My First Stay with a Herder Family (Dec. 14-16)
Tuya wakes me up with her mama bear growl and a strong nudge. “Kiiiiim”, she says, signaling for me to get dressed. I dress quickly in the dark, awkwardly helping Dulguun and her sister Otgoo put on their 30 layers of clothes as the train is bumbling and blundering our sleeping car back and forth. We are on our way to the хөдөө (khödöö - the countryside) to visit Tuya’s sister who is a herder near Darkhan for a brief two day trip. Dulguun, Tuya’s five year old son has a bad cough, and she wants to get some fresh air in addition to visiting her sister, who is also 8 months pregnant, before their babies arrive in the new year.
Upon arrival, we swiftly exit the train greeted by two men lit by a few station lights (which I later realize are Tuya’s sister’s neighbors). We throw our bags in the back, climb into their pick up truck and hit the road for a minute or two until we turn off road to a snow path laid by previous tracks. Bumping up and down, our 6 heads bobbing and knees clanking, I sit quietly trying to recall the few Mongolian words I know. “Чигээрээ (Chigeeree - straight).. Баруун (baruun - right).. Үлдсэн (üldsen - left)” says the co-pilot. I laugh silently to myself as I’m trying to see if I could find my way back… my educated guess says “мэдэхгүй” (medekhgüi - neerrp).
In the pitch black of the early morning night, we arrive to Oyunchimeg’s ger, Tuya’s sister, greeted by what sounded like a clan of barking dogs. Oyunchimeg shuffles out of her ger to hold them down as we step lively towards shelter.
Inside we are welcomed by a warm lit stove and the seasoned scent of fermented milk. Her husband Gantulga, their 5 year old son Tengerten, and 1 year old daughter Sumya are just waking up on the north side of the ger - encouraged by their mother to rise from their nestled pile of covers. We are invited to sit down and handed some milk tea and Buuz, from its scalding temperature has been kindly prepared for our arrival. We drink, we eat, we laugh at the англи хүн (angli khün’s - english person's) attempts to speak Mongolian, and we are invited to lay back down to rest till the sun rises.
I close my eyes for what feels like only a few minutes, when all of a sudden I am woken up to the herder stumbling through the ger - dropping his knees to the floor and burying his hands into a drawer. He bounces back to his heels, picks up the rifle in his right hand and sprints outside with the ammunition tucked between his knuckles. I lie in bed sleepily contemplating whether I want to pursue him in what feels like a story to remember - but by the time I realize this is something I don’t want to miss - it has already happened.
As I’m getting up and putting on my shoes to head outside, Gantulga comes back into his ger with his two neighbors following in his footsteps. He speaks in an elated fashion to us, “Тийи үү (Tiii üü - really!)” they all respond. Tuya turns to me and says “Kiiiiim. чоно(Chono)”, making an inverse set of peace signs with both hands behind her head. A wolf.
“Wow”, I respond. The room chunkles. I follow them quickly outside and they show me the hunted steppe wolf. At first she still feels very much alive, as if her eyes were closed with furrowed brows because she’s having a bad dream. I am hesitant to get close for fear that she will wake at any moment, ready to pounce on me when I’m least expecting it. But after further inspection, I examine her wounds tracing the line of her long torso to find her front left leg is broken and a clear blood red gunshot to her light grey chest.
We go back indoors and I quickly take out my Mongolian language book to try and ask questions. How did it happen? Where they scared? Was she part of a pack? Through a series of pictionary-like drawings and a few uncovered words, I am able to decipher that she had attacked the herd and that we are in the presence of great fortune - аз (az).
Upon further research I discover the many significant and extreme roles the wolf plays in Mongolian culture. The animal is at once a hunting target, a predator of livestock, a historical figure, a subject of art and folklore, and an animal living in an unsuitable environment, and a spiritual figure(2). As Mongolia’s most ancient ancestor, in “The Secret History of the Mongols, the literary work begins with Chinggis’ lineage, stating that the ancient ancestors of his bloodline were a blue wolf and the consummation between “his destiny from heaven above” and a fallow doe; symbolizing the unity between Earth and Sky, masculinity and femininity - thus the creation of the Mongolian people(1).
In my conversations with Mongolian friends, I go on to discover a myriad of rules and superstitions regarding the wolf, and varied representations of its supernatural side. Yet the myth or fact which captures my attention most is the wolf’s role in Mongolian culture and its relationship to its environment; for the state of the wolf in Mongolia is a focus of heavy debate recently. While much is left to speculation, with data collected around Ulaanbaatar versus the countryside varying significantly, The IUCN Red List of Animals records the grey wolf as ”near threatened” in Mongolia(2).
As our train arrived back into Ulaanbaatar, and we stepped off our car and into the smog, I can’t help but think of the similar threat the citizens of Ulaanbaatar face, as the ominous and omnipresent smog cloaks us in a toxic and polluted air. Having come out of living in the ger districts for the past 3 weeks with three different host families, even in that short time I have felt and witnessed the severity of the pollution levels firsthand - personally witnessing particulate matter levels as high as 1200PM for the air quality sensors installed inside the gers. At night I felt the burn of the polluted smoke along the arch of my pharynx as I lay down to sleep… dreading the days to come, as the colder winter months have now begun.
1. Onon, Urgunge. The Secret History of the Mongols: the Life and Times of Chinggis Khan. Publ. House "Bolor Sudar", 2005.
2. LeGrys, Samuel, "Grey to Green: e Wolf as Culture and Pro t in Mongolia and the Importance of Its Survival" (2009). Independent Study Project (ISP) Collection. Paper 800.