No mad ?

Mongolia has fascinated me for a long time. I love its immense green steppes, wild horses, and friendly white yurts, its history of the empire of Genghis Khan, the traditional costumes reminiscent of Japanese Samurai culture and of course, the very essence of the country: its nomadic culture.

Living far from the madness of cities, without attachment to a specific place, and being able to pick up and leave overnight, is this not true freedom?

Trapped by our sedentary lives, it is hard to imagine that this way of life is still possible today. Our adventure at the heart of a Mongolian family granted us some very rewarding answers, but not necessarily those we expected.

Connect or disconnect?

We left at the beginning of September with the excellent German photographer, Max Muench, for the Disconnect collection of Fotolia by Adobe.

The flight over the capital, Ulan Bator, displayed the cultural and historic past of Mongolia. Between Russia and China, this immense country of boundless steppes was, long ago, the largest empire of all time.

Today, trapped between modernity and tradition, the country is in crisis. Half of its 350,000 inhabitants live as nomads. Some went to live in cities with the hope of a better life, others returned to live like their ancestors and left the ghettos of the capital, disappointed by the egotism of this society. It was necessary to return to the land.

The family we stayed with for a week had clearly made its choice: the steppes! It must have taken at least 30 hours to get to their home in one of the most remote parts of Mongolia. It was more an epic journey than a trip.

Our first meeting with Zula and his family was epic!

We had just arrived and were warmly welcomed with several glasses of vodka — Nine in all, three for tradition, three more to soothe body and soul, and three more for… eh, who cares why at that point :)?

This simple ritual had the benefit of instantly warming the body and loosening our tongues. Note that we had a choice — we just risked offending our hosts right at the beginning.

In the morning, the first step (somewhat shaky) outside the yurt left us speechless. The fog dissipated slowly, nature awoke ... Zula, in T-shirt on his bike, despite the poor degree above zero, was already at work since the first light.

#WinterIsComing, time is of the essence, winter will be long and harsh.

On the steppes, money is not worth much

Here, wealth is counted not in money or goods, but in the number of animals acquired during various trades or inheritances. As an example, there are more horses than people in Mongolia.

The sheep, yaks, and cows are the lifeblood of the nomads. They use the animals’ hides to stay warm, their meat and milk to feed themselves, and they ride the horses and camels.

Within the family, everyone does what they can to help. The children herd the animals, the older people milk them and then process the milk for storage and transportation.

The milk is used to make cheese, fermented milk, milk fat, and a kind of goat milk vodka using knowledge passed down from generation to generation. In this way, they can gain the maximum benefit from each animal and survive under extremely harsh conditions.

The challenge is to do all of this while respecting this environment that provides the necessities for survival. This means not polluting the rivers that quench the thirst of both people and animals, and not destroying the forests that warm them. All of this requires an understanding of the natural world surrounding them.

Free to Move with the Times

Many people think that the Mongolian nomads avoid technology and modernity. This is clearly a common misconception.

Despite their very simple and traditional way of life, they have borrowed several conveniences from the modern world. A solar panel powers a battery that lights the yurt when night comes, an emergency phone attached to a post symbolizes the single link with the rest of the world, cobbled together motorbikes from the Soviet era transport them at night (without headlights) through the shadows of the Mongol steppes and a van allows them to transport wood and hay to warm themselves and feed the animals.

This blend of the modern and the traditional is not without its charms. I remember in particular, this time when Zula came to our yurt to drop off a goat’s head, freshly killed, in our yurt (between the drums of fermenting milk and the drying goat stomachs for good luck.

This close link that connects the family to the modern world also shows up once a month when Baata, Zula’s wife, goes back to Karakorum (the former capital of Mongolia) to trade a bit of cheese and meat for vegetables to round out their meals and gas to fuel their vehicles.

The Importance of Education

As more proof of their modernity, the Mongols are well-educated. Zula and Baata were born into a nomad family and like many children, they went to school in the city when they were 10 years old.

Zula stayed there until he was 25 years old. He first earned a degree in Economics before becoming a Ranger, taking care of the forests and animals. The call of the wild was too strong for him and so he returned to his nomadic life. Today, just as he did, his children stay at a boarding school during the week, despite the seemingly endless journey that separates them from the city.

This experience is essential in Mongolian culture, as it enables the children to make their own decision about what they would like to do later in life: stay in the city and try to make something of themselves in a modern society in crisis or return to nature.

I admit that for a person in their twenties, this is a no-win situation. Mongolia suffers from a high rate of unemployment, which is even worse during the winter. In the city, you can find a dynamic youth scene that only has to worry about pollution and unemployment. They crowd the bars and share everything through social networks (yes, just like we do). Talk to them about abandoning this life to end up “isolated” on the steppes and they will laugh in your face.

At the same time, we can see how it is not so easy to imagine yourself spending the winter in a yurt (when temperatures can reach -50° C) completely cut off from the world, without even seeing the rest of the world for months.

Half-nomad, Half-sedentary

As incredible as it may seem, the nomads do not cross long distances that often. In my mind, I imagined that they changed locations each year, traveling hundreds of kilometers, but no, when they find a good spot for their livestock, they settle down just like that.

If nomads move regularly, it is for a single, simple, good reason: the grazing. The animals must always have something to eat. And so, as the seasons move on, the nomads go farther and farther until they reach their winter camp.

Here, they live in harmony with nature, taking advantage of its blessings, but also subject to the threats that lurk around them. During our stay, two sheep and a goat were killed by wolves. Zula, as a former Ranger, does not hesitate to track them to preserve his resources.

What looks like a game when he shows us his sniper skills is, in fact, a constant hunt and an invisible pressure that hovers over every night on the plateau.

Although isolated, the nomads are not alone. They all know each other and help each other out. They don’t hesitate to spend a day working to help a nearby family harvest hay for the winter. A day repaid with the loan of a tractor that will save Zula and his wife several days of hard labor. It is a fair trade.

Finally, what appears to us to be survival is just life. The tasks are simple and varied, difficult but gratifying. As with our trip to the Philippines for Disconnect, we felt reconnected and conscious of the delicate balance that governs our world.

Nomad Designer?

Often, when my friends and I are discussing the problems of our modern world, we reach the same conclusion — we are too attached to our belongings.

Our society pushes to maintain the borders that clearly define our country. We put ourselves into debt for life in order to own a home that we will have a hard time leaving despite its problems. We become addicted and totally dependent on small, everyday objects while forgetting what is truly important. We refuse to make choices in life out of fear of losing benefits. We follow rules imposed by a system that we are always criticizing.

Yes, I know, it’s a bleak picture. I am deliberately exaggerating as, even if I tend to stay optimistic and always try to get more out of life, I, myself, am the worst example.

In order to fight against this system that is eating me alive, I travel farther and farther. It is the only thing that gives me a real feeling of freedom, but even then, I admit that I love coming back home and rediscovering the joys of my comfort zone.

There, where the nomadic culture made such an impression on me, this idea is applied on a constant basis. I remain convinced that it is the key to living a fulfilled life. When I was writing this article, I found this study conducted at the Cornell University that completely agreed with me!

Nor should we lie about it, the nomadic life is difficult. While it is by default for some and by desire for others, it is for the most part out of frustration that many Mongols return to the nomadic life. The precarious conditions of life in the city and the very high rate of unemployment lead many families to leave the ghettos of Ulan Bator to return to a simple life.

It’s funny, but when I ask my friends where their ideal place to live was, the most common answer was: “different places in the world depending on the season.”

Personally, when I think about my future as an “Independent Designer,” this is exactly what I would like to do. I am lucky enough to be in a profession that allows me to work anywhere in the world, so why not?

Meanwhile, I decided to rejoin Genghis Khan’s army!

I wrote this article with my "bro" Axel who also handles the voice and music of our videos at What The Film.

What We Remember about Mongolia

  • An amazing human adventure with very welcoming people, smiling and lovely all the time
  • Breathtaking scenery and animals everywhere that gave you a feeling of complete freedom
  • Completely disconnected, no electricity (or not much), no mobile phones, no internet, no showers, no toilets…
  • The essential need for an on-site “fixer” to organize the tour. If you would like to go to Mongolia, I can honestly recommend it my friends!
  • A fascinating ancestral culture
  • Memorable meals in a yurt with the obligation to taste the local dishes out of respect :)
  • My Mongol Warrior outfit, which really made them laugh

Purchase Max Muench photos

Note that you can purchase most of the photos Max Müench presented in this article by visiting here (almost 40 photos) and 15 videos we produced, all in HD.

Remember that the three other series with Sonia Szostak, Brice Portolano and Théo Gosselin are still available on the Fotolia by Adobe site.