Living like nomads in the Mongolian steppe
I’ve been fascinated by nomads for as long as I can remember – endlessly on the move and surviving in some of the world’s most isolated wildernesses, living cheek by jowl with nature.
I’ve been fascinated by nomads for as long as I can remember – endlessly on the move and surviving in some of the world’s most isolated wildernesses, living cheek by jowl with nature. Nomadic life is dominated by the immense power of nature and is constantly threatened by storms and predators. Sometimes, especially in spring, four seasons can be seen in one day.
In the early hours, we drove westward from Ulaanbaatar to Mongolia‘s vast central grass steppe, part of a larger range of plains that stretches almost unbroken across the Eurasian continent, the largest temperate grassland in the world. It wasn’t long until we were surrounded by complete wilderness – among spectacular landscapes of undulating hills, impressive mountains and wide-open plains sprinkled with bleating herds of sheep, goats and galloping horses. After around four hours in the car, we arrived at Elsen Tasarkhai (Bayangobi), an arid area of rugged hills, gravel plains and sand dunes all alongside one another.
Mongolian life is often characterised by the ‘ger‘, a large portable tent made of colourful wooden slats, tarps and heavy felt for insulation to protect against some of the harshest winters on the planet. Covering only 10m in diameter, they hold everything that is needed to survive: a kitchen, a central log burner, beds along the side and even a shrine. The nomad’s ability to up sticks and go with all of this when the seasons change is mind-blowing.
On our recent Mongolian adventure, we stayed in a private ger for two nights, only metres away from a local ger, the only one for miles, which was owned by Otgon and his family. On arrival, Otgon welcomed us inside, offering us some airag, a popular traditional drink made from fermented mares’ milk. While spending time with these nomads, I was utterly captivated by the hospitality and being able to integrate into their way of life. To immerse ourselves further, Otgon arranged for us to dress in the traditional deel, a large tunic or gown made from cotton, wool or silk.
Traditionally, Mongolian nomads’ love and devotion to horses has been fundamental for protecting and keeping an eye on their herds and driving them to pasture. Today, some families use motorbikes for the task but they still utilise their horses as a practical necessity. Through the help of my guide, who translated for me, I spoke with Otgon about my personal passion for horses and he invited me to spend the afternoon riding with him across the untouched steppe.
The thrill of moving at speed through such unimaginable landscapes on a semi-wild beast is the most authentic way to experience the country and is, arguably, my best travel memory to date. Their legendary toughness far outweighs the size of these small and very willing horses. It’s possible to include as much or little riding as you like on your trip – from taking a gentle hack close to your ger to undergoing a week-long trek travelling from camp to camp.
Experiencing nomadic life with cazenove+loyd can still be done to meet the expectations of today’s luxury traveller. Although accommodation is not of the same five-star standard you will see elsewhere in Asia, this particular ger is totally private and has its own en-suite bathroom, which is rare in Mongolia. Meals will be cooked by a private chef and served in a separate dining room. The experience has been carefully honed to retain the authenticity of living in a traditional home in Bayangobi, while including the right amount of modern-day comforts.
Nomads are under increasing pressure from the modern world and climate change, so supporting these isolated families in this way is integral to the future of their livelihoods, while also being one of the most true and raw experiences you will ever encounter.