At a Kazakh Camp

Bayan Olgii district,


July 18, 2005

Andrei’s parents have passed away and he has two older sisters who live in Kazakhstan. One of his wives lives in Ulan Bator. And it is the other wife and two daughters who share his ger here, looking after their twenty-four goats. The younger daughter, Cleobik is an infant who lies in her crib mostly. It was later that I saw the state of her left arm and shoulder. I was horrified! She had been crawling and had upset hot tea on herself and got burnt said his wife. My stomach clenched every time I looked at the little thing. She lies uncomplaining in her crib swaddled in cloth. I asked about treatment and they assured me that the baby had been taken to the doctor in Olgii and was given medication; that she would recover. I did what little I could but wish I could help more. They seem to take it in their stride though.

Nearby are other Kazakh gers, some of them friends, some extended family. I have pitched my tent near the river a little distant from theirs and have had a steady stream of visitors. My camping stove is deemed a marvel and the hot chocolate seems to be a big hit. But they turned up their collective noses at my instant noodles. I in turn have been cordially invited their gers for tea. This is not the salted and buttered tea of the Mongols and Tibetans, but normal tea with milk and a little sugar that they call “shai”. For some reason they firmly believe I am a photographer and it is my job. Why else would this lone woman be wandering around in these parts in such an odd fashion? They come enmasse and whether I like it or not, I have to get out of the tent armed with my camera. They scurry around, arranging themselves in groups and pose. I simply click.

The Kazakhs, like their nomad cousins the Mongols, live in gers but these are not quite the same. Most Kazakh families have a pair of gers – one for living and sleeping and a smaller one used as a kitchen. A Kazakh ger looks identical to a Mongol one from the outside but it is larger by a meter or more in diameter. The same orange poles fit into the circular wheel at the top. Here too are the low tables painted a bright orange and the chests with motifs in white, red, blue and gold. The collapsible walls are covered in the same felt and canvas as in Mongol gers. But that is where the similarity ends. The inside walls here are covered with tapestry in these gers – large rectangles of fabric with every inch covered with intricate embroidery done painstakingly by hand. The cushions, pillows, bed covers and floor mats too are embroidered in a distinctive pattern. An incredible amount of work that must take months to complete, they are dazzling. Nothing goes unadorned. Even the curtains are embroidered in geometric patterns of orange, blue, yellow and red. In the korshau, in the stylized motifs and designs I see the beginnings of central Asia.

I will walk on today and stopped at Andrei’s ger to say goodbye. The entire time I have camped here, he has been poring over the little dictionary that Entleg had given me in Ulan Bator. He is delighted to have it as a gift and grins broadly. His wife offers me shai and some fried dough with fresh cream. We sip tea, chat and before I leave, she turns and takes one of the tapestries off the wall and hands it to me. Andrei grins and nods emphatically.

 “Yes, yes” he says. “It is gift for you. You take home”.

So I did and have it still.

Postscript: Sometimes there are travel hazards specific to some countries and in Mongolia it is a peculiar one. There is a particular smell – a cross between rancid butter, sour milk and boiled wool that penetrates into clothes and contents of backpacks. The longer one spends in Mongolia, the more pervasive it is and the harder it is to get rid of. That embroidered piece of cloth perfumed my backpack and all its contents for the rest of my trip and continued to do so upon returning home. Despite my best efforts, it took ages to get it past the point of triggering an automatic gag reflex. But finally having succeeded,  the fabric has since been re-incarnated as a journal cover among other things.


I Have Two Wives But I Can Marry You

Somewhere near Bayan Olgii,


July 15, 2005

Bayan Olgii province in the extreme west of Mongolia seems like land that time forgot. It is remarkable even in a country like Mongolia that is already remarkable for its vast stretches of open land in this day and age. With the looming Altai Mountains and rolling pasture lands as far as eye can see, it is a gem. Other than Khovd and Oligii, both oversized villages rather than towns, there are no permanent habitations of any sort. From time to time, mostly in the distance I see round white gers.

This area is populated largely by Kazakh nomads and it is their gers that dot the landscape. Smaller dots are the sheep that graze on these undulating lands. Hunting is still done with eagles in this part of the world I am told but it is not quite hunting season yet. Once or twice I did see eagles soaring high overhead. I have been wandering in an aimless fashion, walking and camping each night. The days have mostly been brilliant under cloudless blue skies and the nights brisk enough that I burrowed into the sleeping bag mummified in layers of clothing. Sometimes I saw some locals out for a picnic but they were only out for the day.

Walking south today, past the bridge I was heading to a spot near the river, far enough from the gers to avoid any unwanted and harrowing investigation by their wolf-like mastiffs. It was then that I heard the sputtering sound of a motorbike behind me.

“Sain bainu” I heard someone yell behind me.

“Sain bainu” I replied stopping to wave and then kept walking.

A young man soon appeared on my left and getting off his motorbike started walking, pushing his bike, keeping pace with me. The interrogation began with the usual questions. We spoke in a mixture of English and Mongolian with vigorous miming thrown in for good measure.

“Where are you going?” he asked.

“Over there” I replied waving in a general direction of the river.

“Oh, my ger is there also. You can stay in my ger” he said.

I thanked him but said I had my own tent.

He digested that for a minute and came to the conclusion that my backpack must be heavy. “The river is far but I can help you” he said, solicitously offering to bring me a horse to ride.

“I don’t want a horse” I replied. I had learned the hard way that horse-riding is a skill I neither have nor particularly want to have.

“Oh” he said mulling it over. “We have no camels” he said sounding crestfallen “but you can ride on my motorbike”.

I thanked him and declined. We kept walking.

The interrogation followed the usual pattern – how old was I? Did I have children? Did I have a husband? I could see the shock on his face when I replied. No husband at my age was unheard of and no doubt a stigma. I could almost see the gears turning in his head as he frowned over the problem.

A couple of minutes later he stopped trundling his motorbike, turned to me and said

“I have two wives, but I can marry you” desperately trying to save me from the ignominy of being unmarried. He wore an expression of earnestness. I declined as gently as I could trying to keep a straight face. He grunted acceptance, not particularly put out but was clearly still thinking of other options. We walked on. A couple of minutes later he again stopped and turned to me. He pointed to the west and asked

“See those mountains there? There is Kazakhstan and my cousin is there. He is not married” he said, adding “He can marry you”.

Before I could think of any response, he continued “It is not far from here, only three days by walk”. Less by motorbike”. And added hopefully “Yes? You come with me?”

We walked on and talked of sheep and goats and winter. Every so often he would offer some other hapless friend or cousin as a potential groom. By the time I had declined his offers and hastily put a stop to any other inventive offers, we had exchanged names and he proceeded to tell me about his family. Andrei had eventually nagged me into riding pillion – not an easy feat with a fully loaded backpack on my back! But we arrived without any mishaps at the camp. We had reached a compromise; I was still going to pitch my tent but close to their camp.