Kindly contributed by Liza Carter, with photographs from her book Moving with the Seasons: Portrait of a Mongolian Family, a collaborative effort between Carter and a nomadic Mongolian family living on the steppe. Carter's personable prose and excellent photography capture the Mongolian people's daily lives, in many ways still untouched by modernity.
he landscape of Mongolia
is mesmerizing: vast and virtually untouched by roads. A landlocked country, Mongolia encompasses a wide range of environments. The southern third is the dry Gobi desert, home of the wild Bactrian camels and the Flaming Cliffs, a world-famous site for dinosaur fossils, including dinosaur eggs. The central part of Mongolia is the enormous wide-open spaces of rolling grassland steppe in shades of light green and brown highlighted with bursts of color and the white of the nomads' tents. To the north, bordering Russia, lies the Siberian taiga forest scattered with beautiful lakes, and the dramatic Altai Mountains rise in the West. Yet, despite this stunning scenery, my favorite place in Mongolia is inside a nomadic herder’s small round movable tent called a ger
(also known as a yurt) where I know that I will always be warmly welcomed.
The traditional greeting is “Sain bainuu?”
“How are you? What is the good news?” This is usually followed by questions about how one’s herd of animals fared during the winter months. The life of nomadic Mongolians is inseparable from their animals and the environment. Daily life revolves around animal care and food preparation, while available pasture and water levels determine the nomadic family’s movement patterns. They depend on their animals for both food and heating fuel (dung), while the animals in turn rely on the grasslands. Herding is not an easy life, but it is close to being a self-sufficient life, and it is a life that honors, protects, and preserves the importance of family and hospitality.
During my travels in Mongolia, I was continually moved by the kindness and hospitality of the nomadic herders I met. The tradition of hospitality towards strangers is deeply rooted in Mongolian culture. Living in comparative isolation, nomads need to be able to rely on one another for assistance even if they are strangers. Travelers know they are always welcome to food and a place to sleep in a family’s ger. Upon entering, depending on the season and time of day, you might be offered tea, vodka, or airag
(the national drink made of fermented mare’s milk) along with a selection of cheeses.
In a Western house, we usually invite guests only into specific areas of our house: the living room, the kitchen (if it is neat), and the downstairs bathroom. The rest of the house we consider private space, except to family and extremely close friends. In a ger, no distinction is possible between public and private spaces. Eating, sleeping, cooking, and socializing all occur within the roughly 28 foot diameter of the
ger. Remarkably, the tradition of hospitality in Mongolia is so strong that a visitor doesn’t even knock on a door of a ger or wait to be invited in—he or she just opens the door (even to a complete stranger’s ger) and walks in. If you approach a ger and see that the family keeps a dog, you call out “Nokhoi Khor,”
or “Hold your dog,” but that is the only warning that people in a ger get that they are about to receive visitors.
Initially, I had a major problem with this tradition. I simply couldn’t make myself walk into a ger not knowing what activity I might be intruding upon, even though I knew that I would be welcomed. My North American sensibilities around the notion of privacy were too strong. It wasn’t until I was visiting Mongolia in the winter, when the outside air temperature was −40° F, that the cold (coupled with my increased familiarity) accomplished what my intellectual understanding could not, and I was able to walk into a ger without knocking. It was only then that I was able to accept what had been offered to me from the beginning—a true welcome into their home.
As a visual artist, I experience the world through images. During my first trip to Mongolia, I fell in love with the landscape, but it was the people that utterly captivated me. A strong part of my desire to write Moving with the Seasons: Portrait of a Mongolian Family
was my wish to immerse myself into that world of welcome. While in Mongolia, I certainly explored new landscapes, but more importantly, I discovered new ways of seeing and being. Spending time with my Mongolian family recalibrated my internal scale of what I needed to have a happy life. My hope for all visitors to Mongolia is that they have the good fortune to spend time with a nomadic family to experience and witness an extraordinary way of life.
To see more of Liza’s work, visit www.MovingwiththeSeasons.com