Upwardly mobile in a true blue heaven

Dominic Hamilton meets the Mongolian nomads who aspire to the finer things in life

If the precursor of the dog-on-a-string vagabond crusty is the nomad, then the prototype of the hippie bus is the nomad's tent, which in Mongolia is called a
ger. In the times of Chinggis (formerly known as Genghis) Khan, unifier of "dwellers in felt-walled tents",
gers were carried on wheeled platforms and pulled by teams of oxen. Today, they are firmly set in the ground. Step into a
ger and you enter a Tardis - but not just any old Tardis.

If the precursor of the dog-on-a-string vagabond crusty is the nomad, then the prototype of the hippie bus is the nomad's tent, which in Mongolia is called a ger. In the times of Chinggis (formerly known as Genghis) Khan, unifier of "dwellers in felt-walled tents", gers were carried on wheeled platforms and pulled by teams of oxen. Today, they are firmly set in the ground. Step into a ger and you enter a Tardis - but not just any old Tardis.

The felt and canvas-covered skeleton of the ger feels like a womb. It envelops you in a muffled embrace, sheathing you from the steppe's Siberian winters and the searing summer sun. Its profile punctures the mythically unending, undulating plains of this lost country. Turned on its side, it even looks like a pregnant belly. There are no windows, only a dwarf door, and a cartwheel-sized opening in the roof, the tonoo. Its two supporting posts symbolise a link with heaven. Assembled in less than three hours, and able to rebuff the buran, the white winds of winter that course the plains of Central Asia, this perfect tent offers a lesson in design to sodden New Age festival-goers in Britain.

In fact, today's travellers would find much to learn from the inhabitants of this vast, underpopulated land. Their self-reliance and animal husbandry are legendary. I saw little boys as young as three riding horses with their older brothers.

Living in scattered family units, nomads migrate with the seasons; their language boasts no fewer than 40 words for "pasture". They move on cyclical journeys determined by the elements, and believe that ploughing and planting defile the earth spirit. When the Soviets set about collectivising farms in the 1930s, many fiercely independent herdsmen chose to slaughter their animals rather than hand them over to the state. Now, a decade since the fall of Communism, the nomads are coming to terms with the market economy.

In the dim penumbra, a shiny kettle wheezes on a battered stove. My hostess, Ayurza, on the Zimmer side of 70, squats on a small chair. She counts the names of her grandchildren on her fingers, looking up to the tonoo now and again for inspiration. "Sixteen," she finally concludes with a chuckle.

A good number of her clan smile out from the two large photo frames that take pride of place on the dresser to my left. Next to them lies an array of Buddhist paraphernalia. Around the wooden trellis walls are reins and bridles, household implements, the odd piece of clothing and a plastic pink toothbrush holder. Everything wooden is painted in garish orange, blue, red, pink and green. The tent was a wedding present from Ayurza's brother. Its paint has faded and worn as, I imagine, has her love for her husband. But it's still standing, 60 years on.

I ask Ayurza about the new Russian van parked outside, curious to discover how a family of herders living in the wilds of the Gobi can afford such a luxury. "We sell our cashmere wool in the capital," she tells my interpreter. "The Chinese buy it and prices are good. Every family around here wants a vehicle. We used to have a motorbike, but our son wanted the van. We only use it when we move house."

I'd spotted the son polishing the bodywork and inspecting the motor earlier, a manual in hand. "And what did you use to transport your things before?" I ask. "Camels. They only need grass. That thing," she waves in the direction of the door, "needs petrol, and that's expensive out here." The price is almost double that in the capital, and the nearest pump is four hours' rump-numbing drive away.

Ayurza and her husband Toto, despite their age and one of the harshest winters on record, are upwardly mobile nomads. They own a total of 800 animals: camels, cows, sheep, goats and horses. They sell around 100 sheep in Ulan Bator every year, and about 200 kilos of wool. One family, she says with a touch of jealousy, sells 500 kilos.

That might be the family I met another day. Outside their ger a satellite dish stood guard with a growling dog. The herdsmen no doubt sit round in the evenings for the weekly beaming of Baywatch. Considering they live 700 miles from the nearest beach, you have to wonder what they make of California's finest. Altogether more confusing must be the sky that has descended to earth: the sea.

Mongolia is known as the Land of Blue Heaven. Blue is its most sacred colour. On every dirt track (asphalt is as rare as lettuce), and from every hill top, stone pyramids topped with blue scarves known as hadag and littered with shattered vodka bottles appease local spirits and bring good luck for the road. To nomads of the steppe, the sea must seem like the skies of the mythical Buddhist kingdom of Shambala.

On the way to the great lake of Khovsgol in the north, we were invited to a farm for the day. We rode horses across the steppe. Swathes of purple willow herb echoed the smoky greys of the distant mountain ranges. Herds of tan horses and coveys of white gers punctuated the horizons. Black and white sheep and goats moved across the plain like speeded-up chess pieces. We attempted to laugh off the pain of riding with only a thin mat between us and the bony backs of the pony-sized animals.

Inside, we were invited to sit on nursery-size stools, then loaded with dumplings and urged to drink large amounts of airag, which was served in pot-bellied china bowls. Airag is to the Mongolians what tea and biscuits are to English country parsons. It is mildly alcoholic fermented mare's milk, and tastes sour and fizzy. Mongolians endure their frostbitten winter months only with the promise of airag by the vat in the summer.

The proceedings, more ceremonies, were supervised by an old man, the local shaman. As he beckoned us into his log cabin, he took off his hat to reveal a shaven, cratered scalp. His eyes were a piercing blend of blue and green set into an owlish face. As the airag flowed, his smile and chuckle came more readily. The hosts were a handsome family, bar one son-in-law, who looked like his face had been left to pickle in airag for the last decade. He wiped the white residue from his moustache with the back of a filthy, brawny hand. The more we drank, the more his piggy eyes sank into the bulbous orb of his face.

After the bowls of airag, which required two hands to support them, came the vodka, this time drunk from a single sherry glass. The old man first poured a libation, then dipped two fingers into it and doused the ceiling a few times with the clear liquid. Finally he sat down in front of us and proceeded to offer us each a shot. You're not allowed to refuse, though you can fake it. However, you're still expected to go through the motions - three times, for luck.

Like their landscapes, history, horse-riding and bus journeys, Mongolians' drinking sessions are epic. Their euphemism for relieving oneself is "to go and see a horse". Airag, we soon discovered, goes straight through you, and finding cover on the steppe is far from easy, with not a tree for miles around. But it beats having to queue up for a boggy latrine at Glastonbury.

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