The snow was falling hard and limited our visibility to only a few meters. Our friend Bek was a cautious driver and slowly navigated the bumps and cracks in the dirt road. It had barely taken us 30 minutes to drive from Olgii, in the Mongolian Bayan province, to the small town of Sagsai, even though our destination to our graziKazakh family homestay was only a few kilometers away, it would still take us almost one hour to reach it that day, a testament to the state of the “roads” and the winter weather. We drove by herds of cows, horses, yaks, sheep and goats, all coated in white by the heavy snow.
We finally turned toward a lone ger and stopped. As we grabbed our bags, a small elderly lady came out to welcome us. Our host Baigan hurried us inside the ger, where a burning stove and a table covered with food were waiting for us.
As we had discovered numerous times through our time in Mongolia, you partake in the traditional milk tea as soon as you step in a ger. Baigan embodied nomadic hospitality by displaying several kinds of food. Homemade butter, cream, sun-dried curd khuruud (or aarul when first fermented) and fried doughnut-like baursak (or boorstog), sugar, cakes, cookies, sweets… The ever-flowing milk tea warmed our cold bones and we dug deep into the pile of baursak and fresh cream. One thing we quickly realized is that you can’t get enough of milk tea, at least in Kazakh’s mindset…
Munching on our hard khuruud (softened by letting it infuse in tea!!) between sips of hot tea allowed us to get familiar with our surrounding as we took in the inside of the ger. The home of five people was neat and tidy, high in colors from the hanging carpets, decorative pillows, and bed covers. Three beds, a chest, a table with a few wooden seats, a dung-fuelled stove, and a cupboard full of utensils were the main elements.
Since we were in an eagle hunter family, a saddle, a few bites, and the gear for handling the eagle were also visible. Family photos, the late husband’s portrait, his Kazakh hat and eagle feeding plate, as well as hanging medals completed the decoration on the wall.
Bek was facilitating the discussion as we introduced ourselves, where we were from and where we had been traveling in Mongolia. We learned about our host, Baigan, who lived with one of her three sons, Erlang, his wife Dinar, and their two young sons Tastan and Arkhalykh. Erlang was away for the day, and would return the next day. Baigan had another son living in another ger nearby, Erbold, as well as her brother-in-law, the younger brother of her late husband. The communication was not the easiest, though, given our lack of Kazakh.
Indeed, our painstakingly acquired Mongol was of no help here, and Kazakh was the language to know. We managed, mostly by gesturing and thanks to Bek’s translation, to express our interests in learning more about the Kazakh culture. We also mentioned we could love to participate in their daily routine, offering our help whenever possible.
By the time we had managed to discuss there, the dinner had been prepared by Baigan. The dough was mixed, rolled down and packed with meat and onions. Dinar and a neighbor helped out through the whole process, while we were talking to Bek. Since we just arrived, and Bek was helping translate, I watched them on the side, though I was eager to see what they were doing.
A large platter of steaming hot dumplings – a traditional meal called buuz – was served, and Baigan urged us to dig in. These were yummy, and we understood made with mutton, a continuation of food that will be constant during our stay.
The evening settled in quietly, with Dinar and Baigan cleaning up the dishes, stocking up the stove with more fuel, and ensuring we had a constant refill of hot tea. Bruno, Bek, and the kids played a game of bones dice with the kids. It reminded me of my own childhood, playing a similar game with my grandmother.
The silent moments were interrupted by the occasional discussion between Baigan and Erlang, or laughter between the kids. On my end, I kept pointing at things hoping to learn their Kazakh names. These felt as unpronounceable as their Mongol counterparts and I felt bad to butcher every single word I was uttering. The kids giggled over my poor attempts, even as the adults were patiently repeating the words for our sake.
It was late by the time the table was pushed aside, freeing a space in the ger for us to lay our sleeping bags. Baigan and Dinar rolled down several layers of heavy carpets for added insulation and comfort from the cold hard ground. Before we rejoined the warmth of our down bags, Bruno and I headed outside for a quick bathroom break. It was pitch dark except for the stars and freezing given the strong winds and fluffy flakes the snow storm was bringing down. Not knowing the lay of the land, I did not venture far, just ensuring I was not stepping on a goat or sheep while answering nature’s call. The warmth of the ger was again striking as I returned inside, and it was no long before we fell asleep.
Morning rituals in a ger start with the sunrise. But in this part of Mongolia in early October, the sun rises at around 7am. The first order of business is to get the stove burning. The temperatures were pretty cold at that stage and I stayed snuggled into the warmth of my bag as I heard the recognizable sounds of the stove being cleaned up and stocked up again. There is no window in a ger, and the light comes primarily from either through an opening at the top of the ger during the day or a solar-powered battery-hooked-bulb in the evening. For that reason, the second morning step is to open the top of the ger. While the sounds of flapping heavy cover and flying ropes would have been foreign two months ago, we were by now familiar with this and I did not need to look up to know what was happening. But I did so just to check on the weather, curious to see what weather we would enjoy that day. The white sky confirmed the snow storm was still raging. The room had slowly warmed up and I dared to get out my bag. The ger was still very quiet, with only the burning stove cracking and shooting hot ambers. Both Baigan and Dinar were gone, while Bek and Bruno, as well as the boys, were still asleep.
I put on several layers and headed outside, in the hope of finding the two ladies. I had barely stepped outside when I was struck by the beauty of the area. The snow was coming down strong, the low ceiling and white surrounding giving an impression of being covered in cotton.
Dinar was further away herding the milking cows back towards Baigan who was already busy milking. It was a surreal feeling, to be in Mongolia and experiencing winter conditions. I felt transported in one of the many National Geographic pictures I used to pin over. The seemingly paradisiac scenery, however, meant real harsh conditions.
The cold wind was cutting through my winter layers, and I had barely been outside a minute. Dinar and Baigan had been out for over 30 minutes. My hands were barely warm even with two thick layers where I noted both Dinar and Baigan’s hands were bare, a must-be to milk the cows.
I stood a while watching them as they tried to stay warm bundled in their overcoats and twitching their hands to warm them. I was unsure how I could help. As I saw them tying and untying the young calves off after they drank from under their mothers, I pointed from one of the remaining calves drinking and back to the rope.
Baigan nodded. I grabbed the little one tentatively and gently but he refused to come, of course. Baigan stood up, approached the cow and grabbed the calf with the strong hands, pulling hard as she did. The calf resisted slightly but gave in and was attached to the rope within seconds. Baigan gestured me to release one another calf from the rope, which then quickly reunited with his mother. Milking their six cows and yaks, releasing the calves back and forth, took about another half-hour. My hands were cold despite my warm gloves, and I could not imagine how their bare hands felt.
A cow was also outside the ger, patiently waiting for Baigan to come and milk her. I guess she did not see that the milking was already happening a few steps away, and I pushed her toward Baigan.
The snow has stopped in the meantime but not before coating the ground and the mountains around us with several inches of its white powder. The sky was now deep blue, and the rising sun was sending rays of red and orange.
Hundreds of sheep, goats, cows, yaks and horses were around us, with the Kazakh kids moving the herd away onto better grazing patches.
The snow did not seem to deter the animals from eating, scratching the white flakes away as they did. Bruno had joined me and was pushing the goats and sheep with Tastan and Arkhalykh.
Arkhalykh was proudly featuring a fox hat, an item that his grandfather made and wore in his lifetime.
The colors around us were incredible, and we were in awe, enjoying the landscape and taking a slice of Kazakh life at the same time.
Bek approached us and told us Erbold was to kill a sheep. He asked us whether we wanted to see it, and we followed him after we nodded our agreement.
More about our Kazakh homestay experience coming soon: traditional sheep slaughtering and following feast including sheep head eating, the making of butter and dairy products, preparing the baursak dough and pasta, winter preparations, and livestock migration. Sign-up to our newsletters to receive the new blog posts as soon as they are published.