The very words, nomads and Mongolia, make my feet itch and my skin tingle with excitement. After all, it’s what most of us think about when we think of Mongolia. It’s one of those untouched countries. There is still purity and tradition there. Plus, you can brag to all your friends about being in Mongolia!
Welcome to my Ger!
Like a lot of cultures, the center of a Mongolian Ger is the stove. In general, the stoves are fairly tiny, but they still give off a lot of heat (which is important in winter) and they make cooking a lot easier. In Mongolia, most nomads use wood to fuel the fire, however, some also use dried manure.
To the left of the door is often a small wash stand and to the right is usually some kind of hutch or cabinet for preparing food. Depending on the Ger, the rest is usually twin size beds. Towards the center, close to the stove is generally a very small table with tiny stools set around it. This is where the family will eat.
If you visit a Ger as part of a tour, you will probably have your own Ger, separate from the family. You may or may not have a bed to sleep in, so be sure to bring a sleeping bag with you! Your meals will be cooked by the family and you will either eat with them or in your Ger with the rest of your tour group.
Please Pass the Milk Cream
One of the best things about staying with a nomadic family is the food. Sure, there is a lot of meat served and some of will probably be mutton, but there are a lot of yummy foods as well.
Tea time was probably one of my favourites. The families I visited served a black tea from Sri Lanka (I know, ironic, huh), along with bread and milk cream and jam. Although the milk cream did not look like much at first, one bite told me I had found a new friend. Milk cream settles on top of milk several hours after its been taken from a cow, sheep or goat. The nomads scoop this cream off, sterilize it and then let it sit. The result is a half butter half cream mixture. It’s similar to clotted cream in the UK.
Lunch was usually a heavy meat meal with potatoes and carrots, while Dinner is a little lighter. Breakfast varied depending on the family. While one family cooked eggs and crepes and served milk cream with bread and jam, the other family served their version of French toast with milk cream, homemade bread, and jam.
Meals in a Ger depend on the wealth of the family. In general, they will offer you everything they have. This is part of their culture and hospitality. If you’re a vegetarian, tell your guide before you leave for your tour. Most families will give you something vegetarian to eat -although this is usually just a bowl of sticky rice.
Meet The Family
The best part about staying in a Ger with a nomadic family is, well, the family. I loved meeting both families. They were generally excited to see us and they were beyond hospitable.
The 1st family we visited was a young Mongolian family. The older girl was around 9 years old and she went away to school during the week as there was not a school near her home. The little girl, Ano, was about 2 years old and a little sweetheart. She would open the door to our Ger, stare at us for a few minutes and then run away. If took me until the next morning to coax her inside our Ger. After that, she and I coloured and discovered the wonders of front facing video recording on my iPhone.
The 2nd family we visited was a Kazakh family. As we climbed slowly out of the VW bus, we were greeted by a smiling, anxious to shake our hands and say hello (Sam-ba-no). As we walked into their Ger, we were shown to our own Ger on the left. Inside were three beds (This meant the boys slept on the floor), a stove, small table, and stools. That night we were treated to some singing by the man’s cousin, as well as a couple of songs from his children (above photo).
The Kazakh children were a little older (10 and 6) and a little more comfortable around foreigners. I loved hearing the little girl laugh. It was so happy and infectious!
Mongolians are incredibly crafty people. They use everything they can to sustain themselves. This includes using ankle bones from sheep, goats, cows, and horses to play games. Yes, actual ankle bones!
On both nights, we were treated to games involving ankle bones. The first (and more popular one for us) involved snapping. Each side of the ankle bone means something different and therefore each side has its own name – horse, camel, sheep & goat. Ankle bones would be thrown onto a table and the object was to find to similar sides and then try to snap one against the other. If you hit the matching ankle bone, you keep it. This is carried on until only one player is left holding all of the ankle bones. It may sound confusing at first, but after a few minutes, the game becomes addictive.
I Gotta Go, Where?
As you may have guessed, Gers do not come equipped with a toilet. Instead, there is this thing called an outhouse.
Outhouse designs change. One of the ones I used had a door, which means holding a flashlight in my mouth at night so I wouldn’t step in the wrong spot. The other was a 3-wall shack facing the wind. Kind of hard to wipe yourself when a big wind whips up. Trust me!
Both shacks had wooden plank floors, with a hole running down the center. This is where balance comes into play. You have to plant your feet just right, before you squat and do your business. After using these outhouses, I decided I’d rather squat behind a bush somewhere. At least then I wouldn’t worry about falling in!
If you’re in Mongolia in the winter remember to pee before bed. It sucks waking up at 2 am, and getting all bundled up to face the -20c weather, just so you can pee!
If you’re planning a trip to Mongolia and you want to experience life in a Ger (Yurt), there are a few other options.
There are Ger Camps set up all over Mongolia. If you’re looking for a night or two in a Ger, but you don’t want to spend time with a local family, this is a great option. Ger Camps are set up little like hotels. There will be Gers that act as dorm rooms or hotel rooms and there is usually a 10+ in every camp.
If you’re one of those brave souls who want to ride a horse or drive a car around Mongolia, you will likely come across more than your fair share of nomads. Mongolians and Kazakhs are very friendly people and will often invite you into their Ger to share a meal. It’s an amazing experience, that should not be missed. However, while planning your trip, please remember that these families live off the land and do not have much.
What Should I Bring With Me?
As I mentioned above, nomadic families live off the land and generally do not have much. Whether you’ve paid for a tour or you’re going solo, you should bring something to give to the families who host you. Items like soap, toiletries, or basic foods are a good place to start. If you know the family has children, bring candy, stickers or colouring materials with you. Items from your home country are also a great idea.
Other items you should bring with you, are as follows.
- Sleeping bag. Depending on the time of year, a sleeping bag will be very handy. If you’re traveling in winter, make sure you bag is good for up to -20c weather!
- Long undies. It gets cold in Mongolia. You’ll be glad to have them with you.
- Toilet paper! This should be obvious…
- Lip balm -Mongolia is very dry and fairly windy.
- Hand sanitizer or baby wipes. Again, slightly obvious…
- An appetite!