Meet the locals in Mongolia
Instead, explains our guide Natalie, the Mongols depend on their cattle for food, which translates to a diet of meat and milk.
“They eat five types of meat,” Natalie tells us, perched precariously on what looks like a child’s chair. “Sheep, goats, cows, camels and horses.
“And a popular drink is airag, which is fermented mare’s milk. If you drink it, you get, uh…” She rolls her eyes back and rocks like a drunk in a pantomime. It’s a miracle she doesn’t fall out of her mini chair.
“They milk anything,” she continues, pulling herself together. “And they use the whole animal…hair…meat…fresh meat in winter, dried meat in summer.
“If you have more than 100 animals, you are very rich.”
I sip my Mongolian green tea with milk – “please don’t let that be mare’s milk” – and check out the interior decoration of the tent.
Our hostess, Khishigt, is the mother of eight adult children and she lives here with her husband. They dismantle their ger twice a year – summer and winter – and move it to another location. It is surprisingly spacious inside. I didn’t have time to count the cattle in the yard but this yurt has electricity – there’s a washing machine, fridge and freezer here – so they must be relatively well off.
Almost three quarters of the Mongols live in ger tents and they all follow a traditional layout. The door usually faces south, and to the left is the men’s side, where manly items like weapons and saddles are kept, while the women stay to the right with their cooking utensils.
In the middle is the stove with its long pipe sticking out of the ceiling. Smoke billows all winter long, and from the outside it looks like a frosted white cupcake at a first birthday party.
The north end is the most sacred part of the ger. Khishigt’s shrine is covered with family heirlooms, religious objects and photos of his children and grandchildren. But it’s a fridge magnet that catches my eye. It is shaped like the symbol of the Underground, with its easily identifiable red and blue and the word “London” in its center. It comes straight out of a souvenir shop in Leicester Square. Obviously, we are not the first tourists to have tasted the dried curd of Khishigt.
Natalie tells us that hospitality like this isn’t unusual in Mongolia, and it’s not just because its people are friendly. The country is five times the size of France but has only two million inhabitants. More than half of them live in Ulaanbaatar. It is because of all this empty space that hospitality is a necessity. Ignore a traveler and they might starve to death before reaching the next ger.
Of course, that wouldn’t happen to us. We were heading to a tourist camp in Terelj National Park, with three meals a day provided. Terelj is only 80 km from Ulaanbaatar and it is an ideal place for horse riding, hiking or climbing. It’s also the place to go if you want a taste of life in a ger yourself. After a short drive through a rocky, mountainous landscape – past the famous Turtle Rock – we arrive at our very own ger tent.
It is smaller than that of Khishigt but follows a similar layout. We don’t have a fridge or washing machine – only three bright orange single beds and a children’s table and chair set, also orange. It’s so scenic that I banged my head against the orange door as I walked in.
I carefully stick to the east side of the ger tent and choose a bed according to the rule of men on the left, women on the right.
I don’t want to break the rules anymore. Last time I did this I ended up eating milk that had been left in the sun.
Make your own ger tent
Step 1: Build the wooden frame, leave a hole in the top for the chimney. If you don’t own camels, you will have to carry them yourself
2nd step: Wrap the frame in felt. If you can’t find skinned sheep, glue some quilts together.
Step 3: Secure the pigtails with belts made of braided ponytails. Or “borrow” belts from former roommates.
Step 4: Raid a child’s playhouse for furniture. Must be extremely difficult for adults to sit on.
Step 5: More Hammersmith? Dismantle and move to Clapham. Easy.
The German label
Most houses have rules and a Mongolian ger is no different. Keep the following etiquette tips in mind when visiting.
❏ Keep your visit short. More than two hours and you interrupt the work of the family.
❏ Bring a small gift for your hosts. Take home souvenirs from your home country or shop for cookies or chocolates along the way.
❏ It is impolite to turn your back on photos, heirlooms and religious objects in the yurt.
❏ Always sleep with your feet pointing out the door.
Ulaanbaatar isn’t a pretty city, but that doesn’t mean you have to leave the camera in your backpack. Here are some sites not to be missed.
The largest and most important Buddhist monastery in Mongolia is home to over 150 monks and a 26.5m tall golden Buddha. Visit early to witness the morning ceremony.
natural History Museum
It is worth visiting if only for its impressive collection of dinosaur skeletons, eggs and fossils found in the Gobi Desert.
Bogd Khan Winter Palace
In addition to the White Palace, which was the residence of the last king of Mongolia, there are six temples on this site. And, if you’re not tired of stuffed animals after visiting the Natural History Museum, you’ll be glad to know there’s a collection here, too.
Genghis Khan is more than the barbarian from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Mongols know him as Chinggis Khaan and he’s their national hero – there’s a statue of the big guy in this big, bustling square. While there, visit the National Gallery of Modern Art, the Mongolian History Museum, and the Natural History Museum, all nearby.