Finally, our first day in Lapis Sky Ger Camp! We awoke to see what our ger looked like in daylight. It included two cots, a sink with river water dispenser, some shelving and hooks for our clothes, a table and a wood burning stove. The furniture was quite colorful. The door as usual faced south to protect from the cold of the winter wind. The cart-wheeled shaped opening at the top of the ger known as a toon was covered by an örkh which could be opened and closed via ropes from the ground. We opened ours so we could see given the ger lacked electricity.
Breakfast wasn’t scheduled until 9:30am as we needed to wait for the yak milk to come from our nomad neighbors. In the meantime, several activities are offered. I tried Pranayama for the first time beneath the cottonwood trees by the river. Two yoga oficionados and me…hmmm. I crossed my legs and my knees were supposed to touch the ground. That was a joke! I required rolled up yoga matts beneath my rear cheek bones as well as beneath both knees to simulate resting on the ground. I don’t know how my counterparts could sit with their feet in their crotch with their knees touching the ground. Even with practice, I’m not sure I could succeed at that. Anyway, we practiced a few breathing techniques, which I did backwards. By the second breathing exercise of the thirty-minute session my left leg was asleep and my hips and back were aching. Clearly, this was not the exercise for me, but at least I tried it.
After Pranayama, it was time for our photography walk. Our guide Tom Kelly is a National Geographic photographer which is quite impressive as that is tough to acquire. His son Liam, who was born and raised in Katmandu and now attends Prescott College, is quite an accomplished photographer as well. We walked with him to the neighbor nomads where we got to photography Ankha milking the yaks. The yaks are milked once a day, the goats and sheep twice a day, and the mares four times a day! Needless to say, the women are very busy in the summer and clearly have the technique down. I, on the other hand, gave it a try and managed to eek out a few dribbles. If it depended on me to deliver the yak milk for breakfast, we wouldn’t be eating today!
Eventually, it was breakfast time. A simple meal of bread, pancakes, oatmeal, and fermented mare’s milk (extra sour) yogurt was provided in buffet style. I’m so used to eating eggs and fresh fruit in the morning, that this breakfast of mostly carbs was a bit challenging to me, but it is not an easy feat to get any food to these camps. Regardless, we filled up our bellies and prepared for our first horse ride and assessment of our journey. Our group of tourists ranged from never having ridden a horse to professionals, so our experience ran the gamut.
Mongolian horses are small and compact compared to other breeds. They have a quick gait and are known to spook. The Mongol cowboys brought their horses over the hills from different camps for us to ride. When my handler Jagi led his horse from the hitching post to me to mount, I asked his name. My horse’s name was Mojo and it was the only horse of the entire group that had a name as Mongols don’t name their horses. Instead, they have 56 words for brown!
Feeling special, I wondered how I ended up being assigned the only horse with a name and I was curious to know how he earned it. There had to be an iconic story. Sarah, a staffer from Montana who came to manage the cowboys after being a guest on the trip seven years ago explained, Galen, Tom and Carroll’s younger son, came up with the name because he had a lot of energy. Somehow, I think there is more to the story than that, but they probably didn’t want to scare me.
After everyone mounted their horses which required a staff member or cowboy to stand by the horse so it took a while, we headed away from the camp through the beautiful green Valley of Teel. We stayed on flat terrain and mostly walked as we familiarized ourselves with the horses and vice versa. Getting back on a horse after a twenty-five year hiatus was fun. Mojo was responsive, though spent most of his time shaking his head and kicking at the atrocious flies. Fortunately, he didn’t spook ten-feet sideways at a patch of wool resting on the ground like Page’s horse did. Without “riding legs” which use completely different muscles than any other sport, I may have hit the dirt. Given Page still rides regularly, she remained seated!
Lunch came next and then a quick shower. I opted for an afternoon shower while it was sunny and warm as the evening air cools substantially as the sun goes down. Having said that, I think I will be showering sparingly as the make shift shower house with solar bags filled by heated river was crawling with earwigs. While bugs don’t bother me much, sitting my bare butt on an earwig or having them drop onto my head didn’t appeal to me.
Our second ride took us across the Tamir River which runs by camp, through the valley, across the river again, and up and down a hill before we returned to camp. We got to go a little faster…a little trotting and a select few galloped up one hill. At the top of the hill was a deer stone believed to be erected by nomads around 1000 BC. Our rides were about two hours each across simple terrain which will become more demanding each day.
Upon our return, we tried out our archery skills which were rather lacking! We used an off balanced, man-made bow and drew the arrow back on the outside as the Mongls do as it is quicker to load the arrow this way while on horseback. The arrows rarely flew straight, but eventually, the few of us that tried our hand, finally hit the target. Our success rate was about one in ten attempts.
From archery, we entered the dining ger and met with Badambazar and Doljin, grandparents who once lived as nomads, but now live in town. We discussed the life of nomad with them. Nomads tend to move about four times a year in order to feed their herds which rely on the natural grass. They pack up their ger to move to their summer, spring and fall camps and settle into a more stable structure with their ger for the winter.
Most nomads raise yaks, goats, sheep and horses. Owning diverse herds of lifestock ensure the nomads won’t suffer a complete misfortune should their animals succumb to a hard winter known as a zud which cause animals to starve to death from the inability to graze. Today, a nomad is considered successful by the number of animals in their herd…the benchmark is 1,000. This, however, is tough on the land from which the animals live, and some believe it might be better to own less, but healthier herds.
Most nomads have several children at a young age. Badambazar and Doljin had eight! The kids go to boarding school during the week and come home on the weekend, weather permitting. Interestingly, the animal herds go to the youngest child rather than the oldest, and the herd is not split up among the children. As such, the youngest stays a nomad while many of the other children will move to the city in search of better opportunities. Because men must attend to the herds, women tend to hold the skilled jobs in the city.
We had a nice conversation with them, though I’m sure they sat wondering about our terrible ger etiquette. Virtually everyone sat with their legs crossed…a no no! Anyway, it was finally dinner time and we enjoyed great chicken and pineapple along with several sides. Little did we know how hard it was to get chicken. It is too cold in the winters for chicken in Mongolia, so they are imported from China!
After diiner, Liam’s girlfriend, Emma who is Irish, played Irish tunes on the ukulele and sang beautifully. She even belted out a Britney Spears’ song. What fun! Not only is she a talented musician, she was the resident massage therapist for the trip and made a mean muesli. The Irish really know their muesli…it was some of my favorite when I visited Ireland. It was a nice day in the countryside. ETB