Visiting the Gobi desert has never been on my wishlist until this year when I chanced upon the opportunity to live a week with Mongolian nomads. I had always been living in Singapore, where I was scaling a business. But after I sold my business, I made a decision in 2018 to become a minimalist, and travel the world.
One of these adventures would be to live with Mongolian nomads for 8 days, fully immersing myself into and experiencing the Mongolian nomadic life.
In November 2018, the trip finally happened, and I got to live with a Mongolian nomadic family for a week, in this case, a Mongolian nomadic couple Puulee and Muugii. They were a couple around the age of sixty, and had two adult children who moved to and lived in the cities. Puulee and Muugii spoke only Mongolian, and I did not know a word of Mongolian, but as we found out, spoken language didn’t really matter as much.
The first thing that struck me when I arrived was how empty everything looked against the vast backdrop of the Gobi desert. It was winter, and there were no signs of vegetation, just dried shrubs and rocks. It looked like a very harsh environment.
My phone did not get reception and it was the first time that I had seen my Google Pixel 2XL last 8 days without a charge. After being connected for so long, it was nerve-wracking to not have a connection at the start, but I slowly started relishing the digital detox.
The nomadic nature of the Mongolian couple meant that they had to move twice in a year – once to a summer location, and another to a winter location. I joined them at their winter location. The couple had two gers – the conical-shaped Mongolian tent. One was their main ger in which they slept and cooked in, and the other secondary ger was used for storage and for things Iike drying meat.
Religion and faith
The main ger of the Mongolian nomadic family would contain a small shrine at one end, with the only door facing it on the opposite end. The door would traditionally face south, and the occupants will always sleep with their feet pointing away from the shrine as a sign of respect.
What was very memorable for me was the first night. That was when I saw a night sky that contained the most stars I had ever seen. Puulee and Muugii showed me the sign of Temujin (or Chiinngis Khaan, or Genghis Khan), something that the Mongolian nomads prayed to, and showed where the direction of North was. Containing 7 stars, it took about 5 minutes of gesturing and repeating before I understood and figured out that what was the sign of Temujin to them was actually known as the Big Dipper constellation in other parts of the world.
The Mongolian nomads were accustomed to having guests, as it was frequent that their friends and relatives would visit and stay the night. The ger was in no stretch of the imagination considered big, but they never had a problem fitting everything in. They took out a mat and a thin mattress, and gave me a blanket made of fur to keep warm. The stove that they used was fed coal and animal dung, but would die off in 1-2 hours’ time, causing the temperatures to drop as you slept. It wasn’t luxurious at all, but I felt comfortable and managed to stay warm in the harsh Mongolian winter as I slept.
The next morning, I woke up, shook off the cold, and started my day. Since the ger was small, everything that was used for sleeping in the night was folded up neatly and kept aside.
The Mongolian nomads ate mostly rice, flour, potatoes, carrots, and cabbage for their meals. Meat was in every meal, and it would be typically mutton, or sometimes beef.
Cows were treasured as they were more expensive, and were typically reared to be sold off. Horses were only kept by the more wealthy Mongolian nomads. Most of the time, horses were the strongest livestock and could survive the harsher winters because they were strong enough to dig for plants where the other livestock could not.
Condiments used for cooking were simple – mostly just pepper and salt. Sauces on the dining table were ketchup and soy sauce, and people could sit anywhere. Typically, they sat beside the table or on the beds, which were around a metre away.
When the food was handed to you by the cook, you could eat anytime. Guests could enter the ger anytime, even during a meal, and they would be offered a portion of food when they did so. Meals were very communal in nature, with people using their bare hands to handle food. For instance, a guest could take a rib of lamb in his hand, slice away some meat for himself, and place the rib back into the communal plate.
Almost every part of the animal is used. The other parts that I’ve seen being thrown out were the gallbladder and lungs. Even the eyeballs, brains, and bones were cooked for broth. There was no expectation for anyone to finish the food on their plates, though the cook sees it as a sign that you like her cooking if you finish your food.
Sanitation was extremely basic. The thing about the cold was that nobody showered daily as a result. The nomads would wash their hair every two weeks, and get a bath every month or so.
The nomads had an outhouse, which was basically a little man-sized shed that had a deep hole in the ground inside. In winter, it already smelt pretty bad, and I can’t imagine how it’d be like in the summer.
I started exploring the surroundings, with the only sounds being that of animals baying or the strong wind. The dry, cold winter meant that every step rustled crisply because of the dried grass. And everywhere was filled with dung – either cow, goat, sheep, horse, or dog – but it didn’t smell at all because of the weather.
Alcohol is a big part of the Mongolian nomadic winter activities, typically beer or Mongolian vodka. Mongolian vodka is super smooth and reminds me more of sake than regular vodkas like Smirnoff, Absolut, Belvedere or Grey Goose.
Whenever alcohol is drunk, a male would be in charge of pouring out the alcohol. Typically one or a few communal glasses would be used, and the male would be topping up the glass and handing it out to the guests. Only the right hand is used in handling the glass, be it receiving or giving, and guests can choose to either drink the entire glass or have one or several sips and hand the glass back. The common tradition of toasting and clinking glasses together as one big group is absent, and instead, you’d drink whenever you’d like when you have the glass.
Mongolians are big on singing, and whenever they get together in a group, once someone starts singing, everyone breaks out in song and joins along. Everyone knows most of the popular songs, and there are traditional songs that everyone knows. These songs are typically about the love that they have for their mothers, or their love for Mongolia, or the bond that they have with their horses, which seem to be revered creatures with the Mongolian nomads.
Living a Simple Mongolian Nomadic Life
The daughter of Puulee and Muugii knew basic English, so I could communicate with her. I was very curious as to why her parents chose the nomadic life even though they could choose to live in the city. It turns out that they greatly treasured freedom and autonomy, and much preferred working and living off the land than to be in a cubicle or office.
It was a very foreign concept, but after living with them for 8 days, I could begin to grasp why. It was an incredibly different lifestyle, but one that was so simple. Your basic needs of shelter and food were met through hard work from your own efforts, and you had a small close community who would meet regularly. Anything else that we need is really just a luxury.