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Tsagaan Sar or not, daily life continues at the rhythm of winter and even if every single day begins and ends up the same way, it does not mean that they do not come with their lot of surprises. Here is what life in a yurt looks like.

The piercing screams of Batchimeg and Barougon, the youngest kids, wake me up and end in the first cries of the day. Luckily for my ears holidays are soon over and among the four children living here, only Batchimeg, the youngest one, will stay. Wake up will become quieter.

It is already warm in the yurt. Mou-Gelish, my hostess, woke up before everyone and started the fire; a short but thankless task as indoor temperature is usually lower than –20°C. A quick breakfast follows: rancid-butter-taste biscuits and a succession of yak milk tea cups. Then we walk to the stables for the daily morning routine which consists in milking yaks[1] and cleaning up the frozen cow pats, these big brown piles, usually frozen and hard as a rock – usually… Quite an easy task if we do not take into account temperature and wind.

Once the soil is clean and milk buckets are full, it’s time to go back to the yurt. There, sitting by the warm stove, I get prepared for the next step by swallowing as much biscuits and hot tea as I can before noon. It is kind of a mandatory preparation before going for the next four to five hours to the steppe along with a herd of two hundred sheep and goats. Long story short, I am the family’s trainee herder and they make sure I will not starve nor freeze to death during the trip.

As time passes, I tend to like these solitary moments with my animals more and more. At first, I was a bit apprehensive: What if I am not able to bring them back? What if the wolf wandering in this area shows up? What if I get lost? But these fears quickly vanish. Then a feeling of well-being and inner peace sets in. Hours pass by as I contemplate the steppe, listen to the crunchy sound of the frozen soil under cattle steps, or watch birds of prey fluttering about to find their dinner. So few things happen but so much details, insignificant at first sight, are waiting for a little bit of attention to unveil. I need a little bit of time to understand this but as soon as I begin to grasp nature’s language, a brand new world opens up, in all its slowness.

Fed by this slowness I can find myself dreaming before waking up in a jolt to catch the ovines again, joyously scattering in a thick grove. From then on, with a stick in the hand, I start to scream and run after them in order to group them back together. But their stupidity is not only a legend and a lot of energy is necessary to succeed. And this is nothing compared to what it needs to separate two herds from each other when the lonesomeness of these wanderings is broken by another herder and his livestock.

Eventually, animals are brought back around the farm. Now comes the time, again, to get warm by the stove with a hot tea cup. A simple but appreciated feeling after having been mistreated by Mongolian winter harshness. In the meantime Honda, my host, came back with a stock of ice from the river. One advantage of the winter is that water is available in solid form, meaning that it is easy to carry with the help of a yak.

When night falls, it is time to bring back sheep and goats into their sheepfold. Then, one by one, we have to catch the youngest ones and shelter them in our yurt. These young fluffy creatures have not had enough time to fatten up enough, so they spend the night with us in order to survive the cold. Eventually we push the young yaks into the stable, a demanding task as they do not want to leave their mother.

The workday comes to an end. The only neighbor we have comes to visit us, sometimes along with his father. No need to knock on the door. The custom here is to enter as if you were at home and sit. With a tea cup in our hands we watch Sotchi olympic games on the old black and white TV powered by a car battery – which is charged by the sun. “Wooooaaa!”; between two puffs of tobacco, Honda is amazed like a kid by the ski jumpers. Then we switch channel. A western swimsuit show; “Bi ekhner”, I explain them with my rudimentary Mongolian knowledge that this wonderful creature is my wife. Laughs. The little Batchimeg then comes to me and ask if I can draw something on her notebook… In short, we are having good times while waiting for the boiled meat to be ready.

A shared plate is set up. Sitting on little wooden stools or on the ground, everyone picks a meat peace and scrape the bone with their knife until nothing eatable is left. Tonight we eat yak. Tomorrow, probably sheep or goat… Maybe with some dough. Meat and wheat are the main ingredients for every meal. In the countryside, fruits and vegetables are not the norm.

Night progresses peacefully. It is soon time to deploy the heavy woolen blankets that will keep us warm in this freezing night enlightened by the stars. I am exhausted but my mind is in peace, I fall asleep in a heap.

  1. English dictionary doesn’t have a translation for yak females, which are supposed to be called nak or dri.  ↩

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