Nomad Faces

6 Aug

I have never seen such beautiful people in all my life as Mongolian nomads.

Beauty can be had by tough faces worn by wind, sun, and hard living.  But their beauty runs deeper than that.

For these nomads in the Gobi Desert, it is indeed a hard life.  At most times they are about a dozen gallons of water away from thirst, yet they carry on with remarkable aplomb.  This past winter in Mongolia was a bad one, a zud as it is called.  It means the snow is so deep at times the animals cannot dig to the grass.  Many herders lost a good number of their animals.  One nomad told me he could not ride his favorite horse in the local naadam because she was still too skinny.  You’d think the people wouldn’t be much healthier.  Their diet consists mostly of noodle soup with mutton and maybe some onions, carrots, or rice, or fried mutton or potato dumplings.  Yet they tough it out through incredibly harsh conditions.  I walked with a nomad family for a good twenty kilometers one day.  The father could only have drank perhaps a half liter of water the whole way, though he surely was pouring as much sweat as me.  I don’t know what the temperature was that day but when a Gobi nomad specifically comments that it’s really hot, you know it’s really hot.

They live hard lives but that does not mean that they are insignificant or unhappy ones.  The nomads I met were among most friendly, giving, hospitable people I had ever met.  They were incredibly relaxed and playful, always ready with a game or to show you something interesting near where they lived. Though they had very little and undoubtedly knew that I had much, they did not display avarice or resentment.  They freely offered whatever they could.

They live in a different world, no doubt.  But theirs is not one of Biblical poverty, a picture which the term nomad conjures in the mind.  The children go to school and every single one I met was literate.  Occasionally you will meet a family with a child at university in Ulaanbaatar.  Every family I met had a motorcycle, some even two.  Most families had a photovoltaic array that charged a battery from which they ran their TV and satellite dish.  All had cell phones which they hung from the roof poles of their ger.  One of my most lasting memories are those of Mongolian women standing, mixing food, while talking through a dangling, ten-year old Nokias to their friends many kilometers off.  Such modern connections made a stark contrast with them milking and killing their own animals.

But the presence of modernity seems not an indication of the corruption of traditional life, but rather that the nomads, despite their frugal life and isolation, are still central the Mongolian nation and its future.  One day I observed a brand-new, black Toyota Land Cruiser appear out of nowhere and roll up to the ger of the family I was camping with.  Three Mongolian men, clean, wearing polo shirts with turned-up collars, got out and went into the family’s ger bearing gifts: bags of candy, bread, and vodka.  After about twenty minutes, they bid farewell and drove off in the direction of the next closest family, several kilometers away.  Upon going inside, I saw the father reading a pamphlet from the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party.  The political parties were actual out canvassing the nomads, even though that might mean only a handful of votes for perhaps a hundred kilometers in driving.  Mongolia is a democracy but it is difficult to believe that moniker when the per capita income is $2100 per year.  Yet these nomads, some of the poorest yet also most independent people in the country, are important constituents, a linchpin in democratic power.  If they weren’t, why would the parties spend so much time and money traveling such great distances, dispensing gifts and pamphlets, for so few votes?

People are not created equal.  We in the West, rather uncreatively, think of equality in terms of money or rights or whatever term is politically palatable at the moment.  We almost always equate poverty with a lack of money.  But defining these nomads as all poor based on money is wildly inaccurate.  Many of the nomads are not poor, but not out of any great disparity in wealth.  Rather, the difference seemed to stem from character.  A few families I met were saddening to be with.  The children, like the girl above, were excited and enthusiastic to be around visitors but only because they clearly craved some sort of positive stimulation.  The father was either herding animals or lounging in the ger, aloof to their needs.  The mother spent her whole day cooking, boiling water, and tending the fire.  She did nothing else.  Their life seemed austere and soul-draining.  Yet the next family was quite different.  They seemed much, much happier and robust in spirit.  The mother had just as many children and just as many responsibilities, yet she managed to not only take care of the necessary chores but also found time to shear some of the sheep and do embroidery work.  She was a strong-willed, active woman and it showed in the cohesive and healthy attitude of her family.  The monetary and material differences between the two families were negligible but the wholeness of their members were very different.  Poverty as we define is indeed a poor measurement of the quality of one’s life; the latter family was perhaps happier and more balanced in its existence than most Western families I know.

I constantly chided myself for romanticizing about the nomads and their way of life.  But was I really romanticizing?  Even in the small villages in the desert, the people were happy, welcoming, fast with a joke and seemingly content.  Most nomads seemed to live whole lives, more whole and happy than many modern people I know.  Was their way the worldly approximation of an ideal?  That depends what you consider an ideal way of life.  I don’t know if living as a nomad is a better life than others.  But I think crucial components of it point to what can make a better existence.  Part of it certainly stems from their Buddhist beliefs.  They are an intrinsic part of the world, inalienable from it, and thus feel a part of the cycle of life and nature.  The nomads are also immediately responsible for their day to day existence; it is necessary for them to toil to provide what they need and it is evident where their sustenance comes from.  They are dependent on community and generosity.  Whether from his neighbors or strangers when traveling, a nomad can always expect to receive help or food or water wherever he goes because he would provide the same to anyone else.  Finally, they have a sense of tradition and past.  There is not a battle of competing narratives as in the West.  They understand implicitly who they are, where they come from, and how they should continue on in that manner.

I will make this assertion now and stand by it: for the vast majority of human beings, the simpler their lives are, the easier it is for them to live happily within a spiritual and moral framework.  And is not living spiritually and morally the most important thing?

Mongolia is special because you find there what you don’t find anywhere else in Asia: a big country of very few people, poor yet with a real, working democracy.  It is not bigoted or insular but outward looking, ready to embrace any ally it can in protecting its identity against its imperialist enemy to the south.  That struggle will be a long and hard one but I think that, if a country is only the sum of its people, Mongolia stands a good chance thanks to its nomads.


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