Of all the things that impressed me about Mongolia, and that’s saying a lot since I was impressed 24/7, it had to be the family life and hospitality and how different the world runs there.
3 hours west as the crow flies from Ulaanbaatar, or as the ancient planes in our case, will bring you to a place called Bayan-Olgii, the gates to Kazakh Mongolia. It was here where we would begin our epic Altai Expedition with Zavkhan Trekking.
About 10% of Mongolia’s population is made up of ethnic Kazakhs, some of the world’s last true nomads. None of that “digital nomad” travel blogger stuff. These guys have been moving around the Eurasian Steppe with their horses and their yaks since before Ghengis Khan.
Not much else has changed since.
While the nomadic way of life was thoroughly trounced, squashed, and more or less destroyed in Kazakhstan under the Russians, Mongolia experienced more freedom and life endured as it always had, including the nomadic ways of the Kazakhs.
Here the wide open valleys and treeless mountains overlooking lakes are peppered about with little white dots, dots that once you get closer to them, you begin to realize are gers (yurts), the traditional homes of the nomads.
Kazakh life is centered around the gers, and you see them everywhere here. Well, not really everywhere since the Altai is a pretty empty area of land, but once you start looking, you see them tucked away here and there, ready to be moved as soon as the seasons change.
Migrating from place to place, the ger moves along as well, packed up tightly on camels or in Soviet era jeeps that seem indestructible. Portable homes used by the migrating nomads on the central Asian steppes, gers are central to the way of life in this neck of the woods.
The more and more time I spent in Mongolia, the more frequently I found myself dwelling on the concept of “home.” For the Kazakhs we met on the road, home isn’t as important as family. The idea of building your life around four walls is a distant concept.
I found myself constantly questioning, how much do I really need in my life, while on the trip. The answer is obvious, not much.
Veering back on topic, the place where I found myself spending the most amount of time was in the ger. While we traveled entirely by horseback for over two weeks, for a good part of the trip, we had a support team that consisted of a Russian Furgon, a veritable Soviet tank of a van in puce green, and another Jeep. The vans carried the ger, our backpacks, and the sheep, which was also our food.
While we would be out riding, they would drive to the new camp and set up shop, including the ger. I think it took the Kazakhs about 40 minutes to put it up but when we “helped” that time doubled.
It was in the ger where would hang out, eat meals, nap and sleep, and meet new people. Within the first few hours of stepping off the plane on a parking lot in Bayan-Olgii, the ger had also become the core of our trip.
Because the ger was so central to our expedition, I thought I’d share some observations, notes, quirks, and facts-that-might-not-be-all-that-factual about ger life in Kazakh Mongolia.
1. Welcome to the ger!
On our first day, we had a 3 hour flight west, followed up by a 5 hour drive in the Furgon overland, something I definitely don’t think could be considered “roads” in the world. Finally pulling up outside our ger was heavenly.
For me, the ger retained that magical sense of comfort for the rest of the trip, mostly because I was fed up, hungry and tired after a long day in the saddle every time we arrived at the ger.
Inside it smelled like fire, horse, grass and general coziness, if coziness has a scent, let’s just say that it does. The walls are covered with amazing hand-woven tapestries called tuskies sealing in the warmth and giving the ger a beautiful colorful decor, different from anything we’ve experienced around the world.
In the gers that we visited, many of the wall hangings and decorations are too bright to handle, in every shade of neon you can imagine. This is because in recent years, more colors of fabric have come available which the Kazakhs have taken up with wild abandon. To them, the new orange and hot pink neons are way cooler and more fun than the traditional muted colors of the past, confusing foreigners left and right.
While our ger was mostly used as headquarters and a hangout lounge, for the rest of the Kazakhs in Mongolia, the ger functions as a house. Kazak gers, larger and taller than Mongolian gers, have beds that line the inside of the circle with two poles in the center holding the roof up.
Here there is a metal stove with a tall chimney that juts out the roof and is where the cooking is done. The fire is built from dried yak turds. I am not joking. I would hate to be the kid designated to “firewood” collection duty.
Everything is tidied, clean and taken care of, the floor is mostly covered in woolen mats. Here and there we see touches of the modern world creeping in, a cell phone tucked under one of the ceiling beams and a satellite dish cable peaking through the top of the ger, charged by a 12 volt battery charged by the Russian jeeps.
In one ger we visited, I was admiring the decorations out of the corner of my eye when I almost choked on my yak cheese noticing an enormous wolf pelt decorating the wall.
For the most part, life hasn’t changed much in Kazakh Mongolia.
2. Unspoken ger rules
When we first arrived to start the trek, we had a bit of a debrief about ger etiquette, 75% of which went in one ear and out the other. After all, you learn by doing right.
In our ger most of the rules went out the window by day 4, and the Kazakhs on our team were entirely unfazed by us. I think it takes a lot to faze a Mongolian Kazakh actually. They might be the happiest, most friendly-going people I’ve ever met.
I remember hearing that we should enter the ger clockwise, not blow our noses inside, throw food or sit our hats or helmets directly on the ground, but any explanation after that was, how do I put it? Lost in translation.
Ultimately, it’s a question of respect, and I think if you have any semblance of respect or understanding for other cultures, you’ll be just fine.
3. The original Kazakh hangout spot
The ger is what brings people together in this part of the world, and I made it my part to suppress my introversion as much as possible in an effort to socialize and be part of the team and get to know everyone.
I also made a big effort to get to know the Kazakhs and help out and be involved as much as I could knowing approximately 5 words in Kazakh. Those 5 words made all the difference and by the end of the trip, I felt like family.
It’s one of the only times I’ve experienced that while traveling, and to put it lightly, it has changed my life. But more on that later.
In Mongolia, life revolves around the ger, and the same was true for us. Our mornings would start early, sipping coffee and eating porridge around the fire and table in the ger before heading off for a long day riding.
By late afternoon, the ger was on everyone’s minds, and at least for me, it was all I could think about to keep me going. As soon as we plucked ourselves off the horses, we made a beeline for the ger for afternoon tea.
On our rest days and in the afternoons, we hang out, nap and chat in the ger before dinner, also served inside, immediately clustering around the stove as soon as the sun went down was our effort to stay warm for as long as possible.
Looking back, it’s really incredible how easy we were able to adapt and shift over to the Kazakh way of life. This of course leads to more questions than answers about how I am growing as a traveler, but they are questions I am happy to have pop up.
I spent a lot of time in the ger, not sleeping in it at night, but preferring the solitude of my tent, I soaked up the atmosphere and got to know the Kazakhs on our team (big introductions soon).
And now that it’s over, I can’t help but miss this communal aspect of Mongolian life in the Altai.
4. The Coffee Diaries journey to Mongolia
Like I said before, what impressed me the most about my time in Mongolia, wasn’t the views or the adventures, it was the hospitality of the Kazakhs.
They took me under their wings in every way you could imagine, and not speaking any English; that’s a feat in and of itself. As much as I tried to learn Kazakh, only a few words here and there managed to stick in my flighty brain. And more often than not they would manifest themselves on horseback with me suddenly remembering the word for something and yelling it out loud – “look a yak!” to their amusement.
But points for effort!
Looking back, it almost brings me to tears thinking about how much of their life and culture they were willing to share with us, no questions asked and without worry or problems. Here on the Eurasian Steppe at the end of world, people are more friendly and welcoming than any I’ve ever encountered.
I love being in a place where hospitality, respect and courtesy to anyone you meet reigns supreme.
And like in many similar cultures, hospitality is shared through food and drink.
As soon as we would plonk ourselves on the floor of a ger we were visiting, an enormous spread of Kazakh milk tea and food would be heaped before us in offering and welcome, the ritual of respecting a visitor still preserved strongly here.
Day in and day out the same ritual would occur in our ger after our rides, an afternoon pick-me-up before sunset.
With our tin mugs filled with something hot and soothing, we would recount tales from the saddle and talk about anything and everything.
Perhaps the person I became the closest with was Amangul, the trip manager. Making sure everything ran smoothly, she was a true powerhouse and kept everything organized, sorted and put a smile on our face day in and day out.
An amazing singer and dombra player, she was also a superb rider and cook too, her talents knowing no bounds. She would tell me stories about the Altai and come get me to take photos of things she found beautiful.
I actually started calling her my Kazakh mom by the end of the trip.
She did so much for us, whenever I had the chance I would do what Ia could for her, including making her coffee and making sure she took a break when possible.
I still remember the first time I gave her one of my Starbucks VIA® Caffe Mochas, one of the packets which brought about a big smile and a “woah that’s new” kind of response, deviating from the usual milky salty yak tea we’d be drinking by the bucket loads. Mochas became a favorite and a luxury for us in the ger.
Sharing it with the cook Jibek, another new friend, they sat down and tried to scare me with tales of snow leopards and wolves in the area, which is completely true by the way.
That night I had to end my attempts at astrophotography and shooting the ger early because I terrified myself into a tizzy that wolves were going to sneak up on me and eat me in the dark. A fact that made Amanagul laugh and laugh the next day when I told her.
One afternoon on a rest day while we were killing time, I decided to get Amangul’s opinion on the various kinds of Starbucks VIA® Ready Brews I had and pick her favorite. After a very serious series of taste tests she decided that the Starbucks VIA ® Pike Place Roast was her favorite, and that’s what she would stick to. Me too (and the mochas).
It was over a cup of Pike Place one late afternoon when she told me the story of the name of one of her sons – Germanbek.
Amangul has three kids, Inkarbek, Elk, and Germanbek. Elk is off studying in Ulaanbaatar, but Germanbek (15 years old) and Inkarbek (17 years old) came along on the expedition as junior wranglers in training.
Germanbek means “German Prince” in Kazakh, and she told me when she was heavily pregnant with him 15 years ago, a German traveler passed by her family’s ger and stayed the night with them, telling stories and legends from medieval Germany referencing the knights, princesses, wars and many adventures. The next day she gave birth and decided to name Germanbek “German Prince” after the experience.
Give or take a few details here and there. This was the version I got from Anar the interpreter, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that many things in Mongolia are more often than not “close” to the truth but occasionally elaborated, embellished or flat out changed.
But in Germanbek’s case, I think it’s true since it’s such an unusual name. Germanbek is a quirky, mildly, twitchy cheeky kid, making it pretty clear that teenagers are teenagers wherever you are in the world. He would frequently make jokes and pranks during the trip and one of his favorite pastimes was mocking the older wranglers behind their backs.
5. Setting up the ger