reader report

My big OE: Lessons from the Nomads

20:16, Jul 14 2013
HARD WORKER: Mr Bold, Stestegs husband, stops chopping wood to compare hand size.

My partner and I were on a rickety public bus clinging on to the handrails for dear life as it staggered along a washed-out dirt road. We were 27 kilometres north of Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia's small and derelict capital city. The journey had already taken over three hours.

This adventure was all part of our big OE through Asia. Our aim was to get off the beaten path and learn about another way of life. It was an amazing opportunity to spend five days living with a nomadic family. What we learned from such a unique experience will stay with us for life.

The road came to an end. Waiting for us by a crumbled fence was a robust, weather-worn woman dressed in dusty traditional clothes. She gave us a warm, rosy cheeked smile and introduced herself as Stetseg. We would be staying with her and her family. However, we still had a long way to go and, without any more road left, we'd be making the rest of the journey by ox cart.

Stetseg's home was a collection of three gers, commonly known as yerts (their Russian name). They are dome-like houses perfectly designed to be portable and to keep their occupants warm in the freezing winters. Mongolians don't have a system of land ownership so they live according to where livestock can graze.

For Stetseg's family it meant setting up camp in an untouched valley of rolling hills dotted with wildflowers. A crystal clean river flowed nearby. It was paradise. Even the dug out cesspit used as a toilet boasted one of the most beautiful views we had ever seen on our travels. Not bad for people who live below the poverty line.

Despite it being the middle of summer, the majority of our time was occupied by trying to keep warm. To help our host family we chopped firewood - a never ending task as the fires were also used for cooking and burned all day. Fires are sacred to Mongolians and we could understand why. Nothing cheered us more than when Stetseg would come to stoke the fire for us on the frosty mornings.


When we weren't chopping wood, herding cows or other domestic duties we made dairy products. Dairy is a large portion of the Mongolian diet as it can be stored during the winter months when food is scarce. Our first attempt at making "dried cheese" was a disaster, having misinterpreted the instructions given to us in Stetseg's broken English. Seeing her face when she saw the mess we had made with the cheese gave us the worst feeling in the world.

Thankfully our cheese wasn't beyond rescue. After so much work milking the cows and pasteurising the milk, wasting it was not an option. The next day we made much better dried cheese and were later taught an array of other traditional dairy products.

The lack of materialism was what impressed us the most about our time with the nomads. Distant neighbours would stop by to trade home made bread, clothes or Airag - an alcoholic beverage made from mares milk. This cashless exchange of home-made goods was always pleasant. No haggling involved. Just people helping each other.

We had fancy gizmos with us such as our camera and a smartphone too, but the family had no interest in them. However, they marveled at the combination locks on our bags and a permanent marker we happened to have on us. Things that were actually useful to them.

We will never forget our time with Stesteg and her wonderful family. It taught us so much about how well people can live in an environment where they can be self sufficient.

I'm not sure if we could forgo the comfort of modern life but we will think about it differently. We'll better appreciate how easy it is for us to flick on a light or switch on a heater. If we feel impatient waiting at the checkout in the supermarket we will remind ourselves of how convenient it is for us to put food on the table. We will remember the dried cheese incident and think twice about throwing out any left overs.

And, when we are tempted to spend lots of money on the latest and greatest consumer goods we will always ask ourselves: "Do we really need this?"

Mongolia is changing fast. A mining boom and emerging dairy industry means that more nomadic families are packing up their gers and heading to Ulaan Bataar to seek their fortune. I only hope they remember some of the sustainable and simple values from their traditional lifestyle.