It was lunchtime on the steppe in Mongolia, the most sparsely populated country on Earth. So when our driver spotted a lone white yurt in the distance, we stopped for a jug of hot sheep's milk tea.
It was all part of a 10-day journey through central Mongolia that we'd planned through an affordable, family-run company that helped us design our own itinerary and shared our philosophy of travel: authentic cultural experiences that support small, local businesses.
To that end, my friends and I mostly sidestepped the large tourist camps at the canvas-cloaked tents called gers, which are clustered around popular sites that can offer comfortable accommodations and amenities such as electricity, bathrooms and cafe-style meals. As a result, "comfortable" is not how I would describe our trip. But we did experience the hospitality and warmth that are as much a hallmark of the countryside here as the stunning landscapes on the roadless, rocky steppes.
The day we had our sheep's milk lunch, as we stepped into the ger, we felt nervous about intruding on the nomadic shepherds who surely must've had better things to do than host this unexpected band of tourists. But our hosts seemed hardly fazed as the woman served us and her husband cheerfully asked what brought us to their neck of the steppes.
More than one-third of Mongolia's population is crammed into its bustling capital, Ulan Bator, where trendy fashion and fast food are easily found among the Soviet-style tenement buildings. Once you leave the big city, though, it doesn't take long for the urban noise to fade, the paved roads to end and the sky to open up. Another third of the nation's 3.1 million people are considered nomadic, and their pastoral lifestyle is still an integral part of Mongolian identity. But its simplicity can be a revelation for the Western visitor.
Hoping to take in more of the natural wonders, we considered Ulan Bator only a layover on our way to the Gobi Desert town of Dalanzadgad. There we met the driver and guide whom the three of us hired to take us northward, through the desert and grasslands, to the alpine Lake Khovsgol on the edge of Russia's Siberian territory.
In the south, where summer days range from mild to scorching, most gers don't have heat sources, making for bitterly cold nights especially when the winds kick up in the Gobi. The lack of bathrooms — or even outhouses — also posed interesting challenges: How far do you have to go for a little privacy when there's not a tree or shrub in sight on the open steppes? Then there were hours of bone-jarring rides in our Russian Jeep (apparently built without the technology of shock absorption) on the unforgiving terrain.
But somehow the lack of creature comforts seemed a small compromise for the unique opportunity to truly unplug and glimpse a way of life steeped in Mongolia's rural traditions.
Our first stay with a nomadic family was on rolling grassland about five hours northwest of Dalanzadgad. Just as with the lunchtime stop, our plucky driver happened upon the ger and hopped out to negotiate with its owner before ushering us inside.
Our hostess briefly abandoned her daily chores to offer us a large bowl of fermented mare's milk, which we politely took turns sipping.
The cool drink, called airag, is a warm-weather alternative to hot milk tea, a salty concoction of fresh milk — from a sheep, camel or yak — brewed with a dash of tea leaves that, served along with biscuits and dried milk curd, is a staple of Mongolian hospitality. I quickly developed a taste for the salty milk tea, but the pungent mare's milk was an experience that my stomach never quite forgave me for.
The fermented mare's milk also can be home-distilled into a mild liquor called arkhi, a more traditional drink than the store-bought vodka popularized during the 70-year Soviet occupation that ended in 1990. Today vodka — ironically almost all marketed using the ubiquitous name and image of Genghis Khan, the 13th century warrior whose legend was suppressed during the communist era — is still considered "the good stuff" and flows for almost any occasion.
Such unexpected injections of modern influence into centuries-old customs were always fascinating to observe. Men in traditional long robes would hop on motorcycles to catch up to their grazing flock.
Women would cook over a dung-fueled stove under a light powered by the ger's solar panel.
Despite some newer conveniences, including cellphones and televisions for some families we met, life on the steppes certainly isn't easy. As tourists, milking goats, sheep and yaks was a novelty until we realized each animal had to be pumped twice a day — rain, shine, or dust storm. Milk makes up a large part of the nomadic diet during the summer, and dried dairy products are made and stocked for the long, harsh winter.
When I wasn't lending our hosts a novice hand, I spent many days wandering the expansive steppes, taking in the enormous, azure sky and enjoying a natural silence unmatched by any remote location I've ever visited. It was never hard to hike a short distance and suddenly feel like I was the only person on Earth, a tranquility I started craving again after returning home. The Gobi is so vast one rarely sees evidence of a mining boom that has touched off an international competition to extract rich reserves of coal, copper and gold.
Our longest family stay came on the shore of Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur, also known as White Lake, several hours northeast of Tsetserleg.
That's where we got our most intensive course in nomadic living and shared meals with our hosts rather than preparing our own groceries bought from town.
The highlight of nomadic cuisine is the khorkhog, a festive meal that involves slow-cooking large cuts of mutton, potatoes and carrots with stones in a giant pot. Since less than one percent of Mongolia's land is arable, the occasional carrot, potato and cabbage are usually the only fresh vegetables represented in the diet.
The khorkhog's preparation is a group project, from the slaughter of the sheep to the gathering of stones by the lake. Once the food is ready, each person grabs an oily stone and tosses it like a hot potato to promote good health. Then everyone huddles around the pot and digs in with their hands until all that's left is a pile of bones.
Bellies full, we knew exactly what came next.
Our jovial host brought out a bottle of vodka and a small bowl, pouring the first serving for the eldest in our group. The bowl was refilled and passed around from oldest to youngest, each person making a traditional toast by dipping a ring finger into the alcohol and flicking it once into the air "for the sky," again "for the earth," and a third time "for the wind." By the third round, we were singing and laughing in our warm ger, as the elements bore down outside.
If You Go.
WHEN TO GO: Mongolia's peak tourist season is May to September, when the weather is generally mild and most tourist accommodations are open. By mid-September, many tour companies and ger camps start closing up for the long, harsh winter, though destinations in the warmer south welcome visitors as late as October.
GETTING THERE: There are several flights per week to the capital, Ulan Bator (ULN), from Beijing, Seoul, and Moscow. From ULN, domestic airlines such as Eznis, AeroMongolia, or Mongolian Airlines will take you to Dalanzadgad (DLZ), which is the starting point for most Gobi Desert adventures. The one-hour flight costs $120-$200 each way. Buses also travel between Ulan Bator and Dalanzadgad for less than $20 each way, but the bumpy journey takes 12-18 hours.
TOURS: The lack of English speakers, clearly marked roads and established tourist lodging in the countryside makes do-it-yourself traveling nearly impossible. We found it most practical to hire a private driver and guide, who handled all our lodging, food, activities and transportation. There are a number of tour companies based in Ulan Bator, and we had an amazing experience with Travel Buddies, http://www.travelbuddies.info .
— Bring small gifts. It's customary to present your host family with gifts, such as bottles of vodka for men, toiletries for women, and pens and notepads for children. Take photos of the family using an instant camera — they'll be ecstatic to keep a copy.
— Pack layers. A common saying in Mongolia is that you experience all four seasons in one day. In September, we saw everything from sunny skies to howling winds to blizzard on our trip from Dalanzadgad to Lake Khovsgol.
— Brace yourself. Paved roads — or any roads, for that matter — are luxuries only found around Ulan Bator. Traveling through the countryside can involve hours bouncing around in old Russian vehicles.