The diminutive figure of a Mongolian woman came wading across the icy river near where we were camped. Holding her boots up high, fast flowing, foamy rapids threatened to swamp her as she struggled to find her footing. Pulling herself up onto the bank a few metres from where I was standing, she looked up at me, smiled a weathered grin and pulled her herder’s boots back on.
I smiled a big greeting back to her then greeted her with the Mongolian equivalent of hello. “Sain bainu”. “Say sain bainu” she said back to me, her eyes crinkling up at the corners.
I am always so happy when I travel and am lucky enough to meet the local people in the countryside. I asked her with sign language if she had any children and she held up four fingers. I walked to the Fergon (Russian van) that we were travelling in and pulled out five hand knitted colourful beanies for her children and one for herself. I held the light blue one up for her and she put it on her small head, pulling it down over her ears.
She thanked me in the Buddhist way by clasping her hands together and bowing slightly then hurried off along the river bank. An hour later a man came ambling over to our camp on his horse, with two little girls walking alongside of him. I guessed it was the woman’s husband and daughters. The girls carried between them, the round plastic lid of a large drum, loaded with fresh yaks cream for us.
This is just one of the many rewarding experiences we had with the gentle Mongolian people this year.
Earlier in the year, when we were planning another overland trip in Mongolia, I decided that I wanted to do something for the poorer Mongolian families. An idea had been formulating around what I could do for the folks we have contact with, each year.
These are the nomadic herder’s and their families who live out on the steppe. We meet them all throughout Mongolia, deep in the Gobi and in very remote places, at wells where they are watering their goats, sheep and camels. In the afternoons as we are setting up our tents, is when these gentle people often come to visit us, on motorbikes, horses and on foot no matter where we are.
The Beanie Project:
I put a compassionate word out to lots of my friends and asked them to donate warm, knitted clothes and beanies for small children and babies. I wanted the ‘giving’ to be more personal than handing something anonymously to an organised charity. Our Airlines agreed to allocate us an extra 5kgs each on “compassionate grounds.”
As it turned out it was an extra good year for a project such as this one, as the previous winter had been extreme and bitterly cold. Unforgiving and a threat to their survival, the icy temperatures dropped to minus 50 and took the lives of many people and millions of their animals….their very livelihood.
It was the most severe winter, they had experienced for over 30 years. Many of the families will never recover from these losses. For the herders, their animals are their livelihood, their only food source and there’s usually not much money left over for clothes.
I asked friends to knit and send beanies. Many fabulous women did just that.
I felt absolutely overwhelmed when I opened the two huge bags, which came in the post and found them full of the most delightful colorful beanies, jumpers, gloves and booties. What treasures these women are! Some women who travelled with us also bought colourful warm cosy clothes, which they had knitted themselves.
The result was that we ended up distributing over sixty kilos of clothes to forty five Mongolian families. Memories of distributing these clothes are priceless. There were many special moments, giving those lovingly knitted clothes away.
One tiny girl in one of the remote towns came to us, holding some little felt camels that her mother had made. She stood there, hoping that we would buy one, in her thin cotton dress, her little body, shivering in the icy wind. I found a warm woolly jumper in the car and helped her pull it over her head. She beamed at me through chattering teeth.
As we travelled overland, we met families at wells where they were watering their animals. A young girl whirled and whirled in her new cardigan before running to her father’s motorbike to peer at her self in the tiny mirror, a look of absolute glee on her face. We distributed clothes all over the countryside, wherever we saw the opportunity.
Stopping in a rocky gorge to camp, one afternoon, a man with his teenage daughter and baby girl came over to us on a motorbike. I asked (with sign language) whether there were other children. A nod was the reply and we loaded them up with some winter woollies. Before long there was another family and another and then another. We finally ran out of clothes and I ended up parting with my own woolly scarf for one of the young women.
I could replace mine…she couldn’t! The next morning a man and woman came to our camp on a motor bike. The woman was balancing a jug full of milk, warm and straight from the goat which she gave to us as a gift. It was delicious.
Out of all the contact we made with these gentle nomadic families, one moment sticks in my mind the most. We had stopped to look at an old monastery in a very remote part in the Gobi Desert. I saw two young adolescent females at the well a couple of hundred metres away. I walked over to them with a bundle of clothes for a few different age groups. They were pushing a heavy trolley with two very large milk cans filled with water on it, walking back to their Ger.
“I am from Australia,” I said and the younger girl smiled a big grin and said, “I speak a little English. I have come home to help my grandmother prepare for the winter“. I asked her if there were small children in the gers surrounding the Monastery. When she said yes, I gave her the bag of clothes and told her that some Australian women had knitted them for the Mongolian children. She was quite overwhelmed and as we parted she said to me with heartfelt feeling, “I love you“.
This post is written by Rensina van den Heuvel, a passionate Overland Adventurer in Mongolia. Join her on one of her trips to Mongolia or Morocco.