By Graham Earnshaw, Reuters
PARTISAN STATE FARM, Mongolia, May 17, Reuter – Six or seven times a year, Mongolian herdsman Choidorj packs up his portable home and travels off over the hill in search of greener pastures, just as did generations of his ancestors.
But there is one important difference now. Instead of carrying his felt-covered tent home to a new site on the back of a camel, as Genghis Khan would have done, Choidorj uses a truck from the local state farm.
The round tent structures, called gers, consist of a wooden frame covered with layers of thick felt which for more than 1,000 years have been protecting Mongol horse herdsmen on the grasslands from temperatures as low as minus 40 degrees celsius.
The vast, empty land of Mongolia, sandwiched in central Asia between Soviet Siberia and the Gobi desert, is home to only two million people.
Probably more than half of them still live in the traditional cream-coloured gers which dot the grassland and huddle in huge suburbs around the capital of Ulan Bator.
“Life for us maybe seems much the same as it has always been,” Choidorj, 52, said as he sat on the carpeted floor of his cosy ger. “We are still nomads, living in gers and breeding animals — but really things are very different.”
Now, his family has electricity, at least during the winter months when they erect their ger close to the Partisan State Farm township, 100 km (60 miles) northwest of Ulan Bator.
There are also health care facilities and schools for the children. When communism first came to Mongolia in 1921, there was one trained doctor in the country and a literacy rate hovering around one per cent.
Choidorj’s ger is almost identical to gers throughout Mongolia — the same building materials and the same layout inside.
The door to the ger faces south, and furniture lines the inner walls, covered in brilliantly-coloured carpets. Beds occupy the north, east and west sides of the ger, while wardrobe, dressing table, water containers and suitcases are fitted in between.
In the centre of the ger is a wood stove with a chimney poking through a hole in the round roof.
As Radio Moscow’s Mongol service purred in the background and Choidorj talked about life as a socialist horse herder, his wife brought out all the traditional “white products” given to guests.
First came milky green tea — no sugar — poured from a Chinese vacuum flask, served with strips of dried fat cut from a sheep’s rump.
Then came the fermented mares’ milk known as kumiss which tastes like a thin, creamy liqueur. It was served in the family heirlooms — old, shallow bowls made of pure silver.
“This kumiss is from last year,” Choidorj’s wife said apologetically. “It’s better when it’s fresh in the late summer and autumn.”
Choidorj himself handed over a snuff bottle, the top half open as required by tradition, for the guest to try a pinch of quality yellow Chinese snuff.
He has lived in the same ger since 1960 — he made it himself and reckons he can dismantle it in half an hour and re-erect it on another site in less than an hour.
I asked if he would prefer to live in a proper house.
“I never really thought about it,” he replied. “Maybe our children will. Apartment houses are maybe warmer in the winter, but a ger is more suitable for us because we are always moving with the horses.”
Choidorj looks after about 400 horses for the state farm and also privately owns 25 horses. He said he earned about 11,000 tugriks a year.
At the official, artificially high, exchange rate of 2.8 tugriks to the dollar, that translates into an income of nearly 4,000 dollars. But the black market exchange rate is closer to 20 tugriks to the dollar, giving an annual income of 550 dollars.
Choidorj mounted his Mongol steed and rode out over the steppe to round up his half-wild herd. The spring breeze whipped up the manes of the mares, their new-born colts trotted after them.
Choidorj, carrying a Mongolian lasso (a four-metre long pole with a loop of rope at the end) rode to cut off one of the herd.
As he rode up to be photographed, I asked him if he felt any affinity with Genghis Khan and the Mongol horsemen who swept across Asia and half of Europe in the 13th century on horses just like his, creating one of the biggest empires the world has ever seen.
“Genghis Khan?” he said and paused, uncertain how to reply.
“I don’t know too much about him. But I do know that when I am riding a horse and herding, I feel like a real man.” REUTER NNNN