Roughly 75 miles (120 km) from Ulaanbaatar, grazing horses and the first ger we stayed in are dwarfed against vast grasslands rimmed in mountains. Although the mountains appear low, the grasslands themselves are over 4,000 feet above sea level. With abundant wildlife, few villages and virtually no paved highways, the Mongolian steppe is one of the world’s great high plains wildernesses.
We have no idea how our driver, Nimka, and our guide, Otgo, found the first ger we stayed in. Pitch dark except for the wash of the Milky Way in the night sky and the headlights from our van, Nimka steered from one set of indistinct dirt tracks in the grass to another. My insistence that we stop for a look at herds of gazelle coupled with our late-in-the-day start from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, had us arriving well after dark.
And then, suddenly, there it was. A faint glow gradually assumed the round shape of a nomadic family’s home. Nimka eased the van to a stop, introductions were made, and we soon were inside. A bowl filled to brimming with airag – fermented mare’s milk – was ladled out from a large leather bag hanging on one side of the ger’s wall and passed around.
Proudly displayed on a rustic, hand-decorated wooden frame, this leather bag contains airag, the fermented mare’s milk that is the traditional welcoming offer in many gers throughout Mongolia. Slightly sour, slightly alcoholic, slightly sweet…
In addition to the airag, the couple who owned the ger prepared a large wok-shaped pot of mutton stew – hearty fare and welcome as we hadn’t eaten since noon. This was our first experience staying with a family in their ger, and initially it was a bit awkward. Our hosts spoke no English. We spoke almost no Mongolian. Would it be OK to take photos? Should we bring in a box of wine and offer it? And, uh… is there an outhouse or something?
Our guide Otgo, spoke excellent English and quickly helped us get acclimated. Upon entering a ger, one is to move clockwise. The oldest male in the party (in this case, me) is expected to sit at the “top” of the ger, directly across from the door. We’d be rolling out sleeping bags at bedtime. As for an outhouse… pick a bush, clump of tall grass or rock outcrop to duck behind, and for the “big jobs,” dig out a hole with the heel of your shoe.
With a diameter of around 25 feet (7.6 meters), a typical ger has about 500 square feet (46 square meters) of living space. The ger’s centerpiece is a steel stove with a wok-like pot designed to fit perfectly. Outside temperatures at night dipped to freezing in mid-October, but a steady feed of dry manure kept the ger warm to roasting.
The stove’s chimney extends through an opening in the center of the ger. The sun hadn’t been up long when we sat down to breakfast: coffee, tea, cheese and bread and jam.
After breakfast, Nimka got to work changing one of the tires on his tough, Russan-built four-wheel drive van. This was the first of four flats during our eight-day trip.
Freshly-made aaruul, a type of dried milk curd, cures in the early morning sun atop the roof of the ger. Once it’s dry, aaruul can be kept almost indefinitely. This was the food that fueled Chinggis Khan and his armies as they conquered the largest area of land ever to fall under one empire. Tasting like sour milk, aaruul is an acquired taste for most non-Mongolians.
Legendary for their endurance, the horses of Mongolia are sturdy, tough and beautiful.
There essentially are no fences in the Mongolian countryside.
Dogs such as this handsome fellow are an integral part of herders’ lives. While not abundant, wolves are still part of the Mongolian landscape. This guy was quite friendly, as were most of the dogs we encountered.
A string of cattle makes its way along tire tracks that pass for the local road near the first ger we stayed at. Over the next few posts, we will share more of what we saw and experienced on our trip to the Gobi, including encounters with thousands of Monglian gazelle, countless birds of prey, groups of Siberian ibex, dinosaur fossils, exotic traditional Mongolian cuisine, a sojourn into the desert by camel, and even a pit viper. Stay tuned!