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Cowboys In the Mongolia Steppe

September 29, 2021

In the early days of our Mongolian oil exploration venture, we spent considerable time in the steppe of eastern Mongolia to evaluate the surface geology and determine where to acquire seismic to best image the sub-surface.  We were fortunate to be invited to the “ger” home of the most famous horseman in Mongolia.  If you call the “ger” a “yurt,” you have insulted any Mongolian since “yurt” is Russian and Russia is a very distant past to this democratic country and former vassal state. As we were travelling by ancient Russian helicopters, we could land most anywhere we chose.  On one occasion, one of them went down unexpectedly which was not the intention of the pilot though we all made it off safely and there was no explosion and no fire.  For those of you who have not been inside a ger virtually everything the herdsmen owns, save livestock, is inside their residence. You will also note that the ger can be disassembled quickly and moved to another location to provide improved grazing for their livestock.

There are certain formalities about visiting a ger: (1) the women sit on the right side and the men on the left; (2) the men pass around three beverages for men only and to share out of the same bowl—a salty tea, fermented mare’s milk and, finally, straight Mongolia vodka; and (3) caution in not letting the hanging meat soil one’s clothing.   All one does is look inside a ger to see what is for dinner. Given the Mongolian adage that “Animals eat vegetables, we eat animals,” it is a cinch there will be meat on the menu.  The exterior of a ger is a thick felt covered with canvas.  During the brief summer period the felt can be raised which leaves only a canvas to keep the voracious mosquitoes away. The Mongolians describe their weather cycle as “Nine months cold and three months very cold.”  Therefore, it is rare to see the felt exterior up above the lattice work sides.  

The famous horseman was ultimately interviewed by a reporter in our entourage and photographed with a Texas cowboy.  Somehow the story failed to make Equestrian Magazine but did find its way to a newspaper in Ulaanbaatar.

You will have to admit that this cowboy’s hat does not look like a Texas Stetson though the sides roll down to protect one’s ears from falling off in sub-zero weather.

On the other hand, cattle and good grass look about the same everywhere.

The horseman below does not seem to welcome foreigners getting close to his livestock. Perhaps we looked like Texan rustlers.

The horse culture extends throughout the Mongolian family.  Many say the children are born on a horse which is the most valuable animal creature to the herdsmen who live on the steppe.

Mongolia has some 40,000 child jockeys ranging in official age from 7 to 13 to compete in the local, regional, and the famous Naadam State 30-kilometer races. The Naadam race terminates in the National Stadium in Ulaanbaatar where the national competition is held for the “Three Manly Sports” – Archery, Mongolian Wrestling and Horse Racing. The children begin their horse training long before age 7. 

Moreover, the strength of Mongolian women is illustrated by the young girls who take up the sport which puts them in a more balanced equal opportunity position than many developed countries. Fortunately, they have chosen to wear protective gear for their safety. However, it is most unlikely they will accept being obliged to sit on the other side of the ger across from the men when they grow up. Moreover, my guess is they will also want their fair share of the Mongolian vodka being passed around.  One day, let’s hope one of the lady jockeys wins the grueling Naadam race and we can dispense with the term “Manly Sports.”

For an auspicious birthday, my Mongolian friends gave me a Naadam racehorse star. Obviously, it was not possible to take the horse back home to Texas, so we put him out in the steppe at our oil operations site to run with our livestock. In fact, we were very self-sufficient with sheep and cattle for our consumption though the vegetables were few and far between. However, one of our Canadian lads figured out how to make mozzarella cheese which was a hit. Sadly, there was never any wine though always plenty of vodka. Once on a visit, I asked where my horse was and my incorrigible manager said, “We ate him.” Welcome to life in the steppe of Mongolia as it is a unique place with strong and special people focused on survival. 

Olivia Dar's style blends French Couture with inspiration from Indian colors and techniques. All of the pieces are handmade by artisans in her studio in Delhi using ethically sourced materials from several regions of India and Central Asia.

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