It’s a moment of uncertainty. As I hold the bowl just below my chin, the fragrant, clear liquid is close enough to sniff. It smells earthy, like an animal. My friendly host stares at me, intently, a little confused, all of us frozen by my indecision—to drink, or not?
“Just half, this time,” my guide, Ankhmaa Baatartsogt, whispers into my ear. This will be the final chaser, after an afternoon of strange, fermented drinks. Having powered through one bowl of this “vodka,” my Mongolian host waits for me to down my seconds.
I’m in the South Gobi Desert, visiting with nomads. Mongolia is a country where people are still tied closely to the land, where some one-quarter of their population of three million continue to follow their sheep and goats across seemingly endless horizons. With no fences for hundreds of miles, they’re always making their way to greener pastures.
The persistence of nomadic cultures in a modern world has long fascinated me, as I’ve traveled the globe.
In Sweden’s far north, I dogsledded across the snowy landscape with the Sami, near the world-famous Icehotel. Learning how the eight seasons of these northern indigenous people remain defined by the grazing, breeding, and calving patterns of their reindeer, I jumped at the opportunity to hand-feed some of the herd.
In the rugged deserts of Jordan’s Dana Biosphere Reserve, I took tea and made bread over the fire with a family of Bedouins, whose people have long roamed across the Middle East. My host explained that, in a place where survival can depend on the kindness of your neighbors, hospitality is baked into their culture, with visitors able to stay for days without any question from their host.
But the best examples are perhaps here in Mongolia. On my first visit to the country, more than a decade ago, I chugged through on the southern arm of the Trans-Siberian Railway, spending time in the capital, Ulaanbaatar. Home to about half the country’s population, at that moment, it was a city bursting at the seams, with glassy, half-finished office towers mixing uneasily with austere and shambling Soviet apartment blocks.
Seeking an education for their kids, and modern employment, many families were in the process of moving off the land, bringing their portable, circular dwellings with them, forming a rambling neighborhood called the “ger district.” Lines of these white tents (which in other places, are often called “yurts”) spread across hillsides, stretching for miles. Coal smoke rose up from the stoves set up inside for cooking and warmth, and by evening, a heavy canopy of smoke hung low in the sky.
Now, years later, here in the Gobi, I have a chance to get a tiny glimpse of the way these nomads have lived life for centuries. After flying down from the capital to a small landing strip, my guide Baatartsogt and I hop into a Land Rover. We roll into a world with no roads, racing across open plains while emitting a long rooster tail of dust behind us. I’ll spend the next three nights at the legendary Three Camel Lodge, where the rooms replicate gers. But here, the tents are kitted out with cushy, comfortable beds, and big bathrooms. Plus, there’s a spa on site.
First, we search for dinosaurs, at the Flaming Cliffs, about 12 miles east of the lodge. Here, in the 1920s, archaeologists found a valley literally covered in bones. The richest-ever discovery at the time, it included the world’s very first dinosaur egg fossils. With rumors that odd prehistoric pieces will still pop up from the blazing sands, we search intently, to no avail, settling to watch a big orange sunset, with a glass of red wine in hand.
On our day trips, I’ve spotted white gers all around. On our drive back to the lodge, I ask Baatartsogt whether it might be possible to have a look inside, and pay a visit? She nods, promising to make a few inquiries. The next day, we’re welcomed into a series of homes.
Some of the basics of the Mongolian nomadic lifestyle, including a clan structure, were set as far back as the 3rd Century, BC. Tribes were formed from clans, with the strongest unit providing the tribe name, but weaker clans allowed to retain their own leaders and livestock. For thousands of years, these nomads roamed a vast territory, following their sheep and goats, which provided all the essentials for their families. Wool for clothing and mats and blankets, milk to drink and make cheese. Plus, skins for the walls and roof of the tents, and steaming bowls of mutton for nourishment in a harsh, often inhospitable climate. Dried dung was (and is, still) even used as fuel for fires.
Camels and horses provided transportation, with mares milked more than half a dozen times a day, their milk fermented to create airag, an alcoholic drink still popular today. Hemmed in by mountains to the west, wetlands to the north and desert to the south, these natural features also provided Mongolians with formidable natural barriers against potentially hostile neighbors.
Ghengis Khan, National Hero
Ghengis Khan remains the national hero. Born into a nomadic family in the 12th century, his success in laying the foundation to the largest contiguous empire in the history of the world lay in his ability to unite these tribes. Khan’s portly statue occupies a prominent place in front of the parliament in Ulaanbaatar, and another one, astride a horse, 13 stories high, sits just outside of town. His image adorns the state currency.
But those statues are a long way from where I stand today, although Khan might recognize the scene before me, all these centuries later. The space inside the ger isn’t subdivided, and everything surrounds a stove in the center of the large, round room. Beds line the walls, and the few pieces of wooden furniture are painted in bright, intricate patterns.
When the host couple offers us a drink, Baatartsogt is unfazed. Though she’s a modern young woman who lives in the capital and wears western clothes, like many urban-dwelling Mongolians, she’s not so far removed from the land. “I’m an airag girl,” she tells me, and indeed she seems to enjoy her bowl of fermented milk. I’m a little less certain, but Baatartsogt whispers in my ear that our host will be greatly offended if I refuse it. “Three sips,” she tells me, sotto voce. It’s not so bad, milky and slightly sour. Proceeding to our next stop, we exit the Land Rover and pass a big herd of camels, entering a ger similar to the last.
Here, the welcome drink is made from camel’s milk, and it’s rather thicker and less pleasant than the straight-up airag. It’s followed up by the “vodka,” clear, with tiny bits in it. “This time, you must drink the whole thing,” the always-helpful Baatartsogt tells me, breaking the bad news with a smirk. And so, down it goes. I power through the whole allotment in a few hearty gulps, relieved that I’ve finished until I see our smiling host refilling the bowl.
“She’s misunderstood,” my guide tells me. “She thinks you loved it. That you want more.”
In the end, I drink just half. Taking my bowl, we sit on a mat, Baatartsogt translating. We chat for hours, me learning about the hard, beautiful, simple life of following the rains, and raising both a family and livestock, in this Land of the Blue Sky. No, I’m not cut out for it. But returning to the lodge, I’m just a tiny bit tempted to make my nightcap a glass of airag.
Toronto-based writer Tim Johnson is always traveling, in search of the next great story. Having visited 140 countries across all seven continents, he’s tracked lions on foot in Botswana, dug for dinosaur bones in Mongolia, and walked among a half-million penguins on South Georgia Island. He contributes to some of North America’s largest publications, including CNN Travel, Bloomberg, and The Globe and Mail.