Mongolia Travel: Staying in a Ger
In a country full of images of Genghis Khan and exoticism, Mongolia Travel has found its place firmly on the adventure travel map. Tegan Chapman travels there for a colourful annual festival.
For thousands of years, Mongolian nomads have roamed the vast steppe, living off the land and enjoying a way of life that has barely changed since the days of Genghis Khan. At the heart of this lifestyle is the traditional ger – circular canvas and felt tents – which are synonymous with the country and are as much a part of its national identity as the annual Naadam Festival.
Even in the 21st century, a huge share of the country’s population live in ger, and it’s in the endless grasslands of the countryside that you get a real taste of the simplicity and beauty of a nomadic way of life. To sample this lifestyle, and be truly at one with nature, immersed in the stripped back way of life the nomads enjoy, you can stay in a ger camp in the forested hills of one of the country’s many parks.
I opted for Gorkhi Terelj National Park, just a short journey from the capital Ulaanbaatar for one of the most rewarding eco-travel experiences of my life.
As you leave the capital, poorly paved roads and Soviet-style blocks of flats give way to rolling hills threaded with lakes and endless grasslands dotted with ger. It’s clear to see how this is the least densely populated country in the world when lost in the stunning surroundings.
Meaning “home” in Mongolian, ger are essential to nomads due to the ease with which they can be dismantled, moved and re-erected. On a regular basis, families need to move their homes as they set off on their travels to search for fresh and abundant pastures for their livestock.
An overnight stay in a ger offers an experience like no other. Living with a nomadic family, you can witness first-hand their simple way of life
It is the continuation of these ancient traditions, attuned to natural cycles, that is fascinating to outsiders.
The fact that many Mongolians still live the way as generations of ancestors did is at the same time humbling and commendable – try to imagine how it would be to drop into this pattern of life, and leave the concept of a fixed abode of bricks and mortar behind.
Inside the ger you can expect to find the beds of the entire family, a brightly coloured and slightly worn carpet where the family and their extended community spend the evenings, and, at the heart, a multi-purpose stove to cook traditional dishes and stave off the low night temperatures afforded by the openness of the steppe.
An overnight stay in a ger offers an experience like no other. Living with a nomadic family, you can witness first-hand their simple way of life, learning to prepare meals, watching – or even helping – to herd livestock or viewing the annual Naadam Festival.
A visit to the nation would not be complete without sampling the local tipple of airag, a sour alcoholic drink made from fermented mare’s milk that is arguably an acquired taste.
Mongolia Travel Highlight – Nadam Festival
The Naadam Festival is a unique festival that embraces the nomadic culture of the Mongolian steppes. It celebrates both the nation’s independence and excellence in arts and sports. At the core of the festival are wrestling, horseracing and archery, although the festival also involves singing, dancing and performing.
Most Mongolians celebrate Naadam from July 10-12 every year, but some provinces and soums celebrate it at different times of the year, so it’s best to check out when the festival is held in the area you plan to stay . Also, if your travel does not cover this period, as the festival is held in every village and town around the country sometime between June and August, you might be able to catch up with the Naadam festival on your Mongolia Travel.
In the capital – Ulaanbaatar, the Naadam Festival (National Naadam) officially starts on July 11 and finishes late on July 12, although ankle-bone shooting and horseracing tends to commence a day or two prior to the opening ceremony.
It is safe to say diehard vegetarians will struggle in Mongolia, a country where vegetables are far from plentiful and meat is king. This struggle is all the more real in the countryside, where families will likely cook a special delicacy called boodog. This is where hot stones are filled into the stomach of the dead animal, usually a goat, which is cooked in its own skin.
Offering rolling meadows and imposing rock formations, including the famous Turtle Rock, Terelj is the perfect place to take in Mongolia’s natural beauty, ride a horse bareback and enjoy the nomadic way of life.
As times change and technology evolves, solar panels are now springing up on gers to allow more nomads to continue their lifestyle, but with a little added comfort and a smattering of technological tools to make communication with their community and the wider world slightly simpler.
You can now even find ger to rent on Airbnb without necessarily having to hire a tour guide or venturing out onto the steppe on your own.
And if you want to enjoy a ger camp slightly further away from the capital, you can sample the wild natural beauty this country has in abundance in the vast expanse of the Gobi desert while still enjoying the basic comforts of a traditional ger for the ultimate Mongolia travel experience.
For a list of the top Mongolia Travel experiences, click here.
Mongolia is not the only place to get off the beaten track in Asia, follow Johan Smits’ trekking in the remote Tajikistan Alps on Travel Begins at 40.