TERELJ, Mongolia — There were two things I wanted to do when we were in Mongolia: ride a horse across the grasslands, and sleep in a yurt. We weren’t going to be able to do those things in Ulaanbaatar, so for one of our three days in Mongolia, we headed out to Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, a protected area about two and a half hours outside of the capital.
Terelj has many “ger camps” offering tourists the chance to sleep in a ger (which is the Mongolian word for yurt) and get a taste of rural life. We ended up staying in what might have been the smallest one — it wasn’t so much a camp as a spare ger that was used to bring in a little extra money for a local family.
The ger, or yurt, consists of a wooden frame draped with heavy wool felt coverings. A stovepipe sticks out of the top, providing ventilation for the wood stove in the center of the ger. Our ger had four single beds arranged around the perimeter of the ger, plus a small table in the center for eating. Primitive wiring allows for a lightbulb to brighten the tent at night.
It was late afternoon by the time we had settled into our ger, and the weather was a bit ominous. Mongolia is sunny for three-quarters of the year, but we had chosen one of the rare cloudy days for our trip to Terelj. We could hear thunder in the distance. But the 14-year-old son of the family, who spoke a tiny bit of English, promised that the weather was good enough for a horse ride.
Our ger was on the valley floor, surrounded by low, grassy mountains. Grazing yaks, sheep and horses dotted the landscape, which was punctuated by occasional yurts, wooden houses and SUVs. As we rode, we passed through stretches of forest and at one point we rode through a river that reached my horse’s knees. I didn’t bring my camera on the ride, since managing an SLR while riding a horse is a little over my skill level. So I got to enjoy the ride without worrying about how it looked through the viewfinder.
That night, we tucked into a meal of noodles fried with yak meat and nary a vegetable in sight, as usual in Mongolia. We went to bed early, warmed by the fire. Not being in the habit of starting fires, we threw all the wood in right before we went into bed. Of course, it went out a few hours later, and the tent cold-cold-cold. Throw in hard beds and thin pillows, and we had a rather restless night. When the sun came out, I was ready to get going back to Ulaanbaatar.
Still, it was an experience I wouldn’t have missed. Like staying with nomads outside Langmusi, we got a small taste of a very different lifestyle from our own. And after cruising through Mongolia on Train 23, it felt good to stretch our legs and see the grasslands up close!