About 30% of the population of Mongolia is nomadic. The nomads live in round, tent-like structures called “gers” or “yurts“, which they pitch wherever takes their fancy. Practically the entire country is one big campsite! The nomadic people settle in small family groups or slightly larger communities, for as long as the area serves their needs. Then, when their livestock have grazed the land clear, they up sticks and move on in search of greener pastures.
What a fantastic way of life. I mean, seriously! There’s none of this 9-5 nonsense, no stresses about taxes and mortgages and unemployment. You don’t even bother much with the concept of time. You get up when it’s daylight, work on whatever needs to be done (tending to the animals, making cheese, preparing food, digging toilets, piping water), eat when you’re hungry, and go to bed when it gets dark. Our little group of adventurers (on a “Nomadic Experience” trip run by the hostel) started adapting to this after just one day and night in the countryside – it’s strangely liberating to realise that with no mod cons and no electricity in your ger, you have to simply exist, and no more.
We were taken to the middle of nowhere in a couple of rattly old jeeps that bounced and tossed us around for a few hours before depositing us at the foot of a mountain and driving off, leaving us staring at the obligatory cloud of dust and looking uncertainly at each other. It wasn’t long, however, before a young boy appeared and showed us to our gers. The day was very cold, but to our surprise, when we stooped to clamber through the door of our ger, we were hit by a blast of heat. There was a little stove in the middle, in which roared a blazing fire, the smoke exiting through a tall, rusty chimney pipe that poked through a circular opening at the top. There were five little cot beds in a circle around the edge of the ger, and a few decorative blankets and throws pinned to the “walls”, and that was it. It was surprisingly cosy!
We went hiking over the steppes, returning when we were hungry to find that the tourist camp owners had prepared a hot lunch for us, which we ate sitting at a tiny rickety table looking at the view.
More hiking, some reading, and then an incredible evening spent horse riding by sunset (needs a post all of its own!), and we were served dinner, which we hungrily wolfed down on the floor of the “kitchen” ger, wrapped up in warm clothes and looking out through the open doorway at the full moon and stars brighter than any of us had ever seen before.
No one had thought about what would happen when darkness fell, so we had to beg a candle from the lady who’d made our dinner. Then all 14 of us piled into one ger, where we had to relight the stove fire by the light of our solitary candle, and then figure out how to make some kind of candle holder so that someone didn’t have to stand there holding our only source of light until it went out. All of this took about an hour – and would have taken no more than the flick of two switches at home.
And then, squashed together in a circle on the five cots, we simply talked. No music, no TV, no books, no computers, no games – just 14 travellers and a candle. We went to bed when it was about to burn out, and woke up at daylight to the clanging of pans and the gruff yells of our Mongol hosts, telling us our breakfast was ready.
Not your average holiday. But what a great experience! And above all, who knew what great conversations a diverse bunch of people from all over the world could have when you take away their phones and laptops and TVs and routines?!