Mongolian nomadic life

Meet 72 year old Nanjilmaa who has spent her whole life as a nomad in Mongolia and has no plans to stop now.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. He has been a journalist for more than 20 years and has travelled the world full time since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.

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Nomadic life in Mongolia

Inside a traditional Mongolian tent, 72-year-old Nanjilmaa serves a fermented milk drink and passes around a plate of dairy candies.

She is a nomad – in the way that the people of her land have been for centuries. And she’s invited me in to learn a bit more about her culture.

It would be easy to, at first glance, think of Mongolia’s nomads as somehow old-fashioned or impoverished. But that would be wrong.

They live on the land not for necessity but because of choice. This is a Mongolian way of life and these people are the backbone of the country’s heritage. I think seeing this side of the country is one of the best things to do in Mongolia.

Mongolian nomadic life, visit a ger in Mongolia

Looking around Nanjilmaa’s tent – or ‘ger’, as it’s called here – it’s clear to see that this is a home.

Comfortable couches covered in rugs, a small cupboard, a table with family photos, a wood stove – and even a fridge and a television.

For a nomad, a ger is not temporary, even if the location is.

Mongolian nomadic life, visit a ger in Mongolia

Nanjilmaa proudly introduces herself by saying she has 2 horses, 20 cows, 50 sheep… and 8 children and 16 grandchildren.

Her husband has passed away so she now lives in her ger alone. But her youngest son and his family live in separate ger that they always put next to hers.

The easiest way to think of Mongolia’s nomads is as animal farmers. But because the harsh seasons of the country mean dramatic changes in weather conditions and food availability, these farmers move locations throughout the year to the most appropriate spots.

In winter, they often move in front of a mountain for shelter. In spring, it’s closer to a river, in summer right next to a river for water supply, and in autumn up a hill to collect hay for winter time.

Most nomads move at least four times a year but some might move up to 30 times in a year, especially if they have a lot of animals that eat through the available food quickly.

Mongolian nomadic life, visit a ger in Mongolia

Nanjilmaa has dressed up today in one of her best homemade traditional outfits. She knew she would have visitors and I think she’s honoured to have us – although I’m the one who feels honoured to be here.

At one point, as she’s talking about how she likes the clothes she has on because they have big pockets, she pulls her mobile phone out of one of them.

It’s a reminder that living in a ger does not separate you from the modern world.

Mongolian nomadic life, visit a ger in Mongolia

The television against the side of the tent also demonstrates that Nanjilmaa watches a lot of Korean soap operas – she loves them. Her favourite show, though, is Mongolia’s Got Talent (yes, that’s a real thing).

I try to imagine what it would be like, sitting in a tent at night, snow all around, watching a singing competition.

(If you’re wondering where the power comes from, in some of the spots she camps (particularly the winter ones) she can connect to the electricity of local towns – otherwise she has a solar power device.)

Mongolian nomadic life, visit a ger in Mongolia

There are some aspects of modern life that Nanjilmaa misses, though. For example, she tells me that she would like to have a proper shower because she has to heat up water in a pot and wash herself with that.

It’s not enough to make her want to change her lifestyle, though. She loves it out here.

“I don’t like cities,” she says. “Too crowded, too stressful.”

“It’s so free here. I get out and see the mountains and there’s nothing to be bothered with.”

“In the cities, to be alone you go into your apartment. Here, to be alone, you go outside.”

Mongolian nomadic life, visit a ger in Mongolia

The only time that Nanjilmaa really wishes she was in a city is when she unexpectedly runs out of things like flour or rice and the shops are so far away. Then again, her children often bring her supplies when she needs them.

Other than the one who travels with her, the other children live in Ulaanbaatar – there’s an economist, an engineer and a lawyer amongst them.

Mongolian nomadic life, visit a ger in Mongolia

They also come and help her move when it’s time to change the location of her camp. It takes about an hour to take everything down, about an hour to move it, and then about three hours to put it all up again.

She often just moves to the same seasonal spot she was in the year before. The gers tend to leave a mark on the ground for at least a year and, out of respect, nobody else would set up camp in the area if they can see one.

Mongolia is in a period of rapid change. It’s becoming increasingly urbanised as more and more of its citizens move to Ulaanbaatar, seeking an education and a professional job over the traditional nomadic life.

That is creating pressures in the city but it’s also making things difficult in the countryside as the size of family units drop and less people are left to do the work.

Mongolian nomadic life, visit a ger in Mongolia

But Nanjilmaa still sees a bright future. She will encourage some of her grandchildren to live on the land and continue the family traditions. She doesn’t see the nomadic lifestyle disappearing.

“It will still be strong because the main reason is our livestock is the main economic sector of Mongolia,” she says.

“This brings the most income to Mongolia, so it will still be there. But maybe it will become a bit more modernised and maybe people will move less.”

Mongolian nomadic life, visit a ger in Mongolia

It’s hard to know whether her prediction will turn out to be accurate. Nanjilmaa is correct that livestock has been Mongolia’s main economic activity… but mining and other industries are increasing and that could have an effect.

For now, though, those thoughts don’t bother her.

She’s had a happy 72 years and sees only more happiness ahead of her on the land with her 2 horses, 20 cows, 50 sheep… and, when they visit, her 8 children and 16 grandchildren.

27 thoughts on “Mongolian nomadic life”

  1. Loved this piece! I recently applied for a job in Mongolia, but unfortunately didn’t get it. I would love to meet someone like Nanjilmaa. I find the combination of old and new lifestyles especially interesting.

    Reply
    • Hi there, My name is Temuulen. Born and raised in Mongolia. I worked with many NGO’s in my country. Maybe i could help
      out. What kind of job are you looking for? I could ask around. Cheers.

      Reply
      • I’d love to live and work in Mongolia, I’d be truly blessed if I could get the chance to live with a family of nomads in the future. Mongolians truly have something beautiful there that is worth preserving.

        Reply
  2. This is one true life story. She reminds me, my grandmother. I was born and grow up in Mongolia. But I was raised in the city. When I was about turning to a teenager my parents sent me off to the countryside, where is the life is just like Namjilmaa’s. Living in a ger/yurt, herding a sheep, eating a dairy food for breakfast and lunch, riding a horse and playing in the open green field with neighboring children were a good but reluctant time for me. I missed a city. Later on, when I was guiding an international team of visitors to the land of nomadic people in the Southern Gobi Desert, Western Mountain, and Northern Taiga Mountains I realized more our Mongolian culture and lifestyle is unique. After I travel around the world to about 30 countries I feel happier and satisfied with my own culture and life here. There are no stress and living in fenceless green steppe is really something. I go every summer to the Mongolian countryside and make “real” vacation. This is great writing, I enjoyed it. Thank you, Michael.

    Adiyabold Namkhai
    http://www.newmilestonetours.com

    Reply
  3. I had lunch with this lovely Lady in her Ger. Outside there was snow on the ground and catle roaming freely. It was a magical day!

    Reply
  4. So interesting . I just watched a show about the Mongolian way of life and how they hunt with eagles- fascinating.
    Good on you to doing what you are doing what a great way to live,!

    Reply
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    Reply
  6. I have great Mongolian neighbours in Belgium, they originally come from a big nomad family. I just saw pictures from their holidays spent with their family and I was so inspired by this, that I wanted to know more about their way of life. Many thanks for this article, this gave me the chance to know more about my super friendly neighbours!

    Reply
  7. What gifts is appreciated to be given to nomadic families when one visits to stay for a week or 2 or a month?
    How much does it cost to visit and live with a nomadic family for a month. Is this realistic to work with them to eat with them and just experience a new lifestyle

    Reply
  8. Before i started reading about nomads, i almost didn’t even know that Mongolia was a country. Honestly. This really inspired me, and i honestly learned a lot about how people can live. I am also currently working on a presentation about nomads in my school, so this also helped me a lot for my project.

    Reply
  9. I enjoyed this article very much! Thank you!

    Mongolia is a land of vast steppes, rugged mountains and a rich nomadic culture that has been passed down from generation to generation. If you’re planning a trip to Mongolia, there are some tips you need to know to make the most of your trip.

    Reply

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