Last Updated on November 25, 2021 by Nellie Huang
A story about my experience meeting nomadic Mongolians and how they lead a nomadic life in Mongolia.
We clink glasses, and gulp down yet another round of airag, local Mongolian firewater prepared by our host.
It’s barely 10am and we’re downing alcohol strong enough to knock us out for the rest of the day. It’s rude to reject their kind offer though, so I glug down the feisty-tasting liquor and pray it’ll just cure my hangover.
Our host Dawar laughs when he sees my face contort as the strong liquor slithers down my throat. His wife, Altan, heads straight back to the big tank of airag and prepare to refill the bowl, while their two daughters giggle coyly and hide behind her. Our local guide Amaraa from G Adventures translates and says that the family finds it funny how foreigners react— to them, drinking airag is like having tea.
Passing the bowl of airag around the ger, our group of travelers sit in a circle and listen as Dawar shares with us one story after another about his life growing up in rural Mongolia.
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Nomadic Life in Mongolia
We are deep in the heart of rural Mongolia, on the vast steppes of Ovorkhangai (translated to mean “southern grasslands”). This area is isolated and remote, with the nearest town a few hours’ drive away.
In fact, most of Mongolia is covered with steppes, deserts and mountains; only a small percentage of the country is urbanized. Throughout my two weeks in Mongolia, I hardly saw any towns — just clusters of dilapidated villages and endless miles of beautiful nature.
For 3,000 years, Mongolians have lived in the rural areas, adopting a pastoral way of life, moving in the search of new pastures. They depend largely on their livestock for a living and sustain themselves with what they can get from the land. Today, approximately half of Mongolia’s population is still roaming the vast plains living in the ger (traditional yurts or tents) and moving their home several times a year.
Living the Old Way
Dawar and his family are examples of traditional nomads. They live just the way their ancestors have lived for over 3,000 years — getting milk and meat from their livestock, and selling products such as their skin and fur in the market. They settle here in the lowlands in summer (the same spot his father used to live in summer), and then move to new pastures come winter.
Nomadic life thrives in summer and survives in winter. When temperatures are warm, they work hard on their farms to get milk and make airag, consuming meat from their sheeps and goats. Once winter comes, temperatures dip extremely low and they stay indoors and survive on horse meat.
While life as a nomad is harsh, Mongolians have developed strength and resilience that are essential for survival in a the wild conditions of their cherished homeland.
Learning their Way of Life
Mongolia is the land of horse — almost every family has horses and they are the most important livestock. It is also a symbol of wealth in Mongolia. The more horses you have, the richer you are. Dawar’s family own 500 animals, a considerable amount in the nomad’s world.
Dawar shows us their herd of beautiful horses, all gathered around the dry pasture surrounding their ger. Mongolian horses may be small, but they are incredibly resistant. Dawar’s horses live all year around in semi-wild herds and only gather for the draft and the capture. He watches over them partially to defend them against the wolves in winter, otherwise they roam freely.
Horses are so important to the nomads that every kid learns to ride a horse the minute he/she can walk. Dawar’s little girls, aged 4 and 5, are already great riders and they are about to participate in the annual horse-riding competition in the nearby village.
I ask if he’s afraid they’ll get hurt. He answers, “That will only make them braver!”
The Ubiquitous Airag
We head out to watch Altan milk the horses. According to her, the milking season for horses traditionally runs between June and October. This is therefore the season when they made their favorite drink: the airag. The drinking of mares’ milk has a history going back at least 5,500 years to the domestication of wild horses. Mongolians of any ages drink liters of airag in summer, claiming that it’s good for health and digestion.
In traditional Mongolian society, white is a sacred color and it symbolizes happiness, prosperity, and high social status. All naturally white things are therefore considered sacred, including airag. It is used is special and daily rites as offerings to deities, splashed after those departing on journeys, onto brides arriving at their bridegroom’s home, and in childbirth, coming of age and funeral ceremonies.
Airag is actually made by filtering the mare’s milk through a cloth, then pouring it into a large leather sack suspended from the ceiling of the ger. Fermentation occurs within five days, and the airag is then regularly topped up with fresh milk throughout the drinking season. Airag of certain areas is more famous as compared to others. The taste depends on the grazing grounds and the skillfulness of the maker.
What surprises me is that airag is in fact low in alcohol — only around 3 percent. It tastes sour, bitter and sweet all at once, and it definitely gives the sensation that it’s stronger than beer. Dawar tells us that airag can be made more alcoholic through additions such as juniper or blue barley, or through further distillation to make arhi, horse milk vodka, with an alcohol content of around 16 percent. No wonder we are all still buzzing from the vodka we had the previous evening.
The Impact of Modernization
With the rise of accessible technology, changes in the Mongolian nomadic lifestyle are almost inevitable.
While they still lead their lifestyle as pastoral herders, many use motorbikes to herd cattle and horses. To move their homes, trucks have taken the place of ox carts. Dawar owns a motorbike, while his father drives a truck to bring goods to and from the village nearby.
Solar panels are also becoming an addition to the ger, giving them access to electricity without being confined to one place. The nomads use solar energy to power television sets and mobile phones. According to Amaraa, the Mongolian government is actually giving many families subsidies to buy solar panels at an affordable price.
When I ask if his family is happy to have these modern facilities, they all smile. It’s a resounding yes.
Their lifestyle may be affected by these changes — but more so in a good way than bad. Rather than abandoning their lives on the steppes, Mongolia’s nomads are adapting to modernization in their own way. These modern conveniences are actually helping this ancient culture thrive and keeping their traditional lifestyle alive.
That evening, Amaraa and our host prepare a feast of traditional Mongolian barbeque for us.
The Mongolian diet is based largely on meat and milk, and designed to aid survival and travel in the harsh steppes. The introduction of wheat, rice and potatoes from nearby nations and trading partners has added some variety, but as the climate is brutal, many rural Mongols continue to subsist on a diet consisting almost entirely of animal protein and fat. A fair bit of warning: vegetarians will definitely struggle in Mongolia.
“This is called khorkhog, Mongolian barbecue,” explains Amaraa, “I know you have tried Mongolian barbeque at home and they’re different. This is the REAL thing.”
The guys are now tearing up chunks of blood red mutton meat out in the open grassland, and putting them into a big aluminum pot. Almost every part of the animal is thrown into the mix — the huge thigh, the bones, the cheeks, and even snout, intestines and eyes.
Amaraa is already starting a fire with the wood they gathered earlier and stacking big rocks on top of them. Vegetables are added to make a stew and then the mixture is left to roast on top of the rocks for at least an hour.
Life on the Steppes of Mongolia
As the sun sets below the horizon, we sit around a circle out on the open grassland and tuck into the enormous feast. I follow what the locals do and eat with my fingers. The meat is so outrageously good that I’m left licking my fingers and rubbing my belly.
The evening continues with more homemade vodka, Mongolian wrestling (not me!) and lots of singing and dancing. By midnight, I’m lying in my tent sleeping under a sky full of stars and counting my blessings.
Thus is life on the steppes of rural Mongolia. As an outsider it’s a very rewarding and an eye opening experience learning to live like the nomads. I feel extremely privileged to have been offered this peek into their lives — this is undoubtedly the best way to immerse in Mongolian culture.
To Dawar and his family, thank you for opening up your home and letting us into your lives.
How to Experience Nomadic Life in Mongolia:
This was part of my Nomadic Mongolia trip with G Adventures. We spent two days with the family, and bush camped near their ger. Bush camping means that there is no toilet or any basic facility. G Adventures provides the tent and other camping equipment. We basically set up our tents on the grassland, eat and hang out around the area. While it was a very basic set up, I truly enjoyed this experience and found it extremely insightful — it was easily my favorite part of the trip.