A homestay in remote Mongolia offers a rare and authentic travel experience, writes Tatyana Leonov.
To see "nothing" in front of you but have your soul filled to the brim is a rare and – for someone from a big city like myself – strange experience. We journey for hours on end and see nothing but rolling greens, snow-capped mountains and hulking rocky outcrops that leap into the intensely blue sky. Other times we see gers (or yurts, the Mongolian tents), flocks of sheep, herds of cows and camels, and occasionally people.
Exploring with a travel company for 15 days we have two homestays included as part of the tour. Like most of the others in our motley group of eight, I assume these are pre-organised. How wrong I am.
Traditionally, Mongolians are a roving race and although many now live in villages, half of the population still lives the nomadic life. They live in transportable gers and move three to four times a year in search of greener pastures. For this reason, it's not always possible to pre-organise homestays.
Before the door-knocking begins, our feisty guide Shinee (who hails from the capital Ulaanbaatar) and driver Sansar (who lives a nomadic life for half of the year and works as a tour driver for the remainder) stock up on meat while we buy potentially useful gifts – soap, tea, coffee, snacks – in a village along the way. As the afternoon sun sinks closer to the horizon we scan the land looking for two gers side by side. The theory is that families with two gers will be more likely to host all eight of us on their floor.
We skirt rocks and ditches and eventually pull up at two gers where Shinee and Sansar park the van and tell us to wait. Like impatient kids we sit fidgeting, anticipating, wanting to be invited in. Half an hour later they walk out and summon us. We clumsily stumble out of the van and attempt to straighten out our crinkled clothing. It feels a little like a blind date.
Small in stature and sporting a long braid, Puje runs the ger. Her husband is away working in a nearby village and she's there with her two children – an animated 10-year-old boy and a cute runny-nosed two-year-old girl. After niceties are exchanged, with Shinee translating (we chat about families, jobs and dreams), Puje heads out to milk the cows and we play with the children.
The little girl poses for photos and giggles rambunctiously whenever her mother isn't watching, however, her older brother grows a little envious of the attention his sister is receiving and beckons us to watch him instead.
He confidently mounts his glossy-maned horse, showing off the skills passed down from his forefathers – the skills that enabled his ancestors to rule over an empire roughly the size of Africa centuries ago (horses were an integral part of the success).
His eyes light up and he begins to laugh excitedly as he speeds up to a gallop. There's a saying: "A Mongol without a horse is like a bird without the wings", and this boy sure is flying.
The writer was a guest of Intrepid Travel. See intrepidtravel.com/mongolia.