“Here is your pile of wood.” Yul, our guide, pointed to a bin of chopped wood. “The local people use dung, but it is easier for tourists to light this.” He smiled once, a flash of white.
The ger, commonly called a yurt in other parts of the world, was to be our home for the next few nights. Once Yul said his goodbyes, it would just be the two of us, my mother and I, left on our own in the wilds of Mongolia. The ger was the same size as one used for an entire Mongolian family, with three small beds, a desk, and a stove in the middle, and was built on top of a cement slab. Flooring and carpets had been laid down for comfort, but to eat or to use the toilet, we had to walk a few hundred metres to a main lodge. Although there were a few other gers scattered around, we were the only ones brave enough (or stupid enough) to be visiting in late October; frost had already covered parts of the ground, and the trees lost leaves with every gust of wind.
“If you really need to go to the toilet at night,” Yul told us, “make sure to go away from the ger. That way the wolves won’t know where you live.” He smiled again, another quick one, and we weren’t sure if it was a joke.
Yul had already taken us for lunch in Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbataar, and told us about the country. Landlocked, and neighboured by Russia and China, its history bursts with stories of Genghis Khan, Buddhism, and Communism. I didn’t know much of the country at all; it was a great mystery to me, the place we’d stay for a few days as part of our journey from Beijing to St. Petersburg by train. Although not a part of the traditional Trans-Siberian route, my mum and I both wanted to see this land with our own eyes.
After our lunch in Ulaanbaatar, Yul had taken us by car to Terelj National Park, only an hour or so away. There, we had ridden Bactrian camels, nestled between their humps, clutching to their soft hide. We had then been taken to a family’s ger for a snack of aarul – a curd made of camel milk – and airag – fermented mare’s milk. I was surprised to find I liked it, and the aarul sweetened when dipped in the airag. The family watched with wide eyes as I took my first bite, then laughed when I reached for another piece.
We finally went to our own ger, far down a dusty lane away from the main road.
The ger was now almost swelteringly hot; Yul had created a roaring fire in the stove before he left. We bundled up anyway, knowing how cold the night would get on our walk to and from the main lodge. There, we ate a dinner of unidentifiable meat, boiled potatoes, and Chinggis beer, served to us by an older woman who didn’t speak a word of English. As we ate she sat in the corner of the kitchen, watching a soap opera on TV, but every time we caught her eye she waved at us.
After brushing our teeth with the freezing water in the bathroom, we walked back to our ger. The stars were out, more than I could ever possibly imagine; they illuminated the tops of trees and rocks that flanked us to the west, and the stretches of dry earth that laid out for miles in front of us. There was no smoke coming from our chimney, and opening the blue door to our ger proved that the fire had indeed gone out. It was so cold inside we could see our breath.
And such became a rhythm over the next few days. We knew, without fail, we’d have to watch the fire and make sure it did not go out. It was amazing how quickly it became a routine, even in the middle of the night; we’d go to bed roasting, with the fire roaring and only one blanket needed. Throughout the night we’d reach for extra blankets, until, shivering, one of us would get up and put as much wood on the fire as possible. When we’d leave the ger – for walks along an empty road, or to ride horses a man brought for us each morning, or to eat in the kitchen of the lodge – we knew we’d return to a cold home. But there was something comforting in watching the flames come to life, knowing we could create the warmth we needed.
When Yul returned a few days later to pick us up and take us to the train station, he asked what we had done with our days.
“We read a lot,” I offered.
“We kept the fire going,” my mum said. Yul laughed.
“Yes, you did a good job. I know if foreigners had a good time just by looking at the ger. If there is smoke, they are happy. No smoke, no smiles.”
I remember the days in Mongolia as being very quiet, and very still. I remember the eternal blue sky and the unlimited power of the brown and yellow earth. I remember the warmth more than the cold; of being tucked up in bed at night, listening to the wolves howl in the distance, knowing the stars sequinned the sky above me.
For more on why you should visit Mongolia, check out the post I wrote a few years ago.
Have you been to Mongolia, or would you like to go? Have you ever slept in a ger/yurt?