Nomads' land: Hospitable shepherds welcome visitors to Mongolia's harsh steppes
DALANZADGAD, Mongolia — It was lunchtime on the steppe in Mongolia, the most sparsely populated country on Earth. So when our driver spotted a lone white yurt in the distance, we stopped for a jug of hot sheep's milk tea.
It was all part of a 10-day journey through central Mongolia that we'd planned through an affordable, family-run company that helped us design our own itinerary and shared our philosophy of travel: authentic cultural experiences that support small, local businesses.
To that end, my friends and I mostly sidestepped the large tourist camps at the canvas-cloaked tents called gers, which are clustered around popular sites that can offer comfortable accommodations and amenities such as electricity, bathrooms and cafe-style meals. As a result, "comfortable" is not how I would describe our trip. But we did experience the hospitality and warmth that are as much a hallmark of the countryside here as the stunning landscapes on the roadless, rocky steppes.
The day we had our sheep's milk lunch, as we stepped into the ger, we felt nervous about intruding on the nomadic shepherds who surely must've had better things to do than host this unexpected band of tourists. But our hosts seemed hardly fazed as the woman served us and her husband cheerfully asked what brought us to their neck of the steppes.
More than one-third of Mongolia's population is crammed into its bustling capital, Ulan Bator, where trendy fashion and fast food are easily found among the Soviet-style tenement buildings.
Once you leave the big city, though, it doesn't take long for the urban noise to fade, the paved roads to end and the sky to open up. Another third of the nation's 3.1 million people are considered nomadic, and their pastoral lifestyle is still an integral part of Mongolian identity. But its simplicity can be a revelation for the Western visitor.
Hoping to take in more of the natural wonders, we considered Ulan Bator only a layover on our way to the Gobi Desert town of Dalanzadgad. There we met the driver and guide whom the three of us hired to take us northward, through the desert and grasslands, to the alpine Lake Khovsgol on the edge of Russia's Siberian territory.
In the south, where summer days range from mild to scorching, most gers don't have heat sources, making for bitterly cold nights especially when the winds kick up in the Gobi. The lack of bathrooms — or even outhouses — also posed interesting challenges: How far do you have to go for a little privacy when there's not a tree or shrub in sight on the open steppes? Then there were hours of bone-jarring rides in our Russian jeep (apparently built without the technology of shock absorption) on the unforgiving terrain.
But somehow the lack of creature comforts seemed a small compromise for the unique opportunity to truly unplug and glimpse a way of life steeped in Mongolia's rural traditions.
Our first stay with a nomadic family was on rolling grassland about five hours northwest of Dalanzadgad. Just as with the lunchtime stop, our plucky driver happened upon the ger and hopped out to negotiate with its owner before ushering us inside.
Our hostess briefly abandoned her daily chores to offer us a large bowl of fermented mare's milk, which we politely took turns sipping.
The cool drink, called airag, is a warm-weather alternative to hot milk tea, a salty concoction of fresh milk — from a sheep, camel or yak — brewed with a dash of tea leaves that, served along with biscuits and dried milk curd, is a staple of Mongolian hospitality.
I quickly developed a taste for the salty milk tea, but the pungent mare's milk was an experience that my stomach never quite forgave me for.
The fermented mare's milk also can be home-distilled into a mild liquor called arkhi, a more traditional drink than the store-bought vodka popularized during the 70-year Soviet occupation that ended in 1990.
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