Filming the Life of Gobi Women

Leading, 1997

As I sit in meditation, I see single women lliving a nomadic life—women using wool from their sheep and camel hair from camels, making cheese, and producing felt for home covering. I feel the desert sun, see the crown shape of camels in the distance, and smell lanolin from sheep. This isn’t just for me. I need to experience it and share it—to make a film of Gobi women. In my meditation, I ask questions. Who? Gobi Women. What? Lifestyle. Where? Mongolia. When? No answer. Why? No answer. How? No answer. I hold this in my heart and don’t stop feeling the pull for four years until I hear now. I remortgage my house, send out a fundraising letter, buy a small digital camcorder, and leave for Mongolia.

Background, 1994

This isn’t the first time I have been led to Mongolia. Leadings in my life have a number of qualities. They can come from meditation, from another person, or from an event. They usually have the quality of following, not taking the lead, and waiting and listening to find the path of heart. In 1994 a client traded seven years of energy-healing treatment so that I could go on a tour to China with the American Holistic Nurses’ Association. "You need to learn about energy from China, where people have been practicing it for thousands of years," said my client. China? I had never dreamed of going to China.

As soon as I knew I was going, I wanted to be able to videotape the experience. When I mentioned the wonder of being given a trip to China during the introductions and announcements at meeting that week, I said, "Wouldn’t it be amazing to videotape the experience?" And from across the circle, a visiting Friend from Connecticut whom I had never met waved her arms. "I have a video camera you can borrow. I just bought it. It is still in the box. I didn’t know why I bought it but I do now."

Mongolia, 1994

Incidentally, I learn when I get the program, the trip to China also includes Mongolia. Mongolia? I hardly thought of Mongolia as a place—more like a caricature of the farthest, most unusual, most foreign place, as in, "She would go to Outer Mongolia, she cares so much." When I step off the plane onto the ground in Mongolia, I sigh. Green mountains, dry air, temperatures in the 70s. Heavenly. A few days later, I meet a doctor of traditional Mongolian medicine named Dr. Boldsaikhan and my heart beats as if I am at meeting. Out of my mouth comes the question, "Would you take an American disciple?"

When I get back, I edit some programs for our local cable station so that my townspeople can see the amazing sights I see—a market in Shanghai, a tourist festival in Mongolia complete with dancing, archery, horse racing, and wrestling. And while the editing takes lots of time, especially since the equipment is not yet digital, the work is exciting. It has the feeling of being a connector of people, East and West.

Mongolia, 1995

Our meeting designates me as a released Friend and helps me fundraise, and along with Lyman Fund support I am able to go back to Mongolia, this time to spend three months studying with Dr. Boldsaikhan in the capital, Ulaanbaatar. The camcorder is back in Connecticut, but another one appears for this trip. How this happens is also magical. I am seeing a friend’s daughter for spiritual counseling and healing and her father asks what he can do for me. He seldom uses his camcorder. When I mention it would be wonderful to have one on my upcoming trip, he gives it to me. While studying traditional medicine and learning about balance, herbs, history, assessments, treatments, Buddhism, and energy, I take videos. Back in Vermont in 1996, I make an 18-minute documentary, Steppe Herbs, Mare’s Milk and Jelly Jars: A Journey to Mongolian Medicine.

Mongolia, 1997

Now I can’t stop dreaming about Mongolia, and I travel there again in 1997. While at a gathering at the U.S. embassy, I am given work as a health education consultant for the United Nations Development Programme. During this experience, I learn about life in the Gobi Desert. The most striking fact is that each person in the Gobi uses only 5 liters of water a day for drinking, cooking, cleaning, and washing—less than people in the U.S. use for one flush. I learn that Gobi people live in gers (yurts or felt tents) all year while the temperature ranges from -40° to over 100° Farenheit.

These experiences converge during my meditation that day. I see myself looking at a door that is open just a crack and seeing the Gobi women’s lives. I open it a little wider by saying yes. As I surrender, it opens still wider. Sometimes I think, wouldn’t it be nice to know where this door leads to? But then I also know that my vision as a human is like that of an ant to a hawk. I know that if someone had told me I would go to Mongolia eight times in 13 years, I would have thought the person was crazy. I have come to think that the limited view, the slow unfolding of a leading is for my own good.

Then there are challenges and doubts, especially about how this fits with the necessities and responsibilities of life in the U.S.—things like paying bills and doing work. There are other ways to think about the message. I can ask questions. Is the message for me? Why me? What about my healing practice? My life? Yet, with the kind of propulsion a leading has behind it, I find that I need to allow these questions to float by like clouds.

Preparation, 2001

It is actually happening. I have the ticket to Ulaanbaatar through Beijing, China. As it becomes a reality, new questions come up. How will I get to the Gobi? How will I find the women? Where can I find a camera person? How will I find an interpreter? Will the Gobi women talk to me? Will they let me film their lives?

When I arrive in Ulaanbaatar in 2001, I know a few things. My friend Oyuna and her husband Nyama will rent me their apartment, find a driver, and arrange the trip to the Gobi. We will visit where Nyama grew up and where his family lives in Manlai Soum, South Gobi, a county with a population of 2,240. The couple will set up our project, but Oyuna will be our program assistant, since this is a woman’s project.

I have a female cameraperson in mind, but discover that there are only two in Mongolia. One is on vacation and the other is on pregnancy leave. I have some phone numbers for translators in Ulaanbaatar. When I call a "wrong" number and tell the woman who answers (and happens to speak English) that I need an interpreter and camera person, she says, "I am busy, but would you like to speak to my boyfriend? He is a filmmaker from New York City." By this serendipity I connect with Joseph Spaid, who works in the film industry and tells me he even has a professional digital camera he could use for our film. He is in the country to shoot his own film, Kiran over Mongolia. Joseph agrees to go to the Gobi with us and shoot our film—at the Mongolian day rate, not the NYC day rate—which makes it possible on my budget. (The Mongolian rate of pay is 5 percent of the New York rate.)

We are to leave in a few days and still I have no interpreter. I focus on this need as I go to sleep. When I wake up, I remember the name of a friend I knew from an earlier trip. I call her. "I can’t," she says, "but maybe my daughter?" And this is how Haliuna, a 19-year-old who spent a year in the U.S. as a high school student, became our expert translator. Now we have a cohesive team: Oyuna, production assistant; Anuka, her six-year-old daughter; Nyama, her husband; his brother-in-law Nyamdorj, driver; Joseph, cameraman; Haliuna, interpreter; and me, director and producer. We are ready!

Manlai Soum, South Gobi

We bounce for 12 hot hours in a Russian van, stopping only for bathroom breaks (which are dusty roadsides—no gas stations) and eating (a picnic we brought with us—no restaurants). Finally, the van’s headlights pass felt gers and low wooden buildings. We are in the center of the small village of Manlai Soum. Since electricity runs only from 7 to 10 pm, there are no lights on when we arrive at 11. Since all buildings are one story, they do not block the view. Since there are no trees, the view to the sky is like nothing I have ever seen. There are so many stars that they seem to touch each other, and the Milky Way is a stream of light. It’s so absorbing that I am reluctant to step inside when we are invited into Nyamadorj’s home for milk tea and mutton.

When I wake up with the sun coming through the top of the ger the family has erected for us, my heart is full. I can’t believe I am really in the Gobi. I feel so tender and grateful that I am on the verge of tears, knowing I am exactly where I am supposed to be. A swarm of flies buzzes around the felt over my bed. It doesn’t matter; I am euphoric.

Joseph asks me about meditation, about speaking from the silence. He suggests that we meditate on film. I give a prayerful message of appreciation and express my hopes and dreams for the day.

In our ger, a quart-size metal container with a spigot is mounted over a basin. Under the basin cabinet is a door for the drain bucket. Water comes from the pump house a kilometer away. Nyamdorj drives to the pump house, unlocks the door, pumps the water by hand, puts the two five-gallon pails into his car, and leaves them inside the door to our ger. We dip into the water and fill the spigoted container. To wash my hair, Haliuna dips into the five-gallon pail and pours it on my head. I shampoo, then she pours water over my head to rinse. I am still combing my hair dry, which takes just a couple of minutes with the desert air sucking out the moisture, when Oyuna walks into our ger with the first woman to interview.

She doesn’t knock, since knocking on a ger door is considered rude. Ulam-Urnakh, 39, enters with her eyes to the ground. She has an oval face and wears bright red lipstick. Shyly, she shows us how she does healing, how she uses a bowl for scraping, and where she puts compresses. She speaks in a whisper. When she leaves, she asks us if she can bring some goat yoghurt tomorrow.

We visit the hospital and speak with the head doctor. She gives us a tour of the five-room hospital and shows us the birth area, which is empty. There is no plumbing here either. Patients have to walk outside about 50 yards to the outhouse, which is a triple-slot toilet. Dr. Aya explains that the hospital serves 2,240 people—the whole county. People arrive by motorcycle, horse, camel, or jeep, she explains. Some nomads who live three hours by motorcycle from the hospital come to have a baby, stay a day or two, and ride off on the motorcycle again. Dr. Aya tells us that a woman is resting in the maternity apartment—a room with two single beds, a hot plate, a table, and a sewing machine.

Later, with the generator humming outside the window of the government building, we meet Sogar, the governor. There is one computer in Manlai Soum, and the generator is providing electricity for it. After welcoming us and sharing milk tea and conversations about our trip, Sogar says he has the names of some single women we can visit, which he writes in my notebook. I remember thinking: Now this is really happening! He is actually giving us names of real women.

Joseph asks, "How will we find them?" I think we both have the idea that nomads can be anywhere. I haven’t yet learned that they generally move from the same pastureland to the next each season.

Sogar laughs and says, "Everyone knows where they are."

We bounce in a Russian van with no shock absorbers over gravel pastureland to visit the first woman, who lives ten minutes from the soum center. There are dirt tracks, no paved roads in Manlai Soum. Puntsag is out in the pasture herding her goats and sheep, who scatter as our van approaches. A woman in her 60s with a weathered face, Puntsag never stops smiling. She has never met a foreigner before, never left the county, never had her hair cut, never been married, and has delivered 11 children of her own. Only four are still living—the others she lost in a ger fire. She lives here with her daughters and grandchildren.

The ger is all by itself. The land is brown and the wind sweeps through unimpeded. How can she manage?

I am in the middle of the leading now. It feels like being in an altered state. I can feel my meeting holding me in the Light. I feel protected and at the same time fully present. Puntsag opens her life to me. I am too busy meeting the women and experiencing their lives to get emotional, but I feel overflowing thankfulness and can feel ever-ready moisture around my eyes.

Dulma, 27, with a moon face darkened by a pregnancy mask, has been resting in the maternity room of the hospital for a month due to preeclampsia, a pregnancy complication. Her normal life is childcare, food preparation, milking livestock, felt making, and cleaning. In this life she never sits still. Now that she has a chance to sit, she tells me about her life. At first, she is very shy and answers questions with one-word answers. Then she begins to share. She tells me she has only had one photograph of herself in her 27 years and asks to see what she looks like on the digital screen of the camera. "Beautiful!" she says. We wonder if she will deliver during our eight-day stay in Manlai Soum, especially since she has given us permission to film the baby’s birth. This will really make the film, the team thinks. When she goes into labor I cry. When I step into the delivery room, I am sniffling. The nurse asks me if I have a cold. I assure her it’s from crying. "Oh, you Americans, you cry all the time!" she says in her deadpan voice.

Watching my leading unfold in the Gobi, I feel my heart open wide. Each day exceeds my dreams. It is this kind of vulnerability I feel as I meet and connect with the women—and as I go back year after year. I feel the same gratitude and prayerfulness each time I sit to edit, with each decision I make about what to include in the film and who can help me complete it. And I can see on the faces of the audience the same softness of heart as they sit watching Gobi Women’s Song in the theater.

At Home, 2007

Even today, as I write, I wait for direction. I know patience is worth it because of the experiences I have had in the past. Still, I am also aware that my view is only the ant view, and this propels me to wait for the overview provided by Spirit. My question is: Am I to go to Mongolia this summer? I usually go for six weeks to two months, so it has a big impact on my work and life. It also requires a lot of preparation and organizing.

Just yesterday, someone called to rent my house, but I haven’t advertised it. I don’t know if or when I am going—I wait for clarity, for word from grant funding. I am available, though, to go to Mongolia to work on a second film, In the Shadow of Shamans: Life with Dukha Reindeer Herders—or something else I don’t know about yet.

Last night I had a dream I am in a train station, searching. I wonder which train I am supposed to take. Two Mongolian friends who are in the U.S. now catch their train. I don’t run for it. I wait. I know that just like that leading ten years ago, the answer will come. The leading will ripen and the experience will be beyond anything I can imagine right now.

Sas Carey

Sas Carey, co-clerk of Middlebury (Vt.) Meeting, is director of Life Energy Healing School, which helps students learn to follow their leadings. The school meets in Middlebury for four long weekends a year. More information about the school can be found at Nomadicare, a nonprofit organization that she founded, supports the sustainability and cultural survival of nomadic peoples, harmonizes traditional and modern medicine, and documents nomadic ways and heart songs for future generations. More information can be found at