The nomadic life is tough. Battling harsh climates, hunting for your meals on horseback, daily back breaking labour and having to relocate and rebuild your entire home every 3-4 months. Over 51% of the Mongolian population are still living life as nomads. Living in gers and migrating with the seasons in search of greener pastures to nourish their livestock, living off the land and their animals, living a simple, exhausting yet fulfilling life.
Many visitors to Mongolia dream of spending a night in a round white ger when travelling through the grasslands.
The picturesque photos of beaming white dome like tents placed perfectly amongst the rolling grassy hills, smoke puffing away from their iron chimneys as cows and horses graze around the outskirts.
Many travellers are unaware of the options available to experience such a nights stay in this traditional type of accommodation, so here are a few pointers for those keen adventurers who are eager to ‘Live Like a Local’.
There are two ways of experiencing a night in Mongolian Ger:
1. Tourist Ger Camp
Scattered throughout the many national parks of Mongolia, the most popular is Terelj National Park (60km from Ulaanbaatar and the most easily accessed). Many tourist ger camps have been set up specifically with the tourist in mind who wishes to try the local style of living.
Quite often located at the base of spectacular mountain ranges or in the heart of a dramatic valley, these tourist ger camps have been situated in key spots to you make you feel like you are living in the grasslands.
Generally attached to a larger hotel with regular rooms, the tourist camps are a great option for those who still would like a few of the creature comforts of a regular hotel without going completely nomadic. The gers are generally in a cluster together with 6-8 beds huddled inside. They are larger than the traditional gers used for living by the local nomads and many have electricity, charging facilities and even a TV. Apart from that, beds are placed in a circle around the perimeter of the wall, with the centre of the ger being home to the oven which heats the entire room. Not a problem in summer as the ovens are not used, but if you are staying in tourist ger camp in winter, the ovens in these gers are not your traditional Mongolian stoves (due to fire and safety regulations.)
They are mass produced stoves with different combustion chambers to the traditional ovens. What this means is, is that your stove continuously needs to be topped up so your sleep is regularly interrupted with a ‘fire man’ coming into your ger to restock the fire (you cannot do this yourself). Quite often the fires burn out quickly, leaving you chilled to the bone in a short period of time. Mongolian winter evenings drop well below 0C.
One benefit of the tourist ger camps, is that there are hot showers available and flushing toilets. Not in your ger of course, but only a short walk away. This is one of the main creature comforts of the tourist camps.
Another creature comfort is that being attached to a hotel generally means and bar a restaurant. A restaurant means you can choose what you would like to eat and drink. The Mongolian diet mainly consists of three things. Dairy products, meat and noodles, so if you are feeling like something western, this is your chance to get it.
2. Authentic Nomad Ger Homestay
There are two ways to experience this type of stay. Be sure to be extremely clear which option you would like when you book. Quite often nomadic families have an ‘additional’ ger in their cluster specifically built for tourists. Although you will still be staying in a true nomad camp, the actual ger you will be sleeping in, has been created purely for tourists. New beds, nice furniture, western bedding attire, electricity etc. To me, this is not truly authentic but is one step closer than a tourist ger camp.
For me, the truly traditionally realistic experience is to stay with a nomadic family who are not equipped for tourists. Difficult to find, but they exist! I have just done this myself and it was out of this world. I experience a lot of rural homestays in my travels but this one takes the cake.
We stayed with the grandmother of the family. In her little farm, she had two gers. One for cooking and cleaning, the other for eating and sleeping. The cooking and cleaning ger is as you would image. Pots and pans everywhere, the Mongolian stove crackling and burning away all day with bowls of water boiling. Chunks of freshly slaughtered meat lay on the makeshift bench, carrots and potatoes in sacks on the floor. Two new born lambs bleeted softly in the corner, only a week old and born out of season so it was still too cold for them to be outside with their parents.
A bear paw, snout, claw and teeth hung from one of the rafters, small orange wooden stools no more than 30cm of the ground were used for seating. A large stainless steel pot sat on the floor for food scraps which were then mixed with ground husks and fed to the animals. The ger smelled of food all the time and had a homely feel to it.
In the eating and sleeping ger, there were two single beds each with pile of woollen blankets most likely locally woven. A small shrine dedicated to the Dalai Lama was on of a small dresser and a low wooden table was next to the stove.
The two gers were guarded by two fluffy Alsatian looking dogs, a fence made of tree trunks bordered the gers. Behind, was a stable which housed horses, cows, sheep and goats which all roamed free during the day and knew when to return in the evening.
500m away to the north was the ladys son’s ger. His children running around and stirring up grandma all day. 700m down the road was the daughters gers. Her children also running a muck and teasing the other children.
Both old and young were traditionally dressed in their over coats and head scarves, and everyone helped out. Children as young as four years old were carrying the wood for the stove that dad was cutting up, they were lugging plastic containers of horse feed to the horses and helped to round up the sheep.
Alongside the wood pile was a large mound of frozen ice blocks hacked and collected from the local river to provide the family with pure drinking water, a wooden fence was off in the distance to shelter a hole in the ground for a toilet.
A single light in each ger was illuminated by alligator clips clinging onto forklift batteries. The son smugly pulled out his mobile phone (not quite nomadic I know), and was super proud to show us the photos of the wolf he had shot last week. No English was spoken by anyone in this family, but communication was never a problem.
We ate what they ate. For lunch we watched grandma hand make dough which became dumplings stuffed with beef, they were cooked in a stock with some onions, carrots, potatoes, noodles and cow fat.
Dinner consisted of ‘pancakes’ which were really like empanadas stuffed with beef and others with horse that were fried over the Mongolian stove.
We witnessed grandma milk her cows under the full moon. The thick unpasteurised milk was funnelled into an empty PET bottle before being boiled and served as a drink. This is the nomadic tea.
Sleeping in this traditional ger was much more comfortable that our experience at the tourist ger camp the evening before. The True Mongolian stove burned away throughout the night without much assistance keeping us all cosy.
In the morning breakfast was served – rice and meat porridge along with some tea.
There were no shower facilities available here, so wet wipes are advisable as well as BYO toilet paper.
We learned about life as a nomad, the hardships, the lifestyle, the government acceptance, their movements through various seasons, their dress and culture, religion and customs – something that you would perhaps miss staying in a tourist camp.
A great hands on experience for those wanting to get into the heart and soul that is Mongolia.
Want to make this experience yours? Check out our range of tours in Mongolia.
This category of tours involves light trekking, walking, cycling, rafting or kayaking for a few hours each day with a small amount of inclines and declines. You will require a reasonable level of fitness and good health to participate. It is important to note that due to the nature of some of our trips, they may take place in remote areas (with basic facilities) and can involve long travelling days on various modes of transport.
Suggested preparation : At least 3 months prior to departure, it is recommended that you undertake aerobic exercise (this may include jogging, cycling or fast walking) for 30 minutes, three times a week. It is also advised to walk on variable terrain and in variable weather conditions. For a cycling adventure, road cycling twice a week is recommended and for adventures which involve paddling and kayaking, it is important to gain confidence and rhythm rather than speed prior to departure.
This category of tours involve trekking, kayaking and cycling for period of 6 to 8 hours a day at a fairly consistent pace. Ideal for people looking to slightly increase the heart rate. For our moderately rated tours, you must have a good level of fitness and also be in good health. It is also important to be prepared for variable weather conditions. Altitude may also come into play. This category of tours may involve visiting remote areas where facilities can be quite basic. Accommodation may also involve camping, homestays or basic accommodation where facilities may not be considered of western standards. To enjoy this style of travel, it is suggested for travellers to have a reasonable level of fitness and health, a positive attitude, as well as a fairly active lifestyle. An open mind is also required.
Suggested preparation: At least 3 months prior to departure, it is recommended that you undertake 45mins – 1 hour of aerobic exercise, three to four times a week. Some potential exercises that could be beneficial include hill walking with a backpack on over variable terrain and weather conditions, as well as running and cycling dependent on the activity you plan on undertaking.
This category of tours involves trekking, kayaking, cycling or other adventure activities in remote areas for up to 8 to 10 hours a day. It is important to note that with the remoteness of some regions comes a variety of other challenges such as variable weather conditions, accommodation as well as facilities. You must have an excellent level of fitness and good health to be able to partake in this category of tour. You must have confidence in your own ability and be in good physical condition. Includes extended periods of endurance.
Suggested preparation: At least 3 to 4 months of strenuous exercise, four times a week. When preparing for treks it would be beneficial to participate in hill walks with a weighted day pack (approximately 5-8 kg) once a week for aerobic fitness and strengthening of leg muscles. It is also important to do this on variable terrain to prepare for challenging adventures. When preparing for cycling adventures, regular bike riding (at least 4 to 5 times a week for 1-4 hours is essential). It is also important to cycle on uneven surfaces or even participate in other aerobic exercises such as running or swimming to build up strength and stamina. Altitude may also be a factor in these tours.
This category of tour often involves extreme trekking, cycling or other extreme adventure activities. It is important to expect remote and poorly defined tracks and to be prepared for variable weather conditions for 10 to 12 hours per day (may sometimes be more depending on weather and altitude). These adventures are suitable for travellers who have prior experience in strenuous travel and activities, are extremely fit and have excellent health. It is also important to note that some of the terrain on these adventures will involve trekking in snow, at high attitude levels and may require technical equipment.
Suggested preparation: It is important to note that physical fitness should be an ongoing activity, commencing around 5-6 months prior to departure, or even before if you have no prior fitness. Exercise should focus on building maximum endurance and stamina. Four to five hard sessions of 40-60 mins per week should be completed and can include exercises such as going to the gym, running, swimming or cycling to focus on building aerobic stamina. It could also be beneficial to prepare by hiking on rough terrain, in extreme weather conditions or partake in altitude training.