Lunar New Year in Mongolia

I’ve just been handed a large drinking bowl of white liquid, and there are ten pairs of eyes fixated on me… assessing me…

We are in a family Ger (Yurt), somewhere in the Gobi Desert. it took us 2 hours on asphalt roads, followed by 6 hours of off-road driving to get to the small town (Erdenedalai) that is our home for three nights. We then did a further 30min off-road this morning to reach our driver’s brother’s winter home. Here surrounded by rough Gobi terrain in all directions, are four Gers of differing sizes and a stone & wood enclosure to protect the animals from the worst of the winter weather.

In the animal enclosure and roaming around the area are goats, sheep cows and horses. Many of the weaker ones are wearing repurposed clothes as blankets to help them stay warm. It’s a difficult time at the moment, winter is in full swing, its bitter cold. There is not much grass to graze on and even this early, goats are starting to have baby kids. It’s all about helping your livestock survive until the spring. One Ger we visited had four of the cutest baby goats you’ve ever seen inside the house. Its just too cold for them to be outside this young, so the family live with them until they are strong enough to go outside.

Anyway, back to the eyes… Over Tsagaan Sar (Mongolian New Year) it’s traditional to visit your family and friends, share food and drink, and exchange gifts. Now I have come into this Mongolian household, wearing a traditional Deel (pronounced “Dell”), exchanged a formal greeting will all the family members and have been invited to sit.

Despite the warm welcome, I am being assessed. Am I just one of those tourists who wants to take some pictures of the “locals” and go back home to say I’ve “done Mongolia”? or am I here to experience Tsagaan Sar with them?

The bowl of white liquid I have been handed (given and received with the right hand) is Araig, mare’s milk that has been fermenting in a barrel since late summer (churned daily and topped up with fresh milk from the horses). While I can fully understand the taste may not suit everyone, I have been rather enjoying it, so I happily take some big sips of the Araig and hand the bowl back to my host. Everyone seems pleased, the eyes stop assessing, and we continue with the traditional Tsagaan Sar formalities.

This is happening in every Ger and home in Mongolia, and was the same format everywhere we went:

  • We enter the house or Ger.
  • We formally greet each family member by holding a Hadag (a blue scarf folded a specific way), grasping arms (younger persons arms under the elders), saying “Amar Mend uu” and performing what can only be described as a air kiss on either cheek but a soft sniff instead of the kiss sound.
  • We are then invited to sit and are offered the following items usually in this order.
    • Snuff – every Mongolian man, and some of the women, carry a stone bottle of snuff.
    • Mongolian Salted Milk Tea – Hot green tea mixed with mares milk.
    • Araig – Fermented mares milk.
    • Vodka – shots, no matter the time of day
    • Mongolian Vodka – a clear drink (around 17% alcohol) distilled from sheep/goat milk.
    • Dumplings – The ladies of the home will have been preparing hundreds of dumplings prior to New Year and will steam large platefuls whenever visitors come over the New Year period (and visitors will arrive any time day or night)
    • Mutton – every home will have a huge piece of steam cured mutton on the table for the duration of Tsagaan Sar, and small pieces will be cut off and handed around.

Despite the traditions, its very informal. Cups and drinking bowls are handed back, topped up and then handed to the next person to drink from, food is often passed by hand, [I think Amanda is freaking out about the lax food hygiene a little], but if you don’t want something (you should always accept it) but you can put it up to you mouth then place it on the table… nobody minds.

As we partake in the food, drink and formalities the people here quickly warm to us and pretty soon we are showing them our family photographs, making jokes about my height and beard, helping the young kids with their English and having very broken conversations with the help of our driver Turro and guide Jess. We were asked to connect with some of the younger guys on facebook and also partook in many ‘selfies’ with the people we met.

While the long distance travel, rough living in the Ger and the relentless repetitiveness of the Araig+Vodka+Dumplings at every home we visited took its toll on us, we kept reminding ourselves that we weren’t here as western tourists to be entertained and pandered to, we were here to partake in local traditions and experience the life that these wonderful people lead.

And its TOUGH… this landscape is harsh, brutally cold, in four days and 800km I didn’t even see a large bush, let alone a tree, there are no rivers or lakes, toilet/plumbing (hah, nope), fire fuel (livestock dung), homes you dismantle and move 3 or 4 times a year… it must take incredible strength and perseverance to survive out here,

Despite all that, the Mongolians seem to never stop smiling (maybe its the vodka…), one young guy gave us a performance of his talents with the Horse Head Fiddle, we met a 98 year old lady (possibly the oldest woman in Mongolia) (I had difficulties lasting 4 days, she has done 98 years!!!!), another man took us on a tour of the local weather station he managed. Every two hours they report the weather to a central hub station, and they also record yearly grass levels and have a self built severe weather warning system for the local area residents. After the quick tour, he pulled a microphone from his desk, powered on a large speaker on his wall and treated us to an hour-plus singing and guitar concert while we shared and emptied yet another bottle of vodka. It was such an amazing experience.

It was a struggle, I got cranky, we were suffering from colds picked up in Beijing. The Ger’s were so hot, but at about 2am (when the fire burnt out) got extremely cold. Having to politely take that vodka at 9am when you don’t want it… (and i can’t believe I am going to say this [Hong Kong guys please please stop reading here…]) I got so sick of dumplings, its all we ate for days. The off-road drive out to Erdenedalai messed up my lower back and the Gers are built low, so most of the time inside I had to bend down, ugh pain!

But the warmth and friendliness of the Mongolians we met, made this whole experience unforgettable.

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