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 sheeps milk tea.
It was all part of a 10-day journey through central Mongolia that wed 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 made up of 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.
As we stepped into the ger for our lunch stop, we felt nervous about intruding on the nomadic shepherds who surely must have had better things to do than host this unexpected band of tourists. But our hosts seemed hardly fazed as the woman served us the milk tea and her husband cheerfully asked what brought us to their neck of the steppes.
More than one-third of Mongolias 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 doesnt take long for the urban noise to fade, the paved roads to end and the sky to open up. Another third of the nations 3.1 million people are considered nomadic, and their pastoral lifestyle still is 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 Russias Siberian territory.
In the south, where summer days range from mild to scorching, most gers dont 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 theres 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 Mongolias 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 mares 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 mares milk was an experience that my stomach never quite forgave me for.
The fermented mares 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 gers solar panel.
Despite some newer conveniences, including cellphones and televisions for some families we met, life on the steppes certainly isnt easy. As tourists, milking goats, sheep and yaks were 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 wasnt 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 Ive 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.
Thats 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. Because less than one percent of Mongolias land is arable, the occasional carrot, potato and cabbage are usually the only fresh vegetables represented in the diet.
The khorkhogs 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 thats 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.