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Chan Cham Perou

Mongolia, in the footsteps of the last nomads - The pale blue sky, the desert, the taiga, the steppe… A space without limits, where the view is lost in the remote communion between the land and the sky. Then, in the limpid light of Central Asia, the sound of a gallop… Supple and proud on their small horses, they pass, they are just fleeting passengers of the land and sons of the wind, Genghis Khan’s heirs: the Mongolian riders…

At the confines of the confines, there is a land swept by the winds, where we can only hear the divine breath of nature - an extreme nature that tolerates almost only the ephemeral presence of the last nomads.

The yurt or Ger : full of symbols

 In between seasons when the nomad goes in search of new green pastures for his herd is when we have a better chance of meeting the long lines of chariots that seem almost out of the Middle Ages. Pulled by yaks, they carry yurts, kitchen utensils, wooden trunks filled with the precious belongings of the family. Time has come for families, like the Baadei family, to move in order to reach the high prairies and put up their yurts. We are at the end of the winter and the Baadei family just left their winter site to reach the huge summer pastures near the Everkhangai River.

Of course, the nomad only carries useful things! His true richness is to be able to move with the wind. His liberty is found in the fleeting of a everlasting movement, providing a taste of eternity.

On the chosen site, the whole family begins to put up the two yurts: first the one belonging to the grandfather. Round in form to better hold out against the wind, the yurt is simply placed on the ground. Two central columns support the wooden crown, the toono, to which will be fixed the painted roof poles. They symbolize the link between the earth and the sky, the cohesion of the family living in it and the past-present-future axis of their life.

The toono, at the summit, faces the sky. About sixty poles will be mounted between the self-supporting wood frame and the circular wall. One or a few layers of felt will be added on the yurt, followed by one last canvas. The weight of the covers keeps the structure under compression. Straps are attached to the jamb of the unique door, which always faces the South.

The western part, at the left of the door, is reserved for men, children and masculine objects: saddles, harnesses, the horse sweat scraper. The eastern part is the women’s territory: stacks, earthenware, trunks, blankets. The western part is under the protection of the sky and the women’ side under the protection of the sun. The place of honor for guests and elders is always at the opposite of the door on the north wall. It is where I was generally invited to sit and sleep.

The fireplace, always at the center of the yurt, symbolizes the house of the spirits. Many taboos are attached to it. A lack of respect for those taboos would be an insult to the master of the house.

The man and the animal

Animals – at first the eagle and the horse – occupy an essential place in the spiritual universe of the nomads. They represent the initial form of the spirit of the man, the ancestor of the ancestors. After death, every human being becomes a bird to better fly to infinite heaven. The Mongolians’ most revered animal is without doubt the horse, which allows him to cross the steppes at the wind’s speed. The horse is everything for the Mongolian: much more than a simple mount, it is his reason to live. We see children learning to ride before they know how to walk!

The horseman must gallop many times a day, many kilometers in the steppe to reach the best pastures. He almost always carries the urga, a sort of lasso tied to the end of a long rod; he uses it to catch any animal attempting to move away from the herd.

The direction of the Mongol horseman is the same as the one his herd seems to follow: ignoring all barriers to liberty… the absence of limits. Images of those horsemen who, morning and evening, dart forth in search of their herds only leaves ephemeral traces. “When the Mongol is separated from his horse he has nothing left but death,” Alten Guerrel tells me. Free and independent just like his horses…

The cattle bring to the family almost everything it needs: meat and milk to eat, wool for clothes and for the felt of the yurt, and argol to heat the yurt. Any surplus, mostly the wool and sometimes the milk, are sold at the cooperative, which in turn trades them in the small urban centers of the region.

Altenguerrel, his family and a treat

We are invited to join the Altenguerrel family in the province of Khovsgol, the family of our driver Marla’s brother-in-law.

As we reach the northern part of the country, conifers are more present and ovoo as well. Ovoo are pyramids of stones, more or less imposing, built by travelers and the pilgrims, topped with a blue fabric symbolizing the spirit of the sky, tengri.

The ovoo is also a sacred site representing a link with the world of the spirits. It is always located at the summit of a mountain, at the entrance of a pass, at the crossing of two roads or near the banks of a lake.

This mound of stones and branches shelters the ancestors’ spirits. A traveler must go around the ovoo 3 times and throw in 3 stones that were picked up on his way. He can also hang up a blue silk scarf as an offering. The oovo also symbolizes the cosmic axis, the vertical link between the earth and the sky.

Altenguerrel and his wife Tuya pitched the two yurts of the little family on a hill overlooking a small lake. They have two daughters, Naran Gur, 9 years old and Narmanda, 6.

At daybreak, Altenguerret mounts his horse and gallops to reach his herd. At the same time, Tuya gathers the cows for the first milking. This first morning milking is very important and it is with a gracious gesture that a few droplets are tossed toward the four points of the compass in an offering to the spirits for the milking, so that in the new day they won’t forget to watch over the family and the animals.

In the family yurt, Maerten, the grandmother, has now joined the family for the summer season, mostly to take care of the newborn. It is a very busy period for Altenguerret and Tuya and the help of the grandmother is very precious.

The day begins with tea served with salted milk, which will be followed by a more rounded meal later on. Under the yurt, everyone is busy preparing the meal. Narmanda has already acquired the know-how of the adults to knead the dough that will be cooked in the broth where tripes are simmering. This dough will then be used to prepare homemade pasta. The tripes, rinsed under clear water, are stuffed with kidneys, liver and the minced heart, blood and fat, seasoned with herbs, garlic and wild onions. A real treat for the family and its guests!

With the sunset comes the second milking, while every member of the family starts looking for the rest of the herd to bring it close to the yurt.

The shaman is watching over

Gamba, a friend of Marla, takes us to the shaman, one of the most renowned and respected in the region. For a long time, shamanism has been threatened by the expansion of Buddhism and was almost eradicated by the bureaucrats of the socialist era. Nonetheless, it survived and we even see a rebirth, kept alive in the secret of those strange relations with the invisible worlds of the spirits.

The man is affable and welcoming; he tells us how he discovered as a child that he had the qualities to become a shaman. “Shamanism has existed for a long time,” he tells us. “It was the only religion in the world, until the Genghis Khan era. We are proud to perpetuate it today. We can tell the good Spirits from the bad ones! The shaman to kill an evil person or to separate lovers can call the ‘hard’ Spirits. On the contrary, ‘soft’ Spirits act as parents and always give good advice.”

“Parents of a future shaman must entrust their child to a master,” he explains to us. “For three times, three days, the master calls the Spirits to possess him. It was him, the master, who was calling, I was not yet conscious of those things… and all of a sudden, the spirit possessed me and I acquired the rites.”

It is always at nightfall in the privacy of the dakhat yurt or the tsaatan tipi that the shaman, assisted by a son or wife, silently puts on his felt boots and his heavy coat, covered with offering-scarves, then hides his face under the börtö, a strange mask surmounted by an eagle feather.

The düunger, the shaman’ drum, is used to call the Spirits. “The sky, the mountains, spirits of the nature, give me the force…” Spirits are called, one after another, and are supposed to gather around the shaman and possess him in turn.

The songs of the shaman and the movements of the sacred drum impose a rhythm that accelerates little by little. All of sudden, the shaman curves his spine as the Spirit possesses him. Helpers must support him to avoid any injury. The Spirit talks in an ancient language unknown to the audience. The shaman’s spouse is the only one able to understand and translate the words of the spirits taking turns in the body of the possessed man. For certain people, as was the case for our driver Marla, revelations were stunning…

Water circulates between people as a life offering. At moments, the shaman shouts as an animal, as a bird, with the so recognizable sound of the cuckoo. It seems to indicate the moment when a Spirit replaces another one in the body and soul of the man, or the moment when they all leave his body, giving it back to its legitimate owner.

After the liberation of the shaman, offerings are dropped in the fireplace, a sacred house of the spirits.

Galloping to the Naadam

In Khovsghol province, where Altenguerrel’s family lives, the small administrative center of Tossontsenguel is getting ready to celebrate Naadam.

Today, apart from celebrating the Day of the Revolution and the beginning of the summer, the Naadam celebrates other anniversaries such as the one of Genghis Khan and the 13th Century Mongol Era. It is the occasion for the nomads to celebrate through three main competitions: archery, wrestling and horse riding. Their national sports.

Mongolia National Day, the Ulaan Bataar Naadam, is always followed by local or regional Naadams held across the country between June and the beginning of July.

A few days before the family departs for Tossontsenguel, friends join Altenguerrel to help with the shearing. It is important to make sure that the operation is quickly done since in a few days everyone will only have one thing on his mind: getting ready for the coming Naadam!

Once the shearing is over, the whole family heads to Erden’s house, Altenguerrel’s brother in law. Erden is a renowned horse breeder and Altenguerrel hopes to benefit from his experience when preparing his own horse for the competition.

Adjaro, the youngest of Erden’s family, will mount his best horse, a 4-year old mare on which he places great hopes for the Naadam. Ten-year old boys, such as Adjaro and Goorgoo, will be the ones leading the horses in the horse riding competition. In the meantime, they train and prepare their horses with all the passion and love they feel for them.

They maintain, day after day, a strong determination to meet and beat their rivals in the coming Naadam and do everything to insufflate the same determination into their mounts.

Kids to the rescue

Getting ready for the Naadam is not everything! Daily duties cannot be put aside. Kids have to continue to take care of the small animals, goats as well as lambs. Adjaro and Goorgoo have to thoroughly clean the pen where goats and lambs are gathered for the night.

The girls, Sara and Oyuna, cut the airal cheese that will be put to dry on the roof of the yurt. It is important to prepare enough provisions to feed the young competitors as well as the whole family that will accompany and support them at the Naadam.

Oyuna and Sara begin to filter the milk through a piece of jute before putting it in large buckets. It is then ready to be heated. Adjaro and Goorgoo bring the augul (cowpat) that will serve to feed the fire. Wood is very rare in the steppe and the nomads have all the combustibles needed with the augul provided by their large herds.

The day is over for our two young friends who have worked with a smile and the excitement of having been chosen to participate in the Naadam that will start in two days.

Getting ready for the event

The next morning the herds are free again. The tension is palpable within our small family. Everyone has a wash and get ready for this day, which will be dedicated to prayers and meditation to ensure that the Naadam is held under the best auspices.

Everywhere in Mongolia, from the Gobi desert to the steppes and the remote taiga, the monks’ blessing is given to favor such auspices. The days before the Naadam, offerings to the spirit of the mountains are brought to the ovoo on top of the mountains. This custom was forbidden between 1930 and 1990, but it has reappeared these days with the return in the strength of national and religious identity.

As Adjaro, Goorgoo and their families, it is at the summit of the mountains, around the ovoo, that the young horsemen and their parents, the wrestlers and the archers who will compete are making offerings and calling for spiritual support.

Back to the yurt, the whole family meditates around the central fireplace. Fumigations and incense are used many times – three times in general – to purify the body and the possessions, around the waist, under the medals won by the family horses, on the harnesses, the saddles and the sweat scrapers of the horses that will be competing.

Otgoo, Erden’s spouse, send airak to the zenith and the four points of the compass from the threshold of the door.

The boys are getting ready. Orungor and Normanda are dressed for this special day by their grandmother. Everyone is preparing for this huge annual celebration.

The next morning, a growing crowd fills the village place of Tossontsenguel. Horsemen are everywhere, wrestlers stretching and warming up, friends happy to see one another after so many weeks of separation… The Naadam is open!

Let the wrestling begin

Wrestlers’ matches start on the very first day. One round after another, first the beginners, then the more experienced ones, ending with the sum and aimag champions. They are all wearing boots with the front curved toward the sky to avoid hurting the grass of the steppe, which bends under their footsteps but does not break.

Dozens of wrestlers are going to compete over three days on the grass of the stadium. Each has his own assistant, the zasuul, who supervises the match, encourages his protégé and defends his interests if a protest occurs. What is important in Mongolian wrestling is not the impact, but knowing how to grab and how to surprise. The first wrestler that touches the ground with a knee, elbow or his back looses. At the end of each round, a winner is chosen who will meet a new adversary in a next round. The wrestler accumulating 9 victorious rounds is the champion of the Naadam.

Hour of glory for the horses

Horse riding competitions are going on at the same time. For three days, horses classified according to their age group will run for the title. Horses and horsemen are going to compete over many kilometers: 2, 15 and 30.

Competitors are gathered on the start line… and go! Horses are straining and giving all they have. Adjaro finishes in the forth position in the first race. It is promising since he is not even riding his father Erden’s best horse.

Wrestling and racing resume the next day. This time, 4-year old horses and stallions are on the start line. More than sixty horses with young riders are competing. It is the most important race for our friends. This time, Erden employed his best horse. Adjaro pushes his mount as much as possible. He is small and light: he knows how to get the most out of the horse without hurting it. And it’s a win for Adjaro! He just won the most important race in the Naadam.

While the winning horse recuperates, Erden uses the sweat scraper to prevent the precious champion from getting a cold; admirers are attempting to touch the animal in the hope of getting some beads of sweat, which are supposed to bring luck and prosperity.

Honors... and TV 

The moment everyone is waiting for finally arrives. The city’s notable personalities honor winners. Children receive a diploma and gifts from the Mayor. The winning horses are gifted with a medal. First, the black horse that finished in the forth position in the first race and then the beige winner of the Golden medal in the 4-year old horse race.

Erden, Adjaro, the whole family and their friends are beside themselves with joy. The Mayor honors the winners with a speech. He thanks the spirits and we all share a few glasses of airak. Gifts and rewards are distributed, even a TV for the winner! The news will spread through the whole region with the wind from yurt to yurt.

The peak

The Naadam is not over yet. Time has come for the last two wrestling finalists to enter the stage. An exceptional fight between those two champions takes place, with feints and passes that summon all of the dignity, force and grace those 2 wrestlers can show.

Laghbasuren succeeds in a last brawl to put his adversary on the ground. He wins and proudly raises his arms, copying the majestic eagle, then salutes his adversary with a friendly pat on his buttocks while holding his head under his arm. He is arslan, he is a lion!

The crown wants to touch him to capture a few beads of sweat. As for the Adjaro’s horse, it is supposed to bring strength and prosperity to the family.

Back to normal

The Naadam is over for Adjaro and his cousin Narmanda. In the center of the village of Tossontsenguel, in grandmother Maerten’s small house, Adjaro is impatient to plug in his brand new TV. Every time the children will visit their grandmother in Tossontsenguel during the school periods, they will be able to watch this TV, made in China, a reminder of the effort and the determination of Erden, his son Adjaro, as well as the sweat of their horses.

After such exciting days, Altenguerrel, Erden and their children return to the yurts and the herds in the steppe. Time has come to return to normal daily life, with its long cavalcades through the steppe, and to take care of the herds, the Yaks, horses, lambs, warm zools, cold zools, short legs…

Is there a future for the sons of the wind?

The nomadic life is eroding little by little. The reasons include the reduction of pasture zones, climate changes that can be felt more and more severely and the advance of the Gobi desert on the land, the inevitable attraction of the Capital, Ulaan Baatar, with its many deceived hopes and disillusions.

But also the sale of lands by the government to large transnational energy enterprises looking to exploit the riches under the ground: uranium, gold and more…

Ultimate touches of rebel colors

A recent survey to find the happiest nation found that Mongolian people are high up on the ladder. They nonetheless live in one of the poorest countries on our small blue planet.

Let’s hope the nomadic life and the huge spaces feed for a long time the joy of life of those last sons of the wind! As for the all-too-rare wise nations and minority cultures who we are fortunate to be neighbors with, the last nomads are the final touches of rebel colors in the huge fabric of the world.

Let’s hope nomadic life survives as long as possible in the face of the standardization of cultures based on the Western model, and that the sons of the wind can continue for a long time to mix their voice with the breath of the wind and that they can be more than a simple, fragile memory embroidered on the canvas of our collective memory.

Two last thoughts inspired by Mongolia... 

Before concluding, allow me to quote Khalid Gibran: “Water can retain its clearness and transparency only if it moves and runs in total liberty, it is the same for the traveling man.”

I would personally add that in order to understand one another we must be alike and that to love one another, we must be a bit different.

Patrick Bernard

To learn more about the people and the landscape of Mongolia with Patrick Bernard:


Wrestlers at the Naadam






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