We have been here about two months. We live in a Ger in a hasha with another Mongolian family. There are many things I'd like to tell you about our experience here so far, but I think I'll begin with a little background of what Mongolia is like and how people live here. Mongolia is smack-dab in the middle of Asia. It is about as big as all the countries in Western Europe put together. Sandwiched between Russia and China, it is a land of vast, ocean-like steppe, mountains and deserts, like the famous Gobi desert located in the southern third of the country.
While most people think of Mongolia as being mostly rolling hills, over 40% of Mongolia is mountainous. The Altai and Khangai mountain ranges contain mountain peaks that are over 13,000 feet. The mountain ranges get much more precipitation than the steppe, and the mountain rain and snow feed the rivers of Mongolia like the Selenge that is a major tributary to Lake Baikal in Russia.
Being in a country that has one of the lowest population densities in the world is a very unusual experience. If you've ever flown in an airplane, you probably say little houses scattered all over the landscape, lots of roads, farms and towns. If you have flown at night, you probably looked at all the streetlights along the roads and in the cities and the glow of the house lights from towns along the way. From an airplane, Mongolia looks very different from out country. Flying from the capital city to my town, Uliastai, I look out the window and see hill after hill with little groups of Siberian Larch and Pine. The high plateau that surrounds the mountains which stick up out of the ground like scales on the back of stegosaurus.
The high plateau and mountains are very cold. When I first flew to my town in the middle of August, the mountains and the land around them were completely covered with snow! Sometimes, we fly over a little round white dot nestled along a river in a valley. These white dots are actually Gers, which are big round tents made of wool felt and canvass that Mongolian herders live in. If you've ever walked into the woods or been somewhere that you can't see houses or buildings and hear other people, then you know what it feels like to be in the Mongolian countryside.
Many Mongolians still live the traditional herding lifestyle. Families typically live in a Ger, or a round structure made of poles and covered with wool felt and canvass (see the pictures I enclosed). Most people use wood-burning stoves to heat their Gers, as it is the best heating system for these temporary homes. The herding lifestyle requires people to move at least twice a year from summer grazing land to winter grazing land. For instance, the herders that lice in Zavkhan Aimag live in the high, mountainous river valleys in the summer where there is more rain and better grass. Then, around winter time, they make their way to the warmer Gobi desert that stretches and curls around the southern part of the Aimag to the western half. Herders carry everything with them, and can pack up their Ger in just a few hours.
Sometimes we see herders moving through town, either by huge trucks that are packed to the very top, or by ox cart trains. One time, we say a camel train loaded down with ger poles and furniture - something you don't see in America very oftern! Herders tend to Goats, Sheep, Camels, Horses, and Yaks, or the "Five Traditional Animals", and sometimes cows as well. In the summer, they make "white foods" or milk products like cheeses, yogurt (the best I've ever tasted), different kinds of rock-hard cheeses called arroyl, as well as salty milk tea. In the winter, they mostly eat meat. Many people in Mongolia don't like vegetables except for maybe onions, garlic, potatoes, turnips, or carrots, probably because herders can't usually have gardens!
In the cities, many people lice in Russian-style concrete apartment complexes. Even in the city, however, many people live in Gers in neighborhoods called Ger districts. They are surrounded by hashas or fenced-in areas about ¼ - 1/3 of a acre in size. They often have guard dogs that will bite strangers and guests if they aren't tied up! For that reason, Mongolians are generally very frightened of dogs and will walk a long way to avoid a loose hasha dog. People in the city get their meat and milk form herders who come to the market, or they have relatives who bring them food from the countryside. In Ulaanbaatar, you can buy many different kinds of food - American, Chinese, Japanese, there is even an African restaurant! In most other cities, however, people still depend on herders to sell them meat and dairy products.
Many cities have electricity (most of the time anyway), hot water, telephone service and even internet access and cable with MTV. In the countryside, however, people go to bed with the sun and get up with the sun, and have only stoves and candles for warmth, cooking, and light (although some people have gas generators).
Families are very important to Mongolians. We are often asked "do you miss your mother and father"? They don't like to be alone and spend much of their time visiting each other. The idea of having time to be by yourself in Mongolia is very strange, in fact, there is no word for "privacy" in the Mongolian/English dictionary! One time, I was gone for a week on a trip for my work, and my husband was left by himself in our ger. He enjoys being by himself but our Mongolian friends thought he must have been very sad to be alone. They came to visit every day, made him food, and even offered to sleep at out ger so he would not be so lonely. Most every night, we have a visitor or two come to our Ger. We like visitors, but sometimes get a little frustrated because in Mongolia, it is not considered impolite to just walk into someone's home without knocking first. Sometimes people come into our ger when we are changing our clothes or taking a nap. Think of your parents just walking into your room without knocking; how does that make you feel?
I hope this letter helped you learn a little bit about Mongolia. Do you want to know more about Mongolian kids or are you interested in learning more about Mongolian's environment? I have much information I can share with you so please send my any questions you can think of. I look forward to getting a letter from you all!
for Global Environmental Education