Staying with a Nomadic Mongolian Family
Helen and Bob Conway are avid photographers and keen travellers who love nothing more than getting to know the people of the country through which they are travelling. On one such journey they stayed with a nomadic family in one of the harder to reach areas of the Gobi region of Mongolia. This is their story...
Journeying to Odnoo’s was every bit as wondrous as being there. Our adventure began in our living room at home as we watched Kate Humble’s BBC video, “Living with Nomads”, featuring Odnoo and arranged by Panoramic Journeys. We watched in excited anticipation, allowing ourselves to be slightly daunted: “Will it work so well for us, given that we’re not farmers with first hand experience of riding horses, milking animals and castrating young goats!” The anticipation escalated in Mongolia, with the musings of our exceptionally experienced driver, Lkhagvaa, as he expressed some doubts regarding the likelihood of ever finding Odnoo’s remotely placed family on the edge of the Gobi desert. It was to be our first experience of staying with a family in Mongolia and we were in for a very special encounter.
The latter stages of our journey through the Gobi desert to Odnoo’s nomadic home took us through deep gorges that narrowed to little more than the width of our vehicle. We crossed rivers and negotiated lengths of river beds as we climbed into mountains, to a height of 2300m, above which more mountains folded towards the blue sky.
Our guide and driver had arranged for a member of Odnoo’s family to meet us at a local landmark and escort us to their summer camp. It would have been a navigational feat beyond the wit of most to have found the camp without this help. It was one of those journeys that leaves you with a dilemma. You cannot wait to arrive but, equally, cannot help your disappointment that the journey has to end.
The family’s summer camp was in a wide, open valley surrounded by mountains, including one which was sacred to local people and therefore off limits to curious hill trekkers. To say that we were on the edge of the Gobi Desert at the end of summer it was remarkably green and, given the altitude, gloriously warm by day though chilly at night. It was a land occupied by herders and their livestock, but it was also a wilderness, home to eagles, wolves and, as we were to learn from our hosts, snow leopards.
The two ‘gers’ belonging to Odnoo’s immediate family were positioned in the valley close to those of extended family members who regularly appeared during our stay to share Mongolian tea, help with the management of the many animals and meet the ‘visitors’! At times the valley became a sea of animals as horses, cows, goats and sheep arrived back from their pastures for milking. The yaks, at this time, were further afield.
If the position was perfect then our welcome was even better. Odnoo and her family were warm and intuitive hosts. You might have thought that the demands of this many animals in such a challenging environment could mean that the arrival of visitors would be an unhelpful distraction. This never seemed to be the case. Living spaces, including beds, were given up for us, even, I am ashamed to say, by Odnoo’s eighty plus year old mother, Chimid. Food and drink were shared and we were encouraged to involve ourselves with daily tasks, helping where we could and simply watching when our skills proved lacking! Even the pet goat, Tsendee, took time to acknowledge our presence, taking a particular interest in our tripods and camera bags.
The many daily tasks carried out by all members of the family, including the young children, were dominated by the animals and the products which could be created from their yields. It was essential, during this time of plenty, to make preparations for the leaner winter months ahead. All the livestock capable of producing were milked and it was fascinating to watch the methods used for separating the young animals from the older, and the males of the species from the females, to arrive at a collection able to deliver the rich and surprisingly versatile milk.
The milk was then transformed into an amazing range of foodstuffs. Mare’s milk was turned into Airag, a delicious drink not dissimilar to thin, mildly alcoholic yogurt, which was left to slowly ferment in a bag handcrafted from animal skin. Low alcohol liquor was distilled in a huge vat to produce ‘Mongolian Vodka’ and the remaining milk was used to create butters, rich creams, cheeses and curds. Some of these were stored in animal stomachs, some were soft in texture and others so hard they challenged even the strongest tooth enamel! We were invited to taste and to try our hand at the preparation of some of these delicacies. We know from the amused smiles that it was not lost on our friendly hosts that many of these flavours and smells were very new and somewhat strange to us, particularly at the first attempt! But if they were willing to share then we were definitely willing to try!
And then, just as the strangeness was becoming familiar, it was time to leave. It is not always easy to connect across the gulf created by different language and culture and it is a real privilege to be given the opportunity to form a small part of such a bridge. But it couldn’t happen at all without a special kind of people who open their hearts as widely as they do the doors of their gers. Odnoo and her family are such people. Looking back we feel such a warm connection with this family and their home in the high Gobi, that it is difficult to believe we were only there for a brief passage of time.
If you are reading this and are fortunate enough to be considering a similar visit then I urge you to give the idea time to grow and become real. If you make it, take our warmest regards to Odnoo and her generous family and, if you get the chance, take a hike up the hill opposite their camp. From the top you can see for miles, a landscape you will carry with you in your hearts along with the family’s smiles.
Do you fancy experiencing some wonderful nomadic hospitality? Then get in touch now and we will create an extraordinary Mongolian adventure for you too.