Mongolia has a rising population of almost 2.8 million people, 1.1 million of which live in the city’s capital Ulaanbaatar. A beautiful city surrounded by mountains that remind you with their imposing magnificence of where you are in the world. Despite its remoteness, Ulaanbaatar has become a humming and fashionable city with a rather surprising number of shopping centres, excellent restaurants and tasty bakeries.
Coming from China you can really feel the influence of Russian and European culture on this city and its people. Those who live in the city itself take residence mostly in units, highrises and houses. Outside this metropolis however, lies rolling hills, deep valleys, hairy yaks and the very distinctive Ger huts.
A “Ger”, also known as a “Yurt” is a traditional round hut-style home of the Mongolian people. As we were arriving into the city of Ulaanbaatar on the Trans-Mongolian train we were able to see them for the first time. Some of the villages we passed were made up entirely of this style of home, while other villages were a combination of houses and Gers. Sometimes both houses and Gers would be present on the same land inside their wooden-fenced boundaries. Some Mongolian families live as nomads, outside the confines of a village and they live virtually self-sufficiently in Ger’s.
During our five day stay in Mongolia, we stayed at a Ger camp for three days in the Mongolian countryside about an hour and a half outside of the city. That doesn’t sound like far to go but once you are in this sweeping land you will feel like you are on another planet entirely.
Despite it being September, and technically only just coming into Autumn, the Autumn colours (a fascinating and almost foreign concept to people who grew up in the tropics) were well under way. Many trees were painted delicious shades of golden yellow, burnt orange and reds in a rich hue I almost can’t describe. Night temperatures would drop to around four degrees celsius. Which doesn’t sound too bad (especially not now it’s almost December and we are in England) but for us it was a new experience.
Being a creature of western-habit, I had one thought on first glimpse of these relatively small round white homes which was “Where’s the loo?”
I had flashbacks of camping in the bush Aussie-style, and the squat-toilets of Asia which made me shiver. The idea of waking up in the middle of the night with the urge to be relieved and having my only option be entering the chilly night to drop daks on the nearest patch of grass was completely terrifying. I needn’t have worried.
Nestled at the bottom of an alcove of mountains in the area of Bumbat, around 65 kilometres from Ulaanbaatar, we drove about 100 metres up a dirt road toward a larger main building beside approximately thirty Ger hut’s lined up in neat little rows. There were a number of similar camps along the way, and more further out. All the camps we passed were made up with different quantities of huts. Our Ger had two cosy beds with lots of blankets set on either side of the room.
Most of the Ger’s had pipes protruding from their roofs which were the chimneys for fires contained within the centre. By some twist of fate, ours no longer had a fire, but was centrally heated through the floors and was temperature controlled. At first we were disappointed, but it turned out to be quite nice – where some other camp goers would find their fire to have dwindled in the mornings, leaving their hut quite cold, ours was a toasty 27 degrees. Whichever hut you end up with, it is sure to be fun.
In the middle of all of this was the blessed amenities block. Perfectly lovely warm showers and flushing western toilets. To be honest the quality was pleasantly surprising. Clean and modern. Reminded me very much of the caravan parks back home, the whole experience reminded me of camping in cabins and bunk beds with school. Actually the amenities block was better than MANY caravan parks I have stayed in throughout Australia. I was delighted to not have to my fears realised.
To the far right there was a restaurant built of beautiful timber, decorated with wooden carvings and furnished with lovely long timber benches and seats. The restaurant provided breakfast complimentary each morning, lunch and dinner were available also for a reasonable price. The breakfast was a buffet of toast with delicious jam, pikelets (mini-pancakes), tea, coffee, sausages and egg. Lunch and dinner were traditional Mongolian three course meals of a salad, soup and a main. There was a choice between two dishes for each course, one of which was always more traditional than the other, all delicious in their own ways.
Mongolian meals consist mostly of meats and vegetables, and can be described as hearty. The taste is unique, although not particularly flavourful as they do not include many herbs or spices in the dishes. They are not something that will please everyone, however they are well suited to the chilly crisp surrounds, can be surprisingly tasty and go well with a glass of wine or Mongolian lager.
Many camps, such as ours, provide activities such as dressing up in traditional clothes, archery and for $12USD/h can organise horse riding. Our camp also had an art gallery displaying local art, and pergolas in which you could enjoy an afternoon beer in gentle sunshine with a view of the scenery so magnificent that made you pinch yourself just to check it was real.
If you have a little energy to burn, hike up a surrounding mountain for sunset. It might be a twenty to thirty minute trek, but as you’ll see…the views are spectacular and so very worth it.
Not all Ger camp’s will have the same amenities or experiences. Some that were pointed out to us during our trip offer a much more traditional experience where there aren’t any restaurants to dine in, nor cleanly amenity blocks. We stayed with “Guru Camp” as part of our adventure with “Vodka train – the Trans Mongolian Rail”. Overall, if you are visiting the unique and magnificent Mongolia, your trip is not complete without a stay at one of these Ger camps. Mongolia is a place we will definitely be back to.
Eat. Seek. Travel.
Words by: Ali
Photography by: Justin