Traveling to Mongolia was not on my radar. The only reason I considered it was because a lot of people I met when I was traveling over holiday – I was an English teacher in China for a year – had just come from traveling in Mongolia and only had amazing things to say.
Everyone said it was the most beautiful place they had ever been and they weren’t wrong.
I wasn’t the old woman that the family who ran the hostel I was staying at expected – simply a girl who had a non-refundable ticket to Helsinki ten days later.
But I finally managed to join up with a group of seven, including myself, our driver, Ulzii and our tour guide and interpreter, Suvdaa. We went out into the countryside of Mongolia soon after.
While our driver, Ulzii, was not fluent in English – he only really knew the words “no” and “drink” – he loved Western music or was amused by it. I couldn’t tell which.
The tape-deck of our Russian monster of a vehicle was carefully loaded with Western hits of that year, from Justin Beiber to Rihanna, as Uzlii barreled through the Mongolian countryside. He alternated with Mongolian ballads from singers like Bolbataar. Suvdaa translated for us that Ulzii liked these trips because his cell service died, which meant he didn’t have to answer to his wife…but he called her whenever he was in range. Myself and another one of my fellow travelers would rock out pretty hard when “Baby” by Justin Beiber came on – it made Ulzii smile.
Mongolia is a sprawling country in the fact that it is one of the least (if not the least) densely populated country in the world. We traveled for hours without seeing a ger – also called a “yurt” (the collapsible homes of nomadic Mongolian families), and commonly when we stopped for lunch on our own there was little habitation dotting the horizon.
When we did stop at the home of a Mongolian family for the night, to take a break to stretch our legs, or, on one occasion, to buy some fermented mare’s milk for our driver, we were always welcomed with food and tea. The food offered upon arrival was often basically cream with hard little biscuits to dip, and salt milk tea. Yes, salt tea. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the tea or the butter, I grinned and bore it as a good guest. These were a major staple of all nomadic families, as they live off of the livestock they raise, which is usually yak, so refusing would have been a massive offense.
As families that are nomadic do not usually have the opportunity to regularly interact with others, when they do get visitors, it is the time to catch up on what is going on in the world. The nomadic families aren’t isolated per se, but are quite happy to revolve around their own family and their livelihood. The focus on family and living off the land was a refreshing change from even the Chinese obsession with modernity.
But even in the far reaches of Mongolia, Western influence isn’t far. When I was resting at a Buddhist monastery up a cliff in the wilds of Mongolia I had a conversation with a ten-year-old boy who was near fluent in English.
What I perhaps enjoyed the most (other than the stars) was those times when we got to know the families we were staying with, and got to see a little bit of their lives. I’ve done everything from play soccer with Mongolian children out in front of a ger, to letting them braid my hair, playing in the sand dunes with them, and helping them herd their animals after catching fish with them.
The gifts that we left with them as a thanks (usually soap and other necessities for the head of household and fun little trinkets for the children – I often gave stickers) were not nearly enough to truly thank them for the time I had with them
I would go back to Mongolia in a heartbeat to stare at the stars of some of the most generous people I have ever met.
About The Author: Amanda King is a writer and lifelong traveler. She has traveled to more than thirty countries in fewer years, and currently lives in Saratoga Springs, NY. She’s saving her pennies for her next travels – she’s thinking Slovenia.