Megan of On My Way RTW shares her experience as a nomad in a Ger Camp.
Spending three weeks in the Mongolian countryside I was able to experience a little of what life is like for nomadic herders in Mongolia. Tourism in the country has begun to take off, but it is only a lucky few that benefit.
For many, life in the countryside is still one of subsistence.
Here’s what you’re going to need to do if you’re keen to live like a nomad in Mongolia.
Redefine your sense of personal space
Mongolia is a vast country and much of it is empty. But when you’re a nomad your life is lived in incredibly close proximity to the rest of your family. Gers, the traditional Mongolian tent-like dwelling, sleep several family members (and sometimes a few visitors) in the one room.
At a ger camp, everyone shares the one outhouse, which might not even have all four walls, leaving it open to the elements – and any passing trucks or horsemen.
Etiquette dictates that if you’re passing by a ger camp you should stop by and say hello, since they’re few and far between. And if you do stop in, don’t worry about knocking. If the camp dogs haven’t already alerted the owners to your arrival, just walk straight inside the ger, sit down on the left-hand side of the room (the side reserved for visitors) and accept the airag (fermented mare’s milk) and fried dough on offer.
Make the best with what you’ve got
Outside Ulaanbaatar, nomads must make do with whatever is available. This goes for food, water, toys for the kids and furniture. Almost all goods in the stores in tiny townships are pre-packaged and imported from China or Korea.
Fresh food, aside from meat, is rare.
Children of nomads make the land their toy – throwing gravel at foreigners and annoying the family dog are the main pastime of this little girl as she explores the great outdoors.
As if the basic conditions in Mongolia aren’t difficult enough to contend with, winter makes things even harder.
In the north of the country temperatures can drop to -50 degrees celsius (-58F) and in Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, in January -20 degrees (-4F) is considered a balmy day.
This explains why nomads prefer their meat (usually mutton, but sometimes camel, goat or horse) to be served with a hearty dose of fat. It acts as an insulator, preparing their bodies for the tough season ahead.
Don’t get sick
Because if you do, chances are the closest medical facilities are a few days’ horse ride away.
If you’re lucky, you might be able to hitch a ride to the next town with a van-load of foreign tourists.
Learn to ride a horse, camel or motorbike
Mongolian nomads are practically born in the saddle and Mongolian horses aren’t broken in quite like those in the West. They’re a little bit wild and it takes an expert to be able to handle them.
In the Gobi desert, it’s more likely that a camel will be your stead of choice. And all nomads should try and keep a motorbike on hand as back up.
Learn how to navigate by dirt or hillock
Of Mongolia’s 11,000 kilometre (6,800 miles) network of roads, only 1,500 kilometres (930 miles) are paved. And of the rest, tracks are often only barely discernible in the dirt. A nomad navigates by landmarks – a particular cleft in a hill, or a particular compaction of dirt.
Get to know the land and you’ll never get lost.
Realise it’s not as simple as it seems
The last few winters in Mongolia have been harsh. Many herders have had to contend with the death of their livestock and thousands of nomads are moving to the city each year in search of work. Sometimes children are left behind with relatives or friends in the countryside while their parents try to make a go of it in the city.
The ger camp on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar is growing.
In ten years, thanks to extreme climatic conditions, the population of Ulaanbaatar has almost doubled.
There isn’t enough work to go around and alcohol is a problem. The nomadic way of life is slowly dying out. People furnish their gers with washing machines and televisions that run off car batteries and long for an easier life. Pressure is building on the economy and forcing the country to look towards its vast mineral deposits for a possible source of income.
More than a third of Mongolians live below the poverty line.