Monday, 12 July 2010

Steppe-ing Through Mongolia

  Pour lire cet article en français cliquez ici

Crouching as low as possible under a shared del[1] the three of us waited for the lightning storm to pass. We were in the middle of the Mongolian steppe, with no shelter for miles around – no trees, no high ground, nothing:

We were dressed in T-shirts and still sporting sunglasses and sun cream when the storm had arrived unexpectedly. Nearby we could hear the noises made by our animals – camels, horses and dogs. By squatting in the 'lightning crouch' with our heels touching we could hopefully reduce the risk if a bolt struck nearby, but the 25 minutes we spent in that position, being pelted at by hail, seemed to last forever !

Thus passed part of our first day on a ten-day ger-to-ger[2] expedition. We had signed up with a nomad-centred cultural eco-tourism association in order to experience the 'real' Mongolia, and we were certainly not disappointed. While the families we stayed with did not change location while we lodged with them.

typical family

We moved every day to a home-stay (or rather 'ger-stay') with a different family, migrating by horseback, camelback :

ox-cart :

or four-wheel drive :

no, there wasn't a road !

during a breakdown !

We were fully able to appreciate the advantages, difficulties and drawbacks of the nomad lifestyle, and overall we were enchanted. (Drawbacks include such delights as bed-bugs, no water for washing, and a total lack of toilets/toilet privacy !)

typical ger

Before setting off on our adventures, we had attended a briefing in Ulaanbaatar.


where we learnt some useful Mongolian phrases (eg "I like galloping on the horse" or "I have never ridden a horse" – better to not mix them up), and how to play the anklebone game, along with the concept of Mongolian 'GPS' – Ger Positioning System. In a land with few permanent roads and even fewer road-signs, this means following the (vague) sweep of a ger owner's hand over the horizon to the next ger.

We were also able to learn firsthand some other cultural "do's and don'ts" such as not treading on the ger threshold when you walk over it, that men should enter the ger first, and when sleeping always having your feet point towards the door, rather than the family altar. (By the way, the door of a ger always faces south, towards the sun).

ger interior

ger furniture

ger roof

The hot, salty - and surprisingly delicious - tea that Mongolians drink copious amounts of had to be sipped as soon as it was served, and any delicacy offered must be tasted out of politeness. This last point was not normally a problem for me, apart from one occasion on which we were presented with a hot steaming plate of freshly cooked goat offal from an animal we'd heard killed a few hours earlier !

Lots of fresh air meant we had a good appetite and the food, while not very varied, was abundant and filling.

On arrival in a ger we were generally offered some curds or cheese from a communal plate, and on some occasions ger-made vodka. One morning for breakfast we had the treat of some freshly made, incredibly creamy, finger-lickingly good butter.

Meals were often cooked on a stove fuelled with horse-dung, and generally consisted of home made noodles mixed with beef/yak or mutton and maybe some vegetables, which would have been bought at the nearest village (nomads, by definition, do not grow veggies !). Refrigerators being non-existent, the meat was generally kept wrapped in an old cloth, and when needed a piece was broken off and beaten into submission with a hammer[3]

Nomad women and men both work very hard. The women, along with general food preparation, had the responsibility of milking the animals twice a day and making a large variety of dairy products. Milk was never used all by itself, but always boiled beforehand. I tried both milking and butter churning and soon realised how easy the women made these difficult tasks look ! 'Necklaces' of cheese were often strung up inside the ger or left in trays on the roof outside to dry.

Even something as simple as having drinking water meant fuelling the stove, boiling a large pan of water (water which had to be brought from the nearest village) which then had to be filtered through a piece of muslin into a thermos, and then one had to wait for the water to reach a drinkable temperature. The menfolk were generally involved in looking after the herds of animals:

and spent much time on horseback.


We too were often able to ride horses, though purely for pleasure ! It was wonderful to ride through the green picture-postcard-perfect landscapes, with wide open spaces stretching as far as the eye could see under clear blue skies. We quickly learnt the way of Mongolian horse-riding (long stirrups, short reins, no rising trot) and the Mongolian word for giddyup ('tchoo'). While riding we frequently saw large birds of prey :

or groups of animals – it was difficult to distinguish between domesticated and wild.

We also saw many ovoo, shamanistic collections of stones usually found in high places, on top of hills for example. They were easy to spot with their blue prayer flags blowing in the breeze.

ovoo at Erdene Zuu monastery, Kharkhorin

All too soon it was time to head back to Ulaanbaatar, appreciate our first shower in several days, and hop onto the Trans-Mongolian train for the next leg of our journey.

Beijing to Ulaanbaatar

Gobi Desert seen from Trans-Mongolian

This article was originally published in SIWA's Discovery magazine (October-November 2010 issue).

[1] traditional Mongolian knee-length gown with long sleeves.
[2] 'ger' is the Mongolian word for 'yurt' – the portable, round, felt nomad dwelling.
[3] I preferred not to know how old the meat was, but I was (unwillingly) told 'about two months old' !

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  1. Sounds to me that you live the good life as I see it.

    Invigorating people, clean air, exercise, slightly or very shocking food, and joie d' vivre.

    My time is past for a lot of this but my memories, and vicarious enjoyment of blogs such as yours, keep me going!

  2. Thanks for the kind words Robert