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A Kazakh Homestay in Mongolian Altai
The snow was falling hard and limited our visibility to only a few meters. Our friend Bek was a cautious driver and slowly navigated the bumps and cracks in the dirt road. It had barely taken us 30 minutes to drive from Olgii, in the Mongolian Bayan province, to the small town of Sagsai, even though our destination to our Kazakh family homestay was only a few kilometers away, it would still take us almost one hour to reach it that day, a testament to the state of the “roads” and the winter weather. We drove by herds of cows, horses, yaks, sheep and goats, all coated in white by the heavy snow.

We finally turned toward a lone ger and stopped. As we grabbed our bags, a small elderly lady came out to welcome us. Our host Baigan hurried us inside the ger, where a burning stove and a table covered with food were waiting for us.

As we had discovered numerous times through our time in Mongolia, you partake in the traditional milk tea as soon as you step in a ger. Baigan embodied nomadic hospitality by displaying several kinds of food, from homemade butter, cream, sun-dried curd khuruud (or aarul when first fermented) and fried doughnut-like baursak (or boorstog), as well as sugar, cakes, cookies, sweets, and more. The ever-flowing milk tea warmed our cold bones and we dug deep into the pile of baursak and fresh cream. One thing we quickly realized is that you can’t get enough of milk tea, at least in Kazakh’s mindset…

Munching on our hard khuruud (can be softened by letting it infuse in tea!!) between sips of hot tea allowed us to get familiar with our surrounding as we took in the inside of the ger. The home of five people was neat and tidy, high in colors from the hanging carpets, decorative pillows, and bed covers. Three beds, a chest, a table with a few wooden seats, a dung-fuelled stove, and a cupboard full of utensils were the main elements.

Since we were in an eagle hunter family, a saddle, a few bites, and the gear for handling the eagle were also visible. Family photos, the late husband’s portrait, his Kazakh hat and eagle feeding plate, as well as hanging medals completed the decoration on the wall.

Bek was facilitating the discussion as we introduced ourselves, where we were from and where we had been traveling in Mongolia. We learned about our host, Baigan, who lived with one of her three sons, Erlang, his wife Dinar, and their two young sons Tastan and Arkhalykh. Erlang was away for the day, and we understood he would return the next day. Baigan had another son living in another ger nearby, Erbold, as well as her brother-in-law, the younger brother of her late husband. The communication was not the easiest, though, given our lack of Kazakh.

Indeed, our painstakingly acquired Mongol was of no help here, and Kazakh was the language to know. We managed, mostly by gesturing and thanks to Bek’s translation, to express our interests in learning more about the Kazakh culture and mentioned we could love to participate in their daily routine, offering our help whenever possible.

By the time we had managed to discuss there, the dinner had been prepared by Baigan. The dough was mixed, rolled down and packed with meat and onions. Dinar and a neighbor helped out through the whole process, while we were talking to Bek. Since we just arrived, and Bek was helping translate, I watched them on the side, though I was eager to see what they were doing.

A large platter of steaming hot dumplings – a traditional meal called buuz – was served, and Baigan urged us to dig in. These were yummy, and we understood made with mutton, a continuation of food that will be constant during our stay.

The evening settled in quietly, with Dinar and Baigan cleaning up the dishes, stocking up the stove with more fuel, and ensuring we had a constant refill of hot tea. Bruno, Bek, and the kids played a game of bones dice with the kids. It reminded me of my own childhood, playing a similar game with my grandmother.

The silent moments were interrupted by the occasional discussion between Baigan and Erlang, or laughter between the kids. On my end, I kept pointing at things hoping to learn their Kazakh names. These felt as unpronounceable as their Mongol counterparts and I felt ...

Read the rest of our Kazakh homestay experience on our blog post Ze Wandering Frogs
A Kazakh Homestay