a leather wallet. It had a picture of Chinggis Khan on it. I have no idea where it came from or why it was in my spare room. I kept it and took it with me on my journey.
Other than this bizarre moment, I cannot for the life of me explain why I chose Mongolia. Before I went on the Nomad Project I had never traveled overseas. I grew up in a small country town in Western Australia, which involves its own set of adventures, to choose such an extreme contrast to my way of life is inexplicable.
I am fifty years old, and possibly a bit older than most of the volunteers for Projects Abroad, and probably a bit older than most people who travel overseas for the first time too!
I have traveled around Australia, and there’s a lot to see here, but why Mongolia? Curiosity. I did not want to just be a tourist, an observer; I wanted to live it, to taste it, to absorb it through my skin.
I arrived in Ulaanbaatar, totally bewildered and thinking “What am I doing? Am I crazy?” Denny, my driver, was a little late that day, and when he arrived he found me trying to fend off a few of the taxi drivers. I suppose I had better add that I have a phobia about small spaces and being where there are many people. I was very happy to see Denny and Zolboo though and I just wanted the adventure to begin!
The next two days were a little confusing; I would advise anyone to have a better go at learning the language before arriving than I did. My excuse was “I didn’t have time” not good enough. The guesthouse (Chinggis Kahn & Golden Gobi) people were extremely hospitable and welcoming. It’s what I found all over Mongolia. The people are just so nice.
I was glad to get out of UB. Like I said, I hate cities anywhere: I am a bush kid. I was very nervous heading out to the Ger camp, because I am also very shy. It was late when we arrived so my impressions of that first night are a little hazy.
In the morning I stepped outside and just went “Oh, wow” pink sunrise, cows, goats, mountains, gers. No cars, trucks, noise, no suburban straight-line streets, just steppes and mountains. I was in love. And home.
My daily routine started when the morning star was over the middle window of ger (roof). I would get up and walk to the mountains to wait for the sun to come up, and then I’d walk back down because by then the women were up and tending to the cows. I raked the dung, and entertained the old girl by using the dung rake as an air guitar - I can’t sing by the way. Then it was breakfast which was usually bread, milk tea and jam. After that, it was carting water from the well, taking care of baby, sweeping and cleaning the ger, and what ever else needed to be done.
Living in the now, in harmony with the ebb and flow of nature is different for me. I really enjoyed it. I helped (or tried to) wherever I could, whether it was herding the calves, goats and assisting with the slaughtering of animals. I enjoyed the physical work, especially the day we picked potatoes at the winter camp site. I wish there had been more days like that.
Every day was different and we never knew what the day would bring. I loved that too. Nomad people are very social and visit each other often. I struggled with that aspect of life out there because I am quite shy, and freak out when there are a lot of people in a small space. It’s even harder when you don’t understand the language. I think they knew. However, we got by.
The days were quite short at that time of year, still warm enough for me to wear singlets and jeans, but when the sun when down, and before the sun came up, it was very cold for this little black duck! I wore a deel most days, which I bought home with me and will treasure always. There is so much work that goes into making them. The lining of the deel is made from the bellies of young sheep and goats, shorn with manual shears, and then worked by washing and using a stone to work the material. I was fascinated by that process and wish I could have just watched the whole thing come together.
I watched a woman make a rope out of the mane of one of the horses. There was also a very clever woman who makes shoes, mats, handbags etc out of wool/felt which is a very labor intensive process. I loved watching the men on their horses catching the goats and sheep, they are exceptional horsemen. And the singing, you would have to be minus a heart if the singing did not resonate with you on a deeper level.
I always felt safe out there, even when I was walking through the mountains. I trusted the nomads with my life, unquestionably. I do not trust anyone very much back in Australia. It doesn’t feel as safe there.
My journey was more a spiritual journey. I did not come back the same person as I was when I left. There were many “gifts” that I bought home with me, none of them that you could see or touch. I gave them “things”. What they gave was more precious than gold. When ever I need courage to live this life back in “civilization”, I think of the nomads.
With Projects Abroad my tickets and insurance were organized, confirmation of my flights was done, and the staff whom I have any dealings with have been helpful and cooperative. No complaints at all, only gratitude. My only frustration about the experience was of my own making, and that was I didn’t make a better effort to learn the language. There were so many questions I wanted to ask the nomads, and the other Mongolians that I met.
I lost my back pack on the way into UB one weekend. It had all my money, ID, passport, cigarettes etc in it. A nomad found it and hung it on the basketball hoop in the middle of the steppes. Another nomad recognized it and took it back to their ger, where Gansa and I found it the next day. Nothing had been touched. In Australia, depending on who found it, there would have been nothing left. Testimony to the sincerity of the people. I loved all of them.