Travelers are often called nomads. And I think each of us has felt like they deserve that title. Staying in a place for two or three nights, then moving on to the next. Never settling for too long because just behind the horizon, there’s another place to explore. But I never learned the real meaning of the word nomad until I went to Mongolia. What if being a nomad isn’t just for a set period in life? What if it is forever and involves your family, your cattle and everything you own? Never being in the same spot twice, always on the move. Welcome to Mongolia, a country as large as Quebec (and for those of you who are not Canadian, Quebec is a couple of times the size of France). Despite its huge size, Mongolia only has three million inhabitants, almost half of which live in its capital Ulaan Baator. The rest is spread out across a couple of towns and the countryside, living everywhere from the Gobi Desert to the grasslands and the high mountains. Some herd camels, other reindeer. Almost everyone owns a mixed herd of goats and sheep.
Since Mongolia’s soil is not very fertil and the windy summers and freezing winters barely allow for plants to grow, the grass that covers the countryside is vulnerable. Stay in one place for too long and your cattle will eat it until nothing is left. Mongolians didn’t stay nomads by choice when everyone around them settled down. But they are now and they are proud of it. They have every reason to be proud. I never understood the whole concept of being a nomad until I sat in a ger, eating the best yoghurt I’ve ever had in my life and listening to the family’s tales. Our guide translated that they had moved a week ago and had come from fifty kilometers away. That it took them an hour to take down a ger. That they load everything they own on a truck and then just drive off to another place. That they’re haply about seeing us because news spread mostly through visitors. That no, they don’t build a toilet here, they use the non-existing bushes. And no, there is no running water either.
I still don’t think I really understand what being a nomad means. But I have learned more about a culture I had heard about but could not relate to. And I now have some deep respect for those people who were born as nomads, always on the move. I might move from one place to another but their life is in no way similar to what I am doing. They are nomads in a very different way.