This excerpt is taken from “The Desert Road to Turkestan” by Owen Lattimore, published in 1929. It is his incredible account of traveling with a camel caravan from a point west of Beijing to Urumchi in present-day Xinjiang, far western China. Highly recommended and on my short list of Best Travel Books Ever.
“Sheep buying is done by the Mongol usage. There is first a bargaining for quality – small sheep, good sheep, or pick of the flock, at different prices. It is usual to agree that good sheep are in question, at so much per head. The Mongol turns them out by the score, which he says are good. The buyer disputes this with scorn, making the Mongol change as many of them as he can. When at last the goodness of the herd as a whole has been admitted, the Mongol plunges among the sheep, seizes one, and cries “This is it!” “Not so, says the buyer; “it is the worst of a poor lot.” The buyer here is in the right, for I never saw a nomad, whether a Mongol, Qazaj, or Kirghiz, who failed to tackle the worst sheep with speed and skill. The Mongol protests and argues, but after awhile he seizes another; the argument begins afresh, but after several have been rejected the buyer in the upshot gets the mathematically average sheep from a mathematically average lot, the whole deal, with words and antics, having taken from half an hour to half a day.”
Owen Lattimore’s books are filled with information and lore about all kinds of things that one would encounter traveling with Mongols back in the 1920s, including the fine art of riding a bactrian (two-humped) camel.
“I have never been thrown by a camel when I was really trying to stick on unless the girth gave. Camels are too awkwardly built to do any fancy bucking, but when they do their best they can almost always burst the girth, because it is a healthy principle of camel-riding that the girth should always be weak. If the rider should be caught with a foot jammed in the stirrup when thrown or when the camel has managed to sling the saddle around under its belly it would be very serious. It is better to have the girth part and to be thrown clear, even though the fall is much higher than from a horse. As a matter of fact, the greater fall seems to let you hit the ground with muscles relaxed. I do not remember feeling badly shaken when falling from a camel, and the Mongols say: “Fall from a camel-nothing to worry about; fall from a donkey-break your leg.”
Taken from “Nomads and Commissars-Mongolia Revisited” by Owen Lattimore, Oxford University Press New York, 1962. I’ll be writing more about him in a future post, but suffice to say for now that Owen Lattimore was one of my inspirations for “getting involved” in Mongolia because of the affection he is held in by the Mongols for representing them and their culture accurately to the West, even to the point of being given a medal by the government.
This post, however, has a somewhat more prosaic theme….sheep, one of what the Mongols refer to as The Five Snouts, the others being horses, goats, camels and cattle/yaks.
“There are several breeds of Mongolian sheep, adapted to all kinds of pasture-from the high and cold to the low and sandy. While the horse has always been the noble animal, the sheep is economically indispensible to the old nomadic life. It is the only animal that supplies all the basic needs: food, clothing, housing, fuel. Besides meat, it provides milk for drinking and for making cheese. The hide with the fleece on makes the best heavy winter gown. The wool, matted into felt, covers the ger, the round, domed Mongol tent. (Nowadays, although the inner covering of the tent is still felt, which is the best insulator, the outer covering is normally of heavy white canvas, which sheds water well and absorbs less dust than felt.) When sheep are penned at night, they trample the dung that they drop. It gradually builds up in thickness, until it can be spaded out in rectangular bricks and burned as fuel. It makes a very hot fire, but its smoke is irritating to the eyes. The best dung-fuel is cow dung; the next best is camel dung. The most obvious mark of the different breeds or strains of the Mongolian sheep is the size of the tail, which varies from a small, goat-sized tail to a huge mass of fat weighing forty pounds or more.
One of the great successes of experimental cross-breeding in Mongolia has been the establishment of a new breed of sheep, the “Orkhon”. It has almost all the hardiness of the native breeds and a finer, longer staple of wool. good for modern machine-made textiles. It also produces a good mutton. ”
Don’t forget to check out my 2013 calendar filled with images of my paintings of Mongolia! It includes “Done for the Day”, which was accepted into the Society of Animal Artists prestigious juried show “Art and the Animal” in 2009.
Owen Lattimore was, in his time, considered one of the greatest western experts on Mongolia. He traveled extensively in what were then called Inner and Outer Mongolia in the 1930s. The former is now an autonomous region of China and the latter is the independent country of Mongolia. He revisited Mongolia in the early 1960s. I just finished his book “Mongol Journeys” and would have to say that it is one of the best books on Mongolia that I have read yet. It’s not easy to find, but you can currently get it here for a reasonable price.
I’d like to quote from it today about the traditional Mongol view of names for things. It’s a pretty good example of how untrue and simplistic the overgeneralizing statement is that “people are all alike”. In fact, people in different parts of the world operate from very different cultural assumptions which can, in equal parts, trip up, amuse or, with luck, enlighten a visitor and give them an insight into a different way of seeing the world.
For example, the exploration of America often consisted in being first to a place and then giving your name to it. If the name stuck, then it was the one that appeared on all maps henceforth down to today. We even get a kick out of places that have had the same place name for a very long time. For many Americans (I can speak only to my country, others may be the same though), the first thing they ask when arriving at a sight like a mountain or river or waterfall is to ask what it’s called.
But for the Mongols:
“Another very interesting thing about nomad life is the balance between the specific and the vague. In the Mongol vocabulary, for instance, the age, colour and individual characteristics of a horse or a camel or any other animal can be told with the most minute precision. There is also such an accurate terminology for different kinds of hills, ridges, plains, lakes, pools, streams and springs that you can get directions taking you across many miles of vague country without a mistake. On the other hand, it is often difficult to get a precise place name. A hill or a spring may have several names, of which some are descriptive and others honorific or propitiatory. The “real” name is likely to be taboo, so that if you ever hear it at all you are more likely to hear it when you are far away than when you are near it.
Why such taboos? Well, to begin with, if you are at a certain place you are obviously in some ways dependent on that place – for a safe camp, for good pasture and so on. It is better, therefore, to talk about that place vaguely in a ‘respectful’ way than exactly in a ‘familiar’ way. Even more important, perhaps, is that fact that, being a nomad, you do not want to be tied to any one place even by verbal associations. It is true that neither the Mongols nor any nomads are unlimited wanderers; you move in a framework which is partly the social frame of your tribe and partly the geographical frame of your tribe’s territory….the fact that you are a herder means that you always long for fluidity of movement. The Mongols, as nomads, call themselves nutel ulus, moving people….Your “homeland” is your nutuk (today this is spelled “nutag”)…your nutag is not only ‘the territory within which you move’ but ‘territory in which you are always moving about’.
Within this territory you do not want to be pinned down to any one place, nor do you want to be easily traced or spotted by an enemy (Note from Susan: this was written in the 1930s when there was still intertribal conflict and banditry in both Inner and Outer Mongolia). At the same time you do want your friends to be able to find you and you must be traceable by the authorities…..All of this explains why, when you are travelling and either asking your way or being asked from where you have come and where you are going, there are two extreme answers and any number of gradations in between; the vague answer and the exact answer. It all depends on the authority of the questioner and the degree to which the man questioned recognizes that authority and the necessity of being indentified or the desire to be traced. When, in short, you sometimes find yourself thinking that the nomad is frank and honest and at other times that he is evasive and a liar you must remember that this is as much a social convention as it is of personal veracity.”
My own personal experience with this whole cultural issue of place names was on my 2009 trip to Mongolia, heading south to Baga Gazriin Chuluu Nature Reserve. We stopped for lunch on a hillside with a view to an amazing mountain that rose out of the steppe. Naturally I asked what it was called. My guide/driver said “Hairhan”, which means “sacred”. Then he explained how the Mongols do not, out of respect, say the name of a mountain while in its presence. They are all called “Hairhan”. I observed that it got around the question like the one I had asked, that a visitor could ask the name, get an answer and be content, while the Mongol had preserved the correct cultural practice. And, in fact, I follow it myself now. If someone asks me the name of a mountain (they are all sacred since the top of a mountain is the closest one can get to Tenger, the Eternal Blue Sky), I say “Hairhan”, but also explain what that means and that I will tell them the “real name” once we are out of the mountain’s presence. It just feels like the right thing to do.