Mongolia: Nomadic Life in the 21st Century


Our next big destination along the historic Trans-Siberian Railway was Mongolia.  As we left the hustle and bustle of Moscow, I was eager to experience how life in this large expanse of terrain would unfold.

I had known some of the country’s history even since grammar school when I had read about the great Genghis Khan, but I really had no idea what to expect as I made the 6,000 mile journey across the Russian steppes into Siberia and through the Gobi Desert to the capital city Ulaanbaatar. We began our trip in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, and I was anxious to take it all in.

Almost half of the country’s population lives in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, and the rest are spread out in the country’s rural terrain. With a little less than a total population of 3 million people  (which is similar to the population of the central district of my hometown Chicago), I didn’t realize until I got there that there were really only two lifestyles: urban and rural.

The guide for our Mongolia sojourn was Emma, a dark haired thirty-something beauty with a background in art history.  Emma escorted us around the capital through traffic jams that compared favorably to Cairo and New York, thus illustrating the growing pains of a city that was, less than fifteen years ago, considered a sleepy town by many.

The main city square houses a monumental sculptural depiction of Genghis and his family members within a reconstituted government building that is as impressive as any government edifice in Russia.  This tribute to Genghis is surrounded by modern high-rise office structures and hip billboards that reveal Ulaanbaatar’s readiness to attract international business.

We shopped for cashmere at an outlet store showcasing Mongolia’s most famous export and admired the divine creations that tourists are drawn to when they visit the city.  I couldn’t resist the purchase of a mauve cardigan sweater myself after spending a good hour in the store.

Life in the big city was not unlike any other metropolis, except in Ulaanbaatar the pace of development was now so fast that apartment complexes seem to shoot up daily according to the residents we spoke to.  Cranes were everywhere. The population figures had been changing rapidly in the capital because poor weather conditions in recent years have forced the rural folks to abandon farming and come to the big city to find work instead.   New pastel-colored midrise apartment buildings sprouted left and right to accommodate the influx of thousands of rural residents flocking to the city in search of better opportunities.

Our lovely guide Emma also worked part-time in the city for an NGO.  She divided her time between a one-bedroom apartment in Ulaanbaatar and her traditional Ger home in the countryside.  While she enjoyed the opportunities for recreation and work in the city, she felt a regular nudge to escape and retreat to the calm and scenic surroundings of the mountains and steppes.  There, amid the pockets of round Gers dotted across the plain, the nomadic families were spaced out ‘just enough’ to qualify as neighbors and as family.  In her eyes…she believes she has the perfect life.

When it came time to leave the city and head to rural Mongolia, I noticed that the scenery quickly changed. Ulaanbaatar is in a valley flanked by four mountain ranges surrounding the city.  After we had escaped the city traffic, the exodus took us almost immediately into land covered intermittently round Gers dotting the countryside, flocks of sheep, herds of cows, lots of yaks and many horses roaming freely.  We were in another world: no cranes, no high rises and what seemed like more animals than people in sight!

Mongolia is rich with different ethnic groups…at least 29 different ethnic groups and almost all have roots from nomadic tribes.  The nomad lifestyle continues in Mongolia quite like it has been for hundreds of years.  We stopped for a social visit with a young family of three who live in a one room Ger.  The average Ger is about 12-15 feet wide and is circular.  It has a flap-door as the main entrance.  Inside, this particular family furnished it with fabulous homemade furniture like a wooden dining table, hand-carved benches, a Chinese style-bed, hand-woven wool rugs, and wooden storage corrals for their belongings.

The shy, young mother offered us a libation of fermented mare’s milk from a bowl, nuts and a variety of local treats that were quite tasty.  Although she didn’t speak English, she did seem to understand parts of our conversation and appeared to enjoy our interest in her lovely two-year-old son who charmed us as he scurried around the Ger, not the least bit intimidated by our presence or conversation.  As I looked around their home, I took a mental inventory of my bedroom set, my bookcases, my electronics, my pots and pans and Tupperware and wondered whether they would they ever fit in a circular home like this.   Answer: probably not!

Nomadic families tend to move about the country two to four times a year depending on weather conditions and access to pasture lands.  We were told the “moving” routine is still the same…and is pretty simple: dismantle the felt and wooden lattice-based structure, wrap up the belongings and position them either on a truck or sometimes use a horse-drawn cart to make their move.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have the opportunity to stay longer…I would have loved to have seen this moving process in motion.  Talk about speedy…we were told it only takes a couple of hours to sort, wrap, pack and load…and a family can be on their way to the next fruitful destination.

As we walked out towards our car to head to our next stop along the Trans-Siberian route, I remember a feeling of peace and serenity as I looked back at the Gers dotting the terrain.  How void of clutter their lifestyle is even in the 21st century…no traffic lights, no parking meters, no wifi service, no keycards to enter the home, no garage door opener…not even a doorbell! What a pleasant surprise this trip has been and a reminder of how “simple” we can still live our life!

- Pat Johnson, Grannies on Safari