First we set in place the door, central pillars and accordion-style walls, then wrap them and the roof in layers of sheep’s felt and canvas. Inside, we place two single beds, a chest of drawers and a small wood burning stove for warmth – a reminder of how little we really need in life, and of the excesses of our own lives back home.
The result is simple and cosy, and can all be packed back up again on a yak’s back when the icy winds move in and the family shift to their winter camp.
When we’re done, our group splinters. Some head off to help the men chop wood, while others (possibly just me) slink off with a cuppa to soak up the valley’s beauty and avoid further hard labour. And what beauty it is! The valley is an infinity of greens, set off by a sky of sharp blue and dotted with larch trees, yaks and wild horses. A few feathers of clouds, a burbling brook snaking around the perimeter, the family’s two tiny children toddling about in the distance. If God created anything more lovely, he kept it for himself.
After a surprisingly comfortable sleep in my ger, the following day begins with helping the heavily pregnant mother corral the family’s horses for milking. Having little to no experience with horses – in a country that’s home to 3.4 million of them, a greater number than the actual population, and some of the most skilful horsemen in the world – I find myself frantically scissoring to the left, then to the right and back again, arms outstretched, having no impact on the movement of the steeds whatsoever and feeling rather like a failure. Especially as I watch the heavily pregnant mother manage to corral them all, then milk them all, single handedly.
But I don’t have time to indulge my feelings of inadequacy, as I’m quickly shuffled into one of the gers to help make vodka out of yak’s milk. Yes, that’s what I said: to help make vodka out of yak’s milk. The milking of the yak itself has (mercifully, given my lack of skills with the horses), already been done, so for the next couple of hours I mostly sit back and observe the rather tedious distilling process. I won’t bore you with the details – suffice it to say, the process involves two silver bowls, a wooden stove, some boiling and some steaming, all of which help to create the finished product. It’s warm, slightly cheesy and actually quite repulsive. But it is alcoholic and so I drink it with gusto.
Luckily really, because just then we’re ushered outside to see a lovely glossy goat – indeed the very goat I had spent half an hour playing with in the morning – being slaughtered. I watch, wide-eyed and taking increasingly deep slugs of my yak vodka, as two thick-set Mongolian men with arms the size of tree trunks slit the creature’s throat. Their rough hands slide under the animal’s skin, wiggling it free from the flesh… at which point I can take no more and scurry back into the yak vodka-making ger.
This is not, however, the last time we see the poor creature. Later in the afternoon we see its entrails and skin slung up in one of the other gers. Later still, we see its dismembered head staring up at us from next to one of the ger’s doorways. And at dinner there it is again, well chunks of it anyway, in our stew. By this point though, we’ve moved past considering it barbaric, and raise our glasses in praise of the sustainable way the nomads have used the whole beast, nose to tail, to ensure none of it has gone to waste.
It shows, we all agree, that they see themselves as just one species in the greater web of life – rather than the king of it all.
Later that evening we sit around a bonfire playing games, drinking more yak vodka and singing folk songs with the family under a star-soaked sky. When we leave following morning, we leave feeling completely uplifted by the sense of happiness and tranquility that permeates everything in our nomadic hosts’ lives. And really, what gauge of a life is there other than that simple ability to be happy?
The writer travelled courtesy of FRUI photography holidays.