I had two goals for my stay in Mongolia: staying in a ger and riding on a Mongolian horse. Those two are not difficult to arrange, but I’d have to stand some cold in this time of the year… When Sam and I arrived in Ulaanbaatar the temperatures were already dropping far below zero. And the countryside wouldn’t be better.
For our first Ger experience we went to Terelj national park, which is located 70 km from the capital. We heard from a Dutch man who runs a ger camp with his Mongolian wife. That is not really far, but you have to know that getting around in Mongolia is not that straightforward as it is in Europe. We had to take a taxi, a bus and a micro-bus. And then we were picked up somewhere to go to the camp. Getting a taxi is actually the easiest part: in Mongolia, you can just try to hold any car passing by, it might be a taxi! The bus is also fine but you have to figure out the right destination… This can get pretty tricky since you will have to read the name of the city in cyrillic, which I thought I was able to do after Russia, but then, in Mongolia, they pronounce it really different from how it is written… Last but not least, the micro bus to the national park only goes once per hour, but if it is full, you have to wait for the next one. Or pay a way overpriced taxi. Charging tourists prices which don’t match up with the price level in Mongolia, seems to be really common here. Almost all hostels try to let you book a (way to expensive) tour with them. When you don’t, because you just figure out everything yourself, some even try to kick you out by pretending the hostel is closing or fully booked, something that is quite impossible during this time of the year.
Getting out of the car at Terelj national park we noticed that it was indeed really cold here. There was a strong wind which would go through all your clothes. After a ride in a jeep through frozen creeks, we arrived at the Ger camp which consisted of a couple of gers and some wooden houses. A woman would take us to one of them, which served as a kitchen, and made us lunch, consisting of fried dough in different variations. Later I would notice that Mongolians love fried things … And sheep meat. Everything that is kind of fat, basically. But I guess they need it in the cold climate.
After a beautiful sundown and a European influenced dinner (spaghetti Bolognese) at the family’s ger, we prepared ourselves for what was going to be the coldest night of my time in Mongolia and I even dare to say of my life. Our ger looked really cosy with 4 beds around a stove in the middle, to keep us warm. I heard that this nomads tents, made of sheep wool, could be really warm. But since it was a nomads tent, they are moved twice or four times a year. In our Ger camp, they had moved the tents that same day from summer to winter position. The winter location was supposed to have less wind… There was only one problem: they hadn’t had enough time to isolate the tent before dark: put dirt or cloths around it so the wind doesn’t get in and the heat stays in. It meant the heat would disappear as soon as the fire in the ger went out … At 2 am, even though I was wearing all my clothes I took and I tried to hide under 3 woolen blankets, I was still not able to sleep. I saw that the water in my bottle next to my bed was frozen. So we went out to get more wood and coal. It was a pretty cool experience though, to live without gas or electricity, lighting the candles in the ger to see something and making our own fire to keep ourselves warm in the night. Besides, getting out of the ger at night made us see the beautiful sky full of stars. I think I’ve never seen that many stars before…
I was happy when the night was over, it was still going to be a cold day. After breakfast with fresh bread, eggs and Dutch cheese (which they make themselves from the milk of their 300 cows) our Dutchman Bert dropped us some 8 km further on a hill to hike back to the camp. The wind was still incredibly cold and my hands froze the minute I took them out of my gloves to take a picture. We walked down the hill and met a Sheppard with his sheep at the creek. He showed us where it was safe to cross the small river and end up having a lot of fun hiking back next to and on the river, crossing back and forth over the sometimes cracking ice.
We enjoyed a Dutch lunch with green peas soup and pancakes (again no fried food, yeay!) where after we would go horse riding for two hours. I put on every piece of clothing I had, but still managed to freeze some parts of my body to death, mainly my hands, because my gloves were to thin. The experience was worth it though… Incredible how these horses can bear the wild Mongolian nature. They walk over ice, stones, through ice cold rivers, through snow, like it’s nothing.
After dinner the other guest, Patrick, took out some beers which we shared with the mother of the family. After coming back in Ulaanbaatar I would be able to couchsurf with this Spanish guy, because he was working in the city and had a really comfortable couch in his apartment. While drinking the ice cold beers (no refrigerator needed here), the woman told us about their lives. How winter is really hard for them, temperatures reaching -45 C and having to feed 300 cows. Buying and taking fresh grass from the city because nothing grows is one thing, but I didn’t realize that giving them water is the biggest challenge! They have to cut the water in the form of ice out of the river and cook it… a 9 to 5 job, only to give their animals water!
After staying in Gers some more times, during my trip to Gobi desert, I would have a good idea from the Nomads life… Families with simple lives, continuously busy with daily tasks like making fire, cooking, cleaning, taking care of their animals, repairing their tents or cars or taking care of the guests. Woman, men and children who work together organically as a team, without a strict separation of roles. They live with the daylight, which means they actually sleep quite some hours in winter… the boys of the family would often still be asleep in the families ger when we had breakfast around 9. In one of the gers I stayed, there were 3 clocks in the room, all showing a different hour and none of the times was correct. They said the batteries were not working properly because of the cold… Since this family had some electricity in their Ger, I think they would have bought a digital clock if they would really care about the exact hour…