The journey is often more exciting than the destination - and never is that more apparent than on a railway vacation. Whether you're being rocked to sleep on Vietnam's Reunification Express, watching the Highlands whizz past the window in Scotland, or cracking open the vodka and a pack of cards on the iconic Trans Siberian Railway, there are few better ways to travel the world.
What to expect in a Mongolian ger
A night or two in a traditional Mongolian ger camp is often a highlight of any trip on the Trans Mongolian Railway. The most popular destinations for this include Gorkhi-Terelj National Park and Khustai National Park, both of them conveniently just outside the capital, Ulaanbaatar, where the train stops. In fact you’ll see gers scattered everywhere across Mongolia, especially on the steppe and increasingly on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar. Increasing numbers of herders are giving up on this harsh, unpredictable way of life, and moving to the city in search of more reliable and better-paid work. However, they prefer to live in these round tents, rather than move into modern apartments.
Ger in Mongolian translates to ‘home’. For thousands of years people have been born in them, married in them, died in them – around half the population still resides in them. Your typical Mongolian could go their whole life without ever sleeping in a permanent building. And in many cases you find several generations sharing the same tent, which is why folklore, superstition and a long tradition of storytelling have survived in Mongolian culture for so long.
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Gers are canvas tents, lightweight, well-insulated and crucially, easy to assemble and dismantle so that the herders can easily follow the seasons and the best grazing land – in some cases they can be erected in under an hour. Their circular shape makes them more resilient to the winds that whip across the steppe, and some will have little windows in the roof; as there are no windows in the walls, the doors usually face south to maximise light.
So what’s the difference between a ger and a yurt? Very little, but a ger’s roof is supported by two central poles (which can be hazardous after a few too many cups of fermented yak milk), whereas a yurt’s roof is held up by the wheel-like central ribs, meaning it has a steeper pitch.
A typical ger is divided into defined areas. Men keep their saddles and other tools on the western side, while women store their own equipment, such as for cooking and washing, on the eastern side. In the center there is a wood-burning stove, and at the back there will often be a shrine. Drying goat carcasses may hang from the roof. But there are also many traces of modern life – it’s not unusual to see gers with solar panels, even satellite dishes. You have to charge your mobile phone somehow...
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Ger camps for tourists vary in size, but a standard one could consist of 20-50 gers clustered around one larger tent where meals are shared. There might be some form of evening entertainment, such as a memorable performance of Mongolian throat singing, maybe accompanied by the horsehair fiddle. Food-wise, expect a lot of dairy products, along with mutton and dumplings, perhaps a traditional Mongolian barbecue. A bottle of the local firewater may also be passed around – go steady. Most ger camps can offer vegetarian options but expect choices to be fairly limited.
The accommodation will be fairly basic, but comfortable enough, clean and cosy thanks to the stove. You’ll have a thin mattress but thick blankets which you will appreciate as even in summer the evenings can be chilly. Tourist gers are not generally so well-insulated as those where the families live, so if you have a compact sleeping bag you may want to bring it along.
Larger camps will have a toilet and shower block (some even have gers with en suite bathrooms), and electricity from a generator which you may be able to use for charging devices, but don’t count on it.
Jessica Brooks from our vacation specialist Eternal Landscapes on what to expect of the food and comfort in a Mongolian ger: “If it is a tourist-focused ger camp then meals are typically provided by the camp restaurant. How good or varied are the meals depends on the chef’s experience and also the money that the ger camp invests into its kitchen / meals. There can be a big difference. Most camps can provide vegetarian options although these can be limited in their variety. Sometimes there can be a wait for meals if there are a lot of guests having dinner at once. You should also be able to get a range of drinks from tea and coffee to soft drinks and alcohol. What is available again depends on each individual camp. Drinks such as beer, Coke or water are not always served cold, because a lot of ger camps work off a generator. Each ger has a central stove which remains lit as this is the main source of warmth. The stove will usually die-out in the early morning hours – if you’re used to an insulated house with central heating you’ll probably notice a substantial difference.”
No whistling insideThere are various customs you ought to be aware of when staying in Mongolian gers – it’s not going to be a problem if you forget them, but showing some respect towards them will be appreciated. Among the most important are not to stand on the threshold of the tent when you enter, as this is a sign you’re unsure of whether your hosts are trustworthy. Also there is a belief that the spirit of the home, which offers protection to the residents, lives in the threshold. Walking between the two central poles that support the roof of your hosts’ ger, leaning on them or passing anything between them is also a no-no, because these are viewed as symbolic of their relationship. Burning anything other than wood in the stove is frowned upon - fire is seen as sacred - as is turning your back on the shrine. Lastly, don’t whistle inside the ger as there is a belief that by doing so you can invite a storm. Read about more ger customs here.
What you’ll be doing
There are often walking trails close to the camps, which tend to be in very picturesque locations. You might also lend a hand with the livestock, or get to know the community – though of course there will be a language barrier. It’s all about immersing yourself in the culture, the landscapes, the tranquillity of these places. And knowing that by staying here, you’re helping traditional ways of life to survive.
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