Mongolia: Ger Life on the Eastern Steppe
Mongolia, and My Misguided Search for Authenticity in a Ger
By Steven Cruse
We were standing outside the Golomt Apartment complex on the corner of Peace Avenue -and a significantly more Cyrillic street name in the capital of Mongolia that is at present unpronounceable to me.
The temperature hovered weakly just above freezing– uncharacteristically warm for this time of year in Ulaanbaatar, and the wind piercing through the funneled courtyard of the apartments had a particularly savage snap to its bite.
Our climate shifting travels, paired with a reluctance to buy anything not deemed completely necessary left us severely underdressed for this venture.
But the excitement at stepping into the bare brilliance of Mongolia kept me warm; Jess maybe not as much.
We were to meet our tour guide, Bolod, in front of our apartment at 9, but there was no sign of him.
The worry that this stranger who we had stumbled across in Sukhbaatar Square a few days previously was having us over crossed my mind, before I remember I hadn’t parted with a penny yet.
Sure enough, he had chosen the back end of the apartments, and he greeted us warmly, doling out pleasantries about the weather as we walked around the corner to the truck.
We were introduced to his friend and driver for the trip, an older man, who was once a well-known colonel in the Mongolian army.
As to the validity of that statement, I can’t say, but I can speak for his impressive smoking habit, love of mare’s milk, and vodka absorbing abilities.
We rolled out of the car park and began weaving our way through the tail end of morning rush hour to the southeast end of Ulaanbaatar.
Along the way we passed by the foot of Zaisan Monument Hill, a beautiful if ever so slightly propaganda-Esque memorial dedicated to the brotherhood between Mongolia and the Soviet Union.
We watched as the urban explosion of Ulaanbaatar melted away to more sporadic satellite towns, stopping briefly at a Shamanistic Ritual site.
Unbeknownst to us, Buddhism does have some competition in Mongolia, with Shamanism making a comeback after heavy repression during the socialist years.
The site was empty when we arrived, but the remnants of sheep and bird bones remained in the fire pits surrounding the large A-frame monuments which were adorned in an array of colorful worship cloths.
As the spaces between settlements grew quickly larger, the roads deteriorated even more rapidly.
The asphalt dissolved into dust trails, devoid of any system, lorries and trucks veering back and forth through the red mist kicked up from the ground.
One of the oddest things I noticed was the number of Priuses lining the roads here. I read somewhere that of the 50,000 miles of road in Mongolia, only 5000 are paved in any way.
With this in mind, I really appreciate the nod towards environmental protection, but I couldn’t help wondering how so many Mongolian drivers had neglected the state of their roads when purchasing a vehicle.
On the other hand, ten years in North Carolina has shown me an abundance of Americans willing to purchase powerful gas-guzzling trucks built for tearing across landscapes just like Mongolia’s, only to hit cruise control on the never-ending interstates of the US.
Nalaikh however, had been predominantly based around coal and had been there since the fifties.
It showed signs of quick growth in the past, but still lingered with haphazard roads, buildings dropped loosely and patternless along the road, and the distinct feeling of stagnancy: at odds with the fast-paced, modern urban experience that Ulaanbaatar has quickly evolved into.
Our destination here was Sain Nomuun Monastery, a beautiful but most definitely understated place when compared to the multitude of Buddhist sites we’ve come across on our travels.
Stepping inside, we were immediately hit by the smell of burning incense, and the tranquil drone of Buddhist chants.
A lesson was in session, with about twenty young men sat on either side of the center of the room.
Most turned to look at the two white strangers sneaking in at the back to steal a look at their daily practices, with some even nudging their neighboring students to glance in our direction.
Particularly Jess’ direction. I’m glad to see that some things don’t change about young men.
t was a different experience to the larger places of worship that are now as many tourist spots as they are sacred ground, and this particular monastery brought its own personality with the presence of Muslim Kazakhs working in administrative roles within the monastery.
The town itself has a large Muslim population, mainly Kazakhs moving from the western part of the country, forgoing a nomadic life for that of a mining one.
This was evident on our arrival at the monastery, looking back at the town from the hill it stands upon, the only discernible shape gaining prominence over the skyline was the large dome of the Mosque catching the glint of the sun.
It will forever nudge my predisposed and cliched images of Buddhist life back towards reality when I see a group of teenage boys, shaven heads, and clad in orange and yellow robes laughing together over a YouTube video on their iPhones.
Buddhism’s Archaic Image
It’s easy for westerners with no real exposure to this part of the world, to fall into the archaic image of Buddhism, or any more traditional aspect of life in Asia, as if we’re not aware that we’re visiting a real place in real-time, with real people.
The notion that people can still be wearing robes, and chanting within the mystique of a temple, and simultaneously be living completely in 2019 can be at odds with our understanding.
And as we sat at the back of the temple watching, I felt a mild sense of embarrassment, (or shame, maybe?), that I was so enthralled with the service, and a tinge disappointed that these young men had smartphones stuffed into their robes–as if my own ignorant disillusions were superior to the reality of it all.
All things aside, the visit was pleasant, if brief, look into the life of Monks. A quick meeting with some of the younger monks in their classes, and the Cliff Notes of the tragic history of the Lamas in Mongolia during the socialist years rounded out our stop, and we were back in the truck.
Explaining Brexit to the Colonel
We grabbed lunch in a little canteen around the corner from the monastery, where I tried explaining Brexit in broken English to the Colonel, while Jess faced the equally awkward task of pretending to enjoy her bone broth soup.
I enjoyed Mongolian food, but a culinary tradition built out of necessity for survival does not produce dishes that are as aesthetically pleasing. There’s no food porn stemming from the Mongolian kitchens that we ate in.
I say this in the full hope that someone Mongolian reads this, and informs me otherwise. We had returned to a paved segment of road and were free to enjoy the landscape widening in front of us.
I was immediately taken home to Scotland; the barren slopes painted with broad strokes of browns, oranges, and deep yellow, before giving way to the rocky crags of the Terej Mountains
The greatest difference between Scotland and Mongolia however, is the size. Finding some space to yourself in the middle of Glencoe can give the perception of complete solitude, but you’re rarely more than an hour or so from a decent-sized town or city.
Mongolia is the 19th biggest country in the world by landmass while being one of the least densely populated, so space is in abundance. And the Nomadic families still working across the country can stake claim to a solitude that even the most adventurous of us would be unlikely to find in Scotland.
But as we reach Tsonjin Boldog, on the banks of the Tuul River, the emptiness was dwarfed briefly for a moment by the imposing figure of the Grand Khan himself.
Chinggis looms forty meters high over the valley, staring eastwards atop his horse to the supposed place of his birth, and is the largest equestrian monument in the world.
A relatively new addition to the landscape, the shining steel tribute to one of the men of the millennium was erected in 2008, to coincide with the 800th anniversary of the founding of the Mongol Empire.
With no color, bar his golden staff, there’s something mildly Terminator 2 about him, but there’s no denying the grandeur of the structure, and the museum underneath dedicated to the other 36 Khans, and the history of the Mongolian Gers is worth the 30,000 Togrot entry fee, about $11.
While standing on the viewing deck built on the head of Chinggis’ horse, Bolod points out some of the tourist camps nearby.
He talks with a definite bitterness of the way the camps are run, perpetuating an out of date image on Nomadic life in Mongolia, where city dwellers pose as riders, and care for the local environment is of a lesser concern, highlighted by the large symbol plastered on a hill advertising the camp.
“It’s not their hill”, he tells me. “It’s not their land, and they are not what they say they are.
Half of them have never ridden a horse in their life. It makes me sad, as this is not Mongolia. Yet it is what so many see.”
Bolod has been running tours of Mongolia since 1994. He gained a reputation in a few Lonely Planet guidebooks as “the Tank Guy.”
Some of his past tours literally involved driving tanks and firing RPGs.
I’m sad to say that those days are now behind him thanks to the Government intervening with some (probably understandable) restrictions.
But the main goal in his tours is finding an as authentically Mongolian experience as he can.
Three Khans, Three Folders
He had approached us in Sukhbaatar square, briefing us on the background of the square’s namesake, and the three Khans immortalized in front of the city hall.
He then pulled out three colored binders, which he informed us were number 11, 24, and 41 of 47 binders, detailing over 600 trips, each documented with a hand-drawn map of the route taken.
The folders also included the names of the Nomadic families that provided hospitality and stories about the travelers on each venture. Each trip was punctuated with printed pictures glued around the write-up, giving an old school, but very warm feel to the man and his business.
I emailed him a day later, asking for a price for an overnight trip, and within a few hours, we had an itinerary, an extremely generous price, and a well-versed guide to lead us through Mongolia.
I’m a natural cynic, and overly wary of offers to experience anything “authentic”, but to Bolod’s credit, our experience with the Nomads later that day, and his obvious appreciation of the lifestyle, paired with a disdain for the surface level experiences on offer at much higher prices was truly wonderful.
Many of the tourists exploring Mongolia do stay with “real” Nomadic families. What constitutes as real at this point is up for discussion as Bolod told me.
Tourism has in some cases, made it possible for some willing families to supplement their income substantially by regularly taking tourists into their homes.
They will have an itinerary of lifestyle experiences at the ready; traditional outfits, food, their own personal tourist ger ready with beds, and maybe the chance to milk a cow or horse.
They are most definitely still nomadic families, and the homes are their own, but the experience leaves room for criticism from the traveler seeking a less cookie-cutter venture into Mongolian culture.
Finding Our Camp
Bolod refuses to adhere to these principles and chooses instead to pick a random moment to pull off the road and bumble through the emptiness until he finds a camp to approach.
He experiences a high degree of success with this method, as the nomadic people have an exceptionally high tolerance to walk-ins.
This welcoming attitude, Bolod tells me, is a by-product of the centuries-old lifestyle. Nomadic farmers with camps set up were naturally empathetic to others in the process of trekking through one of the most unforgiving landscapes in the world with hundreds of animals in tow.
Offering shelter, food, and water was the natural thing to do, in the understanding that if the situation was reversed, they would be welcomed also.
And even today, it extends to us as tourists via Bolod. We approached two camps, the first nestled in the shelter of three barren hills with a view out over the valley. A truly stunning place to set up for the winter.
After a few words with the young occupants, we were informed their father would be back in a few hours, but that it wouldn’t be a problem to wait. As the evening was stretching over the sky, Bolod chose to drive on to the next camp.
This one, slightly smaller, with two gers and a large flock of sheep mingling around under the watchful eyes of four large dogs, sat below some rocky crags, in an equally beautiful location, hinting at what could be an immense sunrise the next morning.
A single man occupied this camp, and as I watched the conversation unfold from the backseat of the jeep, I assumed we were unwelcome this time. My assertions were wrong, however, and our host was simply a man of a quiet disposition. We hopped out of the car, a little hesitantly thanks to the massive dogs sniffing around in interest at our arrival.
The man didn’t speak a word of English. He struggled out a hello and welcomed us into the ger. We stored our bags in the corner (does a circular tent have a corner?), and received some warm milk in a little bowl.
Jess, still going through the initial growing pains of travel politely let her lips touch the milk, and proceeded to lovingly hold the bowl as if she wasn’t waiting for me to finish mine and pass hers across.
Bolod narrated the conversation between our host and him, explaining that his family lived in a small village several miles from our current location. We had in fact arrived just a day after he had made the journey from his summer camp, so his hospitality was all the more generous.
I can’t think of a Brit that would invite four strangers into their home at the best of times, never mind after forcing 800 goats and sheep across the Mongolian countryside. He was still unpacking things and had made a call in a mild panic, while we sat in the warmth of the ger, to his brother to bring some food to cook for his new guests.
We had been there for maybe fifteen minutes when Bolod excitedly picked up some overcoats our host had lying around. After a quick approving nod (still no smile) from our host, Bolod had grabbed Jessica and was wrapping her in a sheep’s skin coat.
It was a welcome addition for Jess. The temperature was plummeting as the sun retreated behind the hills at the far end of the valley. Although it would have been warmer at that point, it dropped to -22 degrees Celsius during the night.
The onslaught of the cold was the first evidence of the sheer resilience that this kind of life breeds in these people. This was the very start of an unseasonably warm winter, and this man worked outside all day everyday, tending to his massive flock of sheep and goats.
We wandered up the crags just behind the camp seeking a better view of our surroundings. The hill provided the only real protection from the elements. The valley funneled a sharp wind violently through the landscape, and as we gained some height the veracity lessened.
We headed back towards the ger, arriving as a Prius drove up the slope to the camp. Again, anyone claiming they need a truck in the States needs to spend a week in Mongolia to reassess their understanding of what these cars are capable of.
The new arrival entered, embraced our host, and shook our hands. He was the younger brother in the family, and had just finished work in Ulaanbaatar. They came from a large family, our host being the oldest of seven children and his brother the second youngest.
They were all brought up with the nomadic farming lifestyle, but now, our host was the only family member still living in this manner. His younger siblings had all gone in different directions, some to mining, others to university and jobs in the city.
His brother had spent time in South Korea, a typical path for many young Mongolians seeking work, before coming back to work in the mining industry. As to his actual job, I’m unsure, but his location in the city suggests it was in an administrative role.
It’s a similar pattern in many other Mongolian families. In the decades since Soviet support ended, centralized management of the nomadic farmer’s agriculture combined with drastically disproportionate climate change has made the work increasingly more complicated.
The average temperature in Mongolia has increased more than double the world average, leading to bouts of extreme cold in winters preceded by harsh dry periods in the summer. With the prospect of better education for their children and better-paying jobs, the urbanization of Mongolia isn’t a hard concept to grasp.
Thousands of the migrants still live in traditional gers on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, making massive tent cities that fuse together the future and past of the country.
This movement away from the traditional lifestyle proves problematic for Mongolian tourism. On the one hand, it’s a normal progression as a country grows economically. Why would people continue to work in brutal conditions when they can move to a more comfortable and more lucrative position in the city?
On the other, Mongolia’s tourism industry is centered around the experience of the traditional lifestyle. This conundrum is what is leading to the growth of the tourist camps that Bolod has such a disdain for.
With fewer families living this way, there are fewer “authentic” tourist opportunities, and eventually, the majority of the experiences will be an illusion of an extinct way of life.
No Milking Cows
Bolod delivered on his promise, and we weren’t led outside to milk any cows, and we most definitely didn’t have our own ger. We were on the floor with blankets and clothes bundled on top of us, the two brothers on one side, Bolod and the colonel on the other.
We spent most of the evening in the ger, drinking vodka and fermented horse milk, and chatting back and forth about the country, politics, our own country, and back to Brexit once again for the benefit of the colonel.
The brother was much more talkative than our host, who sat quietly, his thin lips arching into a tight smile every so often, mainly when a shot of vodka was offered.
It was easy to forget we were the only people for miles; something easily remedied by a bathroom break. Stepping outside for just a few moments, I was greeted by the rustle of 800 startled goats, the most bitingly cold air I’ve ever felt, and the brightest canvas of stars I’ve seen strung across the sky.
I’ve been in few places where the sky is allowed to shine quite as majestically. It’s no coincidence that we have to seek out the world’s more lonely places to be reminded of our own cosmic solitude.
A little while after coming back in, the two brothers rushed out briefly upon hearing their guard dogs barking. This generally meant there were predators stalking nearby- wolves hoping to hop the fence and drag a goat from the herd.
They returned a few minutes later, with no apparent sign of the wild intruders.
Beware of Bears
According to them, bears were now a bigger threat than wolves. Not to the goats, but to themselves.
Stories had been working their way around the nomadic families in the region of Siberian bears making unusually long migrations south, with one unfortunate instance of a father and son being mauled to death after one ripped through the walls of their ger. Families had now taken to having rifles loaded in their homes.
Suitably uncomfortable at the thought of the wilderness on the other side of a piece of fabric and me, I went to sleep, surprisingly warm to start with thanks to the log burning stove left to smolder in the middle of the ger. Making the mistake of leaving my arms out of my covers, I woke at around 3 am, the fire long burnt out, and the cold that once seemed far away from inside the ger had crept in.
The next morning, I stumbled out of the ger, the sun as bright as the stars had been the night before. The two brothers had woken and began working without us hearing them.
The younger was standing by the gate holding the goats in their pen, smoking a cigarette, and staring at something on the ground.
I walked a little up the hill to relieve myself and wandered back down to see what he was looking at and found a goat’s head lying in the dirt.
It looked as if it was buried in the ground up to it’s neck if it wasn’t for the morsels of bloodied flesh poking out the sides of the throat.
The goat’s head lay there glaring up at me, seemingly bemused by its fate as 600 others behind me held looks not dissimilar to their fallen comrade.
I glanced up at my host, who looked back, cracked a thin smile over his cigarette while he pondered the English word he was searching for, and forced out “wolf”.
“Well, that’s a bit trippy”.
It appeared the dogs had been right the evening before, and the wolves had simply bided their time. It’s a different world to my apartment in North Carolina.
Bolod told us they were going to give us a welcome meal for breakfast, as they hadn’t been able to prepare anything special for us the night before. We told them they didn’t have to but they insisted. While we waited, we wandered up the crags behind the camp to get a few pictures, and to fly the drone down the valley a little.
On our way down, I quickly realized what “special” breakfast meant in this case.
We arrived at the side of the ger to see the brothers driving a blade into the back of a goat’s neck, then hold it still, almost lovingly as the life drained out of it.
Jess ran inside as they carried it to the side of their supply tent and laid it down on a tarp.
I’m uninitiated in the hunting realm, so watching a larger animal die and be prepared is new and slightly shocking to me. But I was mesmerized by the preciseness of their work.
Nothing went to waste. They drained the blood into a large pot, not a drop being spilled onto the fur, or the floor.
They removed the organs, one by one, the elder brother sending the younger off in periods to clean out the intestines, bladder, stomach, and bowels, before putting them in another pot with the heart, lungs, liver, and kidney.
The skin, sliced with the utmost care, peeled off like a jacket and was hung up behind the ger, the head still dangling at the bottom with the same bemused expression that its comrade shared earlier. I’m unsure as to the purpose of keeping some of the organs, but the heart, lungs, liver, kidney, and intestines were taken into the ger and boiled over the stove.
They poured the drained blood into the large intestine and proceeded to tie it up using the small intestine as a string. There was no seasoning of any sort, and the sight of the organs bubbling in the pot was not sitting well with Jess. This was a little too far for her to stretch to at this point.
When the organs were drained, we gathered around the pot. Our host ate first, using a knife and his hands to slice a piece of liver off and pop it into his mouth. He then passed the knife around, starting with Bolod, who repeated the action and passed it to me.
I sliced off some liver as well, figuring it a safe bet considering I know I like the taste of it (at least a cow’s liver), and was pleased to find it wasn’t bad and no fake enjoyment was needed. I viewed it as a deconstructed haggis and got stuck in, fully embracing eating with my hands, and actually enjoying most of it.
The lung, however, which Blood said was an important part not to refuse, was infinitely chewy, locking my jaw into an aerobic exercise with an elasticated bland piece of meat. Jess quietly stifled vomit in the corner. She was looking a bit pale.
We left the ger a little while later, handing our hosts about 40,000 tögrög, (about $US14) before we left. This isn’t organized in advance. Bolod suggests bringing some cash to thank the hosts for their hospitality. Both men seemed reluctant to take the money, but the younger brother eventually gave in. I was pleased to see the elder brother smiling when we left (hopefully not because we were leaving), and we said goodbye.
More Mare’s Milk
We stopped by two more families on our way back into Ulaanbataar. In one we were greeted by a massive woman and seven men huddled inside their ger. They had more questions for us than anything else, and the woman kept throwing mare’s milk at us to drink.
We only stayed for a drink or four, and moved onto the next, winding our way through valley after empty valley, until we pulled up through a narrow piece of dry land surrounded by what looked like some shallow marshy land.
The land here was more open than the conclave valleys we’d been working our way through, and commanded a stunning view that seemed to steer your eyes upwards to the sky while grazing horses dotted the rolling hills below.
An old woman stood outside one of three gers holding a rake and a pale of some undisclosed liquid.
Bolod had a quick word with her before her husband appeared and gestured for us to enter one of the gers.
The pair of them seemed wonderfully uninterested in us and were happy to burden their daughter-in-law with our presence.
Her husband was still herding the last of their animals to their winter camp, so it was just her and her young daughter of maybe three.
It was another brief but pleasant visit, with pleasantries shared over warm horse milk.
Jessica was particularly moved by this visit, as the young woman was the same age as her, throwing an odd cultural mirror up for her to ponder.
Within a few hours of bidding our final hosts farewell, we were winding back through the sprawl of Ulaanbaatar, passing some of the newer ger camps surrounding the outside of the city.
Juxtaposed against my never-ending longing for “authenticity”, seeing so many gers placed against the backdrop of the world’s coldest capital continues to be one of the strangest sights in my travels thus far.
But again, why should it be? Monks watching YouTube on smartphones, nomadic farmers with Priuses, and mass urban migration is part of Mongolia.
A country shouldn’t have to perpetuate outdated perceptions of itself to cater to the romantic wanderings of a Westerner like me. These are as authentic as it comes in that country. So why is it never enough for us?
Steven Cruse is a freelance writer from North Carolina. He travels fulltime with a home base in Scotland.