A Home stay in Mongolia, is an eye opening and memorable experience. We have all heard of the phrase “experiencing the locals”, but a homestay in Mongolia takes it to a whole new level! It’s probably one of the last authentic experiences we can have in this plastic, commercialised world we live in.
With so much technology and the constant barrage of information, it really helps to just get away from it all…get back in touch with nature and see what it’s like to live a little more simply, a little more raw and a lot more wild! Mongolian culture combines the best part of worshipping Mother Nature, with a domestic lifestyle.
Bunking up with a local Mongolian family can be a really intimate experience…with these nomadic families, making you feel so welcome! In this article I have put together my top 6 things you NEED to know before booking a homestay in Mongolia.
My Home Stay in Mongolia:
1.Embrace the famous Nomad Hospitality.
When you first have your homestay in Mongolia, you will be greeting by your hosts in traditional nomadic fashion!
You will be greeted, offered a seat and then spoiled with some traditional Mongolian foods, perhaps asked to share suutei tsai (milk tea) or even the traditional nomadic vodka (arkhi) and even be encouraged to try some airag (Fermented horse milk!).
A good rule of thumb is at least take a sip of the drink, even if you don’t want the whole lot…this is seen as more respectful.
Usually the Mongolian family will offer you a spare Ger to stay in, however sometimes you may share the family Ger…which is really as close as you can get to the true nomad life and makes for a fantastic experience.
For example, the camp I stayed at have a Ger next to the families and a basic setup with some horses out front, a 4×4, and a motorbike.
We were the only couple of GERS for miles. If your a Star Wars fan, it really reminded me of that Scene from Stars wars episode 1, When a young Anakin, lived in the desert no mans land with his mother.
Speaking of mothers, During my Homestay back in 2018, I stayed with Arban, 43, his wife Bayarmaa 36 years old…whose name actually translates to “mother of joy” . In addition, to my new Mongolian parents, there were also there four great children.
Generally, the giving of small gifts is customary for visitors, however don’t bring anything too extravagant as word may get around and you could find yourself being harassed by the locals!
Remember, a Mongolian home stay is about fitting in with the locals…not standing out! The Mongolian Family, will appreciate something small and practical. For example, on my visit I brought with me wind-up torch, some hand cream and some Chocolates (Who doesn’t like Chocolate!). Stationary is also a good idea to bring like a few coloured pencils, or even a small toy, for the young children.
Pet Golden Eagle?
No cat, no dog…just a pet eagle! The nomad family I stayed with was lucky enough one of these superb eagles. Which was just a baby of 4 months old but they were training up for eagle hunting and even may one day be at the Golden eagle festival.
As we were here in the summer of the eagle was slightly heavier than normal and you can really feel it when it’s sitting on your arm.
Of course you have the robust glove on or believe me those sharp talons would rip your arm to shreds! Either way, although a little intimidating at first, the golden eagles are truly majestic creatures and a homestay is the perfect opportunity to get up close and personal with them.
2. Be Prepared to to get back to basics!
After you have been greeted and welcomed into the Mongolian life, you will usually start to notice that the setup is really basic. No electricity, no internet and no running water! Now although these utilities seem like essentials in our modern western society, the Mongolians still “survive” and have a full and happy life!
So how do they do it? And What can you learn? Well firstly, most Mongolian GER’s or Yurts have a stove in the centre…with a chimney coming out of the top of the Ger.
This provides heat for the GER and is surprising effective, even in the harsh Mongolian winters when temperatures can drop to -40’C. “Toilets” are outside of the GER, so no ensuite.
The “toilet” is an open air pit with two planks and surrounded on three sides by an improvised cubicle.
Although, not ideal…it does the job. I was fine with it to be honest but my girlfriend was not so impressed, but I told her to “think of staying in a Mongolian GER a little like camping”, except these guys do it all year round…that seemed to have eased her mind and she was fine afterwards!
Generally, your days will consist of helping out with various tailor tasks, from herding sheep, goats, to fetching water and even learning how to make dairy products and foods such as the tasty (Buuz) dumplings.
For example, during my homestay I regularly helped the children herd the goats, which are bred for their cashmere. Due to no running water Arban was heard early in the morning fetching cooking supplies, water and washing near the settlement well.
Although obviously, we had no mains electricity while at the GER camp. There was electricity provided by small solar panel and car battery which was sometimes used.
If you have lots of electronic gadgets I would suggest only bringing battery powered devices, such as a good camera with spare batteries (Non recharge) and a battery power bank for your cell phone for emergencies.
During my Mongolian home stay, on one late night I managed to get Arban, to open up to me. Surprisingly, he explained that he had lived in the city for a couple of months before but didn’t like it.
Here in the Mongolian Countryside life is simple “If you need money, you sell a animal. If you need food, you kill an animal.” This was eye opening for me, to really understand that these nomads simply don’t live this way because they “have to” but for some it’s because they really find it easier to live so naturally.
With regards to the slaughtering of animals, although it may seem as thought the Mongolian people are very comfortable with this..they tend to do it with the upmost respect and really try to do it in the most humane way possible.
For example, most Mongolians will slit a sheep stomach and pinch it’s main artery…this causes the animal to be stunned and dead within a couple of minutes.
For the squeamish among you this may still seem intense, but the Mongolian people have learnt over thousands of years the best methods to use and noting is left to waste.
3. Try some Mongolian games and activities
For fun, the Mongolian are quite quirky and humorous, even throughout seemingly not so fun tasks…so you won’t be short of smiles and laughter during your time at a Mongolian Homestay. However, in between the laughs there are still a few traditional games which are played, one is the Ankle bones game.
As the name suggests it’s consists of using Ankle bones of sheep or goats for pieces or dice in the game. Although it sounds “gruesome”, Ankle bones in games have been used for thousands of years in central Asia and is nothing to be afraid of.
This is where the name Ankle bone shooting comes from. In shagai dice, the rolled shagai can land on one of four sides: horse, camel, sheep or goat. A fifth side, cow, is possible sometimes on uneven ground.
The bones are collected together and used for traditional games such as Ankle bone shooting and even fortune telling.
Some of the bones are painted bright colours. The Shagai bone games very popular during the summer Naadam festival. The ankle bones are even used for fortune telling and exchanged as good luck tokens. For example, my homestay hosts gave me a couple before I left on the last day.
Good Luck tokens & Wolf Shagai:
In addition to exchanging traditional shagai from goats or sheep, the Mongolians usually male sometimes exchange wolf shagai for good luck. It is thought these resemble male genitalia and thus bring good luck in that area!
Reading a persons fortune, has it’s methods and traditions in every culture around the world. In the Mongolian culture this is a common method. It goes like this, four shagai dice are rolled on the ground; the two convex sides, the horse & sheep, are thought of as lucky, with horse being the luckiest.
The sides of the bone dice with concave indents, goat and camel, are deemed unlucky. If you roll all four sides on one throw is considered indicative of very good fortune. (I actually did this during my first homestay and my hosts met me with cheers and praise (I had no idea…what I had done!).
Ankle Bone (Shagai) Game Rules:
During your homestay your hosts will teach you the game…however, here is some common games played and the rules below:
Each player takes a turn tossing all the pieces to the ground. The goal is to try and use the “sheep” pieces to knock the “camel” pieces into the sheep position.
The shagai is laid out with a number of “sheep” (or “goats”) set up two-by-two. Each player then takes a turn throwing another object (usually a piece of chain) up into the air and catches it again. When the object is floating in the air, your goal is to try and pick up one the pieces, with the same hand without affecting the others.
Twelve years Shagai:
This game stems from the twelve year cycle of a traditional calendar. Two players toss two pieces as you would dice for 12 rounds. Where each horse landed is one point. If no player manages to reach 12 points the game resets, or else the highest scorer wins.
The game is for two-four players. Every time a player lands a horse or camel, then can collect extra pieces from the pool. The winner is the player who has collected the most pieces when the pool is finally empty.
Four animals Shagai:
This is similar to the full toss, except with the pieces divided into four groups representing each animal herd. The player takes turns rolling each piece like a dice and collecting one piece from the herd type landed. The player who has managed to collect the most pieces is the winner.
Open catch Ankle bone:
This is a real game of hand eye coordination, each player puts ten or greater pieces in one hand…then throws them up into the air. Round 1: The goal is to try and catch as many as possible with the back of the same hand.
Round 2: Throw the caught pieces up in the air again, to and try to catch them in a fist this time. Whoever has the most pieces is the winner.
Three Shagai toss:
A simple game, where any amount of players take turns tossing three pieces like dice. The number of “doubles” or triples you get the more points.
For example, two sames, for example two horses gives you one point whereas all three dices on the same side gives two points. The winner is the first to the pre defined number of points. The
The is the same game as the three shagai toss, except with an extra piece. Each player takes a turn tossing four pieces, the greater the number of “sames” the more points. However, if you get all four landing on different sides this also scores the maximum number of points 8.
Four sames gives four points, two pairs equal two points. Another exicting element to this, if you see another player score four sames and grab the dice fast enough…you get the score of that throw. Believe me this keeps everyone engaged. It’s amazing how much fun you can have with just a few ankle bones.
Horse Riding or Reindeer Riding:
There is no better way to experience the Mongolian countryside than on the back of a traditional nomadic horse. An ancient breed and the same type rode by the infamous Genghis Khan. You can even ride a reindeer if you stay with reindeer herders tribe living in northern Khövsgöl. Check out this great article on: Top 5 reasons to try horse riding in Mongolia?
Archery in Mongolia.
Archery is as much as a game as it is a way of life. Since ancient times this was used as a prized method of hunting and Mongolians have always been prized on there skill to ride a horse and fire a bow simultaneously.
These days it’s a popular past time with youngsters starting early mastering their skills with a bow. For a true display of this check out this Epic article on Naadam Festival.
Believe me, if your thinking of doing a homestay…try to time it with one for the great Mongolian festivals such as Naadam or the Golden Eagle festival.
4. Try the Horse Milk (Airag)
After playing all the fun and games, you must be feeling thirsty at your home stay. This could be the perfect time to try the famous Mongolia horse milk or fermented version Airag with is around 4% alcohol.
If your feeling unsure about drinking horse milk…think of the words of the great Dalai Lama “The only difference between Cows milk and Horse Milk is one comes from a horse and the other from a cow!” , who can argue with that logic??
However, apart from the cultural significance and backing of the Dalai Lama, horse milk has a host of health benefits. According to the Daily Reporter: “Horse Milk or Mares Milk a high content of enzymes such as lactoferrin, lysozyme which provide antibacterial stimulation of the immune system” So when in Rome, or When in Mongolia….
5. Be Open minded to Mongolian Foods
Mongolia’s climate is too cold to grow much in the way of vegetables or fruit, so most of the classic Mongolian dishes are meat and dairy dishes, with fairly simple seasonings.
During my homestay in Mongolia at meal time every really dug in. With everyone eating chunks of flesh, fat and skin while using their fingers and a sharp knife, to leaving nothing but bone left….which can be used for the Mongolian games!
Talk about resourcefulness. Here are some examples of great dishes to try below. Buuz (Dumplings) or (Khuushuur) Buuz is a type of steamed meat dumplings (buuz). They resemble other Asian dumplings such as potstickers or steamed buns , with one difference being the thick, hearty dough.
Spices for the filling are usually just onions or garlic, salt, maybe pepper or caraway. Khuushuur is a fried meat dumpling version which many tourists seem to love!
A dish of thick, handcut noodles. It usually contains small bits of meat and unremarkable slivers of vegetables, and is often rather greasy, but handmade noodles are always a good thing!
Boodog is a marmot roasted by piling hot stones in the stomach. Boodog is a fun, all-day experience, there’s a lot of preparation involving fire and everyone gets progressively drunker! Think like having a BBQ in the U.S.
Is another hot-stones BBQ style roast. But this time, instead of putting the hot stones in the animal’s stomach, goat meat and stones are sealed in a metal can. This is common when your out in the countryside, so don’t expect to see this in any restaurants!
6. Mongolian Homestay: Cultural Faux pas to avoid!
There are so many little intricacies in Mongolian culture that it helps to be aware of from not passing objects with your left hand (Considered bad luck) to etiquette inside the Ger camp and even useful phrases to know.
So to avoid getting left red faced while in Mongolia, check out this extensive article the Do’s and Don’ts you HAVE to know while traveling in Mongolia.
When should I book my Homestay?
During the summer temperatures can up to 30’C and one of the best times to visit Mongolia is during July or August, these are the peak summer months when the weather is pleasant, warm, averaging 25 degrees.
However, even in the summer be ware that temperatures can still drop at night. Reaching 6 degrees or less at some areas..so you may wan’t to bring some layers just in case.
A great option, and may favourite is to try and tie in the homestay before or after one of Mongolias famous festivals such as Nadaam festival or the Golden eagle festival. These are truly spectacular experiences and real bucket list events!
Winter In Mongolia is Cold But Incredibly Beautiful and wondrous. They can be long and harsh, with temperatures ranging from -20°C to – 45°C degrees.
I wouldn’t suggest a homestay in the winter, however I would say you should try and get out one of Mongolias great winter Ice festivals! Or even see the reindeer tribes at this time of year. That is a truly magical experience.
How to book a homestay in Mongolia?
There are various booking agencies but some are better than other, here at town and tourist we can organise your trip, included flights etc and put you in touch with a reliable on the ground Mongolian agent who have had deep relationships with the local Mongolians for over 20 years!
For more info: Email mail (at) townandtourist.com With the number of people traveling, start destination and what you really would like out of this trip! Then one of our experts will handle the complicated stuff for you.
A homestay in Mongolia is truly a fantastic experience, and really will change your entire mindset on life for years to come!
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Is Mongolia Cheap?
Mongolia is relatively cheap to get around and has a major airport in the capital Ulaanbaatar which serves most international airlines. Visas are around $70 dollars U.S for 30 days and can be obtained from your local Mongolian embassy. In the U.S there is one in Washington D.C. http://mongolianembassy.us/
For more info on costs: Pamela, does a nice article on traveling costs in Mongolia. https://pamelamacnaughtan.com/traveling-in-mongolia-is-cheaper-than-you-think/