It really is endless. When I was 11 years old Esther Hautzig’s novel, ‘The Endless Steppe’, left a powerful impression on me. I remember being struck by this place that a young Esther and her Polish family were exiled to. I knew that life there was ridiculously hard and I knew I shouldn’t like it, but the atmosphere created by the winds, the open spaces, the unimaginable cold, the vastness of skies, winter and hills left me not feeling like she had landed in hell, but somewhere absolutely worthy of great awe, somewhere quite magical, albeit difficult to survive in. I don’t really remember what happened to Esther, but I do remember the atmosphere this beautiful book painted for me of the wild and never-ending steppe.
We spent the last couple of weeks somewhere near the Russian border northeast of Ulaanbaatar and I was taken straight back to my childhood and this book. I climbed many rounded hills chasing their subtle tops trying to get a glimpse of what lay beyond. And, every time, the view consisted of more similar hills stretching far far into the distance each and every direction I looked. The beautiful golden hills (not yet green despite being so far into May), were interspersed only by golden valleys. They rolled on and on and on under a seemingly endless light. Still light at 10pm and light again by 5, the world seemed vastly the same. The steppe was indeed endless.
Spending two weeks on the steppe was something incredibly special. Sometimes it was awful. I was regularly colder than I ever remember feeling (lucky it wasn’t winter), and I was reminded repetitively just how strong and icy a wind could blow. Trying to peel potatoes (potatoes in this climate are notoriously frozen) with ice pellets falling and a wind managing to cut through my three woollen layers, a wind-proof northface jacket, plus my puffiest down jacket, was a low point.
It was also hard to shake my very western desire to have a sense of what was happening next in a day, or small things like where or when we would sleep, eat or find shelter. I am used to planning something like a work trip around these necessities. E.g. have a plan beforehand about how food would be accessed and where the group might sleep. Mongolians don’t seem to do this. These are kind of givens that will probably eventually happen if somebody gets around to saying something about it, or perhaps not, but that doesn’t really matter. Three meals a day definitely does not always happen and shelter is definitely a secondary thing, sleep completely optional.
I had headed off on this trip with Dave who had been invited to help teach some Mongolian students how to catch and band birds that were migrating from somewhere warmer down in southern Asia up to northern Russia to breed for the summer. This was to be a two week training experience but plans changed everyday (as is normal here) and it was almost a week after leaving UB that we got to the site where Dave was to do this training.
The plan for the first night seemed sensible. We left UB with a plan to drive to where the base camp was going to be, the site of Mongolia’s most dense population of breeding cranes (much to Dave’s delight). We got there just as dusk was falling. It was stunning.
The moon was rising large over the hills…
… and so it was time to work out where to put the shipping container. The people we were travelling with, seven Mongolian scientists (some students), they were going to be out here for a couple of months and so had organised a shipping container to make the journey out here containing the pieces to make three gers, solar power, stoves, sinks, the works. Eventually, by about 11pm, a site was chosen (the same spot as last year) atop a lovely rounded hill with 360 degree views and the container was lowered.
I wasn’t sure what would happen next, but imagined it would be either setting up a ger to sleep in (in which case it would be a really really late night) or setting up tents or cooking dinner and then doing such things. Dave and I decided to get ahead of the game and set up our tent. Then, after it was set up, we were informed it was time to go to find a stable to sleep in. We didn’t head to a stable, but walked into a family’s ger. One member was fast asleep. Two kids were sitting up in bed and a woman began cooking food for us. This is why food does not seem to be something you have to think ahead about out here.
For me, I felt so far from anywhere with food. There were no shops for hours, no restaurants. Yet, (yes, very naively) I had not factored in the cultural way here, where it is completely polite and acceptable to just walk into any ger at any hour and get fed. I had also kind of overlooked that ‘food’ was all around me. The landscape was covered in it, mooing, neighing, baaing, crying, running, walking, food. In fact, the two weeks were an incredibly humbling and insightful experience into how almost everything everyone here needed to survive out on the steppe was already right here (details to come).
Eventually bed seemed to fit into the schedule and Dave and I skipped the barn and went back to our tent for a cold night but an incredibly beautiful morning. I love waking up in a tent.
I imagined, again foolishly, that the first thing on the agenda would be to set up camp so that that night we had somewhere to cook, everyone had somewhere to sleep and the science that everyone had come to do could begin in some kind of comfort. But no. Building a fence somewhere past the river we could see in the distance was the first priority.
The next two days were the steppe of Esther’s novel. The wind was frigid. Ice pellets regularly fell. The crane took the only shelter. Hands froze. It was one of those times when I felt pleased at being lumped into a common gender stereotyped role – where woman aren’t so good at digging holes and much better at cooking. At about 3pm after many hours standing around ‘helping’ fence build, Tuushuu, a super clever scientist and good cook and only other female in the gang, and I were sent to a distant ger to prepare some food. Again, once we arrived, we just walked straight in and began to cook. This time we had bought our own rice, potatoes and carrots but informed the owner of the ger, a woman and her son, that we had no meat. A meal is impossible without meat so they provided the meat and we set up kitchen.
I was so happy to walk into that ger and help cook. The wind howled though the plastic where the chimney sticks out the top (you’ll note their are no photos outside of these days – too cold) and we sat inside, made a fire and prepared the food.
I never thought I would spend an afternoon helping to pound dried meat off a bone. I think it was a cow. Nor would I imagine that I would have enjoyed it. The fire was warm, company was good. I had something to do.
It wasn’t until dark that all the men came back for their meal. The wind was still howling and everybody was freezing and so it was decided we better just sleep here. The mother and her son seemed unbothered by suddenly having 9 guests from Ulaanbaatar. We curled up on the floor and slept.
We spent two nights with this family and as long as the fire was going and I did not need to help fence build, I was happy.