Kazakh Nomads and the Importance of Tea

Toddler boy Kazakh at door of ger at Mongolia

We sit on the ground around a low wooden table waiting for the day to begin. It’s overcast, threatening rain, and the ger is dim, throwing everything into monochrome. A pot of boiling milk sits on top of a battered wood-burning stove in the center of the room, and I watch as steam rises into the air in thick white wisps.

I’m in the middle of a two-week Mongolian adventure and it’s turning out to be one of the most fascinating trips of my many travels.

A woman adds more goat, sheep and cow's milk to a large metal pan on the wood burning stove that is will eventually be made into cheese Photographing Kazakh Nomads in Mongolia
A woman adds goat, sheep and cow’s milk to a large metal pan on the wood burning stove. Eventually, this concoction will be strained, dried and cut into large chunks of hard cheese

We’re about to have tea, a tradition that kicks off all of our daily Kazakh visits in the Altai mountains of western Mongolia.

Kazakhs consider hospitality a sacred duty, a symbol of respect and admiration. It’s an intrinsic part of their culture and fuels their close-knit community even though they may live hundreds of miles away from each other.

Their commitment to congeniality means that they hate to say no, and I quickly learn that I have to be careful what I ask for so I don’t put anyone on the spot—especially since my humor doesn’t always translate.

Cow in the doorway in Mongolia
A curious cow wanted so much to come into the family ger.

I once jokingly asked an elder and former eagle hunter if I could have an eagle. He responded through our translator—his unease palpable—that he didn’t think the airlines would allow a live eagle on board but if they said yes he would do his best to find one for me. I didn’t joke much after that.

Kazakh Tea

On the table, before us is a traditional tea: Two types of hard cheese (Qurt, a white cheese, and Khizil irimshik, a red cheese), both made from a combination of goat, sheep and cow’s milk, the latter boiled longer, are broken into large chunks and placed in separate bowls. There is freshly churned butter that I could eat by the spoonful, a bowl of mild sour cream, a plate of store-bought cookies (bought perhaps on a trip to Ulgii the nearest city a couple hundred miles away), and bauirsak, two-inch-long, pillow-shaped pieces of fried dough.

Having tea with a Kazakh woman and her children
Having tea with a Kazakh woman and her children
A sickly grandfather kisses the head of a young boy in mongolia
A sickly grandfather kisses the head of his young grandson who had just got up on the bed beside him for a snuggle

Bauirsak is my snack of choice and I have eating it down to a science. I break the crust vertically with my thumb, fill the crevice with butter and eat the whole thing in two bites. If I am feeling particularly badass, I add sour cream on top with a sprinkle of grated red cheese sweetened with sugar.

Kneeling down next to the table, our hostess pours Suutei tsai (strained black tea with milk and water) into pretty floral china bowls and hands one to each of us. “Raqmet,” we say in return. Thank you. She smiles and nods her head towards the food on the table. I grab a baurisak and take a healthy swig of my tea as she watches.

This Kazakh woman cut huge bricks of cheese Photographing Kazakh Nomads in Mongolia
This Kazakh woman cut huge bricks of cheese with what looked like dental floss into smaller chunks that she placed on an outdoor rack to dry in the sun.

We’re offered kumis, fermented mares milk  in the same bowls in which we had our tea. Kazakhs LOVE kumis. Milk straight out of a mare is 40% higher in lactose than cows milk and can act as a formidable laxative. Fermentation breaks down the lactose making it easier on the stomach. It also adds a fair amount of fizz and a few of my fellow travelers really enjoy it. I prefer to get my fizz fix from Diet Coke.

There are days when we see two or three families in a row and on every visit we begin with tea.  I confess I don’t always want to sit. Sometimes I am in a photographic groove and I don’t want to stop. Or sometimes I’m just full. Our camp chef keeps us well fed. In these moments I’m pretty sure I’m going to hell. Such a gracious and lovely custom and here I am the A.D.D. American wishing we could skip it altogether.

Shy little Kazakh girl hugs her mother in Mongolia
A shy little girl (our translator Nurka’s niece) stayed close to her mother when we first arrived
Little Kazakh girl puts Bauirsak in a plastic bag
Moments later, she was all smiles putting freshly baked Bauirsak into a plastic bag at her mother’s request
Family portrait with women and children in Mongolia
Ok, so not everyone enjoyed being photographed

The Ger

Occasionally, a family member opens the door of the ger and a fleeting rectangle of light reveals a dome exploding with color. Brightly colored tapestries line a lattice skeleton, while embroidered fabrics and embellishments in vivid red, orange and yellow adorn almost everything else.

Wolf pelts hang on the wall next to wedding photos and images of dead loved ones. A dombra—a teardrop-shaped string instrument with a long neck—dangles from a hook. A collection of medals—won over the years for school graduations, wrestling competitions and horse races—are carefully pinned to a piece of tasseled velvet and proudly displayed where any visitor is sure to see them. Everywhere there is something interesting to look at. Each object, a clue to a fascinating culture worlds apart from my own.

Old kazakh woman sitting in a chair in Mongolia
An older woman with very bad knees and terribly swollen ankles had a hard time walking and used the crutch behind her

The Floor Plan

The gers we visit are always laid out the same, though each family adds their own decor and personal touches. Imagine the ger is a clock and the back opposite the door is 12 o’clock—that is where a low table is placed and where most of the time they gather with guests.

Between 12 pm and 3 pm: one or two wrought iron beds are positioned parallel to the wall.

At 4 pm: a curtain hangs, behind it there’s food hidden from view.

Photographer shooting a little Kazakh girl in Mongolia
A fellow photographer speaks to a little Kazakh girl while photographing her

Between 4 pm – 5 pm: a cabinet or shelving unit holds cooking supplies and more food.

At 5 pm: large urns and stainless still pots, a butter churn or a contraption that looks like a hammock for straining cheese often stands.

At 6 pm: the door.

7 Pm: more daily supplies and at 8 pm – 12 pm are more beds depending on the size of the family. Tucked between the major items I see clothes and pillows, saddles and personal items. (In one ger, a more wealthy Kazakh family has satellite TV.)

In the center of it all, there’s a wood burning stove.

Boiled milk being strained in Mongolia
Boiled sheep, horse and goat’s milk is strained through fabric over iron pots
A battered wood burning stove, the only source of heat in the gers we visited

A Nomadic Culture

Kazakhs originally immigrated to Mongolia from Kazakhstan in the 1800s, and are one of the few authentic nomadic cultures still in existence. Four times a year they move their families and livestock (horses, goats, and sheep) following milder climates with fields for grazing. A ger is only used in the summer. The rest of the year they live in one-room homes made of wood, mud, and dung.

Baby Kazakh Mongolian in a crib
Kazakh crib: Our translator’s second niece.. It’s hard to tell from this photo but she’s tied to a wooden plank cushioned by layers of fabric so that she doesn’t fall off

There’s no running water (they set up shop near to a lake, river or large stream), no bathrooms (just crouch behind a well-placed rock) and no refrigeration. The only heat comes from the stove. They slaughter their own livestock and make nearly everything they eat from scratch. Their diet is predominantly meat and dairy products.

The more I spend time with the Kazakhs the more the Little House books I read as a child spring to mind. The simplicity of those characters’ lives, though difficult and requiring a great deal of hard work, are alive and well in the Altai mountains just as it had been in the United States in the 1800’s. I felt transported back in time to the prairie of yesteryear, albeit a Kazakh version.

Young Kazakh girl churns butter in Mongolia
Young Kazakh girl churns butter in a ger in the Altai Mountains, Mongolia

Photographing My Lovely Hosts

After tea, and sometimes during tea—though never without asking first— we’re able to photograph our hosts as they move about their gers working on this or that, or in some cases they are kind enough to sit for portraits.

The light inside a ger is beautiful. A flap at the top of the conical roof adjusts the amount of light that hits the interior, keeps out the rain and controls ventilation.  With the flap pulled back it can be very bright but I have a thing for the dramatic and I gravitate to the moodier moments when the flap is nearly closed and light falls into the space in soft shafts.

Three Kazakh children in the doorway of a ger
A very important powwow

It’s time for milking or some other chore says our translator and I see that our hostess looks worried. I can tell she doesn’t want to be rude but feels pressure to move on with her day. We immediately thank her and she smiles, the red patches on her wind-worn cheeks bunching up into a radiant smile.

She would stay serving us for hours if we asked. A gracious and kind host to say the least but we take pity on her and say goodbye, letting the ger door close silently behind us.

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148 thoughts on “Kazakh Nomads and the Importance of Tea

  1. Chris Riley says:

    Gosh, the character in that old ladies face. Amazing. What a privilege to have been able to spend time with this community, and to see their simplistic life style up close. Caused me to reflect how complicated we tend to make our lives. Well done on the award you received. Well deserved. Your articles are always such a pleasure to read. And – don’t fret about clogging up our emails with your posts. Some posts are so worth receiving, and I’m sure we’re all capable of skimming and filtering if we’re starting to get overwhelmed.

      • intrepid8 says:

        From the way you tell it these Kazakhs remind me a lot of the Mongols during the time of Genghis Khan. I am writing an article series on the impact of Mongols on world history.

        It’d be great to have you add a word or two to my finds.

  2. threesacrowdplusOne says:

    Hi Susan I am new to blogging and am following you:) I, too, have a touch of ADD and sometimes can’t make it through long discourse….but yours, ah, I feasted on it! Loved your intimate portrayals of the people, your photos of course and my favourite was of the woman with that beautiful smile. That is one of the best closeups of a face I have seen….so much of the woman shone through your photo. I so look forward to following you more, thankyou:)

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Thank you so much! I really appreciate the kind words and you taking the time to check out my post. It means so much. Welcome to the blog and I am glad you’ll return. If you want, you can sign up for email alerts to receive my posts in your inbox. 🙂

  3. Kevin Tröger says:

    Wow…your photos are just…i don’t know, they chatch all facets of the moment and this is what makes somebody a photographer, in my eyes!

    Thank you for sharing them!
    My favourite is the “What a radiant smile!”-woman!


  4. rebekahleemays says:

    What beautiful photos you’ve taken! I especially love the “radiant smile” and the “happiest baby ever.” It speaks to the talent of the photographer to get people comfortable enough to show a little bit of their souls to you.

    Thanks for sharing these with us!


  5. Voluntariado Carchi, Simón says:

    Hi again,

    My goal is to apply for a schollarship if its possible to find anyone that covers my flights and some extra payments that I cannot cover by my self. Do you know any of hose schollarships?

    Thank you for your help¡¡


  6. Johnny Friskilä says:

    Very nice post, this is exactly how I like travel blogs to be: high quality photos that tells a story. You catch the light inside the yurta very well, and I do get curious on the lenses you use and if you have done some kind of special treatment of your pics afterwards. 🙂

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Thank you very much!

      I used a variety of lenses. In these, I switched between a 16-35mm f2.8, 24-105 f2.8, 50mm f1.4. Yes, I do some post processing work in Lightroom and I shoot in RAW. 🙂

  7. Michael says:

    These pictures are beautiful! You can tell by the photos that you had gained the trust of the people and they felt comfy. So nice! We are also traveling to Mongolia in September, taking the train from Europe.
    I follow your your Blog for a while now and it is honestly my fav 🙂 Best wishes and happy travels, Michael

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Wow.. You’ve made my day Michael. I’m so flattered by your kind words about my work and my blog. Thank you very very much.
      Very exciting about your trip. Are you going to be in the Altai mountains at all?

  8. sashafromrussia says:

    Stunning photography as ever! This time my favorites would be the portraits of kids 🙂 Also the colours – so vibrant, amazing! Also the “clock” approach to the description of the tea table and the ger layout is fun to follow. Great job Susan!

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Thank you, Sasha! I love the kids too. I’ve never wanted to have any but I love photographing them. I’m so glad that the clock description worked, thanks for letting me know. 🙂

  9. shubhammansingka says:

    Wow! Thanks for this slice of culture and history and the photographs are epic. I recently stayed in Ladakh with the nomadic community too and their dwellings are very similar to the Ger too. 🙂 Cheers.

  10. breathingpark says:

    Nice post. Thanks for a nice combo. On 12 Aug 2016 7:47 p.m., “The Insatiable Traveler” wrote:

    > Susan Portnoy posted: “We sat on the ground around a low wooden table > waiting for the day to begin. It was overcast, threatening rain and the ger > was dim, throwing everything into monochrome. A pot of boiling milk sat on > top of a battered wood-burning stove in the center of the” >

  11. lilisar says:

    Great photos and very interesting stories! Who needs GEO magazine??:-) Seeing all those gorgeous colourful embroideries made me quite envious, too. I’m such a lover of fabrics and stitching! I definitely would have bought an embroidered bag, too…

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Thank you, Suzanne! There was embroidery everywhere it seemed in the gers. The bags were quite lovely. I’m sure you would have bought one too if you have a penchant for embroidery.

  12. Corporate Angels, LLC says:

    Love this article, and the pureness of this lifestyle. I sometimes wish we could go back to that. When the food isn’t genetically modified, babies aren’t sent to VPK…..

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      I was pretty far west. The tea I was given didn’t have much salt that I could taste but I’m also not a big tea drinker I don’t really have a comparison. Yak curd I missed. Should I be happy I did or is it good?

      • Crank & Cog says:

        It’s very much a required taste and varies regionally, I’ve tried goat curd which ain’t bad but yak curd is a taste that I miss, it’s packed with calcium, protein and energy. Great for hungry cyclists with disappearing waistlines!

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