Sereeter Choindongün, age 36
Ayushjav Dorjiin, 32
Narankhuu Sereeter, 13
Gantsetseg, 10
Naransambuu, 8
Narantsetseg, 7
1000 cooperative’s sheep
12 mares
13 horses
15 cows
52 sheep
14 goats, 2 dogs

August 7th, 1987

“Minee huu serere! Minee ohin sereree!”

6:30 Ayushjav has finished washing near the river. She calls to her children in a soft but firm voice: her .”Minee huu serere! Minee ohin sereree!” (Wake up, my sons! Wake up, my daughters!) She needs her daughters to help her milk the cows and her husband,Sereeter, needs his sons to tie up the colts. Gantsetseg, as diligent as her mother, gets up immediately,followed by Narantsetseg, her younger sister. Their mother’s voice is too gentle; the boys have not heard her call.

7:30 Sereeter returns home across the large open pasture with his horses, which at night wander freely in the immensity of the Mongolian steppe. It is Sereeter’s first task to fetch them every morning. Retrieving the young animals is difficult and takes time, so his patience is strained when he sees that his older son is not awake to help tie up the colts. When he bends down to put his head through the door, there is no gentleness in his voice. The boys reluctantly lift the thick woollen blankets and face the glacial morning air.

Every member of the family has a horse

It is summer now in Mongolia, but the northern country nights are always cold. The boys put on pants and their deel the traditional tunic worn by men and women, and wrap their feet with strips of cotton cloth before pulling on their boots. Narankhuu, the eldest, takes two saddles from beside the door and walks to the horses. Every member of the family has a horse. They are vital to existence in a country with great distances between sparsely populated areas.  The two boys are off to take the sheep out on the steppe, as they do every day during their two-month school holiday. These 1,000 sheep are part of one of the vast, government-maintained sheep co-operatives. After a ewe is weaned, Sereeter and his wife are responsible for the first year of its life. Their work is assessed by the kilos of wool the sheep produce in a year. Sereeter must keep track of every single sheep, checking for weight loss or disease and paying special attention to them throughout the winter, with its strong winds and temperatures as low as -50’C.

In summer life revolves around the milking of the mares

8:00 Ayushjav has finished milking the cows and now lights the horse-dung fire, so the milk can be put on to boil. Gantsetseg is still in the field making up packs of fresh cow dung, which is also used as fuel. The shovel the young girl uses is too big for her, so she often uses her hands to combine the piles of dung. She flattens the packs and leaves them to dry, then walks barefoot to the river to wash her hands.

Already a’ little mother, Gantsetseg walks back into the ger and tells Narantsetseg that she is lazy and that the floor she is cleaning is not clean enough. Narantsetseg makes a face. She wishes she were with her brothers on her horse. When the others are at boarding school and she is alone with her father, she is the one who helps her father gather the sheep. This year, Narantsetseg will also leave for school. Her parents know they will be lonely, but sending the children away to school is the only way to educate them.

They could have another child. The Mongolian government encourages large families; the country has vast resources and not enough people to tap them. A woman with five children is awarded her pension at an early age and receives two weeks of paid vacation a year in one of the many spas located throughout the country. But, for now, these benefits are not attractive enough for Ayushjav to consider having another baby. As elegant as a princess, Ayushjav walks toward her husband, carrying two milk pails. During the summer months, their children’s assistance with the sheep is essential, as Sereeter and Ayushjav’s life revolves around the milking of the mares, which takes place every two hours.

Mare’s milk, the great pleasures of Mongolian cuisine

Sereeter has caught the colts and tied them to a rope rail. Once the babies are tied up, the mares will not leave. Sereeter brings the first mare’s colt to her and lets it drink for a few seconds. He needs all his strength to pull its mouth away while still holding the colt’s body against its mother’s. Hurriedly, Ayushjav bends to take the colt’s place, making the mare believe that her colt is still sucking. Ayushjav’s fingers are strong and she rapidly empties the two teats. Mare’s milk, available only during the two summer months, is one of the great pleasures of Mongolian cuisine. Once fermented it is called airag. Some is kept for the winter season, but most of the 45 litres produced each day are used up without difficulty. The family drink countless bowls of airag and visitors can help themselves freely. Mongolia’s hospitality is  proportional to its solitude. A ger is open to all who wander by, with the expectation that a visitor will share news of the region.

Cows like long grass; sheep like it short

9:00 The boys have left the sheep to graze. Their empty stomachs send them galloping over the flat plain to a breakfast of salted milk-tea and yoghurt. They leave the ger the minute they are finished eating, taking a happy Narantsetseg with them. The sheep have to be herded farther away. If they graze too long in one place, the grass will die and not grow again. In two or three days, Sereeter’s family will move to an ungrazed area of the steppe, about three kilometres away. Moving is a fact of life – something they do over 20 times a year. It takes them less than one hour to prepare. The house separates into six collapsible parts; the furniture is also made to break down easily. The choice of a place to settle is important. There must be water and good grass. The grasses vary, depending on the winds and the temperature. Cows like long grass; sheep like it short. Sereeter has to see to everyone’s happiness. From November to February, the family hide in the mountains out of the bitter winds of winter.

“He would not be able to live without me.”

11:00 The mares have been milked a second time. Now there is a moment to relax. Ayushjav stands in front of the mirror to comb and braid her long black hair. She does the same for her older daughter. Always adding beauty and grace to her well-organised household, she ties huge colourful bows on Gantsetseg’s plaits.

12:00 Ayushjav sits down in front of her stove, to make the bread that will be served with yoghurt, cheese and a bowl of mare’s milk. In two hours, when her children return, lunch will be ready.

2:30 The sheep are safe for the afternoon and everyone feels like a nap. The boys lie in one bed, the girls in another. Sereeter and Ayushjav talk softly in their bed. As a bonus for their herdmanship, the couple have been offered a two-week holiday to visit the region of Uvur Hangai. They cannot decide whether to go. Sereeter is not particularly social and prefers simply going to a sanatorium for a checkup. He is a worrier and has stomach trouble, which makes him appear angry and severe. “He may have a menacing look, but he is very gentle,” Ayushjav says. “He would not be able to live without me.”

The milk needs 5,000 strokes to ferment

3:30 The children are off across the field to pick up horse dung. Like all Mongolians on the steppe, the family uses everything connected with the animals: the dung, the skins, the meat and the milk. Ayushjav and her husband milk the mares; then Ayushjav sits in front of her house to make aaruul, another staple of the family’s diet. She fills a cotton bag with yoghurt and presses out the water. She then spreads the moist yoghurt on plates and sets them on the roof of her house, where the sun quickly dries it into a cheese that can be kept a long time. Along with milk products, meat is central to the family diet, but when an animal is killed, it is shared with friends, relatives and people who pass by the ger.

6:30 Narankhuu and Naransambuu leave to fetch the herd of sheep. Ayushjav milks the cows once more, and Sereeter frees the mares for the night. Inside the ger, the mare’s milk sits in a tall plastic jar. It is one of the children’s tasks to beat the airag with a long, flat-ended stick. The milk needs 5,000 strokes to ferment. Gantsetseg starts counting. When she gets to 500 she passes the stick to her sister, who makes another face at this daily chore.

Sereeter walks around inspecting each sheep

8:30 Once the sheep herd has settled beside the ger, Sereeter walks around inspecting each sheep. He gauges their contentment by the way each chews its cud. Satisfied that they are all well, he goes inside, always ready to run back out if he senses the herd getting excited or annoyed.

It is dusk and everyone is sitting near the stove in semidarkness. Torches and oil lamps are used for light, even though a small Honda generator can provide electricity. It is used mainly for emergencies. “It has changed our life, but using it every evening would mean too many trips to the centre for fuel,” explains Ayushjav.

A perfect setting for the best of dreams

In the dim light, the ger looks like a house in a fairy tale. The colours of the embroidered furnishings add to the warmth of the stove, so that it seems the coldest winds of winter could not penetrate. But for now it is summer and the evening stars twinkle through the open roof flap. A perfect setting for the best of dreams.