Monday, July 30, 2012

"Shon, do you like ball sac?"

"...excuse me?"
"do you like balsak?"
"Oh, yes, Damday (Tasty)!"
The Balsaks are the deep-fried puffed-up pastries all over the place


Language is an interesting thing, and something I've been thinking a lot about over the past 12 days in Kazakh territory, near the "town" of Dayan, where very few people speak Mongolian, much less Russian, MUCH less English. I realized that learning a manageable amount of French and a smattering of Spanish was relatively easy, given the amount of cognates they have with English. Mongolian, Russian, Kazakh and Mandarin, however, have proven to be much more difficult. The fun part, though, is that the false cognates are often more interesting than the correct ones, as evidenced above.

As you know, I've been living with a Kazakh nomadic family for the past week and a half. I knew going out there that I didn't know any Kazakh and that they were unlikely to know any English, but that my Mongolian and Russian phrasebooks might help. What I found once the driver left me facing 11 long days with this family was that their command of any language other than Kazakh was comparable to mine of Kazakh: not really existent. This would be fun.

Before I left Ulgii, I got a few phrases from Alistair, the Scot who was helping me get things sorted. These all turned out to be almost useless, but I was able to scribble a few more in my pocket notebook before my driver left, as he spoke a few words of English. In the end, my entire source of communication with my hosts and their friends was left to memorizing a few pages of my notebook and adding a few in from time to time, as I pointed to them. This resulted in a long list of nouns, unfortunately.

As I mentioned before, the fun part was trying to remember them. I did this by trying to find things to associate them with, as with "balsak" above. I'll let you figure out the association I made there.

Some were easy:

Johk - No (you've got to be johk-ing)
Chai - Tea (easy enough)
Eet - Dog (Don't eet dogs)
Seerh - Cow (Steer w/o the T)

Some got a little more interesting:
Cheel - Wind (it makes you cheely!)
Jaman - Bad (don't be jaman, mon)
ustuck - Hot (u-stuck to your self, you're so sweaty)

And some started getting deeper into the depths of my imagination:
Toidom - Full (people may starve in a Kingdom, but everyone's full in a toy-dom!...)
Keshya - Yesterday (Ke$ha is SO yesterday)

Unfortunately, all of these were written down based on how they sounded when one person told me, so when I tried to use the same word with someone else, often it wasn't understood. This happened with "Goodbye" (Sau'bol), which I first heard as "soo'gol", which seems to be some sort of profanity in Kazakh, judging by the response I got from the people I said it to...


So communication with my human hosts was a challenge, for sure, but it usually just resulted in either laughing at me or a few moments of awkward staring and hand motions before the Kazakhs returned to whatever they were doing and I returned to sitting quietly and observing.

Communication with my animal hosts was quite different. Being nomadic herders, there were lots of animals around. The most plentiful were the sheep and goats (305 and 186, respectively. I know 'cause we counted them. Twice. Wait, make that 303 and 184. We ate a few.), 
Kunti trying her hand at milking the sheep

Kunti helping her dad, Yeltai, with some good ol' family goat skinning

the largest were the cows and yaks, and the most versatile were the horses (milk, meat AND transportation!)

I learned quickly that I'm not a natural horse rider. Or maybe it's just the wee Mongolian horses that don't fit my gangly self. Either way, I found that horses are uncomfortable.
My noble steed and I

 I've only ridden a horse once before. I was a child at the beach, maybe Ocean Shores, and all I remember was sitting on top, loping along the grey sand on a windy cloudy day and thinking, "This is kinda cool, but kinda boring, and I bet it's more fun if you have your own horse and you're allowed to gallop and stuff!" Here in Dayan, I had my chance. I had a horse, my hosts seemed to assume that I knew what to do with it, so let me ride freely, all should be good.

Wrong. It turns out my horse had three speeds: (1) annoyingly slow walk, (2) painfully bouncy trot, and (3) frighteningly fast gallop. Oh yeah, and there was also (0) abrupt stop, which happened often when we tried to cross streams. All of this would have been OK, except that my hosts apparently had horses who were willing to add in speed (1.5) moderately fast walk, combining the speed of the trot with the comfort of the walk. The ideal horse pace, in my mind.

Baibolat in speed (1.5) uphill

Since my horse didn't seem willing or able to perform speed (1.5), I alternated between speeds (1) and (2) until my horse got frustrated and jumped to (3) briefly, until I panicked and yanked back on the reins, bringing us quickly to speed (0). By the fourth day of horse riding, I told my hosts that I'd rather walk.

He found another speed

In addition to all of those creatures, there was the most useless animal of all: the dogs. I really don't know why they have dogs. There were three of them, and they just lazed around all day, eatings scraps and barking at anything that moved. Maybe they helped with wolves, I'm not sure. What I do know is that my Kazakh hosts never seemed to touch them or even really interact with them, other than to throw them a few scraps of meat or a bucket of goats blood to them.

Since I didn't know their Kazakh names, if they even had them, I gave them my own. Well, I gave two of them my own. One was kept chained to a post about 100yds away from the gers while the other two were let to run free. I never found out why. The other two were of very different dog-alities, though. One was Leo, a big, furry, blind, lazy lion-like lump of a dog; and the other (pictured below with the horse), was a dirty dreaded sheepdog I named Jack, after Cap'n Sparrow.

Jack and my horse in the rain. Chulpan in the background bringing water back from the lake


 And the dogs weren't the dirtiest part. They had to compete with Baka

Baka, with food crumbs, pee stain and all.
Baka is a 1 1/2 year old little Kazakh child that would make any western mother neurotic. His playground is lined not with rubber crumbs or woodchips, but with manure. His diapers are just pants, or not. His food is whatever he gets his mouth on and his bathing is occasional (although more often than the rest of the family. I watched him take one piece of cheese, slimy from his sucking on it, drop it on the pasture, pick it up by stabbing it with the pen he was holding in his other hand, then put it (and the dirt that came with it) back into his mouth like a lollypop. Another time, he was running around bottomless at the end of the day (as you do), he grabbed another piece of cheese, sucked on it, reached down and pressed it to his uncovered crotch, then brought it back up to his mouth (leaving a few crumbs down below, for good measure) and continued to suck.

This kid will never have allergies. That, or he won't see year 3. He has three strong, healthy older siblings, though, so apparently this style of parenting works. Maybe we should take notes?

My hosts, from left to right: (Back row) Kuliash, Altan, Baibolat, Me, Yeltai, Apa, my driver's girlfriend (not a host), Gulin, Chulpan, (front row - kids): Kunti, Chuah, Domolai and Khulin

Above is the rest of the family, and my hosts for the time I was there. There were three gers, owned each by Apa and her two sons, Baibolat and Yeltai. Each ger had two beds and the family was spread between them with me and maybe Bokash on the floor


While Baka and the dogs were eating anything, the rest of the humans were on a strict diet of meat, dairy and fat. In fact, here's what I came up with as an average Kazakh food pyramid:

I probably drank on average, a dozen cups of milk-based drink every day (tea or koumiss, fermented mare's milk). That's about a gallon and a half. Every time tea was served, it came with platters of cheeses (either super strong and rock-hard or soft and tasteless, all a mixture of cow, sheep and goat milk) and balsak, or the occasional other bread product. Look at the first picture for an example of a tea spread. That one's a bit fancier than most because it was at a party.

Meals were always meat-based, with some bready product included. This tended to be steamed or boiled noodles, slimy with the grease from the meat.

A fish feast after our first fishing trip

Sheep's head and other bits

The ear is surprisingly tasty

Another sheep's head with Bis Barmak underneath - a onion and oil-filled rolled pastry

Most of a goat

Preparing the goat's head (and hooves). It was then roasted in the stove (upper left)

bits of cooked guts and a sausage-like thing, filled with liver and other unknown pieces
The food was wonderful. At first. Then I realized that eating only Dairy, meat and fat for a long period of time also means that you don't poop for a long period of time. Not only that, but when you do, you wish you didn't. My overstuffed first aid kit had a plethora of medical options for uncontrollable pooping, but pepto-bismol and loperamide and antibiotics won't do much for the opposite.

I resorted to trying to find as much fiber as I could. Any trace of vegetable that ended up in our food (a few onions and potatoes), I ate. I dug out the few lara bars that I brought from home and rationed them out over the week. I pulled out the three packets of "Ye ye" instant coffee that I nabbed from the train two weeks earlier. Anything to get regular.

By the end of my time there, my mind was able to focus on the other experiences before me, and pooping again returned somewhere further back in my mind.

A day in the life

Speaking of those other experiences, now's about time to talk about what I actually did out there.

Each day started around 6:30am for Altan, the mother in my ger who would get up, start the fire and make tea. Baibolat, her husband, and I would get up around 7-7:30 to have tea with her, and the kids would roll out of bed around 8ish. At that point, we'd go out, gather the cows, and the women would milk them for the first time of the day while the men sat and watched.

Most of them, one guy would then take the sheep and go off to play shepherd for the day, an activity that I got to join on one occasion

The rough life of a khooichh (shepherd)

Around 10 or so, we'd have our second tea time of the day, then the days activities would begin. For the women, this was cleaning and making milk products, for the men, it was many things. Among them were:

Riding motorcycles:
Bokash's moto. I even got to ride it!

Yeltai fishing

Yeltai and friend showing off part of their catch

Bokash, Chuah and Kunti cleaning the fish
 Riding up mountains to find eagles' nests:
My  horse on top of a mountain

Going to parties:
An average Kazakh party
 Drying out poop for fuel:

Bokash flattening poop for drying
 Washing sheep:
This is the way we wash the sheep

I even got to help out
 Shearing sheep:
Baibolat shearing

The tool
 Wrestling each other:
Wrastlin' (I won 4/5 of my matches)

Trying on traditional Kazakh clothing:

A proud Baibolat
 Dismantling the ger for repairs:

The whole process only took about 3hrs

Or just sitting around.

Around 3pm or so, it was time to milk the sheep and goats (see Kunti above), another task performed by the women, once the men helped to herd them together and tie them up. Then it was time for more tea. Around 5 or 6 was a possible meal time, then time for horse milking, then time for more hanging out, drinking tea and possibly eating. At about 9pm it was time to herd the sheep into their little pen and tie up the cows for the night, then one last tea before bed and starting it all over again.

That was about the routine for the time I was out there. I filled a lot of the downtime with reflection, trying to learn Kazakh, wandering around and reading. One morning I even got up early for the sunrise:
good morning

In the end, it was a pretty awesome experience. It'll take a bit of adjustment to get back to city life...


My driver, Keta, was supposed to arrive on the 28th and we would leave on the 29th. By sundown on the 28th, I was already planning how I would either begin my life with the Kazakhs or start to walk back to Ulgii. I figured it'd take me 5 days or so.

Over the night, I started feeling ill. An illness that felt frighteningly like my Periodic Pooping Disease (PPD) of Nepal. Fortunately, it turned out to be entierly in the upper end of the digestive tract. In the morning, I could barely eat, and what I did I threw up (which was immediately devoured, in turn, by Leo. Proof that nothing goes to waste out here). So I was left ill and potentially trapped many miles from the nearest airport, much less hospital.

Then, Keta arrived. It was the morning of the 29th. He said we'd leave around 1pm, which was of course later (Mongolia time), followed by a hellish 7hr jeep ride (like the bus ride, but now with nausea and severe headache.) punctuated by three tea stops and a "oops, we ran out of gas" stop. This last one was actually wonderful, because it gave me a chance to nap in the still vehicle while Keta went for more fuel.

Keta (right, at a distance) goes for fuel

In the end, we arrived in Ulgii and I found myself a bed in my very own Ger. I'm planning to spend the next couple of days lazing around Ulgii to recharge and figure out where to go next.

The mosque in Ulgii

A government building with busts of Lenin (left) and Sukhbaatar (Right). Behind me was a red star on a pedestal. The soviets aren't long gone out here.

 Alright, so that's the last week and a half on my end. It's a bit long, but after that much time culturally alone, it's a bit cathartic to write about it. I'm sure you won't mind. Or,  you'll just not read this far :)

Unfortunately I left my other memory card at my guesthouse, so I only have the pictures from the second half of my experience, but maybe I'll get some more up in coming days. Until next time!


  1. the picture of the sheep being tossed in the water was my favorite:) thanks for all the details and hilarious commentary!

  2. Sarah Vander BeekJuly 30, 2012 at 2:51 PM

    Sounds like an adventure! Neat peak into a simpler lifestyle :) And I cannot believe you don't like horses, you are lucky you had so much time with one!

  3. Love the photos! But your horse was too small for you! I sure laughed alot while reading this blog! Hope the PPD goes AWAY!!!! Miss you!

  4. yo, rock star! I miss you! This was awesome and made me reallllly grateful that I get to climb into bed tonight. And not eat every part of a goat. Or mare's milk. Ever.

    I'm wondering, is there a place to send you stuff along the way? An embassy? A post office? I have several memory cards I can forward to you. And maybe some anti-nausea stuff and some immodium for future "complications." Let me know and I'll firs this stuff off asap. Think of it as fair trade for my yummo vannila jasmine tea (which I am totally rationing and have had only once).

    You know, while I was in England, I noticed that a lot of time is spent just hanging out with each other. People just drop by and visit... for hours. Even at the little place that we were renting. Even when I was there by myself! Even when they didn't even know me! It was awesome. I think there's something to be said for being with people, and really being with them.

    One of my (newly minted) brother-in-law's friends builds sailboats and recently bought an old mill on the water. It's three stories, plus the functional equivalent of an attic on top. Each floor is well over 12-15 feet, and the building is hundreds of years old. Where the wall was falling apart, they knocked all of the weak stuff out and used those pieces and others salvaged from the site to reconstruct the walls. Daz is having a friend of his who specializes in historic restoration build new rafters and beams to maintain integrity and authenticity. This means that Joe has to hand hew all of the special curves and arches. It's a thing of beauty, and a testament to what matters. It's not about building something fast and cheap, but rather building something that will last for generations to come. It took my breath away, even before I scaled three flights of scaffolding to get to the top. Between you and me, I felt like quite a badass when I was at the top... but it all pales in comparison to the robust nature of your adventure and your lived experience. Rock right on.

    I'm off to bed. Peace out (and send me an address) - Biz

  5. Again, ball sack. Worth the price of admission right there.

  6. Loved that Sheep Shear. Was wondering how well it worked?

    Later........ Tom