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The nomads of Mongolia’s Orkhon Valley leave only footprints

Fly to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, then drive 5-6 hours west to the Orkhon Valley with a local agent who can introduce you to nomadic families willing to host guests.

travel Updated: Dec 05, 2018 14:52 IST
Geetika Jain
Geetika Jain
Hindustan Times, Delhi
Mongolia,Orkhon Valley,Ulaanbaatar
Alpine aster growing wild on the grasslands. Gers in the background.

We’re breezing on a singular road in the heart of Mongolia, with gently rolling short grass plains and low hillocks on both sides. They’re a part of the Eurasian steppe that stretches over a surprisingly long east-west band from Manchuria to Hungary.

The slender blue Orkhon River meandering this valley is barely noticeable as its level is flush with the plains. Soft bands of green, beige and maroon layer across the landscape and every now and then, my eyes are drawn to a splash of lavender-hued alpine asters. The land is pristine and the air as pure as I’d hoped it would be. The distinct white pearls scattered in the distance are the nomads’ felt homes called gers.

Panoramic Journeys, a UK based company has organised my stay with Gantologkh and Nergui’s family, who are nomadic livestock herders. Carolina, the manager, is fluent in the local language and she is accompanying me. Now we’re off-roading on a bewildering array of grassy tracks looking for them. Here, the only reliable GPS is Ger Positioning System, and our driver has to stop at a ger every now and then to ask a horseman or a goatherd of their whereabouts, and we finally track them down in a nameless place in the middle of nowhere.

Corralling livestock on the Mongolian grasslands.

Over tea, Caroline introduces me to the extended family- the couple, their son, daughter-in-law, a visiting daughter and five grandchildren. They’re living within a cluster of five gers. It’s late evening, and their livestock- their entire wealth on hoofs- has been rounded up for the night. Horses, cows, yaks, goats and sheep surround us in all directions, grunting gently and swishing their tails. Gantologkh is a horse trainer; he hangs up his saddle and bridle, and then he ceremoniously pours vodka and offers us snuff from a small bottle.

Over a table leaden with cheese, cream, yoghurt and meat dumplings, the warm-hearted, red-cheeked, obsidian-haired folks and I get to know each other a little.

Inside the Mongolian ger

It’s six in the morning, and Nergui is a volcano of energy; she’s milked the mares and cows, fetched water, chopped wood, gathered dung and is boiling an enormous vat of milk on the stove in the centre of the ger with its chimney poking through the roof. As we sip fermented mare’s milk, I share pictures of my family and home and they tell me they’re getting ready to move to their winter pasture by the lee of a mountain, so they’re shielded against the snow and wind. Little kids fly in and out of the ger’s single door and the nine-year-old twin girls are preparing to leave for school tomorrow along with their five-year-old brother. I try to lend Nergui a clumsy hand with everything she does, which the kids find hilarious.

Inside a ger: Boiling milk to make cheese, yoghurt and cream.

The circular tent is an ingenious invention; its wall is made of five expandable crisscross slats. Slanting stakes hold up the roof along with the two upright central poles. The tiny door I’ve been bumping my head on faces south in keeping with tradition. It feels like living in a teakettle with a spout-like chimney. The single tube light is powered by a car battery, which is recharged by a solar panel. The walls are covered in thick felt and topped with a layer of white canvas. Inside, the two single beds are used as sofas during the day. The dressers, chests and stools are painted orange with cheery flowers. The Buddhist alter has a photo of Dalai Lama, and the kitchen utensils are laid out in open shelves. The wood and dung fired hearth at the centre doubles as cooker and heater in a climate that touches -40 C in the winter. The floor is covered with a thin layer of plastic with a floral pattern. The whole thing will be taken apart by the family and put on a horse cart or a Hyundai porter van within an hour to be sent to the next pasture, allowing this one to rejuvenate. The long-drop toilet in the distance will be re-filled with earth, leaving no trace of their encampment.

Nergui’s grand-daughters inside a ger.

Getting to keep their own pictures from my Fujifilm instax camera has become the emollient that relaxes them and brings us closer; they’ve eagerly slipped on their traditional dels over the western work clothes, and the kids bundle around me, watching the pictures develop in front of their eyes. They hold them carefully, letting them dry. I’m full of admiration for them and their tough but fulfilling lives spent under a shifting canvas of painted skies. Their organic ways and small footprint have humbled me.


Best time to go: July to September

How to get there: Fly to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, then drive 5-6 hours west to the Orkhon Valley with a local agent who can introduce you to nomadic families willing to host guests.

Book via: High end Panoramic Journeys www.panoramic who can set up stylish gers next to nomadic families or beautiful vistas, or Nomadic Expeditions

Affordable style: Nomad Planet.

First Published: Dec 05, 2018 14:51 IST