The Kazakh women and children were in all out commando mode. Their tongues clicked and their arms flailed as they chased the herds of goats and sheep into a pen over and over again. Hundreds of hooves darted this way and that, swirling and spinning, trying to avoid what was coming next.
One woman used her long cotton skirt like a whip, flicking it at the goats she was driving towards the gate. At the last second they made a hairpin turn and lost her. She put on the brakes, exasperated.
The spectacle reminded me of that comical scene in Rocky when he chased a chicken around a room, and I couldn’t help but chuckle, albeit quietly. It was clear that my hosts didn’t find the situation as amusing.
Not all the animals were rebellious, a few ran into the corral, chewed their cud and waited. It wasn’t long before a hand grabbed them by a horn or a back leg and dragged them to a rope line where they were tied at the neck, smashed together like sardines. But most were defiant, scattering in all directions. “Herding cats” came to mind more than once.
A few sheep escaped by leaping over the four-foot log fence with the ease of a gazelle, only to be yanked back into the enclosure, defeated. Others not wanting to be left behind would leap in to the pen and then look around as if wondering, “Uh oh, what did I just do?”
During my two-week summer adventure in the Altai Mountains of Mongolia, I saw this spectacle of horns and hooves on several occasions. It’s one of the chores assigned to women and children, though sometimes the men chipped in to tie up the herds but never the milking.
The teat-pulling task didn’t stop with the goats and sheep—they were just the beginning. When I visited each ger, the women and children always seemed to be just finished with milking, in the middle of milking or on the cusp of milking. They milked the cows once a day, the herds of goats and sheep twice, and lactating mares were pulled every two hours.
Why so much milking?
On the whole, a Kazakh’s diet consists of meat and dairy products. There’s no agriculture to speak of. As nomads, living hundreds of miles from the nearest town or grocery store, they slaughter their own livestock and almost everything else is derived from some kind of milk.
They make their own bread, butter and yogurt, plus a variety of hard cheeses they produce by the truck load and store for the winter. Their dependence on animals is the cornerstone of their culture. They move up to six times a year based on where land will support grazing.
Once all of the goats and sheep were tied up, phase two began. The women sat behind all the woolly butts, teetering on tiny wooden stools the width of one butt cheek—the children kneeled. They gripped their pails between their thighs and not so gently tugged on the teats of their captives, letting the warm white liquid fill their containers.
From start to finish the escapade took nearly two hours. When they were done the herd was released and allowed to graze. I was exhausted just watching. I couldn’t imagine multiplying the ordeal times two, plus the cows and the mares and everything else the women did such as raise the kids, cook all the food and take care of the home. The Kazakhs live the gift of a simple life but it’s not for the faint of heart.
As I watched the hodgepodge of fuzz walk off into the distance and the swoosh of the ladies’ skirts disappear into their gers, I felt a sense of awe for the women I’d met. I knew I’d go home and bask in the ease and variety of my local Trader Joe’s. But these Kazakh women, they’d have no such luck.
(The images above were taken over a series of days with multiple families.)
For more stories and photos from my visit to Mongolia click HERE.