In this article, I will recount my experience living with nomads in Mongolia and how you can go about doing the same.
What is Ger to Ger?
Ger to Ger is a company that offers authentic experiences living with nomads in Mongolia as well as other related tours. A proportion of the money goes directly to the nomadic families.
Ger to ger specialises in community development, conservation and more.
A ger is the Mongolian word for a yurt or large tent that nomads set up at each new grazing ground. The ger can be disassembled, packed on horseback and moved to the next grazing ground.
In 2016 I spent a week in Mongolia staying with three different nomadic families and travelling from ger to ger by horseback.
What Sort of Tours are available?
- Nomadic homestays in gers
- Horse trekking
- Visiting eagle hunters
- 4×4 tours
- Camping on the steppe
- Gobi Desert tours
About my experience living with Nomads in Mongolia with Ger to Ger
Check out my ultimate hiking packing list, perfect for trips to the wilds of Mongolia!
Before heading out into the steppe, travellers are first required to spend a few hours at the Ger to Ger offices for a briefing on safety, etiquette and customs as well as finalising any paperwork and payments.
To say that this induction was utterly bizarre and often confrontational would be an understatement, but I will discuss that at the end of the article so as not to taint the experience initially.
You can read about how to travel from China to Mongolia in my Beijing to Ulaanbaatar article.
I was on the 4 day/3 night Arkhangai Province Highland Nomadic Ranchers tour.
Travelling to the first Camp
I travelled by bus from Ulaanbaatar to Tsetserleg in Arkhangai Province which is around 500km west of the capital Ulaanbaatar. The journey was once of the most scenic I have ever taken (see the world’s highest railway for more scenic journeys) and took around 8 hours.
The scenery consisted of steppe interspersed with hills and forest. It was amazing how utterly empty the landscape was. We didn’t pass a single town the entire time, barely more than a few mall settlements.
Upon arrival in Arkangai I was met at the bus station by a driver and 4×4. The scenery was incredible, with undulating hills dotted with ger camps and horses. The road just went on for miles until it reached the sky.
It wasn’t long before the road deteriorated and we got a flat tyre. This was all part of the adventure as far as I was concerned and I happily drank in my surroundings as the driver quickly changed the wheel.
After we got going again, we left the last of the paved road and went off-road. The vehicle was bouncing across the steppe, through streams and small rivers and I was enjoying every second of it!
Living with Nomads – Batochir’s Camp
We reached camp in the late afternoon. The camp was made up of four or five gers. There was a motorcycle, a cow and a pack of horses down by a river a few metres from the camp. I was introduced to the head of the family, Mr Batochir. He was a short, scruffy-looking guy in his sixties with a weather-beaten face but a friendly smile.
Some young kids were running around the gers and a couple of fierce dogs were chained up on the edge of the camp. I had been warned about the dogs at orientation; these fierce animals were no pets, rather there to protect the family’s herd from wolves.
Above the camp, several black kites soared on the thermals looking for prey down below.
I was shown my bed in one of the gers and set my belongings down. Inside was warm and smelled of burning wood from the stove in the middle. A large pot sat atop the stove with traditional yaks milk tea which I was offered. It tasted faintly of milky tea from home in England with a faint cheese aftertaste and was not altogether unpleasant.
Our driver joined us and I noticed the custom of passing a snuff box between each of the men. As it is passed, one pretends to take a snort and passes it back with a look that says “that’s some good sh*t right there”.
After the driver left, I was introduced to Batochir’s son, a younger, chubbier version of his father with a broad grin and white teeth. He motioned for me to follow him outside and proceeded to show off his skills at archery with a wooden bow and arrows. I hadn’t fired a bow since I was a boy, but soon got into it again. The youngsters joined us and displayed their abilities with eager fervour.
Before dinner, I went to explore the area around the camp which included a river and some mountains farther in the distance. Many more birds of prey flew around the rocky outcrops.
Dinner consisted of a large pot of noodles with an undisclosed meat that I couldn’t recall tasting before. I’d hazard a guess that it was goat. The meal reminded a little of Central Asian plov (pilov) with noodles instead of rice.
Travelling to Camp 2, Ger to Ger
After a sound sleep in my ger and a breakfast of tea and hard cheese biscuits, it was time to set off for the next camp over the hillside. I was supposed to go by horseback but in the end for reasons I couldn’t discern, Batochir took me by jeep. I was a little put out by this as was looking forward to the trek across the steppe, but it was out of my hands.
The camp of the Batdelgers was much larger than Batochir’s. Ten or so large white gers were perched on a bank along the Hanuy Gol River. The river was about 20 metres across and flowing rapidly along the valley.
Batdelger’s camp was at the bottom of a large valley flanked on one side by the river and mountain, and on the other by large forested hills. It was interesting to note that all of the tallest trees on the ridges were completely charred from lightning strikes, another thing we had been warned about being careful of.
After being shown to my ger, past another pair of rabid-looking dogs that barked anytime anyone went near, I set about exploring my new home for the night.
The scenery here was more dramatic with the imposing mountains towering around us. More black kites sailed on the thermals above and cattle grazed along the valley and splashed through the river.
That night’s sleep was a little more disturbed than the night before. I was in a large ger, almost empty save for a bed on a slightly raised, wooden platform. It started when I found a beetle in my sleeping bag (and I’m not talking about Paul McCartney or Ringo Star). After this startling meeting, things got a little more intense. Some cattle came to have a nose around outside the ger and I could hear them trying to push their way in.
After the cattle got bored, the dogs, which were off the chains at night, now decided they wanted a piece and I could hear them barking and scratching at the floor around the side of the ger. This went on seemingly all night and I was happy to see the sun break and these fearful events fade into the night.
Travelling to Camp 3, Ger to Ger
After resting a little, I did some more exploring and was pleased to see both a marmot and spoonbill on my adventures. A black kite swooped down and perched on a log next to the river a few metres away.
Now today, I would be riding to the final camp by horse. One of Batdelger’s sons, dressed in traditional attire of flowing blue robes and bright yellow belt, saddled up two horses for the journey.
The saddles were wooden and rock hard, not the soft leather I was used to as a child riding horses. It didn’t take very long at all for the pain and blisters to start as we cantered across the steppe. It must have been near twenty years since I’d last ridden, but soon got into the swing of it again, albeit with a very sore bum as every bump I would land hard on the wooden saddle!
We arrived at the final camp, and followed the same customs as before, with tea and snuff boxes being passed around, however this time we sat outside in the grass. I noticed Nerguibaatar looking for a light for his cigarette and I threw my lighter over to him as I’d done a thousand times before when sitting in the park with friends. Only this time the second the lighter left my hand I remembered back to the customs we were taught and that if giving something you should always present it with both hands and NEVER thrown anything as it is deeply disrespectful.
I felt a wave of shame wash over me, but if it did offend, my host was polite enough not to let it show (he was the youngest of the three only four years older than myself, and possibly was more liberal when it came to such customs).
Again, after the formalities, I went off to explore. Now we were in open pasture farther along the river, which was shallower here and could easily be crossed. I set off for a hike into the forest nearby drinking in the wild surroundings. Thoughts of wolves were never far from my mind, especially given the many carcases littering the step…
After dinner, we went to play basketball and drink beer with some local lads. Someone had erected a basketball hoop in a field and the local youngsters seemed to be pretty good.
I had my own ger again and this time was thankfully left alone with nothing but thoughts of wolves and dogs and cattle….
Journey back to Ulaanbaatar
The next day I was picked up by the same driver who took me to the first camp. The going was much tougher and we skidded and slid across the steppe and through rivers. Every bump was excruciating as I now had many blisters from the wooden saddle the day before and it would be over a week again until I could sit down without pain, but it was worth it!
I was taken back to Tsetserleg where I went for the long bus ride back to Ulaanbaatar and the end of my short time living a nomad on the steppe.
A word of caution when booking a Tour with Ger to Ger
I attended the induction alongside maybe ten to fifteen other travellers who were all on differing tours with Ger to Ger across Mongolia. The person in charge of our orientation was an American with a serious attitude problem. If anyone had any (legitimate) questions they would be met with hostility and derision, which I found utterly bizarre.
As if to confirm suspicions, the owner finished with a threatening speech about giving negative reviews and said that anyone leaving one would be sued. For a company to start off by warning against leaving reviews is a rather large red flag and it confirms that we weren’t the only ones appalled at the service/his behaviour. The literature which I was given goes into great detail about leaving negative reviews and even goes so far as to say that the company will contact Interpol which is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard of. It’s a real shame that they have such an attitude and I don’t understand why.
I am not saying to avoid using Ger to Ger, as overall I had an incredible experience that I will always remember, however just be aware of the lack of customer service. In the end, living with nomads in Mongolia was an experience I will never forget!
Getting to Mongolia
Aside from the usual international flights, it is possible (and easy) to reach Mongolia from both Russia and China via the Trans-Mongolian Express (a branch line of the Trans-Siberian).
Looking for more sustainable holiday ideas?
The Great Baikal Trail is a hiking trail being built around the world’s largest freshwater lake, Lake Baikal in Siberia. Each year you can join a community of volunteers to help construct and maintain this trail while camping in the pristine wilderness of the Siberian taiga. Read my guide to volunteering on the Great Baikal Trail for more information.
About the author: Steve Rohan, originally from England, has lived in China for over six years. He has lived in the frozen city of Harbin, the ancient capital of Luoyang and now resides in the tropical paradise of Sanya on Hainan Island.
He has travelled extensively across Europe and Asia, mostly by train, and has written about his travels for this blog as well as self-publishing his first book, Siberian Odyssey.
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