A taste of the nomadic life in Mongolia

 

mongol 1Eager to get out of the congestion of China I hopped a short, unusually cheap morning flight (cheaper than the bus) to the border of Mongolia at Erlian, supposedly known for its dinosaur fossils. From the airport the shuttle passed bizarre dinosaur sculptures in the middle of the desert and dropped me off at the border where I had to do the usual passport stamping rigmarole after haggling a ride in the trunk of an SUV (no walking permitted). On the other side I regretted not having some Mongolian phrases written down since no one spoke Chinese or English, but I still managed to get a meal and buy a train ticket to Ulaanbataar (capital of Mongolia) from the town I was in, Zamyn-Uud.

Although it was your average, melancholy border town, I was in good spirits since the lunch that I had was astoundingly delicious for only a few dollars. It wasn’t the lunch per se, but rather that fact that Mongolian food already had surpassed Chinese food in my tastes. I didn’t taste any weird chemicals and the meat, vegetables, and rice were incredibly seasoned with flavors that I associated with Middle Eastern food. +1 for Mongolia. Another mood-booster was

the fact that Mongolians didn’t annoyingly stare at me like the Chinese, nor did they feel the need to incessantly yell “hello” when I passed by. In fact, many didn’t even bat an eye when I walked into the restaurant or bank and the most I noticed was a stare that lingered for a second or two. Another +1 for Mongolia; I thought I was going to fall in love with the country after barely crossing the border but I knew it was just relief from leaving China.

 

mongol 2I meandered around the small, dusty town and picked up a few snacks and a second, delicious meal before the overnight train left in the evening. The train ride wasn’t the most pleasant since I was trying to sleep right near all the traffic to the dining car and the bathroom had weird hours, but at least I wasn’t an object of curiosity and staring.

Doing a bit of research before arriving it seemed that I was planning to visit Mongolia during the worst time of year for tourists, the awkward time between Winter and Spring when everything is slushy. Apparently it was also the time when herded animals that are weak from the winter die off, which can take a toll on the large nomadic population that relies on their herd. It is also difficult because the only way to get to the rural areas in a reasonable amount of time is to hire some sort of transport, but there aren’t many tourists that you can find to split the cost. There are not roads in the conventional sense besides a few major ones, just well worn dirt paths, and certainly no signs to help navigation. mongol 3The weather was also cold during the day and freezing at night with snow still on the ground, and I had no GPS or map of Mongolia to track where I would want to go. Further complicating an independent trip is the fact that even if I knew where some nomadic camps, called ger (yurts), were located, there would be a chance they moved since many families leave their winter camps this time of year.

Given that, I contacted a guesthouse recommended on Wikitravel about some sort of tour to get a glimpse of the nomadic lifestyle and sprawling countryside that Mongolia is famous for. I wanted a Mongolian-run outfit since I wanted to see unadultered nomadic life and foreign companies tend to put a veneer on things that tend to not jive well with Western preferences. A four-day trip was reasonably priced at under $200, with the translator/driver named Bolod (click here for a profile I did on him) accompanying me to the rural areas and helping find a place to stay.

He met me at the train station and brought me to his “suburban guesthouse”, which was actually a room at his home in a rundown Soviet-era housing block on the outskirts of Ulannbataar with his wife and two young boys. Bolod said the main guesthouse downtown was shut down for the winter since no tourists really passed through, and for the odd one that showed up they just figured out a place. It was clear after meeting him that Bolod was vaguely nationalistic about Mongolia, and fit into the category of old-timer (in his 50s) who constantly lamented the loss of the “old ways”. He was unabashed in his nostalgia for the days when the Soviets exerted strong influence over Mongolia, and extolled the virtues of strict socialist regimen. He said he tried studying economics in the university but couldn’t really grasp it, so I interpreted that as meaning that he appreciated the Soviets more for their heavy-handedness and social engineering than ability to run an economy. He also had his own pet theories on how the world worked, how to improve Mongolia, and the uprisings in the Middle East, which I can only describe as disjointed and mildly coherent, at least when he explained it in English. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that it would make more sense in his mother tongue, but it was at least a bit charming and he certainly did have a point about general corruption in the government.

mongol 4The day after I arrived, we set out to the countryside in his beat-up 4WD Mitsubishi. After leaving the drab Ulaanbataar behind, the paved road quickly became a dirt path. We first stopped so Bolod could get a picture of an abandoned Soviet airbase for his friend, and then made our way to a stone with runic/Turkic inscriptions carved on it. According to the sign out front it was the earliest example of written Turkic found (the Mongolian language is related to Turkic), and it was worth a look.

mongol 6By this time it was clear to me that Bolod’s vision wasn’t the best since he constantly drove in an S-shape to avoid non-existent rocks. The detour to get to the stone carvings was at most a kilometer away on flat ground, but Bolod’s weaving easily made it double that distance. Small mountains jutted up along the horizon, and we kept driving along the semi-snow covered paths and honked our way through the occasional cow, sheep, or horse herd until reaching a ger tucked into a valley.

Bolod previously knew the family, and had brought a few tourists here over the past few months. Gers have a uniform, circular construction and are largely made of wood and felt with a few layers added in the winter, and this one was no exception (if you are interested in the traditional layout of ger, just Google it). The area was actually a collection of a few families, not just in the same small valley but within the same 1 km radius or so; this sort of collection allowed the families to cooperate for winter, during which nomads tend to stay in the same area due to the difficulty of moving. Whatever feeling you get when you think “Mongolian winter wilderness” is probably not far from reality. According to the father of the family the winter had been mild and there were no animal die-offs, and everyone seemed in a good mood and looking forward to the spring.mongol 7

In ancient times as in now the tradition of hospitality is very alive, and as soon as we arrived the family welcomed us inside. After small talk (“Are you animals still nicely fattened?”) and a bit of milk tea and bread, I rented a horse from the family for a few dollars per hour and went with the patriarch’s son into the hills of the surrounding area. After a few minutes I got a feel for the horse and we managed to cover quite a bit of area, and the sheepskin coat that the family lent me kept the cold at bay. They also made sure I had the traditional length of cloth tied tightly around my midriff. Like most traditions that live on through the centuries, it had a practical purpose in keeping visceral organs from moving too much on long rides and staving off nausea.

mongol 9We happened upon another nomad herding sheep right when one of the sheep was giving birth and took a little while to linger. Late March and early April is the typical time they give birth, and the bleating of the baby sheep was unmistakable. We kept on through the hills and stopped at another family’s ger to get some hot tea and bread (again, welcomed without question like they had known me for years), and eventually returned to the ger around sunset. The rest of the night we stayed in the ger and had some dinner. The nomad diet is quite limited with no vegetables, but hearty insofar as there is quite a bit of meat and dairy. The main sources of meat are sheep, cow, horse, and yak with the occasional marmot, but no pork since pigs cannot be herded. Our dinner was no exception, which was a soup with mutton and noodles. In the city, however, I found that meals were cheap and equally as filling, but with more variety.

Over dinner I learned that the head of the family was ethnically Kazakh, but regardless of ethnicity all Mongolian nomads live in essentially the same way with the same customs. His wife had died a few years ago and he was 70, so he was only left with his son (his other son and daughters were in Kazakhstan and the United States). They had joined with a few other families, and they had a woman come in from a neighboring ger to cook food. It is traditional that only women cook and serve food and tea to guests, whereas men were mainly responsible for tending the flocks, although I saw these roles were pretty flexible. The father was suffering lung problems from spending years working in coal mines, and was planning to get medical treatment in the nearby village, so he needed help running the ger.

mongol 8Essentially all of the nomads have solar panels on their ger and access to satellite TV at night through charged car batteries, but the stations were limited and Bolod lamented that, “You switch on TV, and all you see is Korean drama or horse race [referring to the traditional Mongolian sport]. It is terrible”. It did seem more varied than that, though, and they even got MTV. Although there was no computer or internet connection, cell phones were also universal.

Since the families were getting ready to move to a new area for the spring, I asked how they go about deciding where their next destination will be. They didn’t really understand the question, and the answers I got weren’t direct. More or less, it sounded like it was based on past experience in an area, or hearing that it is a good place from another family. I guess the parallel would be like asking a Westerner how they decide what time to go to work: you just know because that’s the time you go to work. Likewise, when a family hears about a place and it looks good when they get there, they just know that will be the place to stay for a while. There is no checklist besides having a source of water, good pasture for the animals, and possibly good protection from the wind; there are definitely no signs that indicate the way.

I was also wondering about packing everything up and transporting the ger; although some families still moved in the traditional way with horses or camels, many opted to use their own truck or a hired one. Overall, it seemed like there wasn’t much of a clash between the nomads and modernity, and even among the youth there wasn’t much desire to leave the nomadic lifestyle (at least in the small amount that I spoke to). The general trend in Mongolia is towards urbanization in the capital; there aren’t any other large cities in the country of under 3 million people, but it seems less pronounced as in other countries. I asked about the general difficulty of living the nomadic lifestyle to more than a few people, and the overwhelming response was that it wasn’t that bad. Everyone said there was plenty to eat even in years when the livestock died off, they had modern conveniences like satellite TV, the gers were warm and comfortable, and the unappealing nature of Ulaanbataar and poor job prospects made living a pastoral lifestyle a much better option.

Mongolia: The sights and the sounds from Tyler Cole on Vimeo.

 

The lack of hot showers and food variety may have been a deal breaker for someone used to it (like myself), but to someone who had grown up in the nomadic lifestyle I could completely understand the desire to remain that way. I also had a preconceived notion that nomads were far more disconnected from sedentary life than they actually were. The kids even had a basketball hoop. To me it seemed much less like there was a clear urban/rural divide, but rather like the nomads made up an extremely extended and autonomous suburb from the nearest city or village. There was quite a bit of interaction, as the nomads would sell meat or dairy to the cities or mining areas and receive money from the government. I got the impression that they had seen enough of the more urbanized areas and decided, “Eh, that’s not so great”, or just decided it would be too difficult to adjust to urban life when the nomadic life was bearable.

I also assumed that hygiene in the rural areas was going to be put on the back burner, but the younger people and adults (not so much the elderly) I saw seemed to regularly wash their hands and brush their teeth. Combined with a lack of processed sugars, most of the nomads’ teeth that I saw

were at or beyond Western standards. Bolod was quick to attribute the standards of hygiene to Soviet influence.

mongol 11The ger stayed relatively warm at night, and the next day I took off hiking with one of the family dogs tagging along around the surrounding hills in the opposite direction of the horse ride. Besides tranquility and the occasional sheep with a bleating newborn, I came across an abandoned Soviet outpost and bunker, likely a lookout for the old air base. Bolod make me take him so he could get a picture, and he found Russian writing that seemed to indicate something dangerous used to be stored there. Dinner that evening consisted of fried dough

with meat that was essentially identical to a Latin American empanada.

The next day we took off to another region and passed by the recently constructed memorial to Ghenghis (Chingkhis) Khan. It was borderline tacky, with his statue on horseback standing about 40 meters tall in the middle of a plain and made out of a highly reflective metal.

After picking a valley in the distance and driving towards it, we found another ger to stay at for the night. I should mention that nomads tend to put their gers in valleys that open to the south so as to guard from strong Northern winds during the Winter. By chance it was another Kazakh family, and they said we were welcome to stay for the night. This family was less nomadic, only moving within the same valley, and the father said he had been in the same area for seventeen years including time in mining.

Their ger seemed tidier and more “homey” than the last, given the younger and more energetic family. I took off hiking again after a bit of rice porridge, with one of the local boys accompanying me. The surrounding area was, as expected, beautiful and calm. The boy showed me in a

nother valley where a pit had been dug for extracting materials for cement, something that is becoming more and more common with an ever increasing amount of raw materials due to Mongolia’s huge reserves of natural resources.

mongol 10

By the time I returned to the ger the family was preparing beef buuz, the

Mongolian version of a dumpling. There were a few rounds of these steamed up, and we chatted over dinner with help of Bolod translating. I was surprised to learn that the family was discussing the same “local” events as the previous family that I stayed with, concerning the murder of a husband and wife, despite

a distance of separation of around 80 kilometers. News amongst the nomads, indeed, spread fast.

Obvious from his appearance, we also chatted about the youngest son of the family being a powerlifting champion, and his medals were hung around the ger. They also were happy because of the mild winter, since much of their flock died during the last Winter, and they told me about how families share flocks to help those that were hardest hit.

mongol 12We eventually hit the lights (they took electricity from the lines that ran to the mine not far away), and the next morning Bolod and I headed towards the nearby Terelj National Park. The rock formations were distinct from anywhere else we had passed, with the tourist draw being a huge rock that resembled a turtle. According to the local Buddhist monastery that we visited, the turtle shape was a symbol of tranquility or contemplativeness or something like that and the surrounding hills were guarded by Buddhist spirits (not really sure what branch of Buddhism it was…), supposedly making the area an ideal place for people just starting out in Buddhism meditation. The cynic in me just figured it was some meaning thrown at the rock in recent times to draw tourists looking for a “spiritual” experience, but I’m sure it had some sort of historical significance that was brushed under the rug during the atheistic Soviet times and that I’m too lazy to research. Regardless, it was a beautiful sight to behold besides the odd “family” tourist campground, and the pictures speak better than my words. If the weather was not as cold, and I had the proper equipment, I would have camped a few nights in the park, but alas.

After a few hours taking in the scenery, Bolod and I took off back to Ulaanbataar . Overall I was quite enamored with the time I spent in the countryside, and I hope to be able to return at some point in the future during a better time of year when rivers are thawed and independent exploration is a bit more feasible. The fact that I just scratched the surface of Mongolia is definitely nagging at me.

More pictures below:

 

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Also, this viedo is a good sample of what the Mongolian language sounds like. I decided to put it in because I assumed before getting to Mongolia that Mongolian would be similar to either Russian or Chinese, but it is actually very different. Not realizing it before, the first recorded use of a Turkic language actually originated in Mongolian. Modern Mongolian is loosely related to Turkic languages, but it is still considered in its own Mongolic language group and derived from the Middle Mongolian spoken during the time of Ghengis Khan. Listen for a minute to get the gist:

 

 

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Comments  

 
0 #1 Rose 2011-05-05 03:43
Great post! How long did you stay in Mongolia? I'm planning a trip to Mongolia in July, just wondering if you can do this whole nomadic experience without having to go to Ulannbataar? From your post it sounds like it's not worth visiting and really far away. I only have 2 weeks max to do inner & outer Mongolia- leaving from and returning to Shenyang China. Did you see much of inner Mongolia?

thanks!
-Rose from Auckland
 
 
0 #2 Tyler Cole 2011-05-06 10:15
I was in Mongolia for a little under two weeks but was only in the countryside for a little less than a week, since I staying UB to catch up on a little work from home. UB isn't nice, but I didn't mean to give the impression that it should be categorically evaded. There are some decent places to see, and okay museums. Can you do it without going to UB? This would be difficult. The only way I could imagine is if you arranged a tour to meet you outside of UB to start and end the trip. You could do this if you were traveling by train/car, but by air it would be impossible (assuming you don't have your own private helicopter to take you wherever you wanted). UB also relatively centrally located in the country, so it isn't inconvenient. I skipped Inner Mongolia, and went straight to UB from Beijing. Apparently it isn't much different than the rest of Mongolia.
 
 
+1 #3 Rose 2011-05-06 10:46
I really want to see the Gobi desert and do camel rides there, but that's south Mongolia (and North inner Mongolia) so I'm wondering if I can do the nomadic experience somewhere close as well. And since I'm returning to China afterwards, if I skip UB I can pass over 2 days of train travel. Did you find Mongolia dodgy or unsafe? My parents are paranoid about me - a girl travelling by herself in an undeveloped country.
 
 
0 #4 Tyler Cole 2011-05-07 16:35
It's hard to say, I didn't go to the Gobi, so I'm pretty clueless about it. There might be a city that connects by train that is closer, but most of the excursions leave from UB anyways. You can always pop into a bookstore and page through the Mongolia Lonely Planet to get an idea, right? The only part that was dodgy in Mongolia was UB, apparently there are some pretty skilled and organized pickpockets, but I didn't have any issues. In terms of you being a girl, I wouldn't say it's an issue with common sense. As far as I know, violent crime against foreigners is almost non-existent. Much of the economy depends on tourism, so it's in the interest of the community to keep hands off of them. Overall, Mongolian people are far more relaxed and respectful than the Chinese, and for me it was like a breath of fresh air going from China to Mongolia.
 
 
0 #5 Rose 2011-05-08 09:57
thank you! your blog and comments have been really helpful! I really want this Mongolian adventure to happen, it'd be the perfect weather and apparently there'll be the annual Naadam festival- the competing of horse riding, westling and archery. But that'll be in UB...
 
 
0 #6 tagle 2011-06-05 11:03
RQuoting Rose:
thank you! your blog and comments have been really helpful! I really want this Mongolian adventure to happen, it'd be the perfect weather and apparently there'll be the annual Naadam festival- the competing of horse riding, westling and archery. But that'll be in UB...


i will manage my trip from beijing to UB.precisely this july. prefer to catch nomad life.
 
 
0 #7 Rose 2011-06-06 03:03
Quoting tagle:
RQuoting Rose:
thank you! your blog and comments have been really helpful! I really want this Mongolian adventure to happen, it'd be the perfect weather and apparently there'll be the annual Naadam festival- the competing of horse riding, westling and archery. But that'll be in UB...


i will manage my trip from beijing to UB.precisely this july. prefer to catch nomad life.


will you be travelling to UB over land? I won't be going via Beijing though
 
 
0 #8 Jonathan 2012-01-24 21:46
Thank you a great blog of your time in Mongolia. Would you be able to give me the name of the mongolian run guesthouse that you contacted to organise your tour?? Thank you
 

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