Kögno Kahn National Park, Mongolia – Saturday 22nd to Tuesday 25th July
We had decided to become nomads for the weekend. Indeed, it would have been remiss of us to miss out on such an essential aspect of Mongolian life. In a modernising Mongolia, around a third of Mongols still live a more or less traditional nomadic way of life.
Modern traditional nomads
Our first challenge was getting from Ulaanbaatar to Kögno Kahn to meet our nomadic family hosts, four hours’ drive away. We had decided to get the public bus, for £4 each, rather than paying through the nose for a private driver. Besides, if it’s good enough for regular folk, it’s good enough for us. Thankfully, Chambaa (our driver from the previous week) had come to the rescue, helping us buy our tickets and find our bus.
Typically, for Mongolia, the village we were to alight at had three names: one on the ticket, one that people actually used, and yet another on Google Maps; none of which we were able to pronounce! Thankfully, our hosts had given us instructions to have the driver call them en route to make sure they were there to meet us. Can’t see that happening on the National Express from London to Manchester!
We were met by Piari Gentes and his ‘mom’, Battsagan, who drove us in an ageing little two wheel drive hatchback along bumpy dirt roads the 20 miles on to their ger camp (frequently grounding the vehicle along the way!).
First things first, there is a distinct difference between a tourist ger camp in Mongolia, and a proper Mongol ger camp. The former might have twenty gers, showers, flushing toilets, a restaurant or a bar; the latter does not. And we were in the latter.
Our ger was the one on the left
And yet our hosts’ summer ger camp was large by mongolian standards – with four gers. One for the family, one for the grandparents, and two others for extended family/guests/tourists. Water was from three hundred-gallon barrels, and the toilet was a squat long drop, dug 30m from the camp.
This is exactly what we had come to Mongolia for.
Gers from above
To say it was beautiful doesn’t even begin to describe it. The camp was set on the semi-arid steppe, with migrating dunes to the south; rocky mountains to the north; and scramble-able granite protuberances to the east.
Have goat will climb
We were greeted with salty milk tea, and sat in the family ger chatting to and through Piari as we tried to figure out what we were going to be doing for the next few days. Over the course of the afternoon we met our host family: Piari’s ‘mom’ and ‘dad’, Battsagan and Idertsogt, the grandparents, the three little kids visiting from the city, and the 18 year old twins, Saikhnaa and Buuvei – cousins who spent each summer working and learning the nomadic way of life.
Our Mongolian family
Piari was who contacted us and invited us to join them in the first place. A Canadian Inuit-Québécois, at just twenty years old, this was his seventh visit to Mongolia; and over the past three years he was averaging close to six months a year in the country. He had caught the travel bug after winning a place on an international expedition to the Antarctic aged seventeen. Then, at eighteen, he first came to Mongolia to meet the Mongols, from whom the Inuit are descended.
After staying with his family for just two nights on a Mongolian tour, he re-contacted them to ask if he could stay for another two weeks. Since then he has spent more and more time with them; becoming a part of the family. His ‘mom’ calls him her second son.
Like us, Piari had become frustrated with the tour agency racket in Mongolia. Typically, agencies will charge tourists £70 to £100 per person per day for a tour into Mongolia. The drivers they use, and families that they visit along the way, however, receive only a very small payment, while the agencies make a big profit.
Tourism is vital to the family income
In much the same way as we had found our drivers, Piari had contacted us through Facebook, to invite us to stay; paying the family directly. This way they would be able to earn more, while we would still be paying considerably less. Our accommodation, and all meals, cost just £15 per night each, with horse rides costing £5 to £7 per hour. All in all, including all of our transport, food, accommodation, and horse riding, our four days with the family cost us less than £160. If we had done a similar thing through an agency, we would have been looking at a bill of over £600!
Big Phil or small horse?
We spent our days hiking up to the granite rocks, horse riding in the sand dunes, and eating surprisingly nice Mongolian meals, prepared by Piari’s ‘mom’. Well, Phil did. Unfortunately, Hannah had picked up some kind of stomach bug that left her somewhat incapacitated for a couple of days.
Rock climbing with a canine friend
We were determined, however, to take a horseback trek together up to the Erden Khamba Buddhist Monastery. So, just as the tide turned in Hannah’s illness, and in the cooler evening air, we mounted our trusty little steeds, and set to it. Hannah’s riding lesson: get on the horse.
Trekking to the monastery
We rode out to the monastery as the sun was coming down, with moody skies all around. After an hour we had arrived, and tied up our horses to explore. Well, Hannah explored while Phil played with the drone. Each to their own, as they say.
Readying our horses for the ride back we saw the first flashes of lightening in the distant sky. The wind picked up around us, and the pendulous clouds put forth torrential rain everywhere but exactly where we were. Astonishingly, this held all the way home. Dark, violent skies accompanied our evening trek back to the camp with the most dramatic lightening show either of us had seen in a long time.
Lightening lit skies
As we took ourselves to bed that evening the ferocious wind was whipping dust and grit through the air; noisily pushing and probing the walls and roof of our ger. Despite this, the night sky was totally clear above us; the Milky Way gloriously present overhead.
As a testament to how durable the traditional homes of the nomads are, all the gers survived the night unscathed. Unfortunately, the toilet did not fare quite so well. Piari said it might be a couple of days before they had the right fittings to fix it; so for our last day in the countryside our business was relegated to the bushes!
Too soon, our time with the nomads drew to a close. After lengthy goodbyes, we got a lift back to the village, then caught the bus back to UB.
Eagle or Falcon? Answers in the comments, below
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia – Tuesday 25th to Saturday 29th July
We had just a few days left in Mongolia before catching the train on to Beijing, China. Having achieved more than we had expected already in Mongolia, the remainder of the week we spent working, writing, eating, and researching our next country.
We met with Piari again for an Indian lunch at Namaste (butter chicken is his favourite!); checked out the craft-brews and eats at Hops & Rocks (the Pulled Pork Sammy was as good as any in America!); and hunted for supplies.
Happy Phil with his Pulled Pork Sammy and a proper beer
We both feel incredibly lucky to have been able to see the Mongolia that we have discovered. And we leave Mongolia with new memories, new friends, and a renewed love of venturing into the unknown.
Next week we’re in China!
Hannah and Phil x