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Staying With Nomads In The Gobi Desert in Mongolia

A Life In The Day

It was 7am and sunlight was just beginning to filter through the plastic apex  at the top of the ger in the Gobi Desert in Mongolia. Outside, the temperature was -15⁰ C. Inside it wasn’t much warmer, the temperature having dropped dramatically since the stove had gone out at around midnight. We were lying in beds, each on the opposite side of the ger from the other, inside sleeping bags and covered with blankets and duvets, just our noses poking out from the abundance of bedding. We hadn’t had a shower for three days. The outside toilet would involve a 50m walk in sub-zero temperatures from the ger to a hole in the ground. Mitch was lying in bed thinking, “What have I done?” Colin was lying in bed thinking, “What has Mitch done?”

This was a trip that was going to be a challenge.

There are some 165,000 nomadic families living and working in Mongolia and they still employ largely traditional farming methods, albeit using modern technology. Sheep, goats, horses, cows and yaks are the most common livestock kept and they are sent out to pasture every day. The nomads may need to relocate their herds three or four times a year and move to pastures new which means that they pack up their housing and all their possessions.

We had travelled from Ulaan Baatar across the vast Mongolian countryside in a Furgon van along roads where tiny Brandt voles would scuttle across from one side to the other and vultures circled in the sky scanning for prey. There were no road signs. Our driver just knew when to leave the road and head across the sparse desert landscape to our destination.

Gobi Desert in Mongolia

The previous day we had visited the town of Erdenedalai in the Gobi Desert to meet the singing weatherman. The weatherman monitors the location of all the nomadic families in the area and they communicate by radio to warn each other of potentially adverse weather conditions. The map shows the contact details for all the families in the area. The weatherman also has a range of guitars and gave us an impromptu concert.

We were visiting Nergui and family who live in the Erdenedalai area, in the middle Gobi Desert in Mongolia. They kept cows, sheep and goats. The wooden pens for the animals are a permanent feature and the family move between different grazing locations several times a year. The gers are constructed alongside the animal pens. They can be taken down and put up in just a few hours – a really clever design.

Gobi Desert in Mongolia

Our hosts had kindly given up one of their gers so that we could stay in their home. Just after 7am, they came in to start the fire. After a quick breakfast we offered to help with the family’s chores. First of all, the sheep and goats needed to go out to pasture. We were visiting in early springtime and many lambs and kids had been born over the previous few weeks. The youngsters were too young to go out so our job was to separate them out and put them into a pen – the nursery – for the day. (Don’t worry, they are reunited with their mums at the end of the day.) Lambs and kids are unbelievably lively little things and particularly good at evading visitors so catching them used a lot of energy! The temperature had risen to a balmy zero so we were toasty warm after all that chasing.

Once the lambs had been separated the older members of the herd were sent out to pasture. They were left to roam together and would be brought back via quad bike at the end of the day.

Then it was time to clean out the pens. We needed to rake through the wool and hairs amidst quite a significant amount of poo and gather it up.

Then we sent the teenagers out to pasture.

Gobi Desert in Mongolia

Next job was to water the cows. We drove to the nearest well which was several kilometres away. In the Gobi Desert there are precious few roads and we were constantly amazed at how the local people knew how to navigate across vast areas of desert and still find their way to the destination. The cows also have this in-built navigational ability as they were already waiting for us.

Gobi Desert in Mongolia

The sides of the well were frozen but the water was fine. It was a manual process to draw the water using a bucket.

Gobi Desert in Mongolia

The water is pure and can be consumed without filtration. As the ger didn’t have running water we collected some for ourselves as well.

On our return to the ger camp, we needed to collect dung for the stove. The family have a dung storage area, located away from the main ger camp where the animal poo is collected and dried out. The family have a lot of animals which produce a lot of dung.

Mongolia Gobi Desert

Cooking Dinner In The Gobi Desert In Mongolia

Then it was time to make dinner so we headed back to the ger. The stove is really adaptable and each are pretty much identical in terms of size and construction. Family kitchens will have various additional parts – a deep stewing pot or hob – which are interchangeable and offer a variety of cooking methods.

Mongolia Gobi Desert

Tsuivan is a rustic dish, simple to make but it is delicious and filling. It comprises Mongolian noodles, vegetables and meat. First of all we set about making the noodles.

We made a dough using plain flour and water, kneading it until it had a soft, pliable texture and then let it rest for a few minutes.

We then took a golf ball sized ball of dough and rolled it out very thinly, repeating the process until all the dough had been rolled into thin discs. The shape didn’t matter but we did try to make them as thin as possible using a rolling pin.


The noodles-in-waiting then need to be cooked briefly. They grill on the hob of the stove until lightly toasted – just for a few minutes, then they are turned over and the other side grilled.


In the meantime we prepared some mutton and vegetables – potatoes, carrots and onions – by chopping into chunks. The stove was so versatile that the same heat source can be used as a pot or a griddle. The hob of the stove was then switched for the cooking pot – which fits over the fire perfectly – and the meat browned and vegetables added to fry in the meat juices.


Then water is added to allow the food to stew. The seasoning was simply salt, you don’t get a variety of herbs and spices in Mongolia. Whereas we are used to eating lamb in the UK, mutton is more common across Mongolia. It has a lot more flavour than lamb and, although the meat isn’t as tender, it really benefits from being cooked for a long time over the heat. The taste of the mutton was so good that it meant we didn’t really need additional seasoning.

While the mutton and veg were stewing we stacked the toasted dough and cut it into thin noodles.  


These were then laid across the meat and veg and steamed in the heat until they were soft.


Time to serve up. It’s a delicious meal. We all ate together.


After our hearty dinner we sat down with the family and played silly card games. The family also offered some of the last of their airag, an alcoholic fermented mare’s milk drink. We had been keen to try it, although we knew we were visiting outside the mare milking season, so considered ourselves to be very lucky that the family were willing to share the remnants of last year’s brew with us.


Any fear of the unexpected that we had felt that morning had vanished. Yes, it had been challenging to experience a lifestyle so very different to ours but it was a fantastic challenge. We were very privileged to have joined this welcoming family and to have shared a day in their lives. They very kindly told us that we had genuinely helped out and had done a good job cleaning the pens.

And so to bed. But before we hit the sack we were joined by this little one.

Mongolia gobi desert

She was just 10 days old and our hosts decided that the overnight temperature was going to be too low for her to survive outside. So we fed her and let her prance around the ger. She bleated in the most delightful way throughout the night.

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  1. That must have been quite the experience. How was that alcohol? It looks like eggnog.

    This had me actually laughing out loud: “ Mitch was lying in bed thinking, “What have I done?” Colin was lying in bed thinking, ‘What has Mitch done?’ “

    • It was a truly wonderful experience. It was most definitely a challenge but we both thoroughly enjoyed it. The airag was tasty – it’s basically fermented horse milk – it had a sourness to it and the strength of a light beer. We really liked it!

    • Thank you. It was a genuinely wonderful experience. The tsuivan was great fun to make and delicious too. Yes – the toilets were most definitely the biggest challenge of the trip but… we got used to them and it was absolutely fine in the end.

  2. Loved reading ths very personal account of your adventure. You are certainly brave to be willing to endure that cold and mucking out the pens but it clearly gave you an insider’s view into life with a family in the desert. I wondered how you got on with the language barrier – did you have an interpreter/they spoke English/it was by sign and action? . The food sounds great and to be able to make it must have been an adventure in itself!

    • Thank you so much! It was a brilliant experience and a real privilege to have been able to spend time with such a welcoming family. We travelled with a driver who could navigate absolutely anywhere and a lovely guide who could speak great English. In fact, we’re still in touch with her – she’s absolutely delightful and we even did a Mongolian cookery course with her over Zoom during lockdown. Cleaning out the pens was largely sign and action – we copied what our hosts were doing. Those lambs and goats are incredibly lively and took a lot of chasing!

  3. This is fascinating, so thank you for sharing! Gosh, you really must have wondered what you got into when the driver left the road and just started heading off into seemingly nowhere!

    • Thank you. Yes, we were astonished by the driver’s navigational ability. The furgon vans were perfectly suited to off-roading as well.

    • It was a challenge at the start but, you’re right, a wonderful experience that we will never forget. We really enjoyed making (and eating) dinner as well!

    • The lambs were absolutely adorable – but they had so much energy! It was hilarious chasing them to catch them. The airag was really tasty and it was so kind of our hosts to give us the last of their batch!

    • It was such an adventure and a real privilege to stay with such lovely people. The airag was interesting but we really liked it – it has a slightly sour flavour and had the alcohol content of beer. We also tried milk vodka!

  4. This must be such an experience. Talk about immersing yourself in a culture – I love it! Really pushing one’s limits and getting out of your comfort zone. Surely this will stick with you forever! Thank you for sharing.

    • Thank you so much. It was an amazing experience and a real privilege to spend time with such lovely welcoming people. We were definitely out of our comfort zone at the start but after getting stuck in, we really enjoyed ourselves.

  5. Your beginning lines “ Mitch was lying in bed thinking, “What have I done?” Colin was lying in bed thinking, ‘What has Mitch done?’ resonates with me. I think Dave has used those exact same phrases with me. Those have ended up being our most memorable adventures. What a story, what an experience…I didn’t want your blog to end. THXS for sharing

    • Colin once said, “I would follow you to the ends of the earth, darling, and I do!” But you’re absolutely right – the biggest challenges offer the greatest rewards. We had an absolutely brilliant time. Thank you so much for your kind comment!

  6. What an amazing opportunity to experience a different way of life. I’m honestly not sure I’d be up for it but it sounds like you really made the most of it. The landscape is so different from anything I’ve ever been in. I’m also amazed how people find their way around in it.

    • It was a challenge but we really enjoyed it. The landscape was stunning throughout Mongolia, it’s such a beautiful country. We were astonished by the way our driver just knew where to drive over such a vast landscape. There was no GPS – just amazing knowledge.

      • What a fantastic experience. There’s no better way to experience a culture than to live with the locals. I’m still amazed that desert temperatures get so cold. I’ve always envisioned them to be scorching hot

        • Thank you. It really was fantastic. Mongolia experiences real extremes of temperature – they can go as low as -40C in the winter and as high as 40C in the summer! We visited during late winter and although it was very cold, the humidity was low, so it didn’t feel as cold as it should.

  7. This is such a cool and out of the ordinary experience. It truly takes you out of your comfort zone and allows you to see what life is like for those that aren’t in western countries. I’d love to do something like this to experience it for myself what it’s like to have this lifestyle.

    • It really was an honour to visit this family who let us stay in their home and offered such amazing hospitality. It was a truly wonderful experience.

  8. This post has transported me to Mongolia. Your wonderful pictures have also given me a closer look into the life of Mongolian Nomadic people. I wouldn’t have guessed there were 165,000 Nomadic families living this fascinating way. This is a really wonderful post and I hope to read many more blogs like this!

    • Thank you so much for your kind comment! We thoroughly enjoyed our time staying with Nergui and his family. They were so hospitable and kind and we learned so much about their way of life.

  9. It sounds like a dream trip! I love the details about the nomadic culture and how it’s still going strong today, aided by communications technology. Did the host family teach you this recipe? It looks yummy.

    • Thank you. It was an absolutely amazing experience. Yes, there are still many nomadic families living and working in Mongolia. The host family were delightful and so welcoming. Yes, we cooked with the family and learned to make the tsuivan noodles. They were really tasty!

  10. What a remarkable adventure. I have always been fascinated by the nomadic life of these peoples in remote places. The tremendous demands of living in these places and the capacity for adaptation that surviving there requires.
    Reading a personal perspective of the experience is like traveling with you and being there. I’m just curious about how it was to overcome the language barrier issue.

    • Thank you. It was an amazing adventure. Our hosts were so kind and welcoming. We travelled with the most amazing tour company (it would have been incredibly difficult to travel independently) who work very closely with local people, to the extent that they consider them part of hte family. So we travelled with a Mongolian speaking driver and English speaking trip assistant. She was delightful and we are still in touch with her. When we were staying at with the family we generally learned to separate the kids and lambs and clean the pens by sign and action. It was a challenge but so very rewarding.

  11. What an amazing experience and a privilege for you to experience daily life in the Gobi desert. Your hosts sound like really nice and generous people. How do you secure a stay over there? Do you have to plan everything prior to travel or once you get there?

    • Thank you. It was the most brilliant experience enhanced by the generosity and kindness of our hosts. We travelled with a tour operat0r – one of the best we have ever known. They work very closely with local families and are hugely socially responsible. We worked with them to arrange an itinerary and they sorted everything out for us. We travelled with a driver and trip assistant. We couldn’t have travelled independently – we still have no idea how our lovely driver found the gers in the middle of the desert. He had no GPS – he just knew where to go.

  12. I am impressed by your journey, unusual direction, and your adventure. Kudos to you, because Mongolia and the Gobi Desert are not places that are easy to reach. You guys had a great trip. It’s so nice of you to share your experiences. You had a chance to learn about local culture, traditions, and rituals during your trip! Congratulations, as it’s the type of beaten-path expedition.

    • Thank you for your comment. Yes it was a fantastic trip and a wonderful way to meet local people and to get a chance to understand their way of life.

  13. What a way to not only visit a place, but really live it and get to experience the traditional ways of life. It’s amazing to hear about the life of the nomads and how much work is involved, not just with the animals but in moving around so much because of their needs. The food looked amazing too, I’m sure much needed to keep everyone warm with temperatures like that

    • Thank you! Yes it really was an amazing experience. Our hosts were so kind and welcoming. The food was brilliant and we loved learning to cook it. And yes, we needed that stove and chasing all the lambs – the temperatures were indeed cold!

  14. What a cool experience! I can imagine the sleep wasn’t great – but learning to make Tsuivan sounds great. Sometimes we have to go through the bad to get to the great. Even the not-so-fun chores give a unique look into the local life and culture!

    • It was a wonderful opportunity to meet local people – who were so kind – and to join in with their work, even mucking out the pens!. The tsuivan was delish – we really enjoyed making it. The sleep was okay – it was toasty warm while the stove was on but when it went out, boy, was it freezing in the morning!

  15. Blimey – What an incredible experience you guys have had and a real insight into life in other corners of the world. Dinner in the gobi desert? Slept with a lamb? Completed it, mate!

    The cooking stoves are fascinating, and you smashed it with the dough! Lucky you, eating and cooking Tsuivan with locals.

    A real bucket list and eye-opening adventure, thanks for sharing. Loved this post.

    PS: The lambs are uber cute!

    • Thank you! It was an absolutely incredible experience. Our hosts were so kind and generous and we genuinely learned so much about their lives. We really enjoyed the cooking and learning to cook on that versatile stove, which also kept us warm (until it went out during the night).The lamb was adorable!

  16. A very cool experience and as usual, I have a few questions and hope you don’t mind? How did you find a host family? Is this organised as part of a tour and do the families receive a small contribution? You stayed with the family for two nights? I loved hearing about the cooking session with the stove, simple yet very effective and the final dish looked tasty.

    Carolin | Solo Travel Story

    • Thank you so much! It was a truly fantastic experience. Always VERY happy to answer questions. It was a two night stay with Nergui’s family in a 12 day trip. It was organised by a tour operator – probably the best tour operator we have ever travelled with. Travelling independently across the vast Gobi desert is very difficult. We were amazed that our driver knew when to go off-road and how to find the nomadic family. The tour operator focuses solely on Mongolia and is socially responsible. They work closely with local families, businesses and communities. Our driver and trip assistant (who we are still in touch with) are Mongolian. The company always use female trip assistants to give local women opportunities to develop their careers. We genuinely felt that the local people benefitted from our visit throughout the trip… as we benefitted from staying with them.

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