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Learning an essential winter skill in Mongolia

Ashley Baek-Mongolia Winter

It was a hot summer day, five weeks into my training to become a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mongolia. I was living with my host family in a small northern village. Around us the hills were covered in yellow wildflowers. A few dozen trees dotted the horizon.

My Mongolian language skills were slowly improving, but my vocabulary was still limited. As I walked home from morning language classes, my host mom spotted me and called me towards the family truck. “Ashley! Naasha, naasha!” (come here) was among the first phrases I learned in Mongolia. As I neared, she continued to speak. I managed to catch a few words: “over there,” “fire,” and “learn.”

I still wasn't sure what we were up to as I climbed into the truck with my host mom, brother and sister. We headed toward the hills surrounding town, and the village grew smaller and smaller in the background. I took in the vast deep blue skies and seemingly endless sprawl of uninhabited land. The grazing goats and sheep looked peaceful as we drove by.

We reached the base of a large hill. Nearby, I noticed a fenced-in area with uneven, flattish brown clods, of all shapes and sizes, stacked in the middle. My host mom smiled at me and said, “garl” (fire). I still didn't understand what we were going to do. She pointed at the goats and sheep grazing in the distant fields and then handed me a burlap sack, motioning for me to follow her. To my surprise I watched as she and my little brother and sister started collecting the dried animal droppings from the ground.

It finally clicked. I realized that the brown clods I’d been looking at were stacks of dried animal dung collected to use as fuel. At home in the U.S., I used wood as fuel for camping or fireplaces, but during training in Mongolia, I learned that locals used many types of fuel, and animal dung was very popular in regions without forests.

The four of us fanned out across the field to collect dung in our bags. We stacked chunks on top of the storage piles and loaded pieces of the valuable fuel in the back of the truck to take home. The earthy smell of dried dung filled my nostrils, but it didn’t bother me much. I admired my family’s ingenuity in using the available resources to survive.

picture of a stove in Mongolia
In Mongolia wood, coal, dung, and matches are used to make fires for cooking and heating.

Back home, my host mom gave me a lesson in fire-making. I would need this crucial skill to survive Mongolian winters. While I had my share of campfires and bonfires in the U.S., fire starter, logs and lighter fluid were always on hand to get the fire going. In Mongolia wood, coal, dung, and matches are used to make fires for cooking and heating. With no forests nearby, logs were imported from other regions and then villagers cut them into smaller pieces to use as fuel.

My host mom showed me how to place small pieces of wood, paper, bits of trash and dung together in a pile. I lit a match and placed it close to the kindling. The paper around the edges of the pile lit up, but soon died out. Puzzled, I watched my host mom rearrange the kindling. She made a small hollow opening in the pile and told me to try again. I struck another match, and with more oxygen, the blaze was soon crackling. She smiled at me with satisfaction, knowing I would make it through the winter.

Throughout service, I made a fire every day inside my ger (yurt) during the cold months. My wood stove provided warmth and comfort throughout the long, frigid Mongolian winters. Every time I chopped wood, collected dung, or sat next to the warmth of the fire, I was grateful for my fire-starting skill, taught to me by my host mom. To this day, whenever I use my gas stove at home, I’m brought back to the time when I learned to make a fire by hand. Now more than ever, I appreciate the warmth, light and sociability that fire holds for me.

Ashley Baek-Mongolia Yurt
A yurt, or ger, needs to be heated during Mongolian winters. Ashley Baek made a fire every day inside her home during the cold winter months..