Thursday, June 23, 2016

In the Land of Blue Sky

White Lake, Tsagaan Nuur. This is the only boat I saw on the lake.  I learned that tourists do come to fish, though I didn't see any other vessels during my stay.
Our visit to the Dukha reindeer herders in northern Mongolia began and ended in Tsagaan Nuur sum. After an 11 hour ride in a Russian Furgon van we checked into our guest house. The road was unpaved and we crossed over small rivers and streams, passed herds of yak, cattle, sheep, horses and goats. We saw occasional gers and people on horseback going to or coming from either Murun or Tsagaan Nuur. There was a stop for lunch at a ger canteen in Toom and a quick visit to a friend in Ulaan Uul.

At the guest house, all five of us slept in one large room, the twin size beds lining the walls, head-to-toe, even under the windows. As with most dwellings here, there was no running water or indoor plumbing. Meals were included and they were delicious.

Wood fired stove in our guest house.
Dusty when dry, muddy when wet, Tsagaan Nuur, the name means 'white lake,' had me thinking, 'this must be what it was like to come across the undeveloped countryside in the US in the 1800s and stumble upon a small, newly built town in the West.' While walking around, I commented to my Mongolian translator, "I don't think I've ever seen such  a beautiful lake with nothing built on it" - no pier, hotel or restaurant, that I could see anyway. In fact, one young American tourist I met, he grew up in Maine and lived in Colorado, mused that those mountains beyond the lake would be great for heli-skiing; they were so pristine and beautiful.

Most heat is provided by wood fired stoves. In winter residents switch to coal.

The town has no paved roads. The houses are made of locally sourced wood and the roofs are different, bright solid colors of red, green, orange and blue. I was reminded of the Lego cities my son used to build when he was small.

While all over this country nomads live in circular dwellings, gers or urts, these houses are all sharp angled rectangles, triangles and squares. Also, each yard, or 'hasha,' is surrounded by a wooden fence, some plain, some decorative. It seems very few people at a time are in the shops or walking around, particularly after the the school term ends on June 1 and before the tourist season gets into full swing. I was surprised there were no large souvenir shops or restaurants catering to foreign tourists. Just guest houses and hotels looking like guest houses, though further afield from the sum center some 'resorts' can be found.

No, this is a town that seems to cater to its 2000 residents only, and to me that is its charm.

Walking home from the store.

Gas station.

Basketball hoop, no basket, by the lake.

The grocery store. Sundry basics (soap, laundry detergent), fruits and vegetables canned or in jars, candy, some school supplies and plenty of vodka.

Reindeer in front of the grocery store.

The hasha fence around what reminded me of Lego roofs.


Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Views from the Taiga with Nomadicare

Crowded into our urts watching 'Migration.'

Our all female Team Nomadicare left Tsagaan Nuur for the east taiga on June 1. A Russian made Furgon van delivered us with our gear to Hogrog where our horses and wranglers were waiting. Once at the reindeer herders' camp, we moved into our accommodations, three people in a tourist urts (Siberian tipi) and two in tents. The next day, we arranged visits with the reindeer herders where we distributed hygiene kits to every family and updated our database. 

Team Nomdicare ready for the taiga.

Many herders commented that they enjoyed Sas's yearly visits and found items in the hygiene kit very useful. Sas checked in with every family asking about news from last year. There were new babies, university graduations and much more. Afterwards, Chuka and I interviewed each family about various aspects of tourism, tourist gifts and the impact of both on their everyday lives. In between, there was much time to talk and generally observe the daily tasks of taking care of the reindeer. 

Sas was also able to screen her films, 'Migration' and 'Ceremony' for the community of people in the film. After their work day ended, around 10PM, the herders came to our ortz for the film. It was very nice and heart warming for everyone to see themselves and/or their friends and relatives on the screen. They were very appreciative that the everyday lifeways of the herders are being documented and that their children will have these images in the future. 

Bringing in the reindeer for the night.

'Migration' documents the move from the spring to summer camp in the west taiga. 'Ceremony' shows details of shamanism, including how shamans receive their calling, among both the Dukha and the Darhad, two minority groups in Hovsgol Province. 

The daily routine of the herders is hard work and requires a symbiotic relationship between the herders and their natural environment. Indeed, the reindeer and the Dukha are interdependent, with the needs of the reindeer shaping Dukha cultural, economic and social patterns. Each morning the reindeer are untied from the logs that keep them safe in the camp overnight and are taken out to pasture. In the evening they are brought back and tied up once again. The males are in one area, the females and baby reindeer in another. Reindeer are usually born at the beginning of May, but during our visits to both east and west taiga camps, we observed new reindeer born (in June). The reindeer are milked for human consumption, used for cheese, curds, yoghurt, and salted milk tea. Mongolians enjoy salted milk tea from many animals.

Sas healing an east taiga herder.

In between tending to the reindeer, many other tasks must be completed. This includes drawing water, cooking meals, baking bread, mending clothes, laundry, carving reindeer antlers for sale to tourists, and fixing tools. We also saw men stretching and softening rawhide with a hand-made 'machine' that required much strength and dexterity! 

Softening the rawhide strips. These are used for harnesses on the horses.
Flour is an important part of the everyday meal, in fact all meals, all day. First, flour mixed with water and sour dough starter is baked in a pot on top of the wood burning stove. This is called talkh. After the bread has been mostly cooked through, it is taken out of the pot, flipped and put back to bake the top that is now the bottom! This bread is cut into slices. There are also 'noodles' made from a rolled out flat bread - somewhat like a chapati - flash cooked on top of the stove, sliced into long noodle shapes and steamed with re-hydrated mutton. My favorite is boortsog, small balls or knots of deep fried bread. This was sometimes coated in a very small amount of sugar. Another kind of bread is gambir, sort of a cross between a pancake and a croissant; is my other favorite, especially for breakfast.

All of this hard work can produce aches and pains. Sas did energy healing when asked. In the west, there was a visit nearly every night at 11PM from one older herder, mother of six, who struggles to walk but rides a reindeer with ease.

During our stay two separate tourist groups arrived, a French couple with a guide and three men from Singapore. They had a guide and a cook as well. They were traveling on a three-week tour with a large, well-established tourist agency. The French couple stayed in a tourist ortz while the Singapore travelers set up camp in the forest, a bit away from the herders urts. Needless, to say, observations and interviews with these tourists will be part of my research. More will said about that in another post.

Overall, it is clear that the reindeer herders welcome Nomadicare's yearly visits. Sas has been coming to Mongolia for 22 years so her commitment to documenting and representing the lifestyle of the reindeer herders is clearly true and heartfelt. One elderly herder from the west taiga asked Sas if she could come back and stay for the entire summer next year. She'll think about it!

Chilling out in the urts, East taiga.

A photo with a couple of my favorite interviewees.

Updating the data base and sorting the hygiene kits.
Reindeer, tied down for the night.

Time to milk the reindeer.

A visitor!

Milk tea simmering in the ger on the steppe, before our trip..

Fresh fish from the lake cooked directly on the stove, west taiga.
Getting ready for migration to the summer camp, west taiga.

Sumiya, Sukhe, Battulga, Bazara. Sugar and Lkhagva, our wranglers, at the end of our trip. Thank you.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Life and Art: Young Reindeer Herders in Mongolia

In the north of Mongolia, not too far from Russia, I just completed a small research study on tourism among the nomadic Dukha reindeer herders of the East and West taiga. This community moves four or more times a year taking their animals to fresh pasture. When not interviewing their parents, my interpreter, Chuka, and I also did some 'day in the life' drawings with the children. I had brought colored markers and paper. I've conducted this exercise in many countries with children throughout the world: kids on Fogo Island in Cape Verde drew volcanoes; children in India their villages in the countryside and their families; in Bulgaria they drew photos of the sports activities they enjoyed, pizza, flowers and friends.
My cityscape; Chuka's Gobi.

We had samples to show the children too: Chuka lives on the opposite side of Mongolia near the border with China. She is from a nomadic family in the Gobi and drew a Bactrian camel and a ger (traditional felt covered circular house). Her family also herds goats and sheep and horses. Chuka put mountains in her photo (the Gobi is not just desert!). My picture showed row houses and the inner harbor of Baltimore, the city of my birth, complete with cars and a freighter. Though I now live in Danbury, CT, my childhood memories seemed more apropos for this project.

We wrote the children's names and ages as well as their most and least favorite things to do on the back of their drawings. I took pictures of their creations but let the children keep the originals.

Our artists ranged in age from three to fifteen. They live in urts and herd reindeer. The landscape, activities and animals of the taiga dominate their pictures. However, I was at first surprised to also see wooden houses and animals other than reindeer in their drawings.

I learned that the children spend a good part of the year in the sum, Tsagaan Nuur. A sum is a second level administrative district in Mongolia. There are 365 sum districts in the country. Tsagaan Nuur's name means 'white lake'. It has a total population of about 2,000 of which about 600 are ethnic Dukha. Here children and their families have access to television and movies  - even in the urts via satellite many families watch television and have short wave radios for communicating with the other camps. The television fare includes locally produced variety shows, Mongolian, Russian and Korean series, music videos, the news and much more (foreign shows are dubbed in Mongolian).

As we were returning to the sum from the taiga we visited a family's urts. There was a small flat screen television in the far end of the home. We had been without internet for eight days. While I could not understand his Mongolian, I did learn that the herder was giving us news on the US elections. I caught "Hilary" now and then in the conversation and was informed Clinton had secured the Democratic nomination.

The old dorm.
For first to third grades, the children move to in Tsagaan Nuur sum during the winter with their mothers and attend school while their fathers and other herding families rotate taking care of the reindeer.  The children are fluent in both Mongolian (the language of school) and their native Tuvan. The winter camp is close to the sum center and can be reached by vehicle, so the children have the opportunity to go home to their families on weekends and holidays.
In the grocery store.

The sum center has no paved roads, somewhat unreliable internet, a hospital (one story wood building), one gas station, a bank, several small grocery stores, guest houses for tourists, a kindergarten, an elementary and a high school.

Out in the taiga people eat mainly milk products from their reindeer, including milk tea with salt, bread which is baked daily on top of the wood-fired stove in the middle of the urts, and 'noodles' with dried meat. The noodles are made from dough rolled into a thin, flat, round shape cooked very briefly on the wood stove, then cut into thin 'noodle' strips. These are steamed with the re-hydrated mutton meat to which oil has been added.  The herders use their reindeer for migrating and not for food. In town, the many small grocery stores stock basic household cleaning products, a few school supplies, preserved and fresh foods including rice, flour, pickled vegetables, ramen noodles, liquor, soda and candy. However, I was told that even in winter the reindeer herders diet does not change, consisting still of flour, rice, milk and meat.
A reindeer in the school lobby.

After third grade, many children live in dorms throughout the school term. The schools and dormitories have no central heating and winters are brutal. Large free standing stoves vented through the ceiling, wood fired in summer and coal fired in winter, are located in the middle of the classrooms and lobby to provide heat.

School stove.
There are no indoor toilets and the children use outhouses. A new cement framed dormitory is being built this summer to replace the wooden structure currently in use.  After high school, the Dukha children often opt to attend university, many on scholarships, in cities throughout the country, and sometimes in nearby countries. Some are now studying to be elementary school teachers, tour guides and scientists. Others we spoke to hope to be engineers or doctors,  or to return to herd reindeer like their parents.

As you can see, mountains and flowers, urts (the traditional 'teepee like housing), and animals dominate their drawings. The children like to herd, ride bikes, ride a horse, play basketball, play with friends, help their parents, and gather flowers. Of course, they also like to ride reindeer. While most said, "there is nothing I don't like to do!" a few thoughtful children put carrying water, picking up garbage and washing dishes on the 'don't like" list. One wrote, "I don't like snowdrops, they make me cold!"

Children as young as seven help to take out, bring in, and tie up the reindeer each day. They also help carry water from the river, lake or stream, serve guests bread and tea, mind young siblings, cousins, and neighbors - they have many chores when home from school and living in the summer camp. We asked one group of kids which they liked better, the town or the 'taiga' (countryside), and they laughed and yelled in unison, "the taiga!" It was beautiful sunny day, the snow mountains in the distance seemed to ring the camp, the nearby lake was filled with fish. I would agree, the taiga!

Here is their work.  Enjoy this small snapshot of the life reindeer herding children

He's carrying water.

Also carrying water!

Choka writing the children's answers.

This child drew a birthday cake!

"I like to ride my reindeer."