Trekking through Mongolia

A father daughter trip to explore a nomadic culture

Leslie playing during her trekking trip Mongolia.
Supplied by Leslie Egan

Before leaving on our trek, my dad and I were constantly asked “Why Mongolia?” 

We knew it was an unconventional vacation destination but that’s what made it so appealing. My dad had settled into replying “That’s why – because you ask.”  

I was keen to witness a new culture and hoped to gain insight into the life of Mongolian people. My dad, a well-travelled man, has had the experience of being immersed in other cultures and I was looking forward to gaining this experience for myself. 

When my dad was in his late twenties, he spent a year travelling Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand on his own. His unending stories growing up made it hard not to have wanderlust as a young adult. He always spoke fondly of his experience in a fishing village in India where he met a young boy who was studying English. 

This boy asked to spend the day with my dad to practice the language. That night, the boy’s family insisted my dad join them for dinner and they served a dish considered a delicacy in their culture — a soup containing the innards of a fish. I still can’t believe he ate it. But then again, throughout our travels in Mongolia he was always the first one to try any new foods offered by the nomads. 

His many stories like this taught me the importance of respecting other cultures and being open to trying new things. So, when he offered me the opportunity to travel abroad with him, I jumped at the chance.

As we sifted through a variety of destinations, I found myself  most intrigued by a group trekking adventure titled Mongolia in the Footsteps of Nomads with Tim Cope, run by World Expeditions – an Australian-based adventure touring company.  

As I read more and more on Mongolia, I discovered a fascinating culture unlike any I had heard of before. This group trekking adventure offered an 18-day trip which included a trek through remote Western Mongolia and presented an opportunity to attend Naadam — a hugely-celebrated competition of the “three manly sports”, wrestling, archery and horseback riding.

I’d never been camping before, or even in a tent prior to this trip. So, the idea of sleeping in a tent throughout the trek and pushing myself out of my comfort zone, coupled with getting to spend time learning about such a unique culture of nomadic people was extremely enticing — my decision was made.

During our trek, we would stop in whenever we came across a ger, which happened maybe once or twice a day. Gers are the traditional dwelling of Mongolian nomads and are able to be packed up when the nomads choose to relocate.

Each ger we saw was completely unique — decorated with tapestries and full of bright colours. However, each one had the same arrangement: a circular tent covered in felt and canvas with a stove in the middle which vented through a small hole in the center of the ger’s roof. Many nomads burn dried yak dung to warm their stovetops as it can be difficult to obtain other sources of fuel. The nomadic lifestyle involves having no permanent residence, and often packing up and relocating for better weather or to find the greenest pastures for their livestock. 

According to the World Bank Group, Mongolia sits at a population of just under three million spread over an area of 1.5 million square kilometers. To put that in perspective, the entire country is about the size of Quebec and holds roughly one third of the province’s population. Mongolia is one of the least densely populated countries on earth, which lends well to the nomadic lifestyle.

After a long cold morning of trekking in the rain, we came across a warm ger where we were invited inside to sit and have our lunch. We were all so thankful for a dry place to warm up we didn’t mind the smell of yak dung wafting through the air.

This is where we met Davaa, with his long white whisp of a beard and a pipe that barely left his lips. Once we had all settled in we were offered some of Davaa’s homemade vodka — a drink crafted by many nomads, made from fermented mare’s milk. And, as in many of the gers we visited, we were offered unending portions of the traditional salty tea, dried yak curd and fried dough. Davaa filled a silver bowl with his strong alcohol and passed it with both hands through the circle. 

To show our gratitude for the continued hospitality, at each ger our group would present the family with a few gifts. These small gifts — lotion for women, flashlights for men, or a small toy for children, were so heartily appreciated at each home. Tim Cope, our guide, has spent much of his life immersed in the Mongolian culture and included the suggestion to bring small gifts in our pre-departure package. 

My dad and I had packed a toy car game and when we were invited into a ger with a young boy aged seven or eight, we thought this might be a good time to part with that gift. With an ear-to-ear grin, the young boy heartily accepted the game and immediately opened the packaging and began to play. 

This pattern continued with every family we met. Each child presented with a small toy, a token of gratitude, looked as though they had just come downstairs on Christmas morning. We were told that these families would need to travel for several days on horseback to reach the nearest market to access small goods and toys, so the children aren't spoiled the way we so often see in our culture back home.

As our trek continued, we met several families who lived the nomadic lifestyle. Every family greeted us with such hospitality and an endless openness to answer our questions. These nomads live a life of few possessions, only what they can pack up and take with them as they move. 

One nomadic woman, when asked how they get money responded What do I need money for? In that answer lies so much of nomadic culture. Their livelihood is with their livestock, so there's little use for money in their typical daily life. Every nomad we met and spoke with had nothing but great things to say about their hard-working lives. My travels in Mongolia have made me reassess my view of the materialism engrained in our society. It has made me so much more aware and so much more appreciative for all that I have. 

Reflecting on this experience I'm so grateful for all the nomads I met, they all seemed so honestly happy with what they had, living off of the land, despite their lack of quick access to a city centre or material goods. They live a life that seems so much simpler than the added complications of big city life.

The nomads we met have given me an understanding of deep gratitude and for this I'm ever thankful.

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