Nomadic trails in the land of the blue sky

Travelling through the vast country offers insight into how traditional Mongolian families live – and how quickly this is changing.

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).

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.”

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.

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%.

With the help of Turbat and Haisvai’s translations, any initial bashfulness was soon diminished. Puje was very inquisitive about our families, our way of life and what we did for work; and her children wanted to know about our bags, our shoes and our clothes – they were thrilled about the unexpected turn of their day.

While Turbat and Haisvai cooked the evening meal (when seeking homestays it is customary to bring food and small, useful gifts such as soap, tea and coffee), Puje milked her cows and we played with the children. As Puje’s son demonstrated his bareback horse riding skills and her oldest daughter posed for our cameras, loving the sudden influx of attention, I caught Puje quietly chuckling.

Dinner was mutton and vegetables, cooked in the central stove that also heats the ger. We ate on the floor, our group using cutlery and plates and Puje and her children using their hands. Puje explained that she was very glad that we had come and couldn’t wait to tell her husband about the surprising occurrence. The road near their home had recently been sealed and this had already changed their lives quite drastically. Her husband now travelled on a more regular basis looking for work, and her son could travel the 15km to school by motorbike whenever he was able to get a lift from his father or other parents. He used to stay with his grandmother in the village where the school was located for weeks at a time, but having her son around to help with evening chores made a huge difference.

The implementation of sealed roads is a result of Mongolia’s current coal, copper and gold mining boom, and the government is investing in infrastructure to capitalise on those opportunities. Construction only takes place in the months outside the long and harsh Mongolian winters, but sturdy routes are being built at rapid rates, allowing for greater vehicle traffic. Because of minimised travel times, nomadic families are also travelling further distances to seek greener pastures for their cattle. Not every nomadic family owns a car or a truck, but most know someone who does, and it’s rare to see gers being transported by horses anymore.

After we said goodbye to Puje and her family, we travelled south on a mix of sealed and unsealed roads to scenic Terkhiin Tsaagan Lake, then southwest to the districts of Tsenkher and Karakorum, staying in ger camps along the way. Our last stop was the sandy Khongo Khan, which meant we were traversing through some of Mongolia’s most remote areas with few accommodation options. We soon found ourselves back on a rocky road, looking for a two-ger family to take us in.

As the sun began to set on another day, the yellow sand glistening as the light faded, we found housewife Urma. She was managing the household and tending to the livestock with her daughter and niece who had come to visit from a nearby village. Urma had never had travellers stay with her before, so suddenly the ger was full of people who had come to see the unexpected visitors, arriving on foot from nearby gers, or from further afield on horseback or by motorbike.

And this was when the vodka came into play. One of the visitors brought along a massive jar of arkhi, which was passed around numerous times as we drank and laughed into the early hours of the morning with a large extended family and their friends, including an 88-year-old woman who guzzled it like there was no tomorrow.

The next morning Urma woke us bright and early with her loud shuffling around the ger. Sleeping in was not an option – like every other day there were chores to be done. We swiftly ate breakfast while Urma’s niece hesitantly chewed on the dry muesli that we brought and her daughter quickly got the hang of how an iPad worked – two worlds merging into one.

Urma talked of one day visiting Ulaanbaatar — a trip that before the implementation of sealed roads may have never been possible. However she had heard that there were now sporadic buses leaving for Ulaanbaatar from a nearby village. Having met us she wanted to see more of the world – an inspiring moment that may also make authentic homestay experiences harder to find.

Mongolia, known as the land of the blue sky, averages around 250 sunny days a year. Summer (June, July and August) is the best time to visit with average temperatures of around 20C, although spring and autumn can be exceptionally beautiful with fewer travellers on the road.

Mongolian tögrög is the local currency and there are plenty of working ATMs in the capital Ulaanbaatar. When staying with a Mongolian family you won’t need cash. Instead bring food and useful gifts such as soap and tea.