Two out of ten of my days in Ulaanbaatar, “the world’s coldest capital city,” were spent living in a traditional Mongolian yurt (also called a “ger”). As you read in part one of this trip report, the other eight days were spent wandering around the city center. Ulaanbaatar’s city center is mostly filled with the same ol’ buildings and apartments that can be found in practically any other Asian city, but the outskirts of the city are filled with houses and yurts. It’s quite a contrast going from one to the other. The Mongolians have been living in yurts for thousands of years, so entering a ger neighborhood is like walking into the past.
My entire time in the yurt was spent alongside my hostess, a middle-aged unmarried Mongolian woman whom I’ll refer to as “Oy.” I found Oy by responding to her ad on Airbnb for a Mongolian family home-stay – about $45 per night, which is not exactly cheap by Mongolian standards, but a fair deal considering she’d stay with me 24/7 and cook all my meals.
Oy was a strange woman. Not in a creepy way, rather in an absent-minded kind of way. She was nice and generous, but by the end of my two days with her, I couldn’t wait to get away from her. This was mostly due to the fact that communicating with her in English proved very difficult, and also due to how overbearing she was as a host.
It seemed like she had decent command of English, yet when I would say something simple to her like – “Should we start cooking dinner now?” – she would just look at me, give no reply, and then continue to go about doing whatever it was she was already doing. This must’ve happened tens if not hundreds of times in the span of two days. It seemed like she could speak English fairly well, but she would selectively listen to what I said to her. Very frustrating.
I eventually learned to just expect Oy’s strange behavior, and I tried my best to cope. I could tell she hated silence and felt uncomfortable when no one was talking. This is the opposite of me, as I prefer silence when there’s nothing good to talk about, or if I simply want a break from being social. She would tell me small bits about Mongolia’s culture, food, and history – some of which I found interesting, but other parts I found to be too “stock” or possibly even made up.
As for her being so overbearing, this is also common in mainland Chinese people. The Chinese like to “micro host” whenever they have a guest in their home, especially if that guest is a foreigner from a land far, far away. This is nice and all, but usually I wish the host would just chill out and stop trying so hard, as most of the time I don’t actually want or need anything. But by telling a Chinese host you don’t need anything, they assume you’re simply trying to be humble and modest, as that’s what “good” guests are supposed to do in China. But in my case, I’m not exactly trying to be modest, I just genuinely don’t want or need anything, but it’s impossible to convince my hosts of that. Well apparently some Mongolian people also play the “overbearing host” role, as Oy certainly did. I appreciated her effort, but I sincerely don’t need much.
The inside of my yurt was about the size of a small bedroom, maybe 15 to 20 square (circular?) meters. Even though there were usually three to four people in the yurt at any given time, it never really felt too crowded. There were three separate makeshift beds, a dining table, two small dressers, a cooking shelf, and a coal furnace in the yurt. The furnace double functions as both a heater and a stove top. You can place pots and pans on top of the furnace to cook food. The furnace also helps to keep the inside of the yurt nice and toasty, but almost too toasty. I would sweat anytime the furnace was burning coal, yet whenever the furnace went out, the yurt’s temperature would quickly plunge to subzero. It was hard to get the inside temperature just right, as it was always either too hot or too cold.
Going to the bathroom meant going to an outhouse, as there generally aren’t any toilets in yurts. As you can imagine, having to go to the bathroom outside, especially number two, when the temperatures are well below zero is certainly no fun. Times this by three when it’s the middle of the night.
There’s also no running water in most yurts, so people have to fetch water from a well or buy some from a local store. I often saw people hauling giant jugs of water on dollies throughout the ger neighborhood. And since there’s no running water, taking a shower in a yurt is usually not possible or highly inconvenient. Since I was only staying in my yurt for two days, I opted to not have to learn how to take a shower in a yurt. I can’t imagine it would be too fun. Bathhouses and spas are everywhere in Ulaanbaatar, so I just assume people living in yurts frequent them when it’s time to take a shower. Public bathing is common all over Northeast Asia.
Other than a single overhead light bulb, my yurt had no electricity to speak of, and most certainly no electrical outlets. However, the yurt next door to mine had plenty of electricity. That specific yurt had a washing machine, a big screen LCD TV, lamps, outlets, and all of the other appliances and electronics you’d come to expect in a modern home. So yurts can certainly have plenty of electricity, but not all of them do. They can also look far more modern on the inside than they do on the outside, so don’t be fooled.
Just like everywhere else in the city, the ger neighborhood badly reeked of burning coal, but it was much worse in the ger neighborhood than in the city center. This is because the yurts are the ones doing most of the coal burning. Coal-burning furnaces are the primary source of heat for most yurts, and since there are thousands of yurts all over Ulaanbaatar, the air quickly gets filled with coal exhaust, especially late at night when temperatures plunge.
There’s really not much to do in a yurt with no running water or electricity. Think of when the power goes out at your home. What do you do? That’s usually your cue to go do something outside or to enjoy some of life’s simpler pleasures like reading a book, chatting face-to-face with friends and family, playing a board game, etc. When I wasn’t chatting with Oy, eating, or outside exploring and taking pictures, I mostly found myself reading an e-book on my mobile phone. I brought a back-up battery with me, so luckily my mobile phone never ran out of power.
Walking around the snow covered ger neighborhood, I felt like I was somewhere far far away from home. I guess in fact I was. The neighborhood was not aesthetically pretty per say, but it just looked so foreign, exotic, and interesting to my American eyes. Rarely do I have that “Wow! Look at where I am!” feeling anymore when I travel in Asia, as I’ve seen so much of it, but it was nice to have that feeling all over again. Life in a ger neighborhood is nothing like I’ve seen before. It was beautiful in its own unique kind of way.
It was hard to judge whether or not the ger neighborhood is a poorer part of the city. On one hand, everything looked so downtrodden, just like the rural villages of Northeast China. But on the other hand, nicely-dressed people were driving up to their yurts in cars. My best guess is that many people choose to live in a yurt because they simply want to, not because of economic necessity. Whether that be for tradition or to save money, I really don’t know. At the very least, they’re living in the yurts part-time, and then returning to their apartments in the city center when they want modern facilities. I find that interesting, but maybe I’m missing something.
Little convenience stores were peppered throughout the neighborhood. It seemed like most of them were within a two- to three-minute walk of one another. All the core necessities could be found at these little convenience stores like water, beverages, eggs, meat, snacks, toiletries, etc. It was comforting to know that a trip to the city center was not necessary for most everyday items. I often bought drinks from these convenience stores, and then I’d leave the drinks outside of my yurt for a few minutes to chill them down. After all, the temperature outside was always colder than a freezer!
Ferocious and loud-barking dogs were all over the ger neighborhood. Not a single one of these dogs seemed friendly, and I got the impression that they were only a hair trigger away from biting me. It was hard to tell whether these dogs were strays or if they belonged to someone, as the dogs were rarely wearing a collar and they were always roaming around freely. But seemingly every yurt in the neighborhood had a guard dog on post, so I couldn’t quite figure it out. Naturally, most of these dogs looked like “cold” breeds – that is breeds of dogs that are native to freezing cold climates. Many of them had very thick coats of fur and lots of bulky muscles on their bones. They weren’t the kind of dogs you’d wanna mess with.
In the yurt next to me was a large family with all females. The sons had moved out of the yurt to greener pastures, while the daughters stuck around to finish college. What surprised me is how good-looking and sophisticated some of the girls in the yurt looked. They didn’t at all look like the kind of people I envisioned living in a yurt, rather they looked much more like your typical urban Asian females. They wore fashionable clothes and had stylish hair and make-up. And on top of that, the daughters could speak Russian and Korean on top of Mongolian, as well as a little bit of English. That’s pretty impressive for young people living in a humble little yurt. Pictured above are the mom and the aunt. Too bad the younger girls didn’t want to be in the photograph!
The first night I was staying in the yurt, Oy and her adopted “sister” from the yurt next door made buuz (traditional Mongolian dumplings) from scratch. They diced the beef, hand-rolled the flour, mixed the filling, packed each dumpling, and then steamed them in a metal tray. It was pretty neat seeing how they made them. The process is remarkably the same as when Chinese hand-make dumplings for the Chinese New Year, a process I have witnessed many times.
When the buuz were finished cooking, Oy sliced up some pickled cucumbers to serve as a side. The buuz tasted like little hamburger patties. I guess they’re 80% beef after all. The diced onions and garlic in the filling gave the buuz a little bit of extra flavor. They were pretty good, quite similar to Chinese xiaolongbao, but far more meat heavy. A good wintertime meal, but not something you could eat regularly. They’re generally reserved for special occasions anyway.
The second night we stayed in the yurt, Oy and her sister made beef soup. It was nothing too fancy, just chopped onions, carrots, potatoes, and slices of fatty beef served in a salty broth. I love soups during the cold winter, as the hot broth helps warm my body up. Their soup was decent, nothing extraordinary, but it served its purpose well.
Two days in the yurt was just the right amount of time. One day would have felt just a little too short and rushed, while three days would have been too long and boring. It was interesting to see what the inside of a yurt looks like with my own eyes, and it was also interesting to see how many Mongolians still live. I definitely recommend the experience to others traveling to Ulaanbaatar. Just understand that you and your Mongolian host likely have two totally different ideas of how to communicate and pass the time, and this can lead to a lot of awkwardness and discomfort. For me the photo opportunities alone were worth the money, time, and effort. But even if there were no photos to be had, it was still a worthwhile experience. One I won’t be forgetting any time soon!