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Community, Nomad Project in Mongolia by Shaktijit Suryavanshi

Traditional gers that serve as homes for nomad families

I have had a fascination with Mongolia for a long time now. I have to admit it started with the history of the Mongol empire and Genghis Khan. Soon, I had watched all the documentaries about the Mongol empire and contemporary nomadic culture in Mongolia that I could find. My tutors at university told me I ought to choose a dissertation topic that would be stimulating and keep me interested for a year. I chose to do my dissertation on Mongolian nomads. It was an easy pick; I was curious about their culture, I knew a bit about it, and most importantly, I would get an opportunity to experience it for myself.

Throughout January and February, I read up on Mongolia and its nomads: books, journals and articles, anything on the subject I could get my hands on. By March, I reckoned I had a good understanding of it. I had already done a placement with Projects Abroad in South Africa a few years back, so I got in touch with them and booked myself a place on the Nomad Project for two weeks in June 2016.

Planning my trip to Mongolia

Volunteer holds a calf at his placement in Mongolia

Planning such a trip has a number of tedious details that need to be sorted out. Projects Abroad helped me with booking my tickets, arranging my visa, and found a translator to assist me with the interviews I wanted to conduct. I planned on staying in the city for a few days after my placement. By the beginning of June, everything was in place. My flight got into Ulaanbaatar early in the morning of 10 June. I was met by a Projects Abroad staff at the airport and given an induction later on in the day. I was to be driven to my host family the next morning.

My Mongolian host family

Volunteer with an eagle in Mongolia

The family that would host me had their gers (tents) pitched in Altanbulag, which was a 3-hour drive from Ulaanbaatar. The head of the family was Davaa, an old man with a friendly smile. Davaa accompanied me on the drive from Ulaanbaatar to his family’s gers. We shared some of his drinks while appreciating the rugged beauty and immense vastness of the Mongolian steppe. The countryside in Mongolia is very thinly peopled and on the 3-hour drive I saw a lot less traffic than I expected to. The landscape, however, was everything I expected it to be and more.

Once we reached our destination, I was introduced to the rest of the family. Although the family did not speak any English and could not communicate with me, their friendly nods and kind smiles were enough to reassure me that I would enjoy my time with them. I was to stay in a tent with Davaa’s sons’ family. Davaa’s grandchildren took an immediate liking to me; they would make faces at me and drag me around to play with them. The adults were a bit more reserved but would always give me a smile whenever we made eye contact. The family was not wealthy by western standards but I could tell they were well off. Nomadic families calculate wealth in terms of the gers and animals that they own, and my host family had a massive herd.

Living and working with a Nomad family

A herd of horses on the Mongolian Steppe

This placement required me to help my host family with their daily chores. Nomadic families in Mongolia do not farm; their daily life revolves around caring for their animals. Everyday, I helped herd animals from horseback. Tethering claves to a line was the chore I dreaded the most, by far. Baby cows are very nimble and will not be easily caught. Everyday we would spend an hour trying to catch them. During my time there I helped my host family inoculate all their goats, a mammoth task since the family had more than 400 of them. The goats, however, were unaware we were trying to help them. The goat bite I got as a reward for my efforts was proof!

I also helped the family shear their sheep, which they do once every year, and helped with whatever chores they required my help with. During the day I would help with chores, but the evenings were for myself. I would usually wander off and climb the small hills for a better view of the landscape. Some evenings I would go off to the stream to enjoy the sunset. Within a few days I stopped missing the Internet and television. This project afforded me the luxury of peaceful introspection without the crutches of loneliness or boredom. It also gave me bragging rights: I had herded animals from horseback, lived in a tent on the Mongolian steppe and experienced a culture that has changed little in hundreds of years. On this placement I managed to kill two birds with one stone: visit Mongolia and complete the research for my masters dissertation. The connection I made with my host family was icing on the cake.

Sightseeing in Ulaanbaatar

Nomad men tend to their horses in Mongolia

I came back to Ulaanbaatar elated. In the few days I had left in Mongolia, I managed to attend a cultural concert showcasing traditional Mongolian performing arts. Listening to Mongolian overtone singing and music from the horsehead fiddle was quite memorable. As was getting my picture taken with an eagle and a falcon and visiting the Genghis Khan statue complex and museum (the biggest equestrian statue in the world). As it was almost end of June, I also had the pleasure of attending a mini Naadam festival with horse races, archery and Mongolian wrestling.

Traditional Mongolian wrestling in Ulaanbaatar

Reflecting on my time in Mongolia

I did not get back on a horse with a horde at my back, as my mates joked I would. My time in Mongolia was very enjoyable, if a bit short. A few things that I wanted to do on this trip never came about due to the limited amount of time available to me. Once I got back I realised I should have stayed longer. It’s just as well I did not, for now I have an excuse to visit this splendid country again.

Shaktijit Suryavanshi

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