A Nomad in Mongolia

Turning back time in the middle of nowhere

The penultimate stop on my Trans-Mongolian journey was in Ulaan Baatar, the capital of Mongolia, where I spent a week exploring this large, landlocked country. I hadn’t a clue what to expect beforehand – I’d never met anyone who’d been, nor researched it much prior to my arrival.

About half of the 4.3 million population live in the capital city, Ulaan Baatar, which makes the remainder of the country one of the most sparsely populated areas of land in the world. Mongolia is one of the few countries in the world where ancient nomadic culture is actively practised in the countryside. Due to the huge temperature swings between summer and winter, very little of the land is arable so the typical diet consists mainly of animal products. I steered clear of most of these, although fermented horse milk is worth a try. It’s a little sweeter than cow’s milk and actually quite tasty.

The country’s landscape is unlike any I’ve come across before. Many areas are treeless and there’s steppe (grassland) terrain for as far as the eye can see. Almost all of the rural dwellers make a living through rearing livestock; cattle, sheep and horses can be found everywhere in all directions. Apparently Mongolia is supposed to be the ‘land of blue skies’ with hardly any cloud cover or rain during the summer. It seemed the country received the whole season’s precipitation during my stay. Although the temperatures did occasionally skyrocket, it was made more unbearable due to the lack of wind. If ever you want to experience true isolation and hear the sound of silence (save for the occasional sheep bleating), I encourage you to book a trip here!

There are camels here, too. This one seems a bit grumpy.

Swapping hostels for gers

I knew before reaching Mongolia that the real experience was to be had outside of the capital. With the language barrier proving to be the most challenging of any country I’d visited, it was a no-brainier to book a tour with Sunpath to help get me round to some of the rural sights.

Mongolians traditionally lived in circular tent-like structures called gers, and many still do today, especially in the countryside they’re dotted around the landscape (although they can also be found in central Ulaan Baatar surprisingly).

Despite the hard beds and lack of heating, the gers were reasonably comfortable to sleep in for a few days. I particularly liked the colourful fabrics lining the outer wall and beds, although it smells rather strongly of sheep, and so did me and all my belongings eventually.

There are no walls inside gers so it’s one communal space, which made for a fun atmosphere between guests and family members – especially when the tour guide brought the drinks out. The same can be said after having some drunken company in an outdoor, sulphur-infused hot spring bath in the middle of the night!

The final night of our tour was spent living with a nomadic family in the semi-Gobi plains. Here we played with the adorable children, rounded up the cattle and watched the meteor shower above after the sun went down.


The site of our stay with the nomadic family


A sheep's head casually sitting on the top of our minibus

A sheep’s head casually sitting on the top of our minibus..


The roads are bumpy in Mongolia. The driver’s head takes a beating!

Probably my most memorable travel experience ever was made after the father of the nomadic family arranged for us to ride the wild horses throughout the day into the countryside. Initially I was sceptical about getting any kind of fulfilment out of riding a horse – I never had before – but I couldn’t have been any more wrong. The thrill of galloping fast into the empty expanse of wilderness for a few hours, and feeling the power of the creature under my saddle is a memory that will live with me forever. So will the view along the way of some frighteningly large insects.


Throat singing 

My interactions with local Mongols were limited to only the bilingual minority. The endless staring I received in Russia continued in Mongolia, with even some occasional pointing and look of intrigue from a few. Most Mongolian men seem very well built. All of our drivers happened to be professional wrestlers in their spare time! They’re definitely not people to pick a fight with. It’s no surprise that the national team often tops Olympics for weightlifting, wrestling, and of course all events related to horse riding.

Traditional Mongolian music is making it’s way into more and more of my Spotify playlists. I managed to hear some throat singing during two cultural shows during my visit and it’s spectacular to hear how the throat is manipulated to make the iconic whistling sound. The horse headed fiddle – an instrument similar to a violin but with it’s strings made from a horse’s tail – has its own distinct sound that forms the centrepiece of Mongolian music. Here’s a great Mongolian artist if you’re interested.

Ulaan Baatar

My impressions of the capital city were a little bizarre.

In short, there’s very little happening there; it doesn’t posses the charm that you’d expect from a capital city. All of the buzz and chaos (it really is chaos) is on the outer edges leaving the centre feels like a ghost-town, with hardly any pedestrians on the street. Only a handful of Mongolian tourists and electric toy cars for kids can be found on the centre Chinggis Khan square.

Outside of the city centre, getting around can be difficult. The traffic can be horrendous. Roads resemble Toyota dealership car parks with about half of the cars being Priuses, surprisingly. Despite electric vehicles humming across the city, the air is thick with pollution from the various coal and oil power plants belching out emissions nearby.

Hybrid heaven

Hybrid heaven

Having said that, UB is developing quickly. The city’s appearance is surprisingly modern – the streets are clean, a few tram lines criss-cross the centre, and the skyline is developing quickly in the business district. Aside from the presence of an occasional ger, the cityscape resembled that of a small, sleepy American city.Virtually all buildings and signs are in English, too, despite the seeming lack of any international travellers outside of my hostel.

Thankfully I managed to keep my stomach happy with food just fine in UB. Loving Hut and Luana Blanca are two excellent vegan restaurants that I’d recommend for a cheap western-style meal. They both proved lifelines to me in arguably the most challenging country to go meat-free.

Unbuckling the saddle


Mongolia is well off the tourist trail, and perhaps it’s easy to understand why. On the face of it, it’s not one of those countries that ticks the regular boxes for an exciting holiday destination. It’s not exactly renowned for shopping, relaxation or sightseeing opportunities.

Instead, visiting Mongolia is an opportunity to live the local experience, and not just observe it. It’s still so ‘raw’ that it reminds me of a way of life to be read about in a school history textbook. The cultural heritage is as rich now as it was hundreds of years ago, and at times the unique way of life and surroundings can make it feel like an all together different planet.

I do slightly regret allocating only a week to my trip here. Although I covered a huge amount of ground , there were many other sights that I couldn’t make it to, so I’ll unquestionably be planning a trip back. Until then, my lasting memory of my time in Mongolia is the experience of galloping off quite literally into the middle of nowhere.


Next: Great tales from China

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