7 Unforgettable Days With Mongolian Nomads

Adventure, Khangain Nuruu National Park, Mongolia, Nomads, asia, photography, tips, travel

“The poor foreigner,’ he said, ‘has been acquainted with our grasslands but for four short days.’
‘We must pity him,’ said the old man with feeling.
‘How hard it must be,’ commented the woman, ‘not to be born a Mongolian.’
‘To be sure,’ said the old man, ‘the fellow is most unfortunate. But how blessed he is to have found his way to us!”

~ from the The Cave of the Yellow Dog

Day 1 (Oct. 2006): Shocking The Khans

This is as far off the grid as I’ve ever been. I’m in a yurt or ger deep inside Mongolia’s Khangain Nuruu National Park. My hosts, a nomadic herding family, chomp on pine nuts while watching me write these words in my journal.

Khangain Nuruu National Park, Mongolia, Nomads, asia, photography, tips, travel
In Mongolia, there are 13 times more horses and 35 times more sheep than people.

My Lonely Planet said, “Hospitality is an old custom on the steppes; visitors are invited in without question on arrival at a distant ger.” I wanted to put the blue book’s prophecy to the test. So I hired a driver to not only drop me off in the middle of the park but to help me find a place to stay.

When we arrived, we pulled up to the first yurt we saw. There were some people working outside. They stopped and stared at us like a scene out of E.T., only I didn’t want to phone home, I wanted to live in their home. I thought about breaking the ice with a, “Nok-hoi kho-ri-o!” or ‘Please hold the dogs!’ That’s what my guidebook says you’re supposed to say.

Instead, I stood there uncomfortably and let my driver and his wife fix everything. It’s customary to offer 5,000 Togrog (about $4 per night) in return for a place to sleep and two meals a day – mutton – which is what I did. I also brought gifts like chocolate and canned goods.

Adventure, Khangain Nuruu National Park, Mongolia, Nomads, asia, cooking, food, ger, photography, tips, tradition, travel, woman, yurt
My host, Echinaro, prepares our meal on a wood stove in the middle of the yurt.

To my surprise, it worked just like the book said. I’ve never put myself out there like this before. This isn’t an organized tour. It’s just me, my camera, and a thrilling Nat Geo dream unfolding before me.

Day 2: Zen Struggles

I found out my host’s name is Chinggis, that’s the Mongolian name for Genghis. I’m in a yurt in Mongolia with Genghis Khan!! His wife’s name is Ehchinaro. They don’t speak a single word of English.

My phrasebook saved us though. I pointed my finger under, “Are your animals fattening up nicely?” Chinggis replied with a broad smile, “Tavtai saikhan!” or “Fattening nicely!” We became friends after that.

Adventure, Khangain Nuruu National Park, Mongolia, Nomads, asia, candle, ger, photography, read, tips, travel, yurt
Chinggis reads my phrasebook by candlelight. The literacy rate in Mongolia is around 98%.

It really hit me today that I’m the freak show. They watch me when I put cream on my face. They laugh at how many layers of clothes I wear to bed – it drops below zero at night. They fiddle with my electronic gadgets as if they’ve never seen a camera or headlamp.

I thought the big thrill would be to experience an exotic way of life, yet I can’t help but feel like my lifestyle is the odd one. Am I any happier living in an apartment in the city than they are moving from prairie to prairie in a yurt?

Adventure, Khangain Nuruu National Park, Mongolia, Nomads, asia, construction, ger, photography, tips, travel, yurt
Yurts have been around for at least 3,000 years in Central Asia. Today, around 30% of the population is nomadic or semi-nomadic.

Earlier today I hiked up to Tovkhon Khiid monastery.  It’s where Zanabazar (1635-1723) lived, worked, and meditated for 30 years. He was the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism for the Mongols. Now he’s sort of the patron saint of Mongolia.

I found his meditation cave, walked in, closed my eyes, and sat in the lotus position. I tried to channel Zanabazar for some deep insight, a profound sense of peace, an answer.

Adventure, Khangain Nuruu National Park, Mongolia, Nomads, Tovkhon Khiid, asia, hermitage, photography, tips, travel
Tuvkehn Monsastery, founded in 1653 by Zanabazar, is a sacred sanctuary for contemplation and meditation.

Instead, I thought how insane I was to be sitting alone in a cold cave at the end of the earth. I tried to acknowledge my thoughts and focus on my breathing like the gurus say. It didn’t work. I walked away in funk, convinced nirvana was overrated.

Just then a monk I met earlier called out my name. He invited me to eat with him and the two other monks. Once inside, to my surprise, they offered me a steaming bowl of porridge that put a smile on my face.

Day 3: Sublime Synchronicity 

Yurts take about 2 hours to set up or take down.

I moved with nomads! It was epic. Neighbors stopped by to help take down the yurt. Chinggis’ parents stopped by too. I think after today we’ve all grown a little closer. There is something about moving someone’s home as a team that creates a deep sense of community.

Working towards a common goal also pushed us to bridge the communication divide. Facial expressions, sign language, and laughter helped us to understand each other. I feel like part of the family now. Sadly, I think I’m going to leave tomorrow.

Traditionally, Mongolian nomads move about three or four times per year.

Day 4: A Charming Life

I asked Chinggis to take me to the next town about 30 miles away. He agreed but either didn’t want me to go or didn’t understand what I said. So here I am, night number four.

Adventure, Khangain Nuruu National Park, Mongolia, Nomads, animal, asia, farm, milk, photography, tips, travel, woman
The average monthly salary in Mongolia is $150.

Honestly though, I’m glad I didn’t leave. We helped a neighbor move and his ger. Then we built a fence to hold his livestock in. In the afternoon, Chinggis and I cut a huge log with a two person saw. After that I chopped wood. For dinner we had buuz or meat dumplings which I helped cook.

Adventure, Khangain Nuruu National Park, Mongolia, Nomads, asia, cooking, food, ger, photography, tips, tradition, travel, woman, yurt
Mongolian cuisine is heavy on meat and dairy and light on vegetables. The most popular dish is buuz, a meat-filled dumpling.

I try not to offend anyone while I’m here. My guidebook says not to step on the threshold when you enter a yurt. Move around the stove in a clockwise direction once inside. Also, men sit to the right (west) and women to the left (east). And don’t stick your legs out if you sit on the floor.

Adventure, Khangain Nuruu National Park, Mongolia, Nomads, asia, construction, ger, photography, tips, travel, yurt
The lattice wall of yurts are made from flexible wood like birch, poplar or willow.

Chinggis’ parents live next to us. They’re always around and help out, be it chopping wood, watching the kids, or cooking. We drink suutei tsai, milk tea with herbs, about 15 times a day. It’s getting quite cold now so work happens in spurts. Downtime is spent in the ger sipping tea, eating snacks, or smoking a cigarettes.

Adventure, Khangain Nuruu National Park, Mongolia, Nomads, asia, photography, sewing, tips, travel, woman
Chinggis’ mother fixes a tear in the yurt’s tent wall.

Life seems complete here, broken down to its most basic elements: love, friendship, interdependence, survival. Gone are any 21st century distractions. It’s as if I’ve slipped through a hole into the past.

Day 5: A Romantic Hoax

Any notion of nomad life being some sort of glorious existence has disappeared. This is real. This is tough. I’m totally out of my element and it’s starting to take a toll on me. I keep telling myself, “If they can survive here then so can I.” My upset stomach tells me otherwise though.

Smoking a cigarette in yurt
The official language in Mongolia is Mongolian. 95% of the population speaks it.

The meat sits out in the open air. There’s no refrigerator or electricity to run it anyways. When Echinaro sweeps it kicks up dust into the food. Outside the door are piles of manure. We are living in the middle of a pasture after all. Also, there’s no running water. Echinaro gets it by scooping up snow behind the yurt and then boiling it. My hosts are amazing but life on the prairie isn’t for me.

Day 6: Stay or Go?

Chinggis asked for my phrasebook. He kept pointing to the words “spring” and “home”. I realized he was inviting me to stay until the spring! I said I was off to Korea to teach English in a few weeks. The thought did cross my mind to stay, however briefly.

Adventure, Khangain Nuruu National Park, Mongolia, Nomads, asia, babies, ger, mother, photography, tips, travel, yurt
Mongolia ranks 4th on the list of least densely populated countries in the world.

Later he told me he arranged for a friend to take me to the nearest town, then we went back outside to cut wood with the two-man saw. He pushed. I pulled. Back and forth, back and forth. I couldn’t look my adopted Mongolian brother in the face. We knew this was the end. I stared at the log, my hand bracing it on one side and his on the other, while the saw chewed through the last bits of wood and our time together.

Day 7: From Wander to Wonder

I woke up early, excited to move on with my journey. I could hear the rumbling of a motorcycle in the distance getting louder. The engine stopped and in walked Bagsh, my driver. For a small fee he agreed to take me to Khujirt, the closest town a few hours away.

We shared a few more bowls of milk tea with my hosts and then said goodbye. Chinggis’ mom held a ladle full of milk tea in her hand. She threw it in the air as we left to bless our journey. I already felt it was blessed though.

Motorcyle ride
Mongolia is 37 times bigger than the Netherlands, yet the Dutch road system is 67 times longer.

I have the great Zanabazar and his mountaintop hermitage to thank for having guided me here. But in the search for the ancient and revered, I found beauty in the here and now. The true wonder was living, working, and laughing with the steppe ramblers, the gypsy shepherds of Mongolia.

As we drove away in the morning sun, we drifted through a bowl of caramel-colored prairie grass. I held my hands out and looked up at the blue abyss. The engine hummed an ode to my journey. There weren’t any roads to follow. Yet like all nomadic souls before me, I found my way.

Behind the Lens: 5 Tips To My Younger Self

Me in 2006 with my first digital camera, a used 5 megapixel Cannon A610 I bought for $150.

The pictures in this story were taken right around the time I got into photography. Now that 10 years have passed, here’s the advice I would have given myself back then:

1. Gear doesn’t matter. I know you’ve heard this a million times. I’ll just say it again because it’s true: gear doesn’t matter.

2. Story is everything. Whether you are sharing one image or a group of photos, try to tell a story. It has far more impact than technical perfection.

3. Save your photos, even some of the ones you think are bad. As you progress as a photographer, your editing skills will improve, along with your eye and the software you edit your images with.  

For instance, the flash gave this image a washed out look. I also wanted to put more focus on the man and his cigarette. Now with Adobe Lightroom, I’m able to get the photo to look how I wanted it to.

4. Never stop sharing your work. Create. Share. Repeat. It’s really that simple.

5. Stay on the bus. Your vision is exactly that – your own. Even if you think your work sucks, especially when compared to others, honor what you create, for good or bad. It is you after all who created it. So stay on the f*cking bus!

What photography tips would you tell your younger self? Share them in the comments below.

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Author: Pete DeMarco

Pete DeMarco is an award-winning travel photographer. His passion for helping people transform their photography shows through in the expert advice he shares. His work has been featured in National Geographic Traveler, CNN, and as a staff writer for Digital Photography School.

8 thoughts on “7 Unforgettable Days With Mongolian Nomads”

  1. Enjoyed reading your thoughts and feeling the emotional connection with the Nomads. I see expressed in your photos of their way of life, a profound simplicity. Refreshing! Thanks for sharing, Pete.


  2. Just a fantastic story. Pete always “keeps it real,” not to mention catching the essence and aura of the places he visits. Most of all, through his remarkable photography he brings his viewers “into” the scene making everything come alive. He truly sets the photographic standard for all to strive for.
    —Ron Roman
    Pyungtaek City/Korea

  3. Contemplating a future trip to Mongolia, your post was very timely! Thank you for the final tip – to stay on the bus – what a great way to inspire a newbie or a seasoned photographer. As Rose said to Jack: “I won’t let go”. Thank you for sharing and you definitely had an eye even back before photography took over your life (in a good way of course).

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