By Cat George
Read any of the travel literature on Mongolia and one of the main themes is the warm hospitality of the Mongolian people. The nomads who make up the bulk of the population outside Ulaan Bataar are willing, even happy, to invite travelers into their felt tents (known as gers). In fact, the tradition of Mongolian hospitality means they wouldn’t be upset if you simply barged in without a word of greeting…although their dogs might have something inhospitable to say if you tried that, so a shout of greeting as you approach a ger is always polite. Staying with a nomadic family on the steppes, whether it’s for lunch or overnight, is always mentioned as a trip highlight by returning travelers.
Now, obviously, you can’t just call up and make a reservation for this experience. (“Yes, I’d like to stay two nights with your family. What will that cost me, about two batteries, a bag of rice and some photographs? Where will your ger be on June 24th?”) For those that want to get beyond a package tour experience of the country, hiring a jeep and driver or hitching with camping gear are both cheap and popular options. Wherever that takes you in back-of-beyond Mongolia, you’ll encounter families with their herds and have the opportunity to visit with them. Mongolia also offers an alternative experience: the tourist ger camp.
The best thing about ger camps is their predictability: you’ll know where to find them, how much they cost, and how to make a booking. Quality varies between camps. All of them hew to the basic format, putting travelers inside a ger for the night, but some may have more Western amenities. Hot-water showers are a bonus (expect to shiver) and you might be glad if you’ve brought camping supplies (think toilet paper). Most have a restaurant tent serving Westernized food, which is a bonus if you’re tired of the Mongolian diet. A few camps are deluxe, with satellite TV and power hookups.
While they’re not one hundred percent authentic, ger camps are easy, and at some point during a trip to Mongolia (especially in areas with higher tourist traffic, like the areas around Gorkhi-Terelj National Park or Khovsgol Nuur) most people will find themselves in a camp like this. There are no roadside inns out here, so it’s inevitable. Prices run about $30 a night, meals included; most are open only in the high season, which runs in Mongolia from about June to September. Advance bookings are best made in Ulaan Bataar.
The Real Deal
If you do find yourself in the real deal, always remember your manners. They will treat you as an honored guest, giving you the best seat by the fire and the best bed at night. Don’t overstay your welcome; one or two nights is the limit. Always give a gift when you leave. Things they might find useful: food (rice, pasta), batteries, cigarettes, vodka, children’s toys. Polish up a few basic Mongolian phrases; asking about family and animals is a good start.
The nomadic life isn’t an easy one, with herds of sheep, goats, horses, yaks and camels to maintain in a land with harsh weather and little sustenance. But this is the twentieth century, so don’t be surprised if “real life” for a Mongolian nomad involves a TV and a satellite dish that they pack around with the ger. Inside a typical ger is a central hearth, small table, three beds along the outside, and a cornucopia of colorful decorations. It’s amazing to think that all this packs onto an animal’s back four or five times a year to move across the steppes.
For many Westerners the first meal at a ger may be enough to put them off the nomadic lifestyle. Weak, salty tea followed by some variety of boiled mutton (or, camel, horse or barbequed marmot, which you should avoid since it can carry bubonic plague) is the staple diet. Snacks made from dairy, like dried milk curds or fermented mare’s milk (called airag) are also popular. But there’s always vodka (arkhi) to wash it down!
In the evening, visitors will be offered beds while the family may take the floor to make room. In the morning, as you leave, is the best time to offer your parting gift. Whether this is the last time you stay in a ger, or the first of many, you’ll have enjoyed a level of hospitality that the Western world would be hard-pressed to match.