What Is It Like Staying With Nomads In Mongolia?

Typical Mongolian Ger

Beautiful Mongolia, known as “The Land of the Blue Sky”, and home to some of the best adventure and landscapes you’re likely to ever see.

One of the main highlights of our Mongolia trip was staying with the nomads and their families out in the countryside. We’d previously heard that the friendliness of the nomadic people in Mongolia was one of the country’s best attractions.

I’d always seen pictures of the tents the nomads live in, the circular teepee looking thing is called a Ger, not a yurt (yurt is Russian apparently).

These Gers are pivotal in Mongolian culture, and provide shelter and warmth for the vast majority of the Mongolian population. You’ll be seeing a lot of them if you are lucky enough to be invited to stay with a nomadic family!

The nomads are mainly totally self sufficient, living off the land and their herd. It’s a very hard life, especially surviving the bitter winters, where temperatures drop down to -50 in parts. In recent years the winters have been particularly bad, resulting in millions of livestock deaths.

Day to day life as a Mongolian nomad is about survival and existence. The welfare of their various herds (including cows, goats, 3 legged sheep, horses and camels) is important as a food source and for trading.

A typical Mongolian Horseman!

As an outsider it’s a very rewarding and an eye opening experience seeing how Mongolian nomads live. This nomadic and survivalist mindset, is perfect for those accustomed to a modern, fast pace of life wanting to experience ‘back to basics’ at it’s most simple.

Nomadic Family

The annual summer tourism season is essential to the survival of the nomadic existence. Many come for the annual Naadam Festival where Mongolians compete in various events including horse riding, archery and their national pastime – Wrestling!

Mongolian Wrestling. I got my ass kicked

During our 8 day Horse Trek into the Orkon valley west of Ulaanbaater, we were very lucky and got to stay with several families in the countryside. Always accommodating, and clearly overwhelmed at times by strange looking blonde westerners, every encounter was a new and exciting one for everyone!

You’ll likely to be invited into a nomadic families Ger upon arrival. Tea is commonly offered, sometimes with homemade biscuits, some cheese, yogurt or other dairy products. Some of these are amazing – Some not so… But I think refusal could easily offend, so I recommend at least trying some of what you’re offered!

Evening time in the Ger is a time for food, drink, stories and songs! Mongolian’s like their vodka, so give your liver a bit of pre-training before arrival in the country.

Saying goodbye to a family we stayed with

Multiple times during my time in Mongolia, I was asked to recite a song from my country… and to my shame I couldn’t think of any! ‘Twinkle twinkle little star’ was all I could muster, Eloise managed a few Spice Girl lyrics, and our Aussie mate Greg busted out the Transformers theme tune!

Cultural points to consider!

  • Men get served first
  • Mongolian family life seems quite ‘traditional’ in the sense that the men do the physical work whist woman look after the ger. That doesn’t mean the ‘female’ tasks aren’t as physical as the men – they work harder than the men in my books.

  • Walk left around the stove
  • Entering a ger, one walks around the stove to the left. Even if your chair is on the right when you walk in!

  • Do not burp loudly
  • This slip up seemed to offend our hosts. Try not to make this mistake!

  • Don’t stick a camera in anyone’s face until you have permission!

What sort of things are there to do?

  • Help with cooking
  • Chopping and preparing of vegatables, picking and choosing of which lamb to slaughter (joking).

  • Collect fuel for the fire Wood or dung?
  • Depending on the location of the ger, they may not have wood to burn for their fire. Dried out dung burns very well, and doesn’t smell like you’d imagine! It just doesn’t burn for as long. (We learnt the hard way trying to keep warm at 3am when it was -20 outside)

  • Looking after the livestock
  • Looking after the herd is a critical job and great fun – Just don’t ask what happens to the cute lambs when they get to a certain size…

  • Play games with the children
  • Even with no understanding of each others language, hide and seek is international.

  • Drink horse milk vodka
  • Yes you read correctly. Carefully fermented (distilled?) from horse milk makes this is a rare treat. Try it!

What should I expect when staying with nomads In Mongolia?

  • A lot of mutton
  • That’s sheep.

  • Lots of vodka
  • Vodka is the drink of choice. Our friend Greg bought some expensive whiskey for people to try. I don’t think anyone liked it! Apart from the old man in the video below.

  • No toilets
  • Several families we stayed at didn’t have toilets. I mean NO toilets, squat toilets or otherwise. Meaning it’s just you walking over the nearest hill or finding a bush. But what when there’s no hills or cover? Ladies, Eloise recommends a Shewee.

  • Lots of singing
  • See video below.

  • No wifi or phone signal
  • Unfortunately so.

  • No hot showers
  • Who needs those anyway?

  • Did I mention lots of vodka?

What should I take with me when I stay with a nomadic family?

All the guidebooks say do not take sweets (candy) and cigarettes when you stay with a nomadic family.

During one stay, we were all sat inside the family Ger, one old man produced some of the driest, darkest looking tobacco and thick piece of card and tried to roll something passable as a cigarette. They almost burst out into tears when I passed around a full strength carton of Camel’s I picked up in Russia that I originally planned to use as bribes in China!

If you smoke, I don’t see the harm of bringing an extra pack along and handing out a few. But that’s just me.

The same goes for sweets. Kids love them – share the love!

Eloise trying to play a game!

Otherwise we took some pens and colourful hair clips for the girls. We also took some sea shells, as we thought a lot of people wouldn’t have a clue what they were – and we were right!

While people may say that tourism will destroy this fragile way of life, I believe that staying with nomads in their own environment brings much needed income. This eliminates families separation when other family members are forced to head to the cities to find work due to hardship.

Trips and activities in Mongolia’s vast countryside are easily organised through guesthouses and hotels in Ulaanbaatar, the countries capital. Ulaanbaatar is the jump off point for the majority of excursions.

Would you stay with a nomadic family in Mongolia?

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One Response to What Is It Like Staying With Nomads In Mongolia?

  1. Jaryd September 11, 2013 at 7:02 am #

    Okay this has now not just been added to the list. This experience seems like no other and I believe its something I must try. Haha horse milk vodka and singing, sounds classic! cheers

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