Go nomadic with a Mongolian homestay in a ger

Try a ger in Mongolia and you will likely find yourself in the middle of nowhere - with stunning scenery in every direction

There are two surprising facts about staying in a Mongolian ger.

One: The large, round tent is fairly warm. The swathes of sheepskin lining the top and walls keep the heat in and keep out the cold of the relentless rain sweeping across the grassy plains.

Two: Dried cow dung is odourless. Really. You can eat next to it, sleep next to it, burn it in a stove to warm up the giant tent and forget you are sitting next to a whole box of, well, dung.

Oh, and one more thing: It can be noisy. Really noisy.

Despite the fact that you and the host family are the only people around for hundreds of kilometres, you are likely to find yourself waking up to the bleating of lambs, grunting of yaks, barking of dogs, neighing of horses and shouts of herdsmen taking their livestock out early in the morning and back late in the evening.

Gers can be basic, but none will be found without a stove and supply of dried dung or wood (above) for fuel. PHOTO: LESLIE KOH

It is a heartening reminder that staying in a ger gives you not only a taste of living in a typical Mongolian home, but also a peek into the people's way of life - one that seems hardly changed since the time of 13th-century conqueror Genghis Khan.

The ger, you quickly discover, is a centre of activity and refuge in a landscape that is beautiful and harsh at the same time.

Many Mongolians still cherish this way of life. About three- quarters of the country's population are estimated to be still living in gers.

Even those who have been persuaded to move into permanent wooden or concrete structures in towns and cities set up a ger in their backyard. Others have eschewed the modern life altogether, sticking to the nomadic lifestyle that sees them moving their portable homes every three to six months.

The love of the traditional way of life extends to the younger crowd.

The land has everything. You don't need much, you can live off your sheep, goats and cows. And there is so much space and no stress.

TREKKING GUIDE SANSARCHIMEG GANBAT on why she looks forward to moving back to the grassy plains. She lives with her husband and two children in Ulaanbaatar so her children can go to school

Trekking guide Sansarchimeg Ganbat, 30, holds a master's degree in tourism and lives in Ulaanbaatar so her two children can attend school. But she looks forward to the day she and her husband can move back to the grassy plains where she grew up.

"The land has everything," she says. "You don't need much, you can live off your sheep, goats and cows. And there is so much space and no stress."

It is easy to see why Sagii, as she calls herself, is all too ready to give up the bright lights of the city.

You can never tire of the awesome vistas in places such as Orkhon Valley in central Tov province, where my wife and I visited, what with the endless rolling hills alternating with rocky valleys, the boundless plains stretching to the horizon and the snow-clad Altai mountains in the distance.

There are no buildings, fences or roads. The only signs of civilisation are clusters of gers, rarely more than four or five dotting the landscape and usually more than 20km to 50km apart.


    Getting to Mongolia

    There are no direct flights from Singapore to Mongolia. You can fly there via Beijing (Air China, $1,200), Seoul (Korean Air, $1,200) or Hong Kong. Catching a budget carrier to Hong Kong and then taking a Mongolian Airlines flight can cost slightly more, at about $1,500, but this option has better arrival times.

    Getting to the gers

    While there are long-distance bus services between the capital Ulaanbaatar and main cities such as Kharkhorin in central Mongolia, getting into the heart of the steppe requires a private vehicle and a driver familiar with the remote areas and isolated gers. Most of the "roads" outside the large cities are little more than dirt tracks, many of which wind through rocky mountain passes and shallow but fast-flowing rivers, so a four-wheel-drive vehicle is needed.

    Getting a homestay

    The best way to get a homestay ger experience is to get a customised package with one local tour and trekking agency, such as Goyo Travel (www.goyotravel.com), Nomads Tours & Expeditions (www.nomadstours.com) and Nomadic Expeditions (www.nomadicexpeditions.com).

    This is about the only way to reach the gers, which have no addresses. Most of the owners do not speak English.

    Packages generally include an experienced driver and an English- speaking guide who will sort out all the arrangements, including driving from Ulaanbaatar to central Mongolia, booking the gers, and buying and cooking food.

    Costs depend on the number of travellers, length of the trip and what you want to do. All agencies offer the options of trekking, horseriding or simply driving from ger to ger. A two-week trip with trekking for two people can cost about $4,000 each (full-board).

There are also countless sheep, goats, horses, yaks and cows, as well as the occasional camel. All of it makes for the classic Mongolian scene, complete with cowboy-like herdsmen galloping across the plains, rounding up the livestock on horseback.

These days, though, most nomadic families are likely to own a small lorry, which they use to move their gers between their winter and summer camps, and a motorbike, which they use in tandem with their horses to round up their herds.

The advantage of taking the homestay option in central Mongolia, rather than a tourist ger camp, is that you get a good, honest taste of the nomadic lifestyle, even though it does mean putting up with some rather basic facilities.

It means waking up to oh-so- adorable lambs scuttling around the campsite - and the odd woolly head poking curiously through the doorway - every morning; watching the host family taming its horses and shearing its sheep (no electric shaver, just a pair of scissors); and, if your stomach can take the sight, helping to clean the innards of a freshly slaughtered sheep.

None of this is put on for show.

Host families in Mongolia typically do not shower you with lavish attention. Apart from popping into your ger in the morning to help you start the fire (it is pretty nippy even in summer) and letting you know when meals are ready, they are usually preoccupied with their chores, which means you are free to roam around soaking in the sights, sounds and smells.

And there is just so much to see. You could walk all day, crossing grassy plain after plain and ascending one rolling hill after another, and still be able to turn around to spot your ger in the distance.

Parts of Orkhon Valley also hide ancient ruins of monasteries, most of which were destroyed by the Soviets in the 1960s.

Even getting to a homestay ger is an experience.

While the main highway between Ulaanbaatar and Kharkhorin, the provincial capital of Tov, is paved, few other roads are. That means a long, bumpy ride over tracks that snake their way over steep hills and, often, through shallow rivers. But you will be rewarded by scenery throughout and maybe an unusual experience or two.

At one point, we were stopped by herdsmen and asked to help herd horses over a bridge, which saw us waving our arms furiously, yelling and pushing some of them across.

For Sagii, who quickly rushed over to help, this is part and parcel of Mongolian life. Because nomadic families live so far apart and in such harsh, isolated circumstances, she says they make it a point to help anyone in need.

Indeed, when our van became stuck in mud that came up to our waists, passing herdsmen did not hesitate to stop and help dig us out.

It is a culture that has not changed for hundreds of years and one which draws people such as Sagii back to the rolling hills and grassy plains. "Here in Mongolia," she says, "we are all family."

•The writer is a former Straits Times journalist.

Back to basics

While staying in a typical Mongolian ger can be quite an experience for city folk, it can also be a challenge for those used to luxuries - such as electricity, running water and a toilet.

You will get enough beds for your entire family, possibly a table and chair, a light bulb and some odd assortment of furniture.

No ger comes without the ubiquitous stove and an ever-ready supply of dried dung or wood, which you can use to warm up the tent and cook at the same time.

But there is no loo. That is found outside and is usually little more than a hole in the ground surrounded by a makeshift wooden barrier. Some of them feature a roof.

Forget Wi-Fi - most nomadic families string up an antenna on their lorry in hopes of connecting their phones, but this is not always reliable, especially in bad weather.

Pop your head into the host family's ger, however, and you will usually see a little more luxury. Most families hang up some pictures or family photos on their tent walls and have a DVD player and television... and that is about it.

The ger serves as the family's bedroom, living room and kitchen as well as dairy product factory. It is often a hive of activity and just sitting around gives you a wonderful front-row seat to nomadic Mongolian life.

You might be invited to take a sniff from a snuff bottle - part of the traditional greeting - and to try a cup of suutei tsai. This is the Mongolian version of milk tea, which usually uses yak milk and is flavoured with salt.

A word of warning - Mongolian food consists mainly of mutton, mutton and mutton. There is little in the way of vegetables and just about everything cooked up in the family's own ger is likely to have some part of sheep or yak.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 07, 2016, with the headline 'Mongolian homestay'. Print Edition | Subscribe