Instead, says our guide Natalie, Mongolians rely on their livestock for food, resulting in a diet of meat and milk.
“They eat five types of meat,” Natalie tells us, while perched precariously on what looks like a child’s chair. “Sheep, goat, cow, camel and horse.
“And a popular drink is airag, which is fermented mare’s milk. If you drink it then you get, um …” she rolls her eyes backwards and sways like a drunk in a pantomime. It’s a wonder she doesn’t fall off her mini chair.
“They milk anything,” she continues, composing herself. “And they use all of the animal … the hair … the meat … fresh meat in winter, dried meat in summer.
“If you have more than 100 animals then you are very rich.”
I sip on my Mongolian green tea with milk – “please don’t let this be horse milk” – and check out the ger tent’s interior design.
Our hostess, Khishigt, is the mother of eight grown children, and she lives here with her husband. They disassemble their ger twice a year – in summer and winter – and move it to a different location. It’s surprisingly spacious inside. I didn’t have time to count the livestock in the yard but this ger has electricity – there’s a washing machine, a fridge and a freezer in here – so they must be comparatively well off.
Almost three quarters of Mongolians live in ger tents and they all follow a traditional layout. The doorway generally faces the south, and to the left is the men’s side, where manly things like weapons and saddles are kept, while women stick to the right-hand side with their cooking utensils.
In the middle is the stove with its long pipe poking out through the ceiling. Smoke billows out all winter long, and from the outside it looks like a white frosted cupcake at a first birthday party.
The northern end is the most sacred part of the ger. Khishigt’s shrine is covered with heirlooms, religious items and pictures of her children and grandchildren. But it’s a fridge magnet that catches my eye. It’s shaped like the Underground symbol, with its easily identifiable red and blue, and the word ‘London’ at its centre. It’s straight out of a Leicester Square souvenir shop. Clearly we aren’t the first tourists to have sampled Khishigt’s dried milk curds.
Natalie tells us that hospitality of this kind is not unusual in Mongolia, and it isn’t just because its people are friendly. The country is five times the size of France but has just two million inhabitants. More than half of those live in Ulaan Baatar. It’s because of all this empty space that hospitality is a necessity. Ignore a traveller and they could die of starvation before they reach the next ger.
Obviously this wasn’t going to happen to us. We were heading to a tourist camp in Terelj National Park, with three meals a day provided. Terelj is just 80km from Ulaan Baatar and it’s an ideal spot for horse riding, hiking or rock climbing. It’s also the place to go if you want to sample life in a ger yourself. After a short drive through a rocky, mountainous landscape – past the famous Turtle Rock – we arrive at our very own ger tent.
It’s smaller than Khishigt’s but follows a similar layout. We don’t have a fridge or washer – just three bright-orange single beds and a children’s table and chair set, also orange. It’s so quaint that I hit my head on the orange doorway as I walk in.
I carefully stick to the eastern side of the ger tent and choose a bed according to the men on the left, women on the right rule.
I don’t want to break any more rules. The last time I did that I ended up eating milk that had been left out in the sun.
Make your own ger tent
Step 1: Build the wooden frame, leave a hole in the top for the chimney. If you don’t own any camels you’ll have to carry it yourself
Step 2: Wrap the frame in felt. If you can’t find any sheep to skin just stick a few duvets together.
Step 3: Secure the duvets with belts made from braided horses’ tails. Or ‘borrow’ some belts from former housemates.
Step 4: Raid a child’s cubby house for furniture. Must be extremely awkward for adults to sit on.
Step 5: Over Hammersmith? Dismantle and move to Clapham. Easy.
Most homes have rules and a Mongolian ger is no different. Keep the following etiquette tips in mind during your visit.
❏ Keep your visit short. Longer than a couple of hours and you’ll interrupt the family’s work.
❏ Take a small gift for your hosts. Pack some souvenirs from your home country or buy some biscuits or chocolates en route.
❏ It is impolite to turn your back on photos, heirlooms and religious items in the ger.
❏ Always sleep with your feet pointing towards the doorway.
Visiting Ulaan Bataar
Ulaan Baatar isn’t a pretty city but that doesn’t mean you should leave the camera in your backpack. Here are some sights you shouldn’t miss.
Mongolia’s largest, most important Buddhist monastery is home to more than 150 monks and a 26.5m high golden Buddha. Visit early to catch the morning ceremony.
Museum of Natural History
It’s worth visiting if only for its impressive collection of dinosaur skeletons, eggs and fossils found in the Gobi Desert.
Winter Palace of the Bogd Khaan
As well as the white palace, which was the home of Mongolia’s last king, there are six temples on this site. And, if you haven’t tired of stuffed animals after visiting the Museum of Natural History, then you’ll be pleased to know there’s a collection here as well.
Genghis Khan is more than just the barbarian from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Mongols know him as Chinggis Khaan and he’s their national hero – there’s a statue of the big guy in this large and busy square. While you’re there check out the National Modern Art Gallery, Museum of Mongolian History and the Museum of Natural History, which are all nearby.