It was 8.30 p.m and the sun had long since sunk below the horizon, leaving an inky sky with just a sliver of a moon but a magical display of stars, creating silhouettes of the humpy camels settling down to sleep. The only other light for miles upon miles around us was from the flickering candle on the floor of the Batbekhs' ger, dimly lighting our evening entertainment: sitting cross legged with our host, throwing a handful of sheep ankle bones on the ground and 'reading' their shapes in order to strategically flick them at each other to try to win them- the traditional Mongolian game of 'shagai'. This was the middle of the Gobi Desert and these herders have to find their amusements according to their very limited resources!
The camels, who were eerily sighing and moaning outside the ger, had no idea that a few hours later they would be subject to us propping a bucket under them with a knee and ineptly pulling and squeezing their teats in a feeble attempt at milking them... we were left with a few drops, lost in the bottom of the container! We redeemed ourselves slightly in the task of rolling lengths of their hair into rope, used to tie down the ger... not a bit of any animal is wasted out here. But
all this was to take place the following morning... we still had the night to get through and, on account of the brutal wind which had whipped up, rendering tent erection impossible, our hosts had invited us to sleep in their ger. It was one of the most basic gers we had visited - common to all were the central stove, its pipe poking out through the top of the structure, and the obligatory altar to the north, while many of them also had a bed east and west of the south-facing door, brightly painted trunks for storage, and in the more affluent cases, a lightbulb
powered from the battery on the back of an old motorbike, and even a similarly powered television. The Batbekhs' camel herd didn't seem to be providing them with a high standard of living, though, and their ger was almost bare but for the altar, assorted posessions stored in cardboard boxes, and bedding piled on top. Their humble circumstances made their hospitality all the more striking and I was very appreciative of their invitation to escape a cold, sleepless night in a wind-tossed tent.
Bed time comes early in the desert, and Anju and I were soon following the lead of our host couple and their visiting friend, and laying out our bedrolls, the Batbekhs on the family side (east), the friend before the altar, a spot reserved for men (north), and ourselves in the visitors spot (west) - despite their small size each part of the ger has a specific meaning and function. Tucked in my down sleeping bag, with the added warmth of the wood stove and the heat of five bodies packed in, I was toasty and relaxed, and drifting into slumber in no time. The snores of the male friend didn't disturb me but i did wake up at the giggling coming from the family area and I did wonder quite
what was going on over there...! And then they were up and out of the ger with a few loud exclamations... maybe one of the
camel herd was loose, I thought, as sleep overcame me again. The same cufuffle ocurred a couple more times in the night, only slightly impinging on my oblivion, and I woke fully rested, to learn that the commotion had been caused by the intrusion of desert rodents, whose corpses were now lying outside! And I had thought the scurrying sound was just more of the ubiquitous beetles!
Our host was off, in a trail of dust, on his ancient motorbike early the next morning, while our hostess performed domestic duties and sat chatting with us, before taking us off to visit the mud brick ruins of a monastery, and walking us across the sand, past occasional scrubby bushes and animal bones, up to a cave full of bird feathers and bat droppings. This was one of the sandiest parts of the Gobi that we had visited - the changing terrain each day continually
surprised me as we passed across flat stony ground, through lots of scrubland, around heights of bouldery rocks, onto wind-worn cliffs, and to the top of an isolated sand dune. It was certainly not the stereotyped 'Lawrence of Arabia''-type desert, but a much more diverse region with a range of landscapes able to support both domestic and wild animals - as well as the herds of goats, sheep, horses, camels and more rarely cows, we spotted gazelles, foxes, huge birds of prey
and a camouflaged snake slithering through the stones. Oh and, of course, those desert rodents...
This unique encounter with traditional Mongolian nomadic life was part of our two week trip in the vast dusty expanse that is the Gobi, travelling between the gers (traditional felt 'tents' lived in by the majority of the rural poulation) of nomadic herders by various means: some days we walked, others we jolted along on horse cart or camel cart, long distances were covered in a jeep, there was the
ocacasional spin on a rickety motorbike, while the most uncomfortable jaunts were on horseback - often exhilerating but on barely padded wooden saddles with clanking stirrups suspended from lengths of leather tied in
bulky knots... well, an easy ride it was not
! It was a glimpse into a way of life which has endured for centuries and is still practised by approximately half of the national population (the other half squeezing into tiny apartments or ger 'shanty towns' in the ugly, polluted modern capital of Ulaan Baator) and for us, it was like stepping into a bygone age, where life is slow and simple. Water is collected in containers from desert wells, toilets are either pits or 'pick an empty space'-style,
showers are non existent, food is provided almost exclusively by the herd, entertainment consists of conversation and playing with sheep bones(!), clothing is predominantly still the traditional tunic-like 'dell', and the rhythm of life is dictated by the needs of the herd, the hours of daylight and the seasonal movemment to new pastures. It was a whole other world - a fascinating experience but not as lifestyle I'd like to have longterm!