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

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Our First Horse Rides on the Mongolian Steppe

Lapis Sky Ger Camp

Finally, our first day in Lapis Sky Ger Camp! We awoke to see what our ger looked like in daylight.  It included two cots, a sink with a river water dispenser, some shelving and hooks for our clothes, a table and a wood burning stove.  The furniture was quite colorful.  The door as usual faced south to protect from the cold of the winter wind.  The cart-wheeled shaped opening at the top of the ger known as a toon was covered by an örkh which could be opened and closed via ropes from the ground.  We opened ours so we could see given the ger lacked electricity.

Pranayama Yoga

Breakfast wasn’t scheduled until 9:30am as we needed to wait for the yak milk to come from our nomad neighbors.  In the meantime, several activities are offered.  I tried Pranayama for the first time beneath the cottonwood trees by the river.  Two yoga oficionados and me…hmmm.  I crossed my legs and my knees were supposed to touch the ground.  That was a joke! 

I required rolled up yoga matts beneath my  rear cheek bones as well as beneath both knees to simulate resting on the ground.  I don’t know how my counterparts could sit with their feet in their crotch with their knees touching the ground.  Even with practice, I’m not sure I could succeed at that.  Anyway, we practiced a few breathing techniques, which I did backwards.

By the second breathing exercise of the thirty-minute session my left leg was asleep and my hips and back were aching.  Clearly, this was not the exercise for me, but at least I tried it.

After Pranayama, it was time for our photography walk.  Our guide Tom Kelly is a National Geographic photographer which is quite impressive as that is tough position to acquire.  His son Liam, who was born and raised in Katmandu and now attends Prescott College, is quite an accomplished photographer as well. 

Yak Milking

We walked with him to the neighbor nomads where we got to photography Ankha milking the yaks.  The yaks are milked once a day, the goats and sheep twice a day, and the mares four times a day!  Needless to say, the women are very busy in the summer and clearly have the technique down.  I, on the other hand, gave it a try and managed to eek out a few dribbles.  If it depended on me to deliver the yak milk for breakfast, we wouldn’t be eating today!


Eventually, it was breakfast time.  A simple meal of bread, pancakes, oatmeal, and fermented mare’s milk yogurt which was extra sour.  The breakfast was provided in buffet style.  I’m so used to eating eggs and fresh fruit in the morning, that this breakfast of mostly carbs was a bit challenging to me, but it is not an easy feat to get any food to these camps.  Regardless, we filled up our bellies and prepared for our first horse ride and assessment of our journey.  Our group of tourists ranged from never having ridden a horse to professionals, so our experience ran the gamut.

me trying to milk a yak

Mongolian Horses

Mongolian horses are small and compact compared to other breeds.  They have a quick gait and are known to spook.  The Mongol cowboys brought their horses over the hills from different camps for us to ride.  When my handler Jagi led his horse from the hitching post to me to mount, I asked his name.  My horse’s name was Mojo, and it was the only horse of the entire group that had a name as Mongols don’t name their horses.  Instead, they have 56 words for brown!


Feeling special, I wondered how I ended up being assigned the only horse with a name, and I was curious to know how he earned it.  There had to be an iconic story.  Sarah, a staffer from Montana who came to manage the cowboys after being a guest on the trip seven years ago explained, Galen, Tom and Carroll’s younger son, came up with the name because he had a lot of energy.  Somehow, I think there is more to the story than that, but they probably didn’t want to scare me.

me on Mojo
Me on Mojo

Ride Through the Valley of Teel

After everyone mounted their horses which required a staff member or cowboy to stand by the horse so it took a while, we headed away from the camp through the beautiful green Valley of Teel.  We stayed on flat terrain and mostly walked as we familiarized ourselves with the horses and vice versa. 

Getting back on a horse after a twenty-five year hiatus was fun.  Mojo was responsive, though spent most of his time shaking his head and kicking at the atrocious flies.  Fortunately, he didn’t spook ten-feet sideways at a patch of wool resting on the ground like Page’s horse did.  Without “riding legs” which use completely different muscles than any other sport, I may have hit the dirt.  Given Page still rides regularly, she remained seated!

Lunch and Shower

Lunch came next and then a quick shower.  I opted for an afternoon shower while it was sunny and warm as the evening air cools substantially when the sun goes down.  Having said that, I think I will be showering sparingly as the make shift shower house with solar bags filled by heated river was crawling with earwigs.  While bugs don’t bother me much, sitting my bare butt on an earwig or having them drop onto my head didn’t appeal to me.

Second Ride Across the Tamir River

Our second ride took us across the Tamir River next to camp, through the valley, across the river again, and up and down a hill before we returned to camp.  We got to go a little faster.  We trotted a little and a select few galloped up one hill.  At the top of the hill was a deer stone believed to be erected by nomads around 1000 BC.

We also circled an ovoo which seem to be all over the place. I guess it is very important to worship the sky gods so that rain will come and the grass for the herds will grow.

Each of our rides were about two hours across simple terrain.  They will become more demanding each day.  I’m looking forward to more.

Archery at Camp

Upon our return, we tried out our archery skills which were rather lacking! With an off balanced, man-made bow, we drew the arrow back on the outside as the Mongls do since it is quicker to load the arrow this way while on horseback.  The arrows rarely flew straight, but eventually, the few of us that tried our hand, finally hit the target.  Our success rate was about one in ten attempts.

Mongolian Nomads

From archery, we entered the dining ger and met with Badambazar and Doljin, grandparents who once lived as nomads, but now live in town.  We discussed the life of nomad with them.  Nomads tend to move about four times a year in order to feed their herds which rely on the natural grass.  They pack up their ger to move to their summer, spring and fall camps and settle into a more stable structure with their ger for the winter.

Most nomads raise yaks, goats, sheep and horses.  Owning diverse herds of lifestock ensure the nomads won’t suffer a complete misfortune should their animals succumb to a hard winter known as a zud which cause animals to starve to death from the inability to graze.  Today, a nomad is considered successful by the number of animals in their herd.  The benchmark is 1,000.  This, however, is tough on the land on which the animals live, and some believe it might be better to own less, but healthier herds.

Most nomads have several children at a young age.  Badambazar and Doljin had eight!  The kids go to boarding school during the week and come home on the weekend, weather permitting.  Interestingly, the animal herds go to the youngest child rather than the oldest, and the herd is not split up among the children.  As such, the youngest stays a nomad while many of the other children will move to the city in search of better opportunities.  Because men must attend to the herds, women tend to hold the skilled jobs in the city.

Chicken Dinner and Music

We had a nice conversation with them, though I’m sure they sat wondering about our terrible ger etiquette.  Virtually everyone sat with their legs crossed…a no no!  Anyway, it was finally dinner time. and we enjoyed great chicken and pineapple along with several sides.  Little did we know how hard it was to get chicken.  It is too cold in the winters for chicken in Mongolia, so they are imported from China!

After dinner, Liam’s girlfriend, Emma who is Irish, played Irish tunes on the ukulele and sang beautifully.  She even belted out a Britney Spears’ song.  What fun!  Not only is she a talented musician, she was the resident massage therapist for the trip and made a mean muesli.  The Irish really know their muesli.  It was some of my favorite when I visited Ireland.  Overall, we enjoyed a nice day in the countryside.  ETB

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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.

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