What a country! Mongolia’s landscape is vast, wild, desolate and unforgiving. But the people who inhabit it are warm, welcoming and generous by default. Forty percent of Mongolians retain a nomadic life-style, living in gers (we know them as “yurts”), moving with the seasons and rearing horses, sheep, goats, cows, yaks, camels and even reindeer. In this country, paved roads are a luxury that has not yet extended further than the interior of the major towns and cities: instead, bumpy dirt tracks crisscross the steppes. Travelling around is notoriously difficult and uncomfortable but so rewarding. If you are looking for a trip that takes you away from the world as you know it, this is the place to come. Here are some of the highlights of a six day tour in central Mongolia…
Mind your Ps and Qs
Generosity is the bread and butter of daily life in Mongolia. The language barrier can make it extremely difficult to feel as though you have adequately given back to your hosts. Our broken Mongolian “thank yous” and big smiles did not feel like enough. However, there are also a couple of etiquette rules that are good to bear in mind, so has not to trample your hosts’ expectations of common politesse.
For instance, if you are passing near a ger and want to make yourself known, you shout “no-khoi kho-rio”, which literally means “hold on to your dog!” and is the equivalent of knocking on someone’s door. Gruff guard dogs are a ubiquitous character in the countryside to protect the livestock from wolves and the gers from intruders. Never try and pet one of these fluff-monsters, they are very busy and important and do not want to play.
There are also a number of rules you need to bear in mind when entering a ger: don’t stand in the doorway; always walk in to the left hand side as the right hand side is for the family; never walk in between the two wooden posts supporting the roof as many believe this will divide the family living in it; always take a sip or a nibble of what has been offered, no matter what it smells like.
Not for the lactose intolerant
Mongolia is not known for its food but we were pleasantly surprised. Mutton is the main dish: mutton with homemade noodles, mutton pasties, a bucket of assorted mutton on the bone (Hugo’s favourite; you eat with your hands and one big shared knife and pick the bones clean. We had to shampoo his beard of all the grease afterwards). You can survive as a veggie (I did it as mutton is not my fave) but be ready for a cabbage overload. What you cannot get away from is dairy products.
We had bowls and bowls of traditional Mongolian milk tea on arrival at each ger and during every meal. I cannot begin to tell you how delicious this was. Fresh milk, from the cows outside (or the yaks or goats or camels or deer, whatever is at hand), mixed with a tiny amount of brick tea, and heated and stirred and ladled about until it is thick and creamy and steaming hot. So comforting.
We also tried airag, a popular summer drink made of fermented mare’s milk. Yes, that is right, lady-horse milk that has been left out till it goes off. It is slightly alcoholic, smells like beer and tastes like…well, sour, fizzy, beery, yogurt. If you think of beer when drinking it, it is actually quite nice. If you think of off milk when taking a sip, it’s not. We passed a communal silver bowl, like a Quaich, around with our hosts, taking little sips as they watched our reactions carefully.
There is also a lot of cheese and butter, but not really as we know it. The cheese is rock hard and sour and the butter is like clotted cream. Many people put a big dollop of butter in their milk tea, it’s awesome.
The lone shack in the corner
You cannot visit Mongolia and not remark on the bathroom facilities. There are no showers in gers, so we had five days of wet-wipes and one extraordinary beard shampooing session. This must be horrible in summer as temperatures get up past 35 degrees Celsius. We had weather oscillating between 5 and 25 degrees, so it wasn’t so bad, although we fought like kids over the first shower we found.
Gers do not have “real toilets”. Instead, you get a hole in the ground with two wooden planks to stand on and a varying degree of privacy. There is an important trade off to consider when surveying your next toilet visit: more privacy = more smell. My favoured toilet ended up being the one that was just a 4 foot high wooden fence in a U-shape, with no door and no roof. You could look out on the prairie and wave at passing horsemen. The worst was the shack with 4 walls and a door: you could hear the buzz of the flies from 30 metres away.
Some great characters
We stayed with 4 host families during a six day tour. We had the most wonderful guide, Una, and driver, Ogi. Una referred to all of our hosts as “family woman” and “family man” – she must have gotten sick of foreigners being unable to pronounce or remember any of the hosts’ names.She came from northern Mongolia and had spent the summers helping out her grandparents at their ger, a common practice in Mongolia. She was full of stories from those days: how goats were the cheekiest animals because they often spring out of the pen once you have herded them in and closed the gate; how when kids got a cold they were encouraged to go out in the rain and play in the mud and animal dung to increase their immune system; how crows would swoop down during lambing and foal season and pluck the eyes out of a new born as soon as it came out; how she felt like this was possibly the last generation to have those experiences as young people were often rejecting the nomadic lifestyle to live in the cities.
The first ger we stayed at was owned by a lovely Kazakh granny. She wore layers of warm fleeces, a pretty patterned scarf around her head and two rosy red cheeks. She was the most active granny I have ever met, who, with the help of a grandson, brought the cows in for milking, by hand, twice a day. We all went at sundown to “help” but were much more of a hindrance, standing around trying not to get kicked in the face by an angry cow. She even gave me a shot at milking, which was predictably embarrassing. I couldn’t get one drop out of the udder and the cow did not seem to appreciate my attempt. I left granny to it.
On another day, we did a 30km hike to camp in Khangai Nuruu National Park. Una thoughfully engaged a man with a packing horse to help us with all of our gear. At 60, this man was old by Mongolian standards – the average life expectancy here is just 67. He was traditionally dressed in a blue deel, like a shift, with a big thick yellow belt around it. He also wore a kind of cowboy hat. Una loved his sense of style. He rode a horse and led another carrying all of our kit and kept saying what “good walkers” we were every time we caught up with him; apparently, Mongolians are not into walking. If you always have a horse available, why use two legs when you can use four? The reason we kept catching up with him is because he stopped in at every ger in the valley to whet his whistle with some airag. On the way back the next day, he totally abandoned us and got sloshed with his mates. His cousin had to ride up the valley to retrieve our kit. Ogi and Una were not impressed, although they remarked that this is very typical Mongolian.
Popping travel sickness pills like there’s no tomorrow
If you do visit Mongolia, prepare for some long drives. We decided not to go to the Gobi desert because it was over 12 hours drive from Ulan Bataar and because we had seen some of it from the train coming through from Beijing. Nevertheless, staying in “central” Mongolia still means we were in the car for most of the trip. Ogi had an excellent CD collection of popular Mongolian and Korean music which played on repeat for days; I fell in and out of love with it hourly.
As the photos show, the roads dirt track and extremely bumpy. There were also sections that took us through a massive field of jagged, black igneous rock that Ogi had to negotiate for hours, as well as sporadic herds of horses, cows, goats, sheep and yaks running wild, and a lazy snaking river that we had to cross several times, each time the river getting deeper and wider than the last.
Hills and air
The upside of all the driving means that you really get to look out at the countryside for hours. Massive flat expanses of green prairie unfold in front of your eyes, rolling hills disappear into the distance, jagged rocky mountains at the horizon, thin fingers of desert creep out of sandy valleys. Herds of horses canter freely by the road, fluffy yaks watch dozily as you pass by, silly goats leap in the air, lone birds of prey swoop across the sky.
We visited the Khogno Tarna, or “Semi Gobi”, a long expanse of sand dunes that is surrounded by lush green pastures and massive rocky mountains. It was an unbelievable juxtaposition of landscapes. Plus we got to ride camels into the dunes, bumping along between two fuzzy, jelly-like humps; it felt like a big, fluffy, smelly sofa. There was silence as I have never heard it…although this was broken by the occasional fart from a camel, the whinnying of distant horses and the soft singing of our guide as we rode.
When driving from place to place, we often stopped for a picnic lunch. One day we stopped in a big valley by a tiny river you wouldn’t know was there from a distance. The smell of the meadow was amazing – like mint and lavender and rosemary. There was long green grass and fading purple flowers. The big blue sky became punctuated with a massive kite circling around above us looking for scraps of mutton.
Visiting Mongolia was worth every penny. I strongly recommend you go see it for yourself.