Feature

Under the Stars

Cowboy Camp is a draw in Mongolia

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North Americans long to lead simpler lives. They strike out for the unknown, carrying with them only the essentials for shelter and sustenance. Every year, they shrug offthe shackles of sophisticated living. They forsake the comforts of home for all the perils of the wild. They go camping, lying down to sleep under the star-lit sky.

When they do, that same sky is blue in Mongolia, where day is breaking over a million people. But for Mongolians, sleeping out is nothing new; camping is still an ordinary way of life for half the population. Shepherds sleep near their flocks in open fields, hundreds of miles from any town, as they have for a thousand years or more. Yurts—white, felt-lined tents—dot the landscape in this prairie country. A family of herders can ready a yurt and all its contents for travel in an hour or two.

Lost Art

But the other half of Mongolia is waking in cities full of five-story Soviet-era apartments surrounded by shanty towns of shacks and yurts that are no longer nomadic. Here the white tents stay up all year, stained with smog from constant coal burning.

Mongolian young people who grow up in cities no longer possess the skills of their nomadic cousins. Last year a group of construction workers and I came from Darhan to Bulgan, Mongolia, to build our house here. We brought a yurt to sleep in and to serve as a kind of job trailer.

Setting up the yurt was seemingly beyond us. Five grown men tried to hold all the pieces of the tent together but couldn’t fasten it before it fell apart. A rare sudden wind and rain storm complicated the task even further. And, of course, it was getting dark, and we had nowhere else to sleep. A group of neighbors lent five more sets of hands, but city-raised Mongolians weren’t much better at nomadic living than me, a suburban American.

It’s not by choice that for many Mongolians, the traditional nomadic lifestyle is becoming a relic of their ancestry. It’s primarily a lack of opportunity. Two of those who helped set up our yurt admitted that they had never done it before. Living in the city, why would they have? Most young people I know still long for the experience of going to the countryside.

Horse Sense

Like those in North America, many Mongolian homes in town are empty all day because both parents work. During the summer the children often fend for themselves for entertainment or attention. After our house was completed, kids and youth started flocking to our home. Neighbor kids from ages 6 to 15 came to play basketball, ride horses or just play with our four daughters. We enjoyed all the fun and commotion. But we wanted these city kids to get out and experience their own country’s camping lifestyle. And we wanted to deepen our influence for Christ in each of them.

My wife, Renee, and I decided to host a Cowboy Camp and invite all our neighbor kids. We made arrangements with a nomadic family who had set up camp about five miles out of town to help host the event. Because of heavy rains and a vehicle breakdown, we had to relocate camp to our own yard. This change in venue resulted in a spontaneous change of duration—our campers, 8 to 10 kids per day, kept showing up all through July!

During the heat of the day we had a Bible and English lesson in the shade of the nomadic family’s yurt. At other times, the kids were given a chance to learn about roping, horse riding and cow milking and had the opportunity to feed an orphan foal, hold baby horses while the mares were milked and help with the camping kitchen work. Some helped make Mongolian doughnuts, while others rolled out dough for noodles. Then someone had to carry the firewood to cook the meals and boil the dairy products. There’s always something to do when living as a nomad. If not work, then there’s the whole green prairie to run and laugh and play in. They just had to watch for “livestock landmines”!

The kids loved it. Night fell before dinner arrived. After they ate in the darkness of the yurt (no electricity), our campers longed for the familiarity and comfort of home. On dark nights like these, starlight shined down on campers all over Mongolia. Sleep brought to a close another day for campers like so many stretching back centuries through ancestors dating back before the time of Genghis Khan.

The more I think about the camping culture of Mongolia, the more I think Jesus fits right in here. In His ministry, I’m sure He just slept where He could—among the fishermen at the beach or in the pastures with the farmers or shepherds. Other times He prayed all night, maybe for lack of a peaceful place to sleep. He may not always have been a happy camper, but His obedience and call made Him a willing one. “‘Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head’” (Matt. 8:20).

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