Visiting the Nomads on the Mongolian Steppes

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Hike on the Mongolian Steppes

I skipped Pranayama this morning and took a hike with Galen up to the top of the hillside.  The expansive landscape is deceptive.  From the valley, the hill looks small, but in reality, the climb is a 1,000 foot gain in a short distance.  Fortunately for me, the altitude is lower than it is in Colorado, so it wasn’t too difficult, but I certainly broke a sweat.  The peak provided a sweeping view of the valley below as well as the valley across the river and distant ones.

Photography on the Mongolian Steppe

After our hike, we crossed the saddle and joined the photography group who was practicing landscape shots with Liam.  I added macro shots into the mix as there was a smattering of wildflowers and butterflies which I love.  We futzed around with our cameras until breakfast time which thankfully included an omelette station today.  Hooray…tasty protein!

Thunderhoof on the Mongolian Steppe

We were back on the horses after breakfast exploring the rolling hills.  A few of us got to do some galloping.  In Mongolia, a full gallop across the steppes in known as a thunderhoof.  While Page and I wanted to go faster, a mad dash wasn’t quite what we had in mind, so we asked for a “drizzlehoof”, a name Stephanie came up with for a slow gallop.  It was fun! 

I find myself smiling and giggling while I’m on the horse even when Mojo decides he would like to lead the pack without encouragement from me! Fortunately, as soon as he gets ahead, he settles down, so I don’t have to worry he’ll run away.

We rode through the trees and past several animal herds to a ridge, where we dismounted and took in the view as we relaxed.

Lunch

Our ride, once again, lasted a few hours, so by the time we arrived back to camp, pasta, french fries, and vegetable salad was ready for lunch.  I can promise by the end of these two weeks, I will have eaten more carbs than I have all year, but whose counting.  At least I’m getting a lot of exercise as I’m piling a bunch of starch on my plate.

Ger Ettiquette

Our afternoon ride included a visit to a ger to meet a nomad family.  The riders that wished to go fast rode to one ger while the riders that wished to go slow rode to another.  Before our journey we discussed ger etiquette.

  1. Step over the threshold to enter the ger
  2. Walk to the left and go around the posts in a clockwise direction to the back to be seated.
  3. Remove helmet and do not set it upside down or on the ground
  4. No crossed legs

Greeting Rituals

These were the basics, but more customs came into play when we were served food and drinks.  Because nomads have to survive harsh conditions, they accommodate anyone who visits.  While a knock on the door isn’t necessary, a shout to call off the dog may be.  Regardless, visitors are greeted graciously.

Aaruul

We visited a gentleman whose family was away at Naadam.  With his wife, kids, and grandchild away, he was left to do the cooking.  First, he served us bread, yak butter, cheese, and aaruul (dried curd).  The dried curd is rock hard, hangs from a string around the top of the ger and to me tasted like a sour, dried yogurt stick.  While the aaruul wasn’t my most favorite as I am not much of a yogurt fan, the milk tea called suutei tsai was good.

Milk Tea

Our host heated up a quart of yak milk with a quart of water and added a tablespoon of green tea and some salt in a cauldron on the wood burning stove before serving us the suutei tsai in bowls.  As custom, we accepted the milk tea with our right or both hands and sipped it before setting it on the table when we were finished.

our mongolian nomad host

Tos

After bread and milk tea, the gentleman served us tos which nomads always make for guests.  Tos is similar to a raw cake batter.  It includes flour, sugar, yak milk and butter.  Our cowboy guides joined the gentleman taking turns stirring the tos which again was served to us in bowls that we accepted with our right hand.  It was good too, and I understand the kids are always excited when guests come as there is tos leftover that they can eat.

Vodka Ceremony

Along with the food ceremony, of course, is the vodka ceremony.  How could I have almost forgotten to mention that.  In fact, it was likely the first thing we were offered.  The shot glass was filled, we dipped our right, ring finger in the glass, flicked the alcohol in the air, and then sipped from the glass before returning it to the host who then filled the glass and gave it to the next person to repeat the process.

The Snuff Bottle

The same type process was also followed with his grandfather’s snuff bottle.  The snuff bottle is heavy, carved from precious stone, and is the most prized possession of a Mongolian man after his horse.  Snuff bottles are a sign of well-being for the nomad.  Each of us took the bottle with our right hand, unscrewed the cap, took a whiff, reinserted the cap, and returned it to our host.

Talking and Song

With the ceremonies behind us and the help of Boynaa our translator, we exchanged questions and ultimately sang.  In our exchange, we somehow started showing photos on our phones, and the cowboys were perplexed by Page’s mini horses.  They kept asking about their size and finally said they could carry the horse!  Haha…so true.

cowboys laughing at page's mini horses

Soon our singing interchange began.  The Mongolian cowboys sat on one side of the ger with the host, while we ladies sat on the other.  It was like a seventh-grade dance with the boys and girls separated.  The Mongolians love their music and can sing countless, meaningful songs by heart. 

We, on the other hand, had a tough time singing more than a verse.  Fortunately, Emma, a young Irish lady with a love of music was with us, as she kept us going. But eventually we had to resort to childhood tunes like “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and “Puff the Magic Dragon” just to finish a whole song!  Overall, I really enjoyed the customs and this was one of the highlights of the day to me.

The Nomad Ger

In line with customs, all nomads zigzag a rope back and forth inside the roof of their ger.  This reminds them that there are both good and bad times, and they hope for the good.  Other items that can be found in the ger are two to three cots, an alter with family pictures, and a TV.  Our host had an excellent racing stallion, so all of his medals were hung up as well.

After a few hours, we said our good-byes and left the ger, which felt like a sauna after all the cooking on the wood burning stove. We headed for a picnic beneath the cottonwoods by the river.  Along the way, we passed other nomad families.

Picnic in the Cottonwoods

At the picnic, the Mongolians placed hot rocks from the fire into an urn with goat to cook what is called khorkhog.  When eating the dish, it is customary to pass the hot, greasy rocks from hand to hand in order to bring good health!  Of course, we participated in this ritual too.  After eating the regular pieces of goat, the scapula which is considered the best meat, is presented. 

The oldest person at the dinner must cut the scapula into the correct number of pieces to give one to each person.  The oldest person, Ingrid, couldn’t have been a better choice.  After all, she butchers bears back in the states!  Along with trimming the meat, she had to punch a hole in the bone to release its soul.

By this point, the night was just getting started.  It was Chip and Kate’s delayed honeymoon trip, so they were presented with anniversary gifts during song.  Kate, always kind, and Chip, always joking, make a great couple.  They live in Ohio and somewhat randomly picked Mongolia for their vacation.

Soon, the focus switched to Boynaa and Emma who played the guitar and fiddle, respectively. They alternated between Mongolian and Irish music.  Finally, the dancing started when Nomin translated that Ganbold, one of our cowboys and nomad neighbor, wanted to dance with Ingrid.  What entertainment…another highlight! ETB

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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned travel photographer and blogger.

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