Good morning from Mongolia! After a long journey, Billy and Grampa Goat have arrived and are meeting World Vision goats for the first time.
Read about this first leg of their journey, and the cooperation between people and animals that keeps the harsh winter at bay.
When my grandkid Billy and I first dreamed up the idea of taking a retirement trip around the world, he was so excited and got down to planning right away. I have to admit that I was a little nervous: two goats who have never been far outside our little corner of America, crossing the Pacific and exploring two of the world’s biggest continents!
The purpose of our trip is to experience and bring back to you the wonderful stories of how other goats live around the world. We’re fascinated by their cultures, and have heard amazing tales of how helpful goats can be in World Vision’s communities to the people they serve.
But at 17, I’m not young anymore. And the whole point of exploring other cultures means being a part of and living among something different. It’s been a while since I tried something entirely different. Old goats don’t take easily to new pastures.
But now that we’ve flown across the Pacific, then again halfway across Asia, and then drove hours and hours into the heartland of Mongolia, I’m thrilled to be able to tell you that all my worries were for naught!
Though long, our journey wasn’t difficult (even for these old bones), and our destination itself, Mongolia, well … it’s breathtaking.
In some of my favorite ways, the plains of Mongolia remind me of Seattle: there are hills and mountains along the horizons, and in between—where we often have water—are vast expanses of grass. When the wind moves across it, it ripples like the surface of the sea.
And oh, the grass! Miles after miles of it. Fragrant and tasty—I could get used to this. And to think I’d had reservations about coming! For centuries, generations of goats have roamed the Valley of the Painting Pen in Bayankhongor province in central Mongolia. This beautiful landscape is their home! Their night and day, their four seasons.
It’s the last and longest of the seasons that can be the downside of living here. It’s bitterly cold—even right now—but the winter snowstorms can be very dangerous. They call their extreme Mongolian winters the zud, and in the past they’ve been devastating; they’ve wiped out entire herds.
Goats are hardy creatures, and our cousins here in Mongolia especially so. But when a zud gets down to –40 degrees and stays there, even we—and the sheep and horses and yaks—start to feel it.
Most years, the cold is bearable for us. But it’s harder on people. They dress themselves in fox fur hats and sheep wool, and build circular homes they call gers for shelter. But the steppe is a harsh place to call home for people. Sometimes they need help.
That’s where we come in.
The goats that we’re visiting live in this valley (for now: they’re semi-nomadic and move about four times each year) along with sheep and some horses and yaks, too, about 300 altogether. Here in Mongolia, we are seen as a human family’s wealth because of how we’re able to help them survive.
This herd began about six years ago with a gift of 20 lambs through World Vision’s Gift Catalog, and expanded from there. Together, they as a herd help keep their humans fed and properly nourished, but also warm and sheltered as well as healthy, in school, and pursuing their dreams for the future. When the herd is big enough and the family is provided for, they can sell goat milk, cheese, and the aaruul (a hard, dried yogurt snack) they make from it at the market, and that money can be used for other things like their home, school supplies, and more.
Our cousins here spend their days roaming free and grazing among the miles and miles of grass across these plains and hills. In the morning, they line up near where the humans built their gers to be milked, then go out to graze and wander. At night, one of the people rides out and gathers them all back together to sleep right by their people where it’s safe.
During the depth of winter, this daily routine gets interrupted when the snows are too deep to graze. And that’s where they need their people: in their preparations for winter, a family that’s moved past simply struggling to survive will be able to harvest and store hay to tide their animals through the toughest parts of the winter.
Billy and I have discovered a beautiful symbiosis out here in Mongolia, a winter’s dance of animals and humans that’s choreographed as a stay against the cold. In my career, I’ve always taken pride in being helpful to the humans around me. But I’ve never had the chance to be lifesaving, and that’s truly something to be proud of.
Tomorrow, we get to meet this herd’s people up close! More about that in my next blog. Goodnight!
*This post and characters are a work of fiction by Matthew Brennan.
Photos: 2015 Jon Warren/World Vision
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