On a trip like this there are many things one misses – running water, cold drinks, familiar food. But there are other absences that contribute to the positive aspects of being here.
One is the absence of artificial light. Although most gers now have solar panels that generate electricity to fuel a single, high efficiency light bulb, these are used sparingly and are always inside the windowless gers. Thus, even where there is a human presence on the steppe, itself a rarity, there is still no light to compete with the dazzling display of stars that wash the sky with an intensity impossible to experience in a more urbanized place.
Sounds too are far more intense without the competition of automobiles, airplanes, and mechanical gadgetry. And they travel long distances: the drumming of the hooves of a hundred sheep and goats; the whinny of a horse; the metallic rattle of a water can being wheeled to fill at the bend of a meandering stream.
Last night a thunder storm rolled across the valley in which we were staying. We could hear it for hours coming, then receding beyond the farthest ridge. The sound of the rain drops made mesmerizing music on the absorbing surfaces of grass, soil, and the felt of our sheltering ger.
I like the absence of a schedule, save that provided by the sun and punctuated by the twice-daily milking of our hosting families’ cows. Many of the herders we have visited own clocks, but the time they show often bears no relation to the abstract system the rest of the world has constructed to track the hours. There must be calendars too, but I have not seen them. Given the uncertainty of the weather and seasons here, the herders are better served by observing their surroundings and responding accordingly.
Since grazing can differ widely from one valley to the next, from one month to another, and from year to year, the seasonal shifts in a nomadic family’s location are often quite different. In this case, the absence of a schedule is key to survival. “We do not lead our animals,” one experienced herder explained to me when I asked about moving. “They lead us.”
That kind of perspective changes the way one thinks. In Mongolia the absence of a line between self-determination and reaction to forces beyond one’s control may be the most telling absence of all.