It’s milking time. Again. All hands on deck. The women of the Kazakh nomad community in Western Mongolia are in all-out commando mode. Their tongues click and arms wave as they chase their herds of goats and sheep into a pen. Hundreds of hooves dart this way and that, swirling and spinning, trying to avoid what’s coming next.
One woman uses her long cotton skirt like a whip, flicking it at the goats as she drives them toward the gate. At the last second, they make a hairpin turn and lose her. She puts on the brakes, exasperated.
The spectacle reminds me of the scene in Rocky where Rocky chases a chicken as part of his training, and I can’t help but chuckle, albeit quietly. It’s clear the ladies aren’t finding the situation as amusing.
Not all the animals are rebellious, a few run into the corral on their own. Hands immediately wrap around their horns or a back leg and drag them to a rope line. With the animals staggered, one facing north, the other south, they’re tied together as tight as sardines.
The majority, however, is defiant, scattering in all directions. The phrase “herding cats” crosses my mind more than once.
A few sheep escape by leaping over the four-foot log fence with the ease of a gazelle, only to be yanked back into the enclosure, defeated. Others leap into the pen and then look around befuddled as if wondering, what did I just do?
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During my two-week summer adventure in the Altai Mountains of western Mongolia, I’ve seen this spectacle of horns and hooves many times. It’s one of the chores assigned to the women and children, though sometimes the men chip in to tie up the animals, but never the milking.
The teat-pulling task doesn’t stop with their goats and sheep, they’re just the beginning. Whenever I visit a family’s ger, the women and children always seem to be just finished with milking, in the middle of milking, or on the cusp of milking. They milk the cows once a day, the herds of goats and sheep twice, and lactating mares 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, they live hundreds of miles from the nearest town or grocery store. They slaughter their own livestock and practically everything else they make is derived from milk. They make their own bread, butter, and yogurt, plus a variety of hard cheeses they produce by the truckload 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 the land will support grazing.
Once all of the goats and sheep are tied up, phase two begins. The older women sit behind all the woolly butts, teetering on tiny wooden stools the width of one butt cheek; the children kneel. They grip their pails between their thighs and not so gently tug on the teats of their captives, letting the warm white liquid fill their containers.
From start to finish this daily Kazakh tradition takes nearly two hours. It was exhausting just watching. Afterward, the herds are released and they run off into the hills to graze. In a matter of hours, it will happen all over again.
I can’t imagine multiplying this ordeal times two, in addition to milking the cows and the mares along with everything else the women do. They raise the kids, cook all the meals, and take care of the home. The Kazakh nomads live the gift of a simple life but it’s not for the faint of heart.
As I watch the hodgepodge of fuzz nibble on the grass in the distance, and the swoosh of the ladies’ skirts disappear into their gers, I feel a sense of awe. When I go home I’ll bask in the ease and variety of my local Trader Joe’s, but these Kazakh women have no such luck.
(The images above were taken over a few days with multiple families.)
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