Mongolians live close to the earth. The ground seems to be largely sand, and the slightest breeze, or a car going by in the lane, can cause a dust cloud that is impossible to avoid. Consequently, there seems to be a dust film over my body and clothing a good bit of the time. So bathing and washing clothes takes on more significance here, yet these activities occur less frequently, and with more planning than I am accustomed to giving them.
Laundry day begins for me with my weekly shampoo and bath. The shampoo process takes me back to my childhood, when my mom would have me put my head over the sink while she poured water over my head. Only this time, I’m the one doing all of it. And it happens over a tumpun (plastic tub) here. Once my hair is wet, I soap it up, then rinse. When I feel I’ve gotten all the soap out, I move my tumpun (pink one pictured below), complete with sudsy water, into my room. Some people put towels down on the floor under the tumpun for a bath. My host mom has me put my tumpun in the child’s wading pool. I then dip and pour cold water on the rest of my body. Shocking!! I soap up and then rinse off. Simple as that. I dry myself, and put on clean clothes. I am now ready to start my laundry.
In America, we do laundry almost without thinking. Basically, we throw dirty clothes into the washer with some soap, spray some kind of stain remover onto the areas that are especially dirty, and let the washer do its thing. Then we put the clothes in the dryer, pulling only the few that need to be hung out to dry. While the washer and dryer are busy, we can read a book, do housework, sit outside on the deck with a cup of tea, or pick up our knitting. This is very much not the case here in Mongolia. Mongols appear to me to be the laundry experts. Let me take you step by step through the process, complete with pictures, as taught to me by my host mom.
First, find your tumpun, laundry soap, and spot and dirt remover bar. Then also locate your second tumpun for rinse water.
Next, set up near your water source. In my case, that would be near the big water tank that draws from the well. There is a hose on the tank that is gravity driven.
Finding appropriate stools to spare your shoulders and back is the next job, and that requires that you go through all the rooms in the house and possibly into the yard and open shed to find what you are looking for. This step may be more intuitive for natives than it is for me since they know where the stools are likely to be based on recent household activities.
Once your ergonomically correct space is set up, proceed to fill your tumpuns. They must be on the ground for the hose to supply water. The water comes out very slowly, so holding the hose is a good time to drift, admire the view, and feel gratitude for being here. Put your laundry powder into the one for washing – only a very little! – and swish. Don’t be shocked when swishing to find that your water is rather cold.
Beginning with light-colored things and underwear, the washing begins. Each item you wash could potentially need the bar soap treatment. E.g., t-shirts usually get the bar around the neck, socks get it on the soles and toes. Once you have rubbed the area with the bar, you scrub the area together between your fists, dipping occasionally in the water. Then you turn the garment inside out.
Agitation: this is very specific and appears universal to everyone I talk to here. There is a specific way to fold the clothing item before doing the agitation, which results in your holding a long tube of garment in such a way as to avoid stretching it in the wrong places. Then once in position with part of the garment tube in each hand, agitate as if you are doing a circular rub on the heels of your palms. Do this over every square inch of the length of your garment, maybe even a couple of times. And here comes the four-year-old with her play tumpun, all of 8 inches long.
Next comes the wringing out, which my host mom is very particular about, and also very skilled at. The more water you get out of the clothes after washing, the less rinse water you will have to use. Then put this wrung out piece into the rinse water.
Swish vigorously for a bit, and wring again. If I wring out the garment as tight as I can, and pass it to my host sister, she gets more water out of it. Then we pass it to host mom, and she gets plenty more out. In the end, if host mom was the one to wring out the garment, it will dry in a couple of hours. If I’m the one doing the final wringing, it will dry by tomorrow or the day after. Never mind that the clothes that are more tightly wrung will probably need to be replaced sooner!
Shake out the garment with as good a snap as you can muster. This loosens the fabric so that the air can freely circulate. Hang it on the line. The sun won’t fade your clothing because they are inside out.
As I said, the jeans will probably be dry by tomorrow night, since I did the wringing. But that somewhat depends on the weather. When you have clothes on the line, you have to be vigilant about the possibility of rain. And on these days of rain showers interspersed with sunshine, typical in July, you will find yourself moving your laundry in and out. Whatever you do, don’t go shopping while your clothes are on the line, or you may have to wring it all out again when you get home. And that is HARD WORK!!
There is something about this process that I really like. The clothes come out much cleaner than they do in a washing machine. I love being up to my elbows in a project, whether it’s felting, knitting, ceramics, cooking, or gardening. I’m thinking I like doing my laundry like this. But I’ll have to get back to you on that to confirm. After all, I’m just 7 weeks in and it’s summer. Not to mention, my host mom does the towels and sheets.