These photographs were taken on the dirt “roads” from Bayan-Uglii, in Western Mongolia, into the Tavan Bogd National park, a Unesco World Heritage site. The park sits on the border with Mongolia, China, and Russia. It is home to several nomadic families for parts of the year. During my trip, in early October 2014, only one family of five people remained in the park, as they were preparing for the move to their winter camp at the end of October.
The family lives in 3 gers (yurts). They are completely dependent on herding yaks and goats, and primarily live off goat meat, horse meat (their favorite), yak cheese, milk (and milk tea), butter, sourcream, and yoghurt (kefir), which they prepare on the floor of the ger, and cook on the ger stove fueled by dried yak shit. The family milks the yaks every morning and night and slaughters a goat almost every week. A small shed-sized pile of fuel (yak shit) sits a mere 10 feet from the front door of the ger, baking in the sun. The family moves the site of their gers 5 times per year to find fresh grass for their herds. The family’s primary source of income comes from selling goat pelts, which fetch 5000 tugriks (about $2.50), and sometimes up to 25,000 tugriks if they contain cashmere. In their spare time, the women weave ornate and exquisite tapestries which could easily be sold for quite a lot of money, but take up to one month to make: the family uses them to decorate the inside walls of the gers, so they chose not to sell them. Plus, the family only goes into town for supplies 3 times per year.
While I was there, the family slaughtered a goat. It was the first time 18 year-old Aydos had killed a goat. Aydos’s father first slaughtered a goat when he was 15 years old. Aydos’s older brother, Nurdjos, was going to slaughter the goat that day, but because he is married (and not a virgin), and he had not showered, he was considered unclean to do so. Nurdjos did, however, butcher the goat, in the dark, as his wife, Kulka, along with his mother, Student, prepared and cooked the animal inside the ger. They hung the excess meat on the inside wall of the ger while they cooked, where it stayed hanging overnight. Some fat from the goat is used to coat the horse bridles to keep them from freezing in the winter cold. The raw meat keeps in the cold temperature during the winter, but must be salted in the warmer months. The smell of raw meat hung in the room all night after we ate, as I slept on the linoleum floor of the ger, on top of three oriental rugs, and under the three heavy wool coats of Borsan. The only light in the room beamed down from a sole light bulb powered from a car battery that was fed from the slow trickle of the lone solar panel sitting on the ground outside the ger, next to goat pelts.
The head of the family, Borsan, is 54 years old. I first met him as he was coming down the mountain with his horse (with no name) and an army of goats. The family has approximately 500 goats and sheep, 8 milking yaks, and 20 to 30 horses. This time of year Borsan must travel farther from camp each day, as grass becomes scarce late in the season. Borsan told me he heard bears on the top of the mountain that day. Borsan carries binoculars and a gun to protect the sheep from wolves, which he last spotted only 100 meters from the ger two days earlier. Wolf packs have become a problem in the area for livestock this time of year, and the government offers 200 tugriks (about 10 cents) for each wolf killed during the winter. To keep wolves away from the goats at night, barbed wire surrounds the sod built goat enclosure between the gers, where the goats sleep piled on top of one another for warmth.
The next day Kulka and Nurdjos took the family motorcycle to the winter home, 20 kilometers outside of the national park, to do some work there and prepare it for the family’s arrival. The home is two structures made of mud and a covered mud enclosure for the animals by the bank of a river. 200 meters from the huts are 6000-11,000 year old petroglyphs carved into the large stones along the bank of the river. The petroglyphs depict ancient wild goat and deer, as well as men hunting with knives. Along the bank of the river we found a sheep carcass and a skull: nearby a burnt goat skull and ash from a fire between the winter camp and the petroglyphs. I couldn’t help but imagine this family I had just met, them staring up at the night stars by the bank of the river, with their bonfire blazing under a cooking goat, just as the people who carved the petroglyphs thousands of years ago must have stared at the same stars, from the same place, living the same life.