The food came as a bit of a surprise – it wasn’t included in the trip and we were told we didn’t need to bring supplies, so we did pay over the odds for a range of meat and lard dishes in various guises. The descriptively titled first meal of ‘meat noodle soup’ was revolting and as I scraped a layer of fat away to get to the grey meat I could feel the arteries hardening just from looking at it!
Mongolia is a vegetarian’s nightmare as the diet has a high meat and fat content to help Mongolians survive the harsh winters and neither the climate nor the nomadic lifestyle is conducive to growing veg crops. It is also advised not to drink cold drinks with or after a meal, as the excessive fat levels can solidify in the stomach and cause illness. Chingis vodka however appeared to work well as a digestif!
On day two we paid a visit to a genuine nomad family – trips are available through tour operators and travel companies. Although an interesting insight into the way around 50% of Mongolians live, it was an uncomfortable encounter and one which made many of us feel like true tourists. It was a regular trip that was made to the family, so they were used to awkward looking westerners and appeared suitably disinterested.
However, the lady did display traditional Mongolian hospitality passing round authentic hot salty milk refreshments and various milk based curd snacks (one which was so revolting I had to pocket until I left as I couldn’t contain the gagging even after a tiny bite, but didn’t want to appear rude and ungrateful – which is exactly how I sound!!).
The Ger was laid out into separate living areas with beds, a kitchen area (just for the women), a fire in the middle and a shrine facing the door (which you are not to turn your back to at any time). Only family members are able to pass through the centre beams and passing round of drinks and food is done in a clockwise direction.
After an uncomfortable conversation translated by our guide, we passed around snuff, finished our milk and presented our gifts of rice, flour and sweets. Fortunately, the 18 month old who was sleeping on one of the beds as we entered woke up part way through and was the centre of attention – a welcome distraction to break the awkwardness.
We headed out to see the out-houses where the cattle were raised and took a few photos. Interesting as it was, it wasn’t a real insight into nomadic life and on the whole it was a bit contrived and uncomfortable. Many of us left feeling it was an experience we could have lived without, but hoped the family would benefit in some way from the tourism tugriks…