A few years ago, a family of nomadic Kazakhs living in the far reaches of northwestern Mongolia allowed me to share their home and their lives for several weeks. It was December and the temperature was dangerously low, hovering around -40°F on a good day. Food was limited to mutton that had been butchered from their herds along with the occasional carrot or onion and some bread that had been trucked in for the benefit of the gringa guest. We warmed ourselves over fires fueled by coal or dried dung while sipping hot tea that had been salted and made with mare's milk. There was no electricity, except for a few rare solar panels, no running water, and nowhere to go for help should something go wrong. We were hours from the nearest town, with no roads, no telephones, no doctors.
What, for me, was an exciting adventure was, for my host family, a daily reality. Their lives were dominated by simple facts that I have too often taken for granted: clean water, safe food, shelter. Time and again I was struck by my own naiveté regarding the world around me. While I was cozy warm in my $300 expedition-weight down suit and being squeamish about the particulars of hunting, my hosts were wearing clothes made from local wool and fur, fur that required risky horseback pursuits over miles of frozen ground and hunts that were dangerous for the men as well as for the prey. I once jokingly complained about a caffeine headache brought on by the lack of my greatest vice, soda, but abruptly shut up when a man appeared one night; he had just ridden 30 miles on horseback to ask me if I had a single aspirin for his sick child. And then there were the politely covetous stares I got wherever I went, stares that made me feel like maybe I was something special until I realized that they were focused not on me, but on my waterproof boots.
At the time I was there, one of the biggest problems facing the herders was snow. What seemed like a few scant inches to a Chicagoan like me, was worrisome to people who depend upon year-round grazing to keep their herds alive. Cultivated fodder is rare and even a small covering of snow can freeze solid, preventing the animals from reaching the grass beneath. Without healthy horses and camels, daily tasks would be impossible; without sheep there would be no wool for clothes, for blankets, for the yurts used in the summertime, and no food. For the poorer families, the loss of a single animal could be disastrous. For the wealthier ones, the loss of a herd could mean a complete change in fortunes and a completely different future.
In the years since my visit, the pattern of snowfall has continued to worsen and the hard winters have taken a toll. This year, following a dry summer which produced poor grazing, heavy snows and extreme cold have already caused the deaths of up to 4.5 million livestock. Another three million are at risk of dying before warm weather returns in early June. Thousands of human lives are impacted by these losses.
In response, the International Red Cross
today issued an emergency appeal
to aid Mongolian herders. The United Nations has also stepped in, hoping to help herding families with work for food programs aimed at disposing of the livestock carcasses. It is hoped that such efforts will prevent the onset of disease that inevitably follows so much death.
Although the realities of life in such a cold and remote place can be harsh, the people I met in Mongolia were warm, friendly and generous. They opened their homes to me, sharing their food and the warmth of their fires. They gave me a valuable horse to ride and showed me a landscape that amazed me. I spent Christmas with them, as well as the New Year holiday, an amazing celebration during which I learned about the art of toasting and gleefully got schooled in the drinking of warm vodka by an 86-year-old grandmother. We talked about the changing world, about their desire to see a better for future for their kids. They shared their concerns about how Americans view Muslims. They listened to my iPod and, in turn, sang their traditional songs for me.
It was the opportunity of a lifetime for me, a chance to see a very different way of life, one that is, in many ways, richer than my own, and I will forever be grateful for the experience. Now it's time to give something back. Please join me by donating to the Red Cross
. Lend a helping hand to these people who live, as their ancestors have lived for thousands of years before them, in one of the most beautiful and unspoiled places on Earth. Give them the opportunity to perpetuate their way of life and, in doing so, save a part of the human heritage.
1) A Kazakh hunter and his eagle scout prey atop a frozen ridge (Jennifer Jellen)
2) Cattle head out to graze at sunrise (Jennifer Jellen)
3) A Kazakh hunter feeds his eagle (Jennifer Jellen)
4) The author (mounted at far right) and friends go out for a ride (Bolotbek)