At a Kazakh Camp

Bayan Olgii district,

Mongolia

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.

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