The day I left Mongolia in October 2015, I promised myself to return when opportunity arises. Less than two months later I was back. I am relocating to another country for work and I had few weeks to spare between two jobs. After week already spent in Cambodia, few more days in Mongolia before going home for Christmas, sounded like a great idea. From few options available to me, I decided to spend 7 days in remote location in the heart of Mongolia with nomad family. No western food, no Internet or mobile connection, no translator. Just the real and harsh nomad life and myself. Add to that the subcontinental extreme winter and I was set for a great adventure.
I flew to Ulaanbaatar after week spent in very hot Cambodia with temperatures rising above 35 degrees Celsius daily. A proper oven, if you will. I knew the weather in Mongolia is going to be quite opposite. Reality set in the very first morning when I experienced the coldest day in my life. A whopping -27 degrees Celsius and it was still only November!!! Until this point the coldest day was maybe around -20 degrees back in late nineties during my army days. This kind of cold really hurts. I was dressed up well but obviously part of the face is exposed. Every bit of moisture on the face, be it tears, sweat, running nose freezes instantly. I went to supermarket to get some food and in few minutes I had icicles on my eyebrows. Toes on my feet went instantly numb. Touching anything made of metal is a big no no. No wonder they call Ulaanbaatar the coldest capital in the world. Well deserved title.
Journey to Dundgovi
I had a day in Ulaanbaatar before leaving the city. I took a bus to Mandalgovi, the capital of Dundgovi aimag (province). After 5 hours drive, bus reached the destination. I was awaited by a driver who drove me further 2.5 hours to the nomad family. Drive with old Russian UAZ is always fun. I was still a child when these cars were state of the art technology from former eastern block. They are not to be underestimated though. They still go strong especially in this kind of weather. 15 minutes after leaving Mandalgovi behind, the telephone poles disappeared too. I was surrounded by endless Mongolian steppe covered by snow. Pretty incredible. Steppe as far as you can see. It disappears in vast nothingness. Once you reach the edge of it there is another vast nothingness waiting. It feels really like being on the sea. Ride was quite crazy. Car was sliding on the snow all the time. Driver, a man in his 60’s didn't speak any English. I knew host family will neither. Daunting prospect for upcoming few days. I tried to learn few Mongolian phrases but it is a difficult language to master. And I had less than few hours to practice. We obviously didn't talk much and if we did it was in severely broken Russian. After 2.5 hours we reached the destination.
Meet the family
This family of four lived in quite remote martian looking landscape. There were two gers, two cars, motorbike and circular shaped enclosure for livestock surrounded by out-of-this-world looking rock formations. I was greeted by my hosts, husband, wife and two little boys 5 and 3 years old. I introduced myself in broken Mongol, probably the only phrase I managed to learn successfully. They introduced themselves too but to be absolutely honest it was nearly impossible to remember the names for me. If their names were something like John and Beth it would be easy but their Mongolian names are hard to pronounce let alone remember. I will refer to them as host and hostess. After introduction I was invited into a cozy looking ger and was offered a hot tea. Soon after, my driver left and I was on my own. Well, with host family. I have to say it felt little daunting first to be there without any knowledge of the local language. I was not entirely sure what to expect from all this. I thought to myself just go with the flow and see what happens. My biggest worry was the communication. Local people I met in my previous trips spoke at least little English or I had a translator. This was entirely new situation for me.
I "checked in" the smaller guest ger. It was smaller in diameter and very spartan, with oven in the middle and few carpets on the ground. This will be my home for next few days. I continued observing the place and my hosts. After few more bowls of tea the host turned to me with a big grin on his face. "Sheep?" He made a very specific gesture and pointed towards empty animal enclosure. I thought he probably wants to herd the sheep back to the camp. On my way here I didn’t see any animals in close proximity to gers. So we set out for a walk towards the rocks and after few minutes of brisk walk I noticed sheep and goat scattered around this snow covered rugged and rocky landscape. Together, we started to herd the animals, directing them towards the camp and within an hour we managed to get them all inside the enclosure for the night. I know there are wolves in the area and livestock is ideal prey for them. It is hard to see one though, as they are afraid of people. I often came across sheep or goat skeletons. I couldn’t determine if they were victims of wolves or bitter cold weather. Once back to the camp, sun dropped low on the horizon and I felt it was getting colder. Landscape turned into beautiful surreal painting. All rocks and monoliths were of reddish color and lit by the late afternoon sun they were literally "bleeding". Once securing the gates of enclosure we went inside very warm ger and had few more bowls of tea with some steamed meat dumplings for dinner.
Day to day nomadic life
Nomads go to bed quite early. At 8pm I was already wrapped in my rented sleeping bag. It was big and bulky and I wasn’t convinced it will keep me warm at all. The hostess lit the fire in the oven. After few minutes the temperature in the ger rose and I felt nice and warm. I slipped into the sleeping bag dressed rather lightly and felt asleep quickly. Next thing I remember was the cold I was shivering from when I opened my eyes. I looked at my watch and it was only midnight. I had to put a thick wool sweather on and closed my eyes again. A hour later I was awake again and started to feel really cold as fire in the oven died completely out. From that point the night was rather restless...on and off until morning. As the weather was not always nice and sunny some mornings were colder than the others. One morning I took my watch with built in thermometer of my wrist in attempt to measure the temperature in the ger. I was curious just how cold it gets in the morning. When I looked at the display it read whopping -12 degrees Celsius at about 6am. To keep the ger warm till morning I would need to wake up in the middle of the night and refill the oven few times. I didn't do it for two reasons. First, I wanted to challenge myself and do things exactly the way nomads do it. Second, I didn't want to use up extra fuel. There is no wood in this barren desert area at all. Dried cow dung is used as fuel to make the fire. That takes time to collect and the “stock” of dried dung I saw next to my ger had to last for the length of the winter. I didn’t want to use more than really necessary.
On the day two, after breakfast i got dressed in deel, traditional Mongolian clothes that is worn for centuries. There were no horses in the area around gers which I found little strange. But there was a Chinese motorbike which can cover larger area in shorter time. First morning we went herding on that motorbike. Sheep and goats do not go far away from the camp and distances can be easily covered by foot. We used motorbike to find the cows which were on pastures pretty far from the ger camp. Riding a motorbike in this extreme cold is fun. Of course we had only one motorbike and I was sitting behind the host. Freezing cold was biting into my face. Riding was sometimes challenging due to deep snow and rocky surface, but it was fun. We visited another nomad family that lived nearby (cca 5 km). I understood these were parents of my host living with their two grandsons. As it is customary in Mongolia, we were invited inside and got offered hot tea and some snacks. Within relative short time we covered a large area. It would take much longer on horseback thats for sure and I can see why many nomads often replace horse wit horsepower.
Nomad life is revolving around animals. Horses, goat, sheep, camel and cows are the main source of income and live-hood for nomad families. Daily program consists from herding the animal to the pastures in the morning and then back to enclosure later afternoon. Then there is maintenance work around ger, animal enclosures and vehicles. Most nomad families have motorbikes, cars, vans or utility vehicles. Distances are great and these somewhat help to ease the hard nomad life. This family didn’t have any horses, at least I didn’t see any. I am not so sure how common this is in today’s Mongolia. Women look after children, they cook but often they also do herding as well as participate in harder jobs helping out their men. I personally did some herding and helped building a new animal enclosure. I tried to help with cooking but I gave up as I was not fast and efficient enough 😃 Activities are little more limited in the winter. There was no milking going on during entire week. I guess the grass is so scarse that animals don’t have any milk whatsoever. It simply wasn’t the milking season. I spent lot of time with family's two children. I preferred herding though. It gave me opportunity to walk around this wonderful landscape and photograph it. Not to mention a good walk is good for health.
In the evening we played games using ankle bones from goat or sheep. It is box shaped bone with each side representing different animal. Horse, goat, sheep and camel. Often it is being thrown like dice where the “horse” is the winning side. Even nomad families are adapting to modern ways. They had some sort of radio wave telephone. It was not very reliable but this was the most common ways they communicated with all the other families living in the area. By that I mean in the area of several hundred square kilometres.
Inside the ger
Few words about ger. Ger or yurt is a circular shaped dwelling used by nomadic tribes of Asia. It is easy to put on and take down as required when changing locations. Wooden skeleton is covered by either wool, canvas or leather sheets called felt. Wooden door is always positioned on the south side of the ger. It is considered highly disrespectful to step on the door frame. When entering the ger it is customary to step over it with right leg first. As a guest, I always sit at 9 o'clock position in the ger. The head of the family usually sit at 12 o'clock. Wife is at 4-5 o'clock where the oven opening is and where the cooking happens. Kids run around as they please. There are two wooden poles in the center of the ger that hold the roof construction. It is not polite to walk between the poles or hand things to somebody else between them. At 3 o'clock there is usually a bed where head of the family sleeps. Understand, Mongolian society is patriarchal however women are held in high regard and have big influence in everyday's life.
The nomad food
During my entire stay, I only ate nomad food. They didn't cook anything special for me and I didn't bring anything from Ulaanbaatar. It was little risky as I was not sure how my stomach will react to all those nomad fat and meaty goodies but I wanted to go all the way in my journey to learn about traditional nomadic ways. Meat and milk are two major components of Mongolian cuisine. My absolute favorite was buuz a steamed dumpling filled with meat. My least favorite was boiled sheep or goat meat. It was hard to separate the meat from bone and it was quite chewy and heavy for western stomach. There is plenty of fat meat, skin and other "goodies" that are thrown away in western cuisine but not in Mongolia. All these provide necessary nutrients and calories that nomads need to survive in these harsh conditions. I ate everything. Even the skin. It felt little like Bear Grylls on his show. I had to put on my brave face and go with it. This is what I wanted to experience and this was my moment. Milk tea or plain tea is always offered with any meal. As a snack, dried homemade biscuits and dried curd called aaruul are always on the table. Nomad life is tough and their food is quite simple with very little variety, especially during the winter months. Everything is consumed. Mongols do not leave unfinished meal on the table. Bones are cleaned till they are nice and shiny.
Landscape in this area looked like out of this world. This is technically desert area with very few water sources. Almost all rock formations were monoliths of different sizes. From very small ones to giant 20-30 meter big pieces. They were of reddish color and formed a strange and interesting looking rock formations. Those rock formations surrounded the camp and they themselves were surrounded by endless step. Close to horizon, there were another sets of even higher and more rugged looking rock formations and also mountains. One of the days I had a chance to walk several hours in this landscape. There were patterns of animal trails in the snow everywhere. Majority of them came from sheep and goat but some were obviously from wild animals living in this area. Foxes, wolves or other mammals are common here but they are hard to spot as they try to avoid humans. There is plenty of birds from smallest to big eagles patrolling the skies above. I believe, this countryside is pretty red in color during Summer months. It is a desert although there is no sign of sand dunes anywhere. There is no fresh water source. No lake, stream or river nearby. Nomads have to travel far to get fresh water and store them in big plastic drums.
It is late November but landscape is already covered by snow and temperatures are getting quite extreme. There are no real pastures now. Only high grass is peaking out of the snow and it is not very dense. Barely enough for livestock to survive the winter. We had fresh snow almost every night and lots of sunshine during the day except two days. Temperatures were between 0 and -10 degrees of Celsius during the day while during night they easily dropped below -20 degrees Celsius. There was full moon during my stay there. Moonlight lit the area so well it was almost possible to take handheld photograph while keeping it sharp. All that light was reflected back from the snow and everything was quite bright even in the middle of the night. This “light pollution” unfortunately prevented me photograph Milky Way which would be otherwise well visible.
Word about photography
Main challenge photographing this environment in the winter is the extreme cold. Batteries get depleted much faster and obviously there is little or no chance to recharge. One way is to be equipped with some sort of solar solution. Each ger is these days equipped with solar panel and batteries to store the energy but that is just enough for lights, small TV and of course car. It wouldn’t be nice to use it up to recharge the camera batteries. I had plenty of spare batteries and I tried to keep them warm. Also I shot pictures selectively. Meaning I didn’t take tons of them hoping some turn out well. At the end I didn’t even use up all my spare batteries. Of course I didn’t take any video otherwise this wouldn’t be the case. Sometimes I had to follow the everyday routine. Quite often the dinner happened during the golden hour. I was itching to get out and photograph but out of respect I stayed in the ger with the family.
Another crucial thing to be mindful of is changing temperature. It can be -20 outside, but once you enter the warm ger. Condensation can be damaging to a camera and lens. I carried plastic bag at me all the time and I wrapped all my gear in it before entering ger. I took it out only when temperatures equalised. Once I was asked by host to take a photo bit too early after coming inside and of course all lenses fogged up. It was impossible for me to explain what was happening but he got the fact that there will be no photographs.
It is very important to be tolerant to nomads and use common sense when taking out the camera. It is definitely not a good idea to start snapping pictures immediately after entering the ger first time. On this trip I went without any pictures from inside almost for two days. After they got little more comfortable with me I pulled out the camera.
This time it was quite challenging to take photos of two little boys. They were constantly on the move, touching the lens’ front element and wanting to see every photo I took. Ger itself is quite dark, especially evening. Even at high ISO I was forced to shoot wide open. Even if autofocus was able to lock on, boys moved slightly and focus was off. Every time I took the camera off they noticed it and moment was gone. Tough subjects to photograph. Most of the time I had to pose them to get something in focus and reasonably sharp.
Week with nomads passed quickly. It was a great experience although at the times it was also challenging. Only nomad food, cold nights, very little hygiene and language barrier is not easy for most of the people to get through. I enjoyed every bit of this experience and I was glad I did this. I slipped into my sleeping bag getting ready for my last cold night. Tomorrow is the departure day. I feel little sad, I am sure I will miss this great family. It was nice and warm in the ger and sleepiness soon overcome the rush of thoughts in my head. I felt asleep and didn’t wake up until fire died and I woke up shaking from cold. I put on another layer of clothes and felt asleep again.
I was getting little nervous last morning since I had to be in Ulaanbaatar as my flight out of Mongolia was scheduled very early next morning. I was still in the very remote part of the country. Bust from Mandalgovi to Ulaanbaatar was scheduled to leave at 2pm. From the first day I knew we need at least 2.5 hours to get there from the camp location. But this time snow was much deeper and soft and that could present many difficulties. As noon approached I was almost sure I will miss my flight and subsequently all 3 connected flights. About 12:30 I heard the sound of engine. Finally car came to pick me up. I said my goodbyes to the family and soon the gers disappeared behind the rocks. Drive was difficult in fresh snow. Car was flying here and there, desperately trying to follow the tracks. At 2pm we were still about 20 km from Mandalgovi. I asked the driver with my broken Russian if bus would wait for us. I didn't like the grin on his face. Bus has of course left in time and as we reached the paved road near Mandalgovi we went after it. After few minutes of chasing we managed to catch up with the bus. We signaled the driver to stop. I quickly changed the vehicles and of I went to Ulaanbaatar. I was saved. Next morning I woke up before 4 am into whopping -32 degrees Celsius cold. I was wondering how they keep the jet flight ready in such an extreme weather conditions but everything went well and I took of Gingghis Khaan Airport safely with same words I said 2 month ago. "I'll be back"
This trip was awesome and I cannot thank enough to host family for taking me in for these few days. I got real insight into nomadic way of life in Mongolia. It didn’t change that much from old times but this won’t last forever. Rapid modernisation as well as climate change is a serious threat to this way of life. This is not a trip for anyone. If your thing is a beach resort or you are a vegetarian you better think twice. However, if you are up for adventure and you like to learn about different cultures you should give some though to this. I organised this trip via GERtoGER agency. They are specialising to this sort of humanitarian/eco tourism. It’s fun and if you are open minded and ready to take in new things it is for you.
if you are interested, here are other articles from my first trip to Mongolia