I recently was lucky enough to spend a month in Mongolia, attending the national holiday Naadam and staying with many local families that make up one of the largest remaining nomadic cultures left in todays modern world. For thousands of years, they have lived in the steppes, have cared for their livestock and survived thanks to them. But while the nomadic lifestyle is still popular, harsh winters and dry summers have killed whole herds and have forced many families to move to the capital Ulaanbaatar in search of employment, trading in an ancient way of life for work in the mines. The ones still living in the vast grasslands encourage their children to pursue education for a safer future. For now though, Mongolia is still packed with the incredible beauty one pictures when thinking of this country: bright white gers dot the green landscape, large herds of horses, goats and sheep move along slowly through the worlds most sparsely populated country and teenagers race on horseback. A paradise for anyone yearning for adventure, vast skies, open spaces and nature.
The hospitality of the Mongolians was nothing short of overwhelming and while I stayed with these incredibly kind but tough people and being introduced to their way of life, I snapped a few pictures here and there. Enjoy some insights into the the Mongolian way of life:
Gers are still the preferred dwelling in Mongolia and even people living in the capital of Ulaanbaatar often choose the white, round yurts over an apartment. While the number of nomads has decreased over the years, half of Mongolia’s population still lives a nomadic lifestyle in the steppes, caring for their livestock and moving their campsite at least twice, but usually several times a year.
Building one of the circular gers takes a family about an hour. A circular framework with wooden support poles is covered in layers of felt, which is then all tied together, leaving only a circular hole in the very middle as well as a small entrance. The hole lets in some air and light and allows the smoke from the stove to escape, but of course can be covered with the tug of a rope if the weather turns bad. The entrance always points to the south – a tradition that supposedly lets more sunlight into the house and keeps out the cold winds from the north.
Airag, the fermented mare’s milk, is Mongolia’s most popular drink. During the day, the foals are tied up to keep the mares nearby and the horses are then milked every two hours. Producing airag is a monumental effort, as one mare only provides about 2 liters of milk a day and thus, to keep the whole family supplied, several mares are needed. Additionally, the liquid has to be stirred constantly, which is why the bags are often found near the door, inviting everyone walking by to give it a quick stir.
The foals get get captured and tied up every day to keep the mares close by. Each time the mare is milked, the little ones are allowed to drink for a minute and at the end of the day, are set loose with their mothers until morning.
Airag is a social drink, often enjoyed together and drunk from big bowls. Hospitality dictates that each guest be served a bowl as well, preferably with some cheese and crackers to go with it.
One of the most popular meals is slow-cooked goat or mutton, also known as Khorkhog, which is only made on special occasions. Together with vegetables and preheated, fist-sized stones, the meat gets tossed into a sealed milk can and is then left to cook for up to two hours. The taste is heavenly!
Mongolia suffers from a natural water scarcity, with lower rainfalls and warmer temperatures due to climate change amplifying the problem. Herders in the arid regions are dependent on hand-pumped groundwater wells and old tires are used to catch the water, allowing the animals to drink. Water levels are sinking though, which is a big threat to traditional herding.
People on motorcycles, like this goat herder and his daughter, are a common sight in Mongolia. While horses are still widely used for running errands, herding animals and transport, a lot of people nowadays make us of motorcycles to faciliate everyday tasks.
For example, they are now also used for herding horses…
Mongolian cheese, also called byaslag, is made with either cow, goat, yak or sheep milk and every family has their own unique recipe. Because of the nomadic lifestyle, the cheese can’t be stored and ripened like in the west. Instead, the mass gets cut into slices and for better preservation, is dried on the rooftops. The result is a hard and very sour cheese, which is mainly eaten as a snack. Upon entering a ger, guests will always get offered a couple slices of this self-made cheese together with some crackers and a bowl of fresh or fermented milk.
People thinking Mongolians are all harsh faces and no smiles have never seen them having fun. These men are enjoying each others company while waiting for dinner.
The traditional Mongolian outfit is very vibrant. It involves a hat, the del and heavy leather boots. The del is a knee-lenght garment made of either silk, cotton or wool, depending on the season and style. It looks a bit like a colourful overcoat or tunic and is tied by a sash as well as held together by several buttons or clasps. While modern clothing is worn by some people, many nomads still prefer the traditional style.
Kids mostly prefer the comforts and look of modern clothing. They also tend to share rides, which is cute.
The Mongolian knucklebone games involve lots of flicking, tossing and catching and thus, require quite a bit of skill. The four sides of the bone are named sheep, goat, camel and horse according to the ridges and one of the most popular games is called the “horse race”. Each player gets to choose a horse (aka bone), tosses another four bones on the table and is then allowed to move a certain amount of spots depending on how many of the bones fell with the horse side up.