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,
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.
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.”
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.
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).
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.
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
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.