2. Countryside to Soum

We had spent the better part of the day traveling to reach this place. From the plaza in front of the government department store in Ulaanbaatar, we traveled by taxi to the airport, then 1,500 km across the plains in a tiny jet accompanied only by a few government men and a small party of German game hunters. We walked through the dusty lanes of Khovd, the name assigned to the province (aimag), the capital city (also called an aimag) as well as to a neighboring county (soum). We traveled to another, smaller market than the one we visited the day before, here buying the rice, pasta, vegetables, oil and tea that we would eat for the next two week. We drove right out of town and into the valley stretching to Har Us Lake to search for Baggi, a young herder who might let us ride his horses and guide our party for the next ten days.

The further we strayed from Ulaanbaatar, the more vague the directions, the more personal the inquiry, the more comfortable I became. The air cleared, the horizon receded, the valley opened up before me and I realized I had no idea where I was, but it was beautiful. We spent the rest of the day riding in silence.

To travel in the countryside is to bask in silence. In this landscape without roads or cell towers, without signs or structures, the eyes and the mind may rest in a way I had not experienced before. Instead of wondering where I was headed or what time we would get there, I watched the rocks change color from valley to valley. I allowed my horse to gallop as the sun freed itself from a cloud and slowed when I was again within earshot of Baggi who usually rode ahead and rarely spoke but would sometimes sing to his horse or to the hills around us.

On the second day, we came upon a ger camp very near the river where we planned to stop for the night. As such a large party, we tend to camp and cook on our own, moving as a small self-sufficient family, but as soon as we had pitched our tent, we walked down to visit the gers downstream.

The rest of the day would be spent drinking tea from porcelain bowls and sharing news from the ride out and from town. Upon entering the ger, one would immediately be asked to sit, on one of many rugs spread out over the floor or on small stools. Nearly every ger I would visit had a similar layout. The center of the circular dwelling was occupied by the stove, usually a large iron box on legs with a door at one end to add wood and a large hole in the top that could be plugged with a lid or more commonly, the large cast iron pot in which everything, from goat to soup to tea was cooked. Its rounded bottom rested right in the flame. Smoke was directed through a chimney up and out of the dwelling through the skylight, a large moon in the roof which provided all natural night for the space and was covered by a flap of felt only at night or when raining or snowing.

The gers were spatially organized around three points: the door, the shrine and the stove. All things dirty or stained or having to do too much with food and animals stayed near the door. The shrine held the opposite side of the circle and marked a place where things that were loved, clean or holy were kept. The head of the family slept here, in a bed closest to the shrine (which in some gers I visited had been replaced by a black and white television set). The other beds, small, metal and saggy, hugged the wall on either side moving towards the door, a hierarchy of relatives and children with the youngest furthest from the shrine, or more likely sleeping on a rolled out blanket on the floor. Cupboards for food, dishes, utensils or cloth occupied the space on either side of the door, closer in than saddles or boots, but excluded from the carpeted space where guests would be welcomed. With the stove holding the center, all movement was a dance in circles, choreographed by the mother or grandmother in the middle forever stirring the tea with a giant ladle.

a mongolian family in thier home

As so many visits fade into another, they are remarkable for their similarities as well as the tiny differences: one family might show me pictures of their relatives, another the exquisite embroidery on a marriage tapestry hung over the bed of an old woman, but made when she was young, another family might have a radio or a tape deck on which they play Mongolian pop songs or the news. There was always tea, borsak, candies of unclear flavor and an enormous amount of smiling and staring. It was perfectly normal for everyone to sit back, drink their tea in silence for long periods of time. Since I am female, I was never asked to exchange snuff. If we stayed long enough, there might eventually be dinner or vodka. We stayed slowly, but left quickly, in an abrupt manner that often let me saying my goodbyes and now familiar Mongolian pleasantries while Baggie was already walking away or mounting his horse.

My traveling companions were not quite as eager as I am to enter every gher we spot, to speak with every family we encounter. In the evenings, I stole away from our camp with Aamga (our guide and translator from UB) and Baggi to visit families. From time to time some curious herders or a family we had visited earlier in the day would ride over to our camp and allow us to treat them to some tea and biscuits. I enjoyed the privilege of having Aamga to translate for me, a luxury I would not have during most of my time in the countryside. Baggi and I replotted a route that would bring us through more inhabited valleys, but really none of us can guess when we will spot a family.

My arrival in Khovd was well timed; as the nights grew colder and colder, we passed more families moving on to their winter sites. I was able at last to watch some gers come down and be loaded up on camels or trucks. The Kazakh families out here stay in the mountains for much longer and then head north towards Olgii, while the Mongolian families in the Namarjin Valley say that they clear out earlier and head towards their winter places closer to Khovd. Baggi told us in these last days that his young wife and their children would already be gone by the time we return. While most of their family headed to a more protected valley where there is tall grass to be harvest for the animals to eat all winter, Baggi and his wife were responsible this year for staying in the aimag with all of the children who would be attending school. For one season, he was everyone's surrogate father. He did not describe the task as a privilege or a chore. They are young and it was simply their turn to stay in the town.

Tolbo Nuur

After our ten days of riding were through, after we had made our way to the pristine Tolbo Nuur and back again, we followed the Mongolian families right back to Khovd, to the large meadow near the river, now home to hundreds of reassembled gers. small herds of livestock just beyond the river bank We delighted in our speed, our progress so much faster without the burden of animals and stoves and cupboards, beds and children piled high.

Myangad Soum

Within a few hours of returning to Khovd Aimag to bid farewell to my horse trip companions and plan my next move, I met the only Peace Corps volunteer stationed in the province. Emily was stationed out in Myangad Soum (a small village about 60 km from Khovd) where she had been working as English teacher at the village school for over a year. Since the countryside schools close down completely for the summer, Emily had taken a job in Khovd with an unenthusiastic NGO in order to escape the deserted little town. When I ran into her at the marketplace, she had just heard the day before that she was being relocated because of the treat of avian flu in the region. She was being moved back east to somewhere in Tov Aimaig and didn't seem too upset to be leaving the more remote stretches of the western provinces.

We went together to Myangad Soum anyway so I might see her hasha and so that she could say goodbye to the other teachers, take her ger apart and retrieve her winter clothes. It is my first time visiting a soum, the size and function of which is not entirely clear to me at first.

When we arrived, I see that the town is made up of a few tiny shops (selling little more than magi noodles, biscuits and beer), a few tiny concrete buildings including the bank, post-office with telephone, clinic and a crumbling concrete school house. On the other side of the row of shops is a neat grid of paths and fences laid out. These are the soum's hashas, or compounds, each owned by a family (under socialism, they were assigned according to family size and occupation) the sad modern relation of the countryside hasha, often no more than an invisible but enacted zone around the ger in which the family lived, worked and played. In the soum, this zone is outlined with a clear fence and gate, inside which animals can be kept, a storehouse for meat or coal and even a small cooking structure might be built in addition to the winterized ger.

However, while we are in town, most of the gers are missing and the town is deserted, a reminder that even in the pretence of settlement, everything in the countryside migrates and no family, if they had any option at all would stay in a soum during the summer. To her great dismay, we also found that Emily's ger was also missing, the location of her belongings were completely unknown to her, the majority of the teachers were gone to a /conference0 and the school closed for massive renovations. Classes were supposed to begin Monday, but there is no way anyone would be able to work in the building till nearly November from the looks of the things inside and the large group of Chinese construction workers ambling around in no particular hurry. We found one elderly teacher out behind the building painting a sea of tables and chairs sky blue while the hallways were gutted and the classroom floors were being jackhammered.

While Emily, only an hour away by jeep knew nothing of these developments, the countryside families have all heard by now and none returned to the soum. Instead of staying in Emily's home, we camped out in the old “hotel” (a bunch of empty rooms where some teachers are also camped out) and visited the director's wife who kept us fed and entertained. We did eventually find Emiliy's clothing and possessions. They had been packed away by the school director and stashed in a small storage shed behind a neighbor's ger. While Emily had left for Kovd, the ger, holding no attachment to the town or its missing occupant, had migrated with the director and several families to a countryside gathering and horserace some days away. Chances are good that that it would return close the time that construction on the school was almost completed. When Emily was long gone and filling another teaching position in Tov, some other young teacher surely would wake in the dead of winter to arduously light the coal stove before starting her day.

These small details remained with me for weeks after my short visit to Myangad Soum as a reminder of the slippery gradient between nomadic and settled, between countryside and town. I was learning to see the community and solidity within the disperse patterns of movement and occupation in the valleys of Khovd, but the temporary holding of ground in the soum was much more mysterious. I saw at Myangad, the town as an administrative entity, an exercise at close packing gers and animals into lots and herder children into classrooms. The school, for the most part, held that community together. The act of teaching and the economy around the school kept people in the soum. When that entity was closed, the children and their families, mostly young couples like Baggi and his wife looking after many more children than their own, were free to move. The soum was one stop of many in an extended migration ¯ a place to kept money (in the tiny bank), exchange goods (in the tiny market), make a phone call or settle some official business. Only very small children attended school in the soum, the older ones traveled much farther, possibly even out of their familiar valleys to the aimag or another province for high school. If they were to attend university, they might travel all the way to Ulaanbaatar. Eventually, in their own time, they would return, pack up their ger, so to speak and disappear for another festival in the countryside.