Out on the steppe

Celebrating the New Year far from the city, modern life

The father had just made a new foxskin hat for his son and wanted to show off the result. They insisted on a photograph. Enlarge photo

Courtesy of Lucas Beard

The father had just made a new foxskin hat for his son and wanted to show off the result. They insisted on a photograph.

Editor’s note: Lucas Beard is a Durango High School graduate who is traveling in and writing about Mongolia for a year as a Fulbright Scholar.

I spent the Mongolian New Year in a small, dung-heated tent, with a herder named Nergui and his family.

The family’s lifestyle bore absolutely no resemblance to any previous experience of mine. What initially started as an uncomfortable intrusion into the herders’ private lives blossomed into an amazing experience as I built a cherished relationship with the nomadic people.

The family of four lives on the Eastern Steppe in Mongolia. Their house is a circular shelter measuring a little more than 100 square feet with one very short door. No Internet, no communication, just a tent with a stove and a water barrel. To the amusement of my hosts, I hit my head on the doorframe every time I came inside. They undoubtedly had never seen someone so ill-equipped for tent life.

The steppe stretches for hundreds of kilometers around the family. It is a monotonous scrub-filled grassland briefly interrupted by horse herds. A northern extension of the fifth largest desert in the world, the Gobi, the plain is stark, austere and detached from central Mongolia.

From the country’s capital, I embarked on a 15-hour bone-rattling bus journey to visit the family and get firsthand experience of Mongolia’s most important holiday, the lunar New Year or White Moon Festival. The traditions involved reminded me of a blend between Christmas and Thanksgiving: a chance to give gifts and feast on meaty delicacies. The White Moon Festival is a family-oriented opportunity to reconnect with loved ones.

I was invited to celebrate the holidays with this particular family because their daughter, Chimgee, received a scholarship from the U.S. State Department and spent the 2011-12 school year in Missouri. When Chimgee first heard about her scholarship, she ran home to tell her parents – who looked at her in confusion.

They didn’t know where the United States was, and to be honest, they didn’t really know much about the country’s existence. International geography simply wasn’t in their realm of experience. While Chimgee’s father, Nergui, could nurse animals back to health, mend a coal stove and butcher a cow in freezing temperatures, he didn’t understand trans-Pacific states.

When I arrived in their tent, Chimgee’s parents showed me a cherished photograph of the family’s first journey to a city, when they took Chimgee to board an airplane for America. The family looked terrified. Grasping each other tightly, the photograph showed them as uncomfortable in a city as I was first entering their felt tent.

Chimgee told me that after she returned to Mongolia and showed them America on a map, her parents still “thought she went to somewhere in Russia.”

In traditional Mongolian naming fashion, Chimgee’s surname, Nergui, is her father’s first name. In the Mongolian language, the name means “No Name.” Nergui’s parents called him No Name to protect him from evil spirits that are attracted to children with proud, regal names. With a humble title like No Name, his parents hoped he would escape the attentions of the malevolent spirits and survive his childhood. It seems to have worked, and Nergui is now a proud father of three children.

For these herders who could afford nothing beyond the essentials, it was amazing to see their selfless hospitality over the course of the New Year. The festival consists of families traveling to neighbors’ and friends’ houses, sampling food, drinking and accepting gifts. Over the course of the five days I spent with Nergui’s family, they received countless tins of cookies and T-shirts. They graciously received the gifts with obvious excitement. In a largely cashless economy, access to manufactured goods is a certain luxury.

However, during the New Year, the guest quickly becomes the host, and Nergui’s family re-gifted almost every present they received. Their meager earnings as herders did not allow much extra cash for purchasing luxury goods, so the gifts disappeared as soon as they had appeared.

In the five days I spent as their guest, I didn’t use a telephone, watch television or access the Internet. Not only were these activities impossible, but they also felt unnecessary, even silly. From a modern Western perspective, I was disconnected. For a young American, this isolation was a novel and startling experience.

These herders live connected directly to what is right in front of them. No digital proxy or others. And it felt more than enough. Nergui’s family lacks so many of the possessions and connections that I always considered essential, but they filled this space with genuine displays of attention, unadulterated and undivided, the family paid attention to one another. It was old-fashioned, and it was wholesome.

When Nergui asked his daughters about their day, they sat down and discussed it across a table for 20 minutes. There were no distractions, just a conversation between a father and his daughters.

I’m not sure I could ever live long-term in a tent disconnected from the rest of the world, but I’m certainly glad some people still do. I realized that they aren’t really disconnected at all. During my stay, I kept on thinking that Nergui’s family retained more true connections than the rest of us; their connections are just a little closer to home.

lucasbeard@gmail.com

Steamed dumplings are traditionally eaten during the White Moon Festival. Enlarge photo

Courtesy of Lucas Beard

Steamed dumplings are traditionally eaten during the White Moon Festival.

Nergui boils cow legs over a fire. The hooves eventually break down and are used to create gelatin. Enlarge photo

Courtesy of Lucas Beard

Nergui boils cow legs over a fire. The hooves eventually break down and are used to create gelatin.

A cousin, visiting his relatives during the Mongolian New Year out on the Eastern Steppe, eagerly awaits his gift of cookies. Enlarge photo

Courtesy of Lucas Beard

A cousin, visiting his relatives during the Mongolian New Year out on the Eastern Steppe, eagerly awaits his gift of cookies.

Gers – the felt tents home to nomads – is a small, crowded place. Even showers are performed in front of a wide audience. Enlarge photo

Courtesy of Lucas Beard

Gers – the felt tents home to nomads – is a small, crowded place. Even showers are performed in front of a wide audience.