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A Life in the Day – Staying with Nomads in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert

It was 7am and sunlight was just beginning to filter through the plastic apex  at the top of the ger. 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.

The previous day we had visited the town of Erdenedalai 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. 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.

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.

Next job was to water the cows. We drove to the nearest well which was several kilometres away. In the Gobi 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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

Inside Mongolia – Anatomy of a Ger

One of the lovely things about travelling to Mongolia is staying in gers, either with families who were kind enough to share their homes with us or at specially designed tourist camps. Gers (also known in Western countries as yurts, although ger is the correct Mongolian term) are traditional round tents used as dwellings throughout Mongolia. The amazing thing about them is that they can be taken down and put up within a couple of hours. The construction uses no nails or fixings – the wooden poles interlock and remain sturdy and solid.

The national museum of Mongolia in Ulaanbaatar helpfully has a model to show a ger’s construction.

The door of the ger always faces south. You have to remember to duck when entering – it’s probably a rare visitor who doesn’t bash their head at least once when staying in gers!

Most locals don’t knock before entering and shoes remain on. Whenever we visited a family we were invited to join them and were introduced to all the family members over a cup of milk tea or sometimes a shot of vodka. We were welcomed warmly with big smiles at every place we visited.

In winter, temperatures outside can drop to -30 degC. We visited in spring so night-time temperatures were a relatively balmy -15 degC – which was still very, very cold! Fuel varies – coal burns more slowly than wood which burns more slowly than dung.

The centre of the ger is the stove. It really is the heart of the home used for both cooking and heating.

To the left of the door is the kitchen area. Shelves contain pots and pans as well as cooking utensils. Many of the pots are specifically designed to be used directly on the stove.

The blue barrel contains water, drawn from the nearest well.

To the right of the door is the washing area. There is no running water available but the little plastic vessel can be filled from the main water barrel and the tap opened.

Be careful not to waste water though. If you want water in the Gobi desert you have to go to the nearest well, which can be several kilometres away.

The water is pure and can be drunk directly with no filtration needed. It tastes good.

This well was used not only to provide water for the family, the local cows were also waiting for a drink.

Beds and storage areas line the circumference of the ger. There will be a low table with stools next to the stove. Beds double as a seating area – it’s perfectly fine to sit on someone’s bed. Blankets and clothes can be stored underneath. You can hang your coat or dry any laundry by hanging clothes in the rafters. Family homes also had furniture – chests of drawers and dressing tables.

Of course there is a need for a toilet. The facilities are usually a basic long drop loo located some 50m from the main ger. When answering the call of nature you are surrounded by, well, nature.

If you want a shower you will have to go to the local town. There are shower houses available for locals to use. We had just three showers in 11 days and it’s quite liberating having greasy hair and simply not feeling the need to wash every day. The climate in Mongolia, especially in the Gobi, is very dry – so the heat of the summer and cold of the winter are mitigated by the lack of humidity.

In springtime, while daytime temperatures can be quite mild, it drops significantly at night. The ger will be toasty warm while the stove is lit, but it will go out and then it’s time to bundle up – thermals, blankets, sleeping bags – just pile them on.

The host family will come in in the morning and start up the fire. We were pretty incompetent at getting the stove going at first but during the course our stay we eventually developed a technique that could both start and maintain the fire and we could officially deem ourselves the ‘fire-starters.’ Nomadic families make use of the dung produced by their many animals. It is dried out and used for fuel. It burns quite quickly so you need to keep an eye on the stove and top up whenever necessary.

If a local cat gets into the ger be warned, it will instantly take advantage of the warmth and softy tourists within and will almost certainly leap onto your sleeping gear to snuggle up. You’ll be lucky to get your bed back.