Authentic or Glamping?
Part One – 10 July 2023
Sleeping in gers draws many travelers to Mongolia. We hear a lot about this form of camping but just how authentic, or what level of glamping, is it? Obviously, one’s experience depends upon location, amenities, and quite possibly the physical condition of one’s back.
What on earth is a ger? Is it a yurt? Basically it is, but their main difference is the roof. A ger is the older, traditional style of yurt. In fact, yurt is a Turkic/Russian word for what the Mongolian people call ger. The ger is a portable, tent-like structure that has been a staple of nomadic civilizations for centuries. Both ger and yurt is a round structure of walls and poles with peaked roof and covered with felt and canvas, then tightened with ropes made of animal hair or wool. They may seem humble from the outside, but once inside, you enter a world of comfort and relaxation – or is that just what travel brochures say?
Would you choose to sleep in a ger instead of a modern hotel with fluffy pillows and fancy bathrooms? Well, who needs Marriott when you can embrace your inner nomad and experience a unique blend of coziness and uncertainty? This is a chance to sleep under the stars yet still be protected from the elements and curious wildlife. It’s like camping, but with a touch of glamming and a sprinkling of ancient tradition.
But romance aside, sleeping in a ger comes with its quirks. There is the challenge of temperature. You might find yourself shivering like a polar bear in an ice bath during winter nights, or sweating like a marathon runner in the Gobi during summer. It’s a battle between Mother Nature’s whims and your desire for a good night’s sleep. One must master the art of thermal layering and just pile on the clothes whether they match or not.
And let’s not forget about the critters! Gers offer a cozy haven not only for you but for nature’s tiniest creatures as well. It’s like a B&B for bugs! You might wake up to find a spider waving hello from the ceiling or an army of ants on an expedition across your floor. Think of it as your personal introduction to the wonders of entomology, right in the comfort of your own sleeping quarters!
Plus, there is but a thin sheet of canvas between you and the bigger creatures of the night. I remember the hippos walking by my tent in Africa and thinking, “I am in a canvas tent held together with wooden sticks, and HE is BIG. What if he wants to come in like the big lizard I found in my toilet earlier?” These are questions an inquisitive mind needs answered!
However, sleeping in Mongolia’s gers is an adventure. It’s a whimsical dance between comfort and challenge, tradition and modernity, nature and human-made comfort. It’s my opportunity to slumber in these round wonders and embrace the challenge (with perhaps a can of bug spray).
Hoyor-Zagal Ger Camp…
lies about 50 miles from Karakorum in Högönö-Taranaiin-Hüree. The large camp is comprised of two sections, the Hoyor and the Zagal. It is named after the trusted horses, Hoyor and Zagal, of Chinggis Khan. The youngest horse feels unappreciated by Khan and convinces the older horse to run away. The older horse is reluctant. After the younger one runs away on his own the older one follows. The younger horse enjoys his new freedom, but the older one is homesick for their master, their mother and their comrades. He gets thinner and thinner, and in the end the younger one agrees to return. Meanwhile, Chinggis Khan has been missing his two white horses, and after their return they are properly praised for their service. Strips of colorful silk are weaved into their manes – a custom still observed today with the horses that have won Naadam races.
The ger camp holds at least 54 gers amid a natural landscape of Gobi sand dunes, wide open steppe, green grazing lands, and rocky mountains. No starry universe appeared as for us it was cloudy, windy, cold and rained to the point of flooding and “road” closures. There were no paved roads, just dirt paths, deep ruts and huge puddles.
Stay: 2 nights. Our ger is comfortable and warm with a fire in a metal stove and heated wood floors. Beds have hard mattresses and comforters. There are flush toilets, a shower and hair dryer, an electrical outlet, and coffee pot. Dining is in one of three large gers where the food is traditional Mongolian. Buffet breakfast has a large choice of bread, fruits, and eggs.
Cultural entertainment: There are opportunities for horseback riding and hiking. We lucked out with Naadam festivities featuring wrestling and horse races. Otherwise, it rained after our arrival and never stopped. Nothing much stops our bus, rather than through a pool of water our driver goes around. Dirt roads are merely a suggestion.
The camp and our ger were very comfortable, staff friendly and attentive, food good and location remote. There was wifi in the dining Ger and 24-hour electricity. Beer is available or you can bring your own wine to dinner.
Ratings 1-5, 5 being tops: Authentic or Glamping? Authentic 3, Glamping 3.
lies just off the Terelj Road in the foothills of the mountains of Gorkhi Terelj National Park. The drive is only about 33 miles east of Ulaanbaatar but a world away when it comes to scenery and open skies. The location is surrounded by mountain peaks and miles of lush green grasslands. Trees are rather sparse. Again, because of the absence of nighttime light, the skies could be awesome but for us it was cloudy with intermittent rain, windy and cold. Good but uneven roads got us there.
Stay: 1 night. The 35 gers are gathered under grassy hills and rock outcroppings. Views are beautiful. Although there is no shortage of land, gers are close together so noise can be an issue. This lodge offers modern facilities, no wifi but cell service, a restaurant and alcohol. Most gers are ensuite with a private bathroom. Meals are served at one of the 3 ger restaurants and offers both traditional Mongolian and western cuisine. Mongolian traditional hospitality and food is in abundance.
Cultural entertainment: scenery and hiking the hills. We did a wonderful walk past Turtle Rock and among several temples for spectacular views over the valley. The hiking is a bit challenging as the altitude is over 5000’.
The gers themselves are colorful and large. Ours was more than comfortable with twin beds, wooden floors, electricity and bathroom. Hot water and large shower, shampoo and hair dryer were available. They will build a fire in your stove in the evenings. Guy used a blow torch for a touch of modern, but our fire still fizzled.
Ratings 1-5, 5 being tops: Authentic or Glamping? Authentic 2, Glamping 3.
Alagtsar Camp in Nominsky, Khövsgöl Province…
overlooks Lake Khövsgöl/Hovsgol, a location solidly frozen in winter. Lake Khövsgöl is one of Mongolia’s most scenic, mountainous areas with boreal forests extending north into Siberia. The lake is massive and fed by the same water supply as its cousin, Lake Baikal in Siberia. Mongolians refer to the lake as “Mother” and not only is it home to many species of fish, but its waters hold approximately 3% of the world’s fresh water. The lake is surrounded by dozens of mountains, beautiful larch forests and lush meadows with grazing yaks, sheep, goats and horses.
We were warned it would be cool at night. In fact, the weather around the lake can be quite cool even in July. A fleece-lined jacket, hat, gloves and warm underwear have been suggested! I am reminded of area walking a thickly frozen Lake Baikal in winter of 2010 when temperatures were -40º F. This beautiful area is more like a pleasant hike but at altitude.
The camp consists of a couple dozen gers and 14 cabin structures, some still in construction. Cabins have decks but are close together and noisy. I could hear the gentleman next door sweetly singing in his bathroom. Accommodations range from basic to comfortable basic. The views over the lake are beautiful with starry night skies, if clear, which seems less and less likely as clouds and thunderstorm come and go. Sunsets are spectacular.
Stay: 3 nights. Gers are basic basic as are the cabins. While bright, sunny and warm, the moment a cloud blocks the sun or at night, temperatures drop. Meals are served in a large dining hall and both traditional Mongolian and western cuisine is available as is beer. It is best just to bring your own. Traditional Mongolian hospitality and food is in abundance. No wifi but spotty cell service.
Cultural entertainment: Many activities can be arranged from horseback riding to riding in a Yak cart to constructing a ger. Also, for the tourists, reindeer herders come out of the mountains with a few stock and one can take a boat to their camp and learn of their life as nomadic herders. We also visited a yak herder’s ger and enjoyed their hospitality and watched her milk yaks. Hiking opportunities abound. The lake restricts boating and fishing but any swimmer who wishes may dip their body in water that is about 42º on a good day. Insulated underwear at night, swimming by day? Altitude is over 5400’.
Modern cabins are sunny, clean and neo-rustic, but there are no amenities including soap nor hot water. A towel was provided. You can get a thermos of hot water for face washing and coffee. This is a BYOE area, “bring your own everything”. There are toilet and sink in cabin. Showers and sinks are in a common area and have hot water. My niece, who has recently experienced college dorm showers, described them as “disgusting” so user be aware. The sinks ran cold water. The water is pumped directly from the lake which is crystal clear and ice cold. The sound of tree saws shattered what otherwise was a pristine and tranquil setting.
Getting here: traveling to this lodge, gives a whole new meaning to off-road driving. First, we boarded a prop airplane departing UB Airport and arriving at the small but adequate, bumpy, concrete, runway of Murun about an hour and a half later. Murun may be a very large community of some 70,000 people, but there is nothing else that you see on the plains between there and UB. From the airport we continued about 80 miles on rough and undulating roads before turning onto unpaved, literally cross-country paths for another 20 miles. Immense potholes that would swallow a yak, puddles deep enough to drown a goat, endless ruts, detours, streams, and sheep herds dot our path to the lake and our camp. We had an excellent four-wheel-drive van, driven by a Mongolian cousin of Mario Andretti who seem to make the commute in record time. We arrived reasonably in one piece and alive. As my niece said, “Getting here is a point for authenticity.”
Ratings 1-5, 5 being tops: Authentic or Glamping? Authentic 1, Glamping 3.
Rains and Floods Continue
Because of the recent heavy rains around Mongolia, there is serious, flooding in Ulaanbaatar. Rivers were quite high when we departed and have only increased in the last three days. There is some serious flooding around Ulaanbaatar. Because we have had additional rain here at the lake over the past three days, we will not be returning along the 20-mile rutted and muddy route across the steppe which brought us here. Though I do earn multitudes of steps for all those bumps, I celebrate this decision.
Our leader has rented a boat which will take us across Lake Khövsgöl and deposit us on the other side where we can catch our vans for our return trip. We will still bounce the rough and undulating road back to Murun but at least we avoid the possibility of getting stuck in a Mongolian pothole.
If the road isn’t bumpy, then it’s not Mongolia.