I land in the middle of the night at Genghis Khan airport, yet enveloped by the smell of India on my clothes. Apparently there are still nearly 16 million descendants of this almost mythological figure who conquered more than twice as much land as any other person in history, bringing the eastern and western civilizations into contact, promoting trade and even creating the first international postal service. There are several reasons why we humans are up till now linked to each other because of him, by blood or exchange. However, a real portrait of the mega-dad printed on the bills does not exist, he did not allow anyone to paint or sculpt one. The first pictures appeared only after his death. This power which lacks of egocentricity, sums up one of the many lessons that can be taken with from the unadulterated identity of this country.
Today the state counts three million inhabitants, half of which lives in the capital, the rest is sparsely spread in the vast countryside. Mongolia is mainly known as the homeland of nomads. However, in recent news we also read about the alcohol problems in the city Ulaanbaatar: whoever left the traditional lifestyle to find "something better", has lost himself between the to us renowned quotation marks. The reason why I wished to visit Mongolia was wonder: there are people, here, who do things about which one can almost only read in fairy tales.
July is a good time to visit the country because of Naadam, a traditional festival with games such as Mongolian wrestling, horse racing and archery. In this context also typical dances and songs are performed, a perfect opportunity to get an introduction to the local traditions. The three sports are directly related to the lifestyle and living conditions of the Mongols, traditionally transferred through home training by family members.
For the first few weeks I chose to work on a ranch to learn some of the language and way of life before beginning to travel around. Here I especially love to spend the day herding on the horse, it is like time for time. When a train of the Trans-Siberian line passes by, I count the wagons. In the hot midday I sit under the very few trees by the stream, a child comes walking from afar. It takes maybe ten minutes since I see him as a point in the distance until he arrives close enough to put something to eat in my hands. He captures insects and shows me the details, he mimics that crickets jump and chats on as if I could understand his words. If sheep and goats dissipate a little too much, he helps me collect them again. I learn from him the loud sounds that are used to be heard by the otherwise stubborn animals. Surprisingly, I am not ashamed of the funny, impure tones that squeeze out directly of my lungs.
Sometimes we get up at 4:30 in the morning, before the sun, in the white wet air. We free the calves who have spent the night in the fence one by one so that they can accompany us to their mother, who we will milk. As soon as we have collected enough for the dairy products to be prepared, they are allowed to drink on. Once a baby had to spend the night with us, he was sick and trembling with fear. A warm coat and a long, tight hug allowed him the necessary sleep.
Diary extract July 12th 2016, Anak Ranch, Orchon Valley, Mongolia:
In the night, the wind seemed wanting to rip off whatever is on the surface of the earth and sprayed water in all directions, also scratching my face through the hole in the ger. In the morning, the air and the light were just as they are after a storm: silent. For the first time in my life I have milked a cow, my head on her stomach, my breathing meant thanks, hers calm.
I learn every step of the process to prepare the very hard and sour cheese, I pluck weeds, whenever possible I chop wood and cook on the fire. Sometimes with Minjee, the ranch owner, we go to the market. There we can find carrots, cabbage, onions and potatoes, imported either from China or from Russia. I once found apples, I have never appreciated fruit as much and never enjoyed them with every tract of the digestive system so fully. I was told that it is my own fault if I do not eat meat, but really there is no shortage of nutritious food. Three days after I left the ranch, I was still digesting the horse milk offered at Naadam.
The few words I have learned do not help for long. The Dukhas live in the Tsagaan-Nuur county in northern Mongolia, their language is an endangered Turkish variety. There are still only about 40 families of these nomadic herders, whose lives depend on the reindeer and who can be reached only by riding. The horseman's wife prepares a huge loaf of bread and lends me her deel, the typical mongolian dress. Between belt and collar I can put camera, toilet paper, water, sunglasses and everything I need on the way; luggage and food are tied to another horse. The horses are wild and small, the end of the leash, a rope, is held in the hand as a whip in case they don’t follow the "Schù". Right before leaving, I did flush my toothbrush and mouth with gas for the stove. In the transparent bottle it looked like the greenish river water I collected to drink. My mouth will wait one week to be properly refreshed. We walk through forests crossing cold streams, we gallop across the steppes and break the silence with the clatter of the hooves on the rocks, stopping only when the night comes.
Diary extract July 23rd 2016, Tsagaan-Nuur County, Mongolia
To sleep naked, just a sleeping bag and a tent away from the outside world, from the wind, the snow, and not notice the cold because life flows so powerfully and warms up. Because this image seen from above, from high up, positions me there, on the map of the world, and then in the universe, naked just as when I was born, without knowledge, with only a sleeping bag and a tent to suggest that the skin exists not just to protect and shield, but mainly to feel.
Clothes get consumed, the back screams. It’s almost like a numb limb shaken awake, this kind of pain, of the rebirth, when the blood can circulate again.
My first encounter with the Dukha people happened after three days of riding. At the top of the pass we bumped into the surreal scene of a man sitting on a panting reindeer and talking on the cell phone. Dukhas live in tipi shaped tents, practice shamanism, use sheep tails as pacifiers for their babies. Children grow in alliance with the reindeer; as soon as they walk, they take care of the life-constrained and nature-led tasks.
Diary extract July 30st 2016, Mörön, Mongolia
I will learn only through concrete experiences. There is nothing better than the things that are just what they are, because probably everything is already perfect, and perhaps even me. I understand that the necessary work is cleaning up. I want to allow myself to be vulnerable, to be able to decide it. I know it's a lot of work, it's a life to live. The best part of it is that the most difficult things are also the most important, the ones you really, honestly want.
The flights to reach the west of the country cost too much and my only alternative is a Russian minibus. What convinces me to take the ride is that I was born on August 4th, this journey starts the day before and ends the one afterwards. I was born in a car and celebrating my birthday on the road, from waking up to falling asleep, seems fitting. Those 51 hours are recorded in the memory of my coccyx. There were a few drunken men whom I had to punch and kick (as suggested by the older women) so they’d stop touching me. My favorite and most comfortable place to sleep was in the back, on the piled luggage, in the front they entertained themselves with card games, a baby was also there, it sometimes flew back or forth like on a stage dive over a floor of outstretched arms, under the roof, unaware of the joy and togetherness he provoked to this small society on the move.
Diary extract August 4th 2016, Mongolia
The landscapes present themselves without subjects; in this movie, who we usually consider as protagonist: men, is missing. The eyes expect the castle, walls, traces of a war to own the land and put the name on it to exercise power. They are looking for what they know and they can not find it. The angle, the square, they are not present, they can not frame or contain and are no result of the lines of a project, since there is no project.
Mongolia was not pre-thought, prepared, it can not be exhibited or presented, you do not look at it, you dive into and find yourself like before time, before measure, before the concept.
As soon as I arrive in Ölgii, I surprise the possibly only woman who speaks english with my request: I want to live with an eagle hunter and his family. She talks to a gentleman who could drive me to the place where, she thinks, I’ll be accepted. It is agreed that if they allow me to stay, he will come to pick me up after five days, at around noon. We drive for four hours. The Bayaan Olgii region, inhabited by the Kazakh nomads, is located in the Altai Mountains bordering China, Kazakhstan and Russia.
My new home is richly decorated with insulating felt wool stripes, the vertical surfaces are refined with geometric motifs of colorful threads, embroidered curtains can be pulled around the bed at night, this is the only way to separate the space shared by an entire family. The centre of the ger is where social life happens. By the stove, sitting on rugs around the little table, we drink tea several times a day.
The goats are sewn, morning and evening, with a rope through the horns so that they can be milked one after the other with a short hopp on the stool. Arujan, Jachai and all the children always play along enthusiastically, the little Botakhan grips the cows directly to the horns to carry them around. The women wash themselves in the river, put on nice clothes and also some make-up, I understand that something special is waiting for us and I apologize that I have nothing suitable to wear.
Diary extract August 8 2016, at the Eagles Hunters, Mongolia
I've just woken up, a few hours sleep after lunch at the neighbors. 9 shots of Vodka or maybe at some point I stopped counting the toasts. Meinkahn has put me to bed and covered me with the husband's hunting coat. I am drunk with strong feelings, alcohol burns, disinfects and softens even unconscious or forgotten disappointments. Here people talk to each other with respect, they listen with confidence, they are honest, their presence is warm, cheerful and friendly. I did not understand a word, but it was never necessary, we always got along very well.
The skills of the eagle hunters have been passed down over many generations. There are very specific rules for the collection, training and handling of the birds. The eagles are treated with honor and after four or five years they are released back into the wild. Akik, packed with blankets and string, goes together with father and son on the motorbike to an eagle hunters meeting. Each hunter has a personalized suit, the hats are often made of fox fur. The relationship between Kairatkhan and Akik is successful, and I recognize, by looking at the exercises, that it is about trust. I had wondered why a wild animal should give up its freedom, I understand that the good deal is survival.
Here people follow nature, the needs of animals are the reason for their movements. Rarely does an animal get a name, even horses with which one spends most of the time together, because they do not belong to humans. Since nature constantly changes, man has to do it, too. Everything has to flow.
It is believed that Khöömei, a form of singing that also originates in western Mongolia in the Altai Mountains, was learned from birds whose spirits are central to shamanic practices. A song sung in different styles can mean different things. Melodies have the form of mountains, they describe the wind or the flight of the eagle, one hears the riding pace or feels the setting sun casting long shadows through the steppe grass. The performer imitates nature and simultaneously emits two different vocal sounds: with a continuous drone he produces a melody of harmonics.
I am learning the names of my new family and they laugh when I pronounce them. It's hay season, I know that we do not have much time to practice the overtone singing because this work has to be done in two weeks, that’s how long the dry grass is good for cutting. My attempts to sing provoke much fun. Bold (with “d”) and I reach the natural field on the motorcycle. Together with the dozen of people we meet there, we drink vodka from the same bowl and discover that I have talent at least for mowing. From the work that has been done all together, everyone takes what he needs.
Zezchmaa prepares the tea and repairs the sieve with needle and thread. The nomads do not collect unnecessarily, if you are constantly moving you are aware of your own weight. A deel suitable for a different season is neatly folded and arranged in a flower-embroidered fabric bag, so it becomes a pillow. The minimal is also here generously decorated, pleasure is not waived.
The sunlight goes down at around 11pm, bleating bright giant spots move down the hills, the yaks also came back to drink water from the river. I have put a stone on the stove, so that it collects the heat which will keep my feet warm in my sleep. I am not sure if they understood the reason of this gesture, but they will soon see.
That one night I had to pee (in the meantime I've gotten used to giving back the earth directly what I received from her), the sky blessed me with a meteorite shower and I thought of how much we miss because of walls. During the day I preferred to walk a bit further away and one day I thoughtlessly reached the mountains peak, I could see the shadow of each cloud on the untouched landscape. There I thought that the most beautiful things are all for free.
The essentiality of survival allows rediscovering the roughness of enjoyment, the simplicity of life allows the constant recognition of its beauty. My clothes are now red like the river water I've been washing them in these two months, my body is full of blue bruises. The third person I used to write and read my life with is gone, I am finally happening here and now. My past and future are suddenly those of the entire humanity. That's how we were, that's how we could be.
To describe Mongolia one should be able to speak without using adjectives. The taste that remains is not of delicious dishes, neither of delightful scents of flowers or spices. Mongolia has nothing of it, anything particularly colorful or succulent in its nature. It leaves a much deeper mark that touch could give, it is more like a scratch on an organ, or an atavic drawing recognized between the moles. I have the feeling that what can be found and understood in Mongolia is already known, recorded as deep as in our DNA, only forgotten through entertainment and distraction.
By leaving Mongolia, an existential melancholy grows.