Living like a Nomad in Mongolia
I always thought I had a nomadic life because of my frequent travelling. But then, I met real Nomadic families during my recent trip to Mongolia and realized I was wrong. Fun Fact - 30% of Mongolia’s population is nomadic. This means they are herdsmen, surviving by farming livestock such as camels, goats, sheep, horses, and moving around to find the best conditions for doing so at different times of the year. Nomads typically have a summer and winter camp.
My boyfriend and I ventured to Mongolia via Shenzhen Airport. It is much cheaper than flying out of HK Airport. The only downfall is the copious amount of delays you're subjected to because of the inefficiencies in Chinese airports. We booked a private tour with Goyo Travels. It was on the pricey side ($1300 USD for 3.5 days), but the knowledge and experience you come out of this tour with is priceless. They have great local tour guides, who I am convinced also have a photography background. Our tour guide took fantastic photos for us!
On our first day, we arrived to Ulaan Baatar. We checked into the Best Westin because it was centrally located. We hired a private driver from the hotel (50 USD for half day) to drive us to the famous Chingis Khan statue and Tumen Ekh traditional dance show. A 131-foot statue of Genghis Khan sits an hour drive outside Ulaan baatar and is the world’s tallest statue of a horse. Ulaan Baatar was like every other city, except it holds 45% of Mongolia's population. I am still shocked that Mongolia only has 3mm people and it's the 18th largest country in the world by land mass at 1,564,116km2. To add some perspective, Hong Kong has more than double the population at 7.347 mm people (2,755 km2). INSANE!
The next day was the first day of our Goyo Travels tour. We woke up at 5am to catch an early morning flight to the Gobi Desert. When we landed, our tour guide Tula picked us up with our driver. We saw many Ger tents alongside the road. Ger tents are traditional Mongolian home and made of a wooden frame covered with thick felt. The materials are purposefully very lightweight so that they can be transported by camel when they move each season, but gers are surprisingly warm inside once the stove is lit. The Gobi desert drops down to -40C in the winter.
The first thing we did after we landed in the Gobi desert was stop by the side of the road and help a Nomad family with their morning chores. We helped them gather the goats to be tied up and milked. This was one of my favorite things that we experienced. The family was so accepting and hospitable. They gave us some dried bean curd to thank us for helping them with the goats.
After our spontaneous goat milking, we did an hour hike at Yolyn Am. It was breath-taking! It's a deep and narrow gorge in the Gurvan Saikhan Mountains with lots of greenery. In the winter, you can see glaciers! During our hike we learned so much about Mongolian culture/history. The vast Gobi Desert takes up much of southern Mongolia, but, with the exception of the Khongoryn Els or “Singing Dunes”, it’s mostly not characterised by sand dunes. Instead, you can expect to find a barren, rocky wilderness. After the Gorge, we went to climb the highest point of the Singing Dunes, about 300 meters. I thought it was very difficult as some parts were very steep and I had to use my hands to crawl up. My fear of heights also didn't help either. Thank god for my boyfriend who helped carry me up the last 10 minutes. The best part was when we got to the top and saw the view. It was definitely worth it,. We brought sleds up to sand board down.
On our first night in the Gobi Desert, we did a homestay with a Nomadic Family in their Ger Tent. Thank goodness they had a bathroom with toilet and shower! Modern Nomads haha.
The next day, the oldest son of the family took us on a camel trek. It took about 5 hours to get to our destination where we will camp for the night. Camels are pretty instinctive and clever. They would have probably resisted going 15km away from their Ger Tent with us if a member of their family didn't comes with us. It was pretty painful sitting on a camel for 5 hours - a lot of core work as well. The Bactrian camel is Mongolia’s native camel. It has two humps and it’s much rarer than its one-humped cousin.
Once we arrived to our camp destination, we chilled out and had our delicious dinner. We were probably the only human beings within a 15km radius. It was so remote and peaceful, I never experienced anything like it. During sunset, we built a small bonfire. I slept like a baby in our tent despite the risk of wild wolfs or snow leopards attacking our camp at night.
The next morning, we woke up without an alarm clock to catch the sunrise. We began our journey back to the Ger tent after breakfast. Surprisingly, the camels walked back super fast because they knew they were heading back home. We got back in 2.5 hours! I kept noticing my camel chewing something even though i didn't see it eating. Apparently, it throws up its prior meal and can eat it again.
When we arrive back to the homestay, we packed our bags and headed to Bayanzag Flaming Cliffs. In the 1920s, fossilised dinosaur remains were found in the Gobi Desert, along with the first dinosaur eggs. Many dinosaur fossils still lie exposed today, and we got to see and touch one! Never in my life did I think I would be able to see dinosaur fossils in the nature, let alone touch it! After our dinosaur tour, we arrived to our Ger Camp called Gobi Mirage. I was surprised how comfortable and clean these Ger tents were. I probably had one of the best showers of my life here.
We found out our flight back to Ulaan Batar the next day was delayed from 9am to 3pm. This is the one time I was grateful that my flight had been delayed because I did not want to leave the Gobi Desert. The reason why we truly loved Goyo Travels was because they were fully prepared for our flight delay. The tour guides are asked to find something to do in case of these events. Luckily, there was a small Naadam Festival happening the next day held by the family of a famous horse trainer. Mongolia’s biggest annual festival is Naadam, which is celebrated throughout the country and features the three national Mongolian sports of horse racing, archery and wrestling. The winner of the Naadam festival brings pride to their village and they win a 2 story apartment and a brand new Land Cruiser. This sort of reminds me of hunger games minus the killing aspect. We really enjoyed watching the Naadam festival and getting a glimpse of Mongolian culture.
All in all, Mongolia quickly became one of my favorite and most unique places I have ever visited. I would like to go back in October during the Eagle hunting festival and also see Khuvsgul Lake in Northern Mongolia. Another bucket list item is visiting the Reindeer people who live in the remote, deep forest of northern Mongolia. The reindeer people domesticate reindeer, riding them, breeding them and using them for milk, cheese and fur. Unfortunately, their way of life is becoming extinct - estimates of the population range between 200 and 400 individuals. If you're in need of an idea for a vacation, definitely check out Mongolia.