I’ve been working on assignment this week, documenting the daily lives of one nomadic family, living with them in their solitary ger on the Mongolian Steppe.
It’s been a memorable week. The small ger has been home for the family of three, myself and my interpreter. We have cooked and eaten together, worked together, spent every waking and sleeping hour in each other’s company. I left today and headed to Ulaanbaator and we shared an emotional farewell. The family drove with us to the provincial border, where we shared a bottle of vodka, several beers and a pint or two of fermented mare’s milk. This was not the first bottle of vodka to have been dealt with in short order this week.
Despite the apparent solitude of living in such a remote location, it’s been a remarkably sociable week. We have visited other families and been visited many times in turn. Each visit begins with the sharing of several pints of mare’s milk and then, if there’s any left, vodka and beer. One person takes the role of filling the single bowl and sharing it around in turns. It’s a responsible job. You have to ensure that everyone receives equal measures and you often have to take one drink every time the bowl is handed back to you.
I won’t share the images until they have been published by my client but I thought you might like to see where home has been this week. There’s no mains power and no running water although the family do have a solar panel, which powers a black and white television and a single lightbulb. There are no beds inside the ger, just a wooden platform, raised a few inches above the ground, where everyone sleeps beneath thick blankets. When I arrived, I asked where I might find the toilet, to which my host raised an eyebrow and spread his arms wide, indicating the vast, open plain; “Wherever you like”, was his reply.
Outside the ger sleep three friendly dogs, who raise the alarm when visitors approach, which is more often than you might imagine. The family’s horses, goats, sheep and cattle are free to roam where they like and are rounded up each day for milking. Occasionally a goat or sheep is picked out for slaughter, which is something that I documented before leaving today.
It took me two and half hours to reach the point where I made the frame above, showing the ger in the context of the wild steppe. Having made some panoramic images, I was contemplating the long hike back when a horseman appeared on the summit behind me. The head of the family had watched me through his binoculars and ridden out to offer me a ride home. But first, we sat, just the two of us, alone on a remote hillside. Without my interpreter, we couldn’t share words but it really wasn’t necessary. We sat, we shared a cigarette. we gazed out across the landscape. You probably couldn’t find two people from more different cultures and backgrounds but, as photography has proved to me countless times, when all else is stripped away, we’re all just ordinary people, living our lives, doing our best to make ends meet, occasionally pausing to admire the view and perhaps to share a bottle or two of Mongolian vodka.