If we had to choose a word to describe Mongolia, it would be easy: yurt because it represents all the aspects of the life of this nomadic country.
Some numbers before explaining what a yurt is, in order to understand the context: 3 million is the population of Mongolia, 14 millions of horses and a total of 48 million of animals tread on the territory. It means that the economy is based on pastoralism (raising domesticated animals to produce food and fiber) and that people have to move to find always fresh pasture. They do not cultivate the land and they mostly eat meat and dairy products: meat in winter and cheese and yogurt in summer.
Now the yurt… The yurt (ger in Mongolian language) is a portable dwelling used by the nomads in the steppes of Central Asia; it can be easily carried by yaks or camels and its complete construction takes only two hours. A wooden circular frame structure (which includes the door, the walls, the bent roof poles and a compression ring) is covered with pieces of felt and hold together with ribbons. The ger’s shape is aerodynamic so the winds flow around it rather than pushing against flat walls. The door always faces south; the northeastern quarter is reserved to the women and the northwestern to men. Furnishing is simple and usually composed by two or three beds, a commode and a home Buddhist altar (in the north quarter). Everything is made of wood most of the times painted in yellow or orange and decorated with colored patterns. The stove in the middle of the yurt is for heating and for cooking.
Mongol’s best friend is not the dog (even if each ger has a dog) but the horse which is the equivalent of a car for us: they use to quickly move from a place to another. They use to say that a man without a horse is not a man. That’s not 100% true because more and more the motorbikes is take a important place in their daily life all around the country (you will see in some ger photos from the outside), but they still love riding horses. We talk with experience when we say that riding is a tough work because the saddle is very small and… very hard; it’s made by wood and often they don’t cover it with anything. Actually even the horses are not the same! They are bigger than a pony but not as big as the horses we kwon, they are Mongolian horses as they explained us without hiding their deep proud towards these animals.
Now guess what is the main dish in Mongolian cuisine? Yes, you are right… meat! Goats, yaks, horses, camels and sheep that live just outside the ger at night and pasture almost free in the nature during the day; at the sunset the shepherd go to search them with the horse and bring them back home. The way they cook has no mystery: everything is boiled or grilled without marinate and normally without using any king of spices. The result: all the taste of the wild meat remains. This means that when we were invited to dinner, we had to adapt ourselves and even more because on summer times they prefer to eat the giblets leaving the dry meat to the winter.
But we were also lucky we were there in summer so we could taste the yak yogurt (really delicious). Also we could try the fresh cheese that seemed a kind of ricotta and a butter-cream crunchy on the top because it dried in open air (forget about fridge, or Tupperware). The hard part was to taste some pieces of curdled milk dried on the roof of the yurt and hard like stones. The worst thing we taste in our stay. Days after the trip was over, we still found some pieces of this acid thing in our pockets that was offered to us every time we entered in a ger. It not polite to refuse it! We never saw them drinking fresh milk (probably they do secretly once we are gone), they prefer fermented mare milk (airag) or salted horse milk with tea (suu) which is not bad after a day of horse riding! The most famous alcohol is vodka but we did not have the chance to try it.
Probably you had notice that in the list of elements to build a ger there are no tubes so … in the ger there is no water. They do not need that much because all the water of the lakes and rivers is pure and, if you do not mind the temperature, you can use to take a bath; to be true we did, we never saw Mongolians doing it. They wash head and hands in the morning before spiting on the ground. Toilets are holes in the ground far enough from the yurt, they are covered of a small wood structure for a little bit of privacy and to avoid rain on the head in case of bad weather. To be true again, we preferred do like wilds Europeans and hide us in the forest or behind the rocks.
As you can imagine, conditions are hard especially in winter. We were there in the middle of September and in the morning the temperature was already freezing. But that’s the way Mongol nomads are like, they would never live in a fixed house and stay far from their animals. When they try to move to Ulaan Bataar they often fall in the trap of alcoholism, nowadays one of the biggest social problems in Mongolia.