Nomads' land: Hospitable shepherds welcome visitors to Mongolia's harsh steppes

By Louise Chu

For The Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Sept. 15 2012 3:00 p.m. MDT

Today vodka — ironically almost all marketed using the ubiquitous name and image of Genghis Khan, the 13th-century warrior whose legend was suppressed during the communist era — is still considered "the good stuff" and flows for almost any occasion.

Such unexpected injections of modern influence into centuries-old customs were always fascinating to observe. Men in traditional long robes would hop on motorcycles to catch up to their grazing flock.

Women would cook over a dung-fueled stove under a light powered by the ger's solar panel.

Despite some newer conveniences, including cellphones and televisions for some families we met, life on the steppes certainly isn't easy. As tourists, milking goats, sheep and yaks was a novelty until we realized each animal had to be pumped twice a day — rain, shine or dust storm.

Milk makes up a large part of the nomadic diet during the summer, and dried dairy products are made and stocked for the long, harsh winter.

When I wasn't lending our hosts a novice hand, I spent many days wandering the expansive steppes, taking in the enormous, azure sky and enjoying a natural silence unmatched by any remote location I've ever visited. It was never hard to hike a short distance and suddenly feel like I was the only person on Earth, a tranquility I started craving again after returning home. The Gobi is so vast one rarely sees evidence of a mining boom that has touched off an international competition to extract rich reserves of coal, copper and gold.

Our longest family stay came on the shore of Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur, also known as White Lake, several hours northeast of Tsetserleg.

That's where we got our most intensive course in nomadic living and shared meals with our hosts rather than preparing our own groceries bought from town.

The highlight of nomadic cuisine is the khorkhog, a festive meal that involves slow-cooking large cuts of mutton, potatoes and carrots with stones in a giant pot. Since less than one percent of Mongolia's land is arable, the occasional carrot, potato and cabbage are usually the only fresh vegetables represented in the diet.

The khorkhog's preparation is a group project, from the slaughter of the sheep to the gathering of stones by the lake. Once the food is ready, each person grabs an oily stone and tosses it like a hot potato to promote good health. Then everyone huddles around the pot and digs in with their hands until all that's left is a pile of bones.

If you go …

When to go: Mongolia's peak tourist season is May to September, when the weather is generally mild and most tourist accommodations are open. By mid-September, many tour companies and ger camps start closing up for the long, harsh winter, though destinations in the warmer south welcome visitors as late as October.

Getting there: There are several flights per week to the capital, Ulan Bator (ULN), from Beijing, Seoul and Moscow. From ULN, domestic airlines such as Eznis, AeroMongolia or Mongolian Airlines will take you to Dalanzadgad (DLZ), which is the starting point for most Gobi Desert adventures. The one-hour flight costs $120-$200 each way. Buses also travel between Ulan Bator and Dalanzadgad for less than $20 each way, but the bumpy journey takes 12-18 hours.

Tours: The lack of English speakers, clearly marked roads and established tourist lodging in the countryside makes do-it-yourself traveling nearly impossible. We found it most practical to hire a private driver and guide, who handled all our lodging, food, activities and transportation. There are a number of tour companies based in Ulan Bator, and we had an amazing experience with Travel Buddies, www.travelbuddies.info.

Travel tips:

Take small gifts. It's customary to present your host family with gifts, such as toiletries for women and pens and note pads for children. Take photos of the family using an instant camera — they'll be ecstatic to keep a copy.

Pack layers. A common saying in Mongolia is that you experience all four seasons in one day. In September, we saw everything from sunny skies to howling winds to blizzard on our trip from Dalanzadgad to Lake Khovsgol.

Brace yourself. Paved roads — or any roads, for that matter — are luxuries only found around Ulan Bator. Traveling through the countryside can involve hours bouncing around in old Russian vehicles.

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