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How To Live Like a Nomad in Mongolia

Megan of On My Way RTW shares her experience as a nomad in a Ger Camp.

pictures of mongoliansSpending 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.
pictures of mongolians

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.
pictures of mongolians 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.
pictures of mongolians

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.
pictures of mongoliansIn 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.
pictures of mongolians
pictures of mongolians

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.
pictures of mongolians

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.
pictures of mongoliansThe 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.

pictures of mongoliansWill the country lose its nomads? Only time will tell.

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tumee says:

welcome to mongolia

tumee says:

ene bol mongol shuu dee ta bugd mongold ireerei jinhene gaihaltai oron shuu

Mongolia seems like such a rugged & stunning beautiful place to visit. I enjoyed this article.

flip says:

amazing!!! one of my my dream destinations…

Dorian says:

“Don’t get sick
Because if you do, chances are the closest medical facilities are a few days’ horse ride away” HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA… That wouldn’t be good

D

Megan says:

It’s not good at all! Someone in my van actually got very sick when we were a 4 days drive from the city of Ulaanbaatar…no idea what we would have done if she hadn’t improved quickly!

And we also picked up two nomads on a random stretch of road who were travelling to a medical clinic. If we hadn’t gone past they could have been waiting days for someone else to help them out. Scary thought.

Randy says:

Wow, what an experience! Love the photos and your write-up.

Andrea says:

Those of us who call ourselves “nomads” probably don’t think much about these groups of people with the same name. These nomads don’t have much in the way of comforts as we do as we move about the globe. Their lives are really remarkable!

Megan says:

That’s a really good point, Andrea – I never thought to consider it in comparison to digital nomadism! Definitely two very different worlds.

I find it really amazing that people can survive living the way they do – the winters are incredibly harsh and food is so scarce – sometimes water can be hard to come by! It’s incredible.

This was a really interesting post, great photos, too.

Megan says:

Thanks Erin :) I hope it inspired you to think about travelling to Mongolia!

Leigh says:

Mongolia looks gorgeous but sounds like a more difficult place than most to travel – especially if you’re scared of horses – which I am. Enjoyed your tips and the wonderful photos to go along with them.

Megan says:

Hi Leigh! You’re right – travel there can be quite difficult. Facilities are very basic and the conditions are quite rough – if you’re in any way prone to motion sickness you’ll need to take medication!

You can opt out of riding horses or camels though, it’s not compulsory :)

Dean says:

Mongolia is a country that has always seemed very interesting to me. I must get there some day. Great post, it looks like a great experience.

Megan says:

Thanks Dean – I hope you make it there one day!

Elise says:

Wow! Great insight to what seems like such an interesting cultural travel experience. Megan, I love reading about your travels! :-)

Megan says:

It was really fascinating, Elise! I’d wanted to visit Mongolia for so long and it was exactly as I’d hoped. I’d love to go back one day.

Absolutely incredible, the words and photos! Mongolia is definitely on my list of places to visit in the near future.

Megan says:

Thanks Andi! It’s so much fun to travel there, hope you make it to that part of the world soon :)

Claire says:

Great post on a country and lifestyle I know Little about. I can’t imagine just walking into someone’s home without permission and waiting to be served ;)

Megan says:

Hey Claire! It was very strange at first – our translator wouldn’t even knock, she would just walk right in! We were always welcomed warmly.

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