It started with just one oversized vodka shot, which seemed harmless enough. But then came another, followed by a third and a fourth. Soon we were all laughing – although at what, I couldn’t tell you. With no common language, we laughed and drank until the early hours of morning and then collapsed, exhausted but happy, onto the floor to sleep.
I was in Mongolia, the most sparsely populated nation in the world, exploring the vast country on a two-week tour with Intrepid Travel along with five other travellers; our trusted guide, Ulaanbaatar local Shinee Turbat; and our charismatic driver, nomad Sansar Haisvai.
Although we visited the capital Ulaanbaatar and the historic and majestic Amarbayasgalant Monastery, one of Mongolia’s largest Buddhist monastic centres, most of the extended stops were natural sights, including vast savannahs, mammoth snow-capped mountains and the unusual sandy-grassy Khongo Khan (also known as the Little Gobi Desert).
- The Amarbayasgalant Monastery is one of the few that wasn’t completely destroyed during the Stalinist-time repressions of 1937. (Tatyana Leonov)
Timur Yadamsuren, a Mongolian man who grew up as a nomad but now works as a tour company manger in Ulaanbaatar, said something to me that stuck: “France has the Eiffel Tower, Sydney has the Harbour Bridge, Rome has the Colosseum – but we have our whole country.”
- Mongolia’s landscape changes drastically between regions. Khongo Khan is a mix of sand dunes and grass. (Tatyana Leonov)
We were in for quite a ride, traversing the country in Haisvai’s trusty old UAZ Russian van for hours at a time. Mongolian roads can be tough to navigate and getting around takes persistence: it can take up to eight hours to travel as little as 150km. At night we slept in traditional gers, movable circular dwellings that are designed to be easily set up and dismantled, usually made from a lattice of light wood (such as willow or birch) and covered with felt. Usually we stayed in ger camps, which are set up over the summer to house travellers, but the two most memorable nights were spent in homestays.
Although Mongolians are traditionally nomadic people, recent urbanisation means only about half of the three-million strong population still lives this life, travelling with the seasons at their own will. Because of this movement, homestays with true Mongolian nomads are virtually impossible to organise in advance. Instead, we just turned up, hoping a family would take us all in, which is standard practice in nomadic Mongolia life. Nomadic Mongolians have always opened their doors to anyone who needs assistance, and those still living the nomadic life continue to do so.
- Mongolians are traditionally nomadic people who live in moveable gers. (Tatyana Leonov)
We started looking for our first homestay about 100km south of Lake Khövsgöl. Turbat and Haisvai knew there were no camps nearby and advised us to look for two gers side by side, explaining that this probably meant they belonged to one family and consequently would be more likely to accommodate us all. The first place we tried could not take us in because the man and lady of the house were away, leaving the elderly grandmother to look after the ger and small children. However, the second home, not far from the city of Mörön, was a success. Although the husband was not home, the wife, Puje, had had travellers stay with her family four years prior. We filed out of the van and self-consciously positioned ourselves wherever we thought appropriate as her daughter came around and offered us tsutai tsai (salty milky tea).
When invited into a Mongolian home, it is rude to say no to anything that is offered. This will almost always include tsutai tsai and tsagaan idee (dairy sweets), and sometimes aaruul (curdled milk), airag (fermented horse milk) or arkhi (homemade vodka distilled from milk).
Around 5 pm, Puje’s son arrived home from school and, after saying hello to us, began herding the cattle. Nomad children start helping with family chores at a young age, and when they are four or five, most travel to the closest village to study. Education is highly valued: according to Unicef, 99% of Mongolian children are enrolled in primary school and most continue on to higher education. Mongolia’s adult literacy rate is estimated to be at 97%.