Camping on the Mongolian Steppe

Our first night of camping went smoothly.  We awoke and prepared for our next two nights and three days in the wilderness.  After breakfast this morning, we took out on horseback.  When in the wilderness, the horses are either hobbled together or staked to the ground with a 20-yard lead.  Usually two horses are tied to each stake.

12 Mile Ride

As usual, our horseman led our mount already saddled to us to climb up.  Interestingly, the saddle is left on the horse for the rest of the day until the sun sets as they believe the sun hitting a sweaty saddle mark causes soreness in the horses’ backs.  Today, we rode horses for five hours and covered approximately 12 miles.  Along the way, we stopped three times, including at an ovoo amongst fantastic wildflowers, at another ovoo in the high meadow, and in a meadow for a grilled cheese lunch.

While the stops catered to bathroom breaks, snacking, and sipping water, I think the stops also gave the Russian vehicles time to make it up the hills, as they have to stop and add water to radiator after any duress. While we relaxed on our breaks, the cowboys rough housed as it was Ganbold’s 50th birthday!  I’m not sure it is good for Mongolians to know when it is your birthday.  He was wrestled to the ground, harassed, carried around the ovoo and more.  Of course, all in good fun!

Our ride included a lot of fast trot through the high meadow.  I was thankful that Mojo was so small he could canter at the same pace, as the fast trot gait is back breaking.  Eventually, we formed a single file line and walked down through the canyon to an open valley.  Here, we split into groups, and those who wanted to go fast galloped toward camp. 

It’s a hoot to ride these pack animals that like to spook at the strangest things.  We passed by a million rocks, but suddenly Mojo seemed to think one was going to jump out at him.  Fortunately, for me, he pauses briefly or slides just slightly to the side until he familiarizes himself with the terrain as opposed to darting abruptly.

Setting Up Camp

Upon arriving at camp, we set up our tent more successfully this time, though the boys still provided help.  This time, we pretended to like everyone and found a spot closer to the action.  Just kidding.  We had a great group and conveniently found a closer site.  Soon after we settled near a nomad camp, we were provided the opportunity to see how a lamb is slaughtered in the bush.

Butchering a Sheep

While I felt sad that this animal was dying for our dinner, the Mongolians butcher the animals quickly, carefully, and I suspect as pain free as possible as the lamb didn’t even bleat when Boroo cut open its chest to severe the aorta with his hand.  The Mongolians use all parts of the animal, including the blood.  Severing the aorta kept all the blood in the chest, and none flowed onto the ground.  Slowly he skinned the animal, and then butchered the pieces as necessary.

butchering a sheep

So I claimed Boroo butchered the sheep, but honestly I am terrible at telling apart the cowboys.  I knew my handler, Jagi, but to me Moogi, also barely in his twenties and maybe even a teenager, looked similar Jagi.  I think Boroo and Aruinbayar possessed similar characteristics too, but what do I know.  

Anyway, I never saw the spelling of their names so I had a hard time just pronouncing them, much less knowing who was who until we got a list of their names at the end of the trip.  The other cowboys were Nema and Ganbold.  In an effort to not misname them any further, I’m going to continue with the term “the cowboys”.

Admittedly, watching the sheep slaughter was tough, and I didn’t digitally record much of it.  Though I will say it made me think twice about the food I eat.  We, in America, are so far removed from the food chain.  The thought was fleeting, however, as being a vegetarian would be quite challenging to me and lamb might be my favorite meal.

Fishing in Mongolia

The rest of the evening included fishing, dinner, and a soccer match by the moonlight.  I reveled in my good fortune at fishing.  While I tossed back a couple of small grayling, I caught three healthy lenok.  They were all 17+ inches and a good addition to our dinner!

fishing in mongolia

Soccer Match by Moonligiht

The soccer match amongst the cowboys, interns, Galen, Liam, and a few guests (me and Chip) was a “play at your own risk” type match.  Liam and Galen were both spectacular players who sped past everyone in their bare feet while juggling the ball.  The cowboys played a more Kamakazi style, while the rest of us tried to get a touch in here or there. 

We marked off small goals with posts.  The out of bounds was the river on one side and the trucks on the other.  I quit when the score was 3-3, and we could hardly see the ball in the darkness.  At that point, it was last goal wins.  I don’t know which team was triumphant, but it was a fun night!

Hike to Mandal Mountain

After another peaceful night in the steppe, we spent the morning hiking to the sacred Mandal Mountain.  We first followed the tire tracked, grooved road which is on the map and then turned right up the mountain slope.  We hiked past a few wildflowers and scrambled on some scree before we finally reached the peak with another ovoo and spectacular view.  This ovoo was far more elaborate than the others we have seen.  It was more like a shrine that both Buddhists and Shamanists use to worship their ancestors with an extensive ritual.

Ritual Around the Ovoo

We repeated the ritual upon our visit.  First offerings such as candies, objects, or bottles of vodka are placed at the altar.  We provided Twix and cookies before kneeling down and bowing three times.  Next, we walked around the ovoo clockwise while flicking mare’s milk in each direction beginning at the North.  Then we circled the ovoo while tossing vodka each direction.  Finally we made our third lap around the ovoo before tying prayer flags to the ovoo’s sticks.  While the ritual honors the ancestors, the prayer flag honors all beings.

The ovoo is very sacred to the Mongolians, so when Carroll said bottles of vodka are offered and no bottles where in the shrine, I wondered aloud, “Who takes them?”  While the question wasn’t appreciated, it was legitimate.  Religious or not, I wouldn’t go into a shrine and take something for fear of bad karma.  There weren’t any bottles there, nor were they broken, so I wondered what happened to them. 

In addition, the interns Parker and Rose offered a painted horse skull last year at the altar, and it was replaced with other items, including a burned goat’s head. So my question remained unanswered.  I have found that the traditions and rituals are very important among the Mongols.  At the same time, there are not hundreds of people passing through the vast steppe.  As a result, I wondered who would mess with the offerings.

Since I was the first one up to the ovoo and on the summit for an hour before the last guest finished with the ritual, I started down.  Page followed, as we zig-zagged across the steep mountainside.  Upon our arrival back to camp, we were pleasantly surprised to find bacon with lunch.  This was a treat!  I added it into the pasta with pesto, and it was delicious!!

view of camp from the base of the mountain
view of camp from the base of the mountain

Fly Fishing in Mongolia

While most guests enjoyed the nice weather with a relaxing afternoon off, Galen, Boynaa and Turoo took Chip and me fishing at another river about a 45 minute drive away.  The rocks were moss covered so the water color looked totally different from the other rivers we have fished.  I think my first five casts caught five baby grayling with the biggest one being eight inches!  While it is fun to catch fish, catching babies was getting a little aggravating, so I moved.

River in Mongolia

I found another hole around the bend with a glassy surface by a rock cliff and the fish kept biting.  I had my eye on a big guy resting below. I’d cast my dry fly and nymph just above him.  As soon as I’d enticed him just enough to jiggle toward the surface, another fish would dart from the shore and hit my fly with a vengeance.  Ah, I snagged fish after fish, while sometimes trying to yank my fly out of reach, so I didn’t have unhook another 14 incher throwback!  The graylings were all smaller than the lenok I caught yesterday. The big one, however, got away.  He never humored me with a strike.

While I was having great luck fishing, the boys did even better.  After Chip lost the tip of his own rod, he used a regular fly rod for one of the few times in his life and enlisted a very unconventional yet successful way of fly fishing.  He tossed the fly in the middle of the heavy rapids and yanked it up to the surface.  This jig (which I know is common with lures) would attract the lenok from the depths of the river to the surface in a second.   I was quite impressed. 

I’ve never learned to fish in that manner, though I have never “nymphed” so perhaps this technique is something common among fly fishermen.  Even more impressive, however, was Boynaa who landed a 19 inch lenok on a broken rod.  Two rods accidentally got closed into the car door which snapped seven inches off the top. 

At the end of our two-hour fishing expedition, we had probably hooked nearly 100 fish, though only kept a dozen.  It was quite the experience!  How many people can say they went fishing with the former Mayor of Bulgan, Mongolia?  Yes, that’s right, Toroo was once the mayor of the small town closest to our ger camp!

Another Celebration!

While we were off fishing, the cowboys were showing off some of their skills which included playing polo and a jumping competition.  It’s all about the horse in Mongolia! That would have been fun to see. Anyway, we got back in time for a mutton BBQ and vodka ceremony for Brigitte’s 65th birthday. 

She was honored with a sweat scraper and hat before we circled around a giant bonfire and sang campfire tunes.  Emma led the way with a few Irish songs.  Then Boynaa sang a few Mongolian songs.  Eventually, Emma played us some American tunes, before many of the Mongols stood to sing.

As much as I wanted to stay for the entire time, the wind really picked up, making the night chilly beneath the full moon.  I huddled under a dell for a while, but soon I succumbed to the cold and turned in for the night.  Camping under a full moon was certainly a treat. The moon was magnificent, though it did somewhat interfere with star-gazing.  Tonight, however, at least I spotted the big dipper.

21 Miles Back to Lapis Sky Ger Camp

We awoke on the final day of our journey and were blessed to see two demoiselle cranes which mate for life dancing around the meadow flirting. They weren’t too far from the horses tied off in the field, so I visited Mojo briefly as I ventured closer for a better photo.

After breakfast, we prepared to ride the 21 miles we had covered over two days in four hours back to our ger camp.  The trek was broken into three segments so people with less experience riding or those that tired could opt out at certain stages.  Four folks opted out at the beginning, but the rest of us cantered out of the valley and trotted through the canyon which was rocky to our left and forested to our right.  We exited the canyon into the high meadow where we again stopped at the ovoo.  Here we enjoyed a cheese sandwich before we mounted for the next segment.

Everyone who completed the first stage, also rode this section. We trotted across most of the segment due to the uneven terrain.  Oh how I wished we could have cantered!  My stirrups were slightly too long to post up and down, but even if I’d had the opportunity, I’m not sure I could have kept up with the speed of the gait!  It was rather impossible.  I was looking forward our final leg.

Soon we ended down in the meadow, where only one additional rider bowed out and joined the get-away vehicle.  The horses whose riders traveled in the van were set free to run with us or were led by a cowboy.  Without a job, they had a tendency to kick, especially the ones on the line.  We were careful to avoid them, but one of the cantankerous fellows not on the line stopped and swerved his butt in toward Mojo to take a swipe.  Perhaps, Mojo should stop pinning his ears at all the horses!

free horse on the mongolian steppe

Anyway, the rest of us remained mounted.  Most of this section was along flatter terrain, so we got to canter.  Mojo has a lovely canter, and being such a small horse, even when the pack slowed to the painful trot as we neared herds of goats and yaks as well as nomads’ gers with their dog, most the time I could keep Mojo in a beautiful, cantering rhythm. 

Even Carroll commented on how nice we looked as a pair.  The slow canter also kept Mojo at the front of the pack, which is where he liked to be as he perked his ears forward in happiness.  As soon as a horse challenged him at his rear, however, he pinned his ears back until his forward position was guaranteed.

We dropped to a slower pace for a short rest when a light shower fell from the overcast sky.  Soon the shower increased to a heavy, cold drizzle which cooled and dampened our rain-jacket free torsos.  Fortunately, our lead cowboy picked up the pace again, so we cantered through meadow until we cleared the rain cloud and slowed to a walk to cross a ditch.  With little warning, we were instructed that we could gallop as fast as we wanted up the hill in front of us.  The horses knew this, and as soon as we crossed the ditch, they kicked into high gear.

I quickly pressed my heals down, only to have my stirrup, slick from the rain, shoot forward.  Now I was galloping with one leg in the stirrup and the other gripping the side of Mojo as tightly as possible while flicking my foot around trying to catch the flailing stirrup.  Back in my horse riding days, being without stirrups would not have bothered me as this was a common requirement in our lessons.  On the steppe, in a gallop on an unfamiliar breed of horse that tends spook at the slightest things, I just hoped that Mojo would continue straight and remain at his smooth, yet fast pace.  If he jumped sideways, I would have likely been on the ground!

By the time I caught the stirrup on my foot and was ready to encourage Mojo onward, we were about to reach the narrowing, steep section of the hill where the horses tuckered out, so our gallop time was over.  The top of the crest provided a magnificent view of the misty valley.  As we slowly descended toward camp, a herd of horses commanded by a roan stallion came charging toward us.  We shooed them off to the side, and they continued into the valley where they visited Ganbold’s ger.  Ganbold’s protective stallion, was nicer than expected, but he protected his herd as he directed the free roaming bunch toward our ger camp.  Soon they were wandering through our camp just as goats and yaks had in previous days.

wild horses on the mongolian steppe

The Storm

We had a great ride with the horses and no sooner did we dismount than the rain came again.  First in light sprinkles, but by the time we made it to the ger, a storm whipped up.  Our örkh that covered the top of the ger came untied and flipped around in the gusty wind.  It caught the chimney to our stove which was lifted in the air and then came crashing down inside. 

Beth and Page

Carroll’s ger had water flowing through the bottom of it while the supporting posts in Diane’s and Kim’s ger came tumbling down.  Stephanie and Brigitte lost the örkh completely!  The poor boys, donned in raincoats with water dripping from the brims, were racing from ger to ger checking to see if we were OK.  It was quite a storm that left just as fast as it came, so we were only trapped inside for an hour.

The Shaman

Once the chaos dissipated, it was nap time for me.  Sleep is limited while camping, and I needed to catch up.  We had a few hours before we were to meet a shaman.  Page came in and asked,  “Would you like to be woken?”  In my groggy state, I thought I had only slept thirty minutes and responded, “No.”  As such, she dutifully left.

Little did I know it was 7pm and the shaman was here!  Oh well, I missed the ceremony.  From what I understand, the young, college aged man who is the brother of a staff member at camp pursued Shamanism as thirteen-year old boy when he was diagnosed with a life-threatening condition which required a heart transplant.  He seeked advice of a shaman who told him he was sick because his ancestors were calling him.  He needed to become a Shaman to communicate with his ancestors.  As such, he studied to be a Shaman, is no longer sick, and now heals others.

He performed a ceremony where he dressed in his robe.  He went into trance after the drums were banged, and he stayed in trance to speak with the ancestors.  When he came out of his trance, he didn’t remember anything.  Questions and answers came after the ceremony.  The guests seemed to enjoy the interaction.  I joined in at the very end after wandering around down by the river, just before our 9pm dinner.  What a nice camping trip on the Mongolian Steppe!  ETB

The river at Lapis Sky Ger Camp in Mongolia

Other Articles About the Mongolian Steppe That You Might Like


Check out the photographic note cards and key chains at my shop.  Each card has a travel story associated with it.  20% of proceeds are donated to charity.

photographic note card, cowboy boots on fence
Best Adventure Travel Blog

Visiting the Nomads on the Mongolian Steppes

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.


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.


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


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

Other Articles About the Mongolian Steppe That You May Like


Check out the photographic note cards and key chains at my shop.  Each card has a travel story associated with it.  20% of proceeds are donated to charity.

photographic note card, Blue Columbine
Best Adventure Travel Blog