Living with locals in a Mongolian yurt

Living with locals in a Mongolian yurt

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By Lynsey Wolstenholme
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Getting friendly (and inebriated) with the only locals around, Lynsey Wolstenholme realises what self-sustainability really means on a Mongolian yurt homestay.

After a six hour journey, along the bumpy, unpaved roads of Mongolia, I arrived at my base for the next 24 hours: a homestay nestled in the shadow of the Khogno Khan mountain. I was in the Khogno Khan nature reserve, home to wild animals, sand dunes, forests and grasslands, and I was instantly struck by the remoteness of the place. There were just two gers (yurts, the traditional Mongolian nomad tent) in an expanse of grasslands as far as the eye can see.  It was incredibly peaceful yet I struggled to imagine how people could live in such solitude. It’s hardly surprising though – Mongolia is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world and due to increasing urbanisation, 45% of the population now live in the capital. This is a place where isolation is the norm.

I was warmly greeted by my hostess and invited into the family ger. Inside, it was warmly alluring; this was nothing like the sparsely furnished gers of the tourist camps but instead it was a real home. The circular room was dominated by a stove in the middle, surrounded by beautifully decorated hand-carved timber cabinets, woven yak-hair wall hangings and handmade throws on the beds, which doubled as seating in the daytime. The family took a break from their work to share a traditional welcome snack with me; a plate of goat’s meat – including the skin and tail, which I tactfully managed to avoid – and a bowl of fermented mare’s milk commonly known as airag. Having read about this drink I was excited to try it – this didn’t last long though, as I politely polished off a bowl and realised that the sour tasting milk was not for my palette. They eagerly served me another bowl, and with an alcohol content of 2.5% I began to feel a little tipsy.

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It was soon time to sober up and explore my surroundings. My driver, Mr Shiri, gave me some brief directions and off I went for a gentle hike. With the mountain in one direction and the sand dunes and grasslands in the other, my eyes were spoilt for choice. After three hours hiking in complete blissful solitude, I returned for a delicious dinner of rice with more goat, thankfully with no tail this time.

After dinner my hosts were back to work; all the animals must be herded, the horses secured for the night and the cows milked. Watching the work brought home the true meaning of self-sufficient living. The nomads rear cows and goats for meat and milk, horses for transport and milk, and even the dung is collected and dried for fuel.  It felt like going back in time to a world before mass food production, supermarkets and central heating.

After the work was done my hosts and Mr Shiri joined me in the ger. We cracked open a bottle of Chinggis vodka, patriotically named after the most legendary Mongolian Genghis Khan, and settled down to play Khutser, a popular Mongolian card game. Unsurprisingly, I lost every time. Slightly inebriated it was time to pack away the cards and head to bed, but not before a last glimpse outside to gaze at the beautiful glittering starry sky, free from any light pollution – a sight I could have happily stared at for hours on end.

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Perfectly rested I awoke in the morning to the sound of lowing cows, and opened the door to be greeted by several of the herd, looking curiously into my room.  A delicious breakfast of pastries and fresh orum (clotted cream) was then devoured whilst I watched the animals graze. This high calorie diet suits the nomad’s traditional labour intensive lifestyle and the long winters, but I could feel my waistband tightening.

I was, however, about to get some exercise – Mongolian style. No sooner than I had swallowed my last bite of omul, I spotted a horse being saddled for me. After gesturing frantically that I was a beginner, I was off on a gentle trot to the sand dunes, which felt like a mini Gobi desert – I was once again left marvelling at the beauty of my surroundings. After just one hour riding, the grasslands slowly began to disappear and I was surrounded by sand.

After I’d trotted back it was time to move on. I departed feeling grateful for the opportunity to participate in and witness the nomads lives, albeit briefly, and hoping that their nomadic traditions are not eradicated by the increasing urbanisation of the Mongolian population.

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The logistics

Almost all guesthouses in the capital Ulan Bataar will offer to organise your trip (from transport to accommodation) as most people come to Mongolia to explore the rich countryside. If you prefer to plan ahead, you can email your guesthouse in advance and ask them to arrange an itinerary for you, otherwise you can discuss plans when you arrive. You can either sleep in tourist camps, do a homestay, or a mix of the two. In the countryside, you must be realistic with your time frames; the roads in Mongolia are not good and covering even short distances can take far longer than expected. If you want to visit the Gobi by road, for example, you need to allow at least 10 days (including return time to Ulan Bataar).

Explore more of Asia and get inspiration on the Rough Guides Asia destination page.