We sit on the ground around a low wooden table waiting for the day to begin. It’s overcast, threatening rain, and the ger is dim, throwing everything into monochrome. A pot of boiling milk sits on top of a battered wood-burning stove in the center of the room, and I watch as steam rises into the air in thick white wisps.
I’m in the middle of a two-week Mongolian adventure and it’s turning out to be one of the most fascinating trips of my many travels.
We’re about to have tea, a tradition that kicks off all of our daily Kazakh visits in the Altai mountains of western Mongolia.
Kazakhs consider hospitality a sacred duty, a symbol of respect and admiration. It’s an intrinsic part of their culture and fuels their close-knit community even though they may live hundreds of miles away from each other.
Their commitment to congeniality means that they hate to say no, and I quickly learn that I have to be careful what I ask for so I don’t put anyone on the spot—especially since my humor doesn’t always translate.
I once jokingly asked an elder and former eagle hunter if I could have an eagle. He responded through our translator—his unease palpable—that he didn’t think the airlines would allow a live eagle on board but if they said yes he would do his best to find one for me. I didn’t joke much after that.
On the table, before us is a traditional tea: Two types of hard cheese (Qurt, a white cheese, and Khizil irimshik, a red cheese), both made from a combination of goat, sheep and cow’s milk, the latter boiled longer, are broken into large chunks and placed in separate bowls. There is freshly churned butter that I could eat by the spoonful, a bowl of mild sour cream, a plate of store-bought cookies (bought perhaps on a trip to Ulgii the nearest city a couple hundred miles away), and bauirsak, two-inch-long, pillow-shaped pieces of fried dough.
Bauirsak is my snack of choice and I have eating it down to a science. I break the crust vertically with my thumb, fill the crevice with butter and eat the whole thing in two bites. If I am feeling particularly badass, I add sour cream on top with a sprinkle of grated red cheese sweetened with sugar.
Kneeling down next to the table, our hostess pours Suutei tsai (strained black tea with milk and water) into pretty floral china bowls and hands one to each of us. “Raqmet,” we say in return. Thank you. She smiles and nods her head towards the food on the table. I grab a baurisak and take a healthy swig of my tea as she watches.
We’re offered kumis, fermented mares milk in the same bowls in which we had our tea. Kazakhs LOVE kumis. Milk straight out of a mare is 40% higher in lactose than cows milk and can act as a formidable laxative. Fermentation breaks down the lactose making it easier on the stomach. It also adds a fair amount of fizz and a few of my fellow travelers really enjoy it. I prefer to get my fizz fix from Diet Coke.
There are days when we see two or three families in a row and on every visit we begin with tea. I confess I don’t always want to sit. Sometimes I am in a photographic groove and I don’t want to stop. Or sometimes I’m just full. Our camp chef keeps us well fed. In these moments I’m pretty sure I’m going to hell. Such a gracious and lovely custom and here I am the A.D.D. American wishing we could skip it altogether.
Occasionally, a family member opens the door of the ger and a fleeting rectangle of light reveals a dome exploding with color. Brightly colored tapestries line a lattice skeleton, while embroidered fabrics and embellishments in vivid red, orange and yellow adorn almost everything else.
Wolf pelts hang on the wall next to wedding photos and images of dead loved ones. A dombra—a teardrop-shaped string instrument with a long neck—dangles from a hook. A collection of medals—won over the years for school graduations, wrestling competitions and horse races—are carefully pinned to a piece of tasseled velvet and proudly displayed where any visitor is sure to see them. Everywhere there is something interesting to look at. Each object, a clue to a fascinating culture worlds apart from my own.
The Floor Plan
The gers we visit are always laid out the same, though each family adds their own decor and personal touches. Imagine the ger is a clock and the back opposite the door is 12 o’clock—that is where a low table is placed and where most of the time they gather with guests.
Between 12 pm and 3 pm: one or two wrought iron beds are positioned parallel to the wall.
At 4 pm: a curtain hangs, behind it there’s food hidden from view.
Between 4 pm – 5 pm: a cabinet or shelving unit holds cooking supplies and more food.
At 5 pm: large urns and stainless still pots, a butter churn or a contraption that looks like a hammock for straining cheese often stands.
At 6 pm: the door.
7 Pm: more daily supplies and at 8 pm – 12 pm are more beds depending on the size of the family. Tucked between the major items I see clothes and pillows, saddles and personal items. (In one ger, a more wealthy Kazakh family has satellite TV.)
In the center of it all, there’s a wood burning stove.
A Nomadic Culture
Kazakhs originally immigrated to Mongolia from Kazakhstan in the 1800s, and are one of the few authentic nomadic cultures still in existence. Four times a year they move their families and livestock (horses, goats, and sheep) following milder climates with fields for grazing. A ger is only used in the summer. The rest of the year they live in one-room homes made of wood, mud, and dung.
There’s no running water (they set up shop near to a lake, river or large stream), no bathrooms (just crouch behind a well-placed rock) and no refrigeration. The only heat comes from the stove. They slaughter their own livestock and make nearly everything they eat from scratch. Their diet is predominantly meat and dairy products.
The more I spend time with the Kazakhs the more the Little House books I read as a child spring to mind. The simplicity of those characters’ lives, though difficult and requiring a great deal of hard work, are alive and well in the Altai mountains just as it had been in the United States in the 1800’s. I felt transported back in time to the prairie of yesteryear, albeit a Kazakh version.
Photographing My Lovely Hosts
After tea, and sometimes during tea—though never without asking first— we’re able to photograph our hosts as they move about their gers working on this or that, or in some cases they are kind enough to sit for portraits.
The light inside a ger is beautiful. A flap at the top of the conical roof adjusts the amount of light that hits the interior, keeps out the rain and controls ventilation. With the flap pulled back it can be very bright but I have a thing for the dramatic and I gravitate to the moodier moments when the flap is nearly closed and light falls into the space in soft shafts.
It’s time for milking or some other chore says our translator and I see that our hostess looks worried. I can tell she doesn’t want to be rude but feels pressure to move on with her day. We immediately thank her and she smiles, the red patches on her wind-worn cheeks bunching up into a radiant smile.
She would stay serving us for hours if we asked. A gracious and kind host to say the least but we take pity on her and say goodbye, letting the ger door close silently behind us.
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148 thoughts on “Kazakh Nomads and the Importance of Tea”
Beautiful Images! Congratulations on your well deserved award.
Thank you so very much, Jon!
Gosh, the character in that old ladies face. Amazing. What a privilege to have been able to spend time with this community, and to see their simplistic life style up close. Caused me to reflect how complicated we tend to make our lives. Well done on the award you received. Well deserved. Your articles are always such a pleasure to read. And – don’t fret about clogging up our emails with your posts. Some posts are so worth receiving, and I’m sure we’re all capable of skimming and filtering if we’re starting to get overwhelmed.
This was a beautiful post! I bet it was fun and even spiritual. I know i felt that a little when I went to Ukraine.
Thank you so much. Yes, spiritual would be a good word for it. I’m so glad you liked it.
From the way you tell it these Kazakhs remind me a lot of the Mongols during the time of Genghis Khan. I am writing an article series on the impact of Mongols on world history.
It’d be great to have you add a word or two to my finds.
Gosh so beautiful. Their smiles are contagious!
Aren’t they though? Just loved spending time with them.
What an outstanding people and story you shared here. I think the pictures are very unique too.
Thank you very very much, Nancy! I appreciate your kind words and welcome you to the blog. I hope you return. 🙂
You are such an amazing writer. I feel like I know those people already. Thank you for sharing your experience with us.😁
Wow.. what a lovely compliment. Thank you so much for taking the time to check the post out. Welcome to the blog and I hope that you return. 🙂
Wonderful writing and truly great photography!
That’s means so much. Thank you so much for the kind words.
Beautiful photos and fascinating experience!
Thank you very much. I’m really happy you enjoyed it. It truly was a fascinating experience.
A fascinating glance into the present-day rarity of collectivism. Captivating, and wonderfully portrayed!
What an amazing experience! Thank you for sharing!
Awesome post, lovely photography!
Thank you for sharing your great work, Susan. You are a role model! 🙂
Hi Susan I am new to blogging and am following you:) I, too, have a touch of ADD and sometimes can’t make it through long discourse….but yours, ah, I feasted on it! Loved your intimate portrayals of the people, your photos of course and my favourite was of the woman with that beautiful smile. That is one of the best closeups of a face I have seen….so much of the woman shone through your photo. I so look forward to following you more, thankyou:)
Thank you so much! I really appreciate the kind words and you taking the time to check out my post. It means so much. Welcome to the blog and I am glad you’ll return. If you want, you can sign up for email alerts to receive my posts in your inbox. 🙂
I enjoy both your photographs (amazing) and your writing!! After reading a few of your posts I’m totally considering Mongolia as a destination 🙂
That’s probably one of the best compliments I could ask for. I hope to inspire people to travel and I thank you for very kind words.
Welcome to The Insatiable Traveler!
beautiful, compelling photos! I haven’t considered Mongolia as a destination, but you are changing my mind.
such beautiful photos! amazing!
Thank you so much! Welcome to the blog. 🙂
Wow…your photos are just…i don’t know, they chatch all facets of the moment and this is what makes somebody a photographer, in my eyes!
Thank you for sharing them!
My favourite is the “What a radiant smile!”-woman!
Thank you very very much, Kevin! I really appreciate the kind words. Welcome to the blog! 🙂
Living vicariously through you. Such Beautiful pictures!
Why thank you, Saria! Most appreciated. Welcome to the blog. I hope you return. 🙂
Your photos are amazing.Full of colours and emotions 🙂
Thank you very very much. I’m really happy that you like my work. 🙂
Thank you so much!
Oh your picture quality took me out of this world really.simply awesome
Thank you very much! I’m thrilled you liked the piece. 🙏
if very good
pretty sure that if exitos
Im in love with this post <3 So inspiring 🙂
I’m so glad you liked it.
Your photos are so captivating!! The need no caption!!
Thank you Whitney! What a nice thing to say. 🙂
What beautiful photos you’ve taken! I especially love the “radiant smile” and the “happiest baby ever.” It speaks to the talent of the photographer to get people comfortable enough to show a little bit of their souls to you.
Thanks for sharing these with us!
Rebeca ok thank you very much to you for your great work and for letting us know many things different from the rest of the world linda success in everything you do and God bless you always cute as all with love and great faith God will be with you heart
Thank you so much Rebekah!
pretty sure that if exitos
I would like to know how is the weather there is cold is hot is tempered as it is by so living in tents
The weather was all over the place. It was chilly at night, cold in the very early morning and could get hot if the sun was shining. It rained a lot too.
I spent time with a few kasaks last year camping out on the Russian stepes.
Did you have fun?
Great Foto !!!
This is awesome!
Pictures speak a thousand words. Eye candy 😊
si son muy bellas imágenes pero por que viven en tiendas no tiene casas de concreto como las demás personas
he said “yes, they are very beautiful images, but why do they live in stores? they don’t have houses like everyone else?
Tents* not stores lol
We stayed in tents camping near the Kazakhs’ summer homes which are gers. During colder months, they live in wood and stone homes.
ok friends fine live
Wow! What a fantastic trip. I love the photo’s and your blog, so interesting to find out more about different cultures. I can’t wait to read more!
Thank you very much, Claire! I’m thrilled you like the story. More to come. Promise. 🙂
muy linda en verdad muy bella aventura
i really liked your pics Susan, when i saw them i felt like i was there ,pics explain all, simple life and generous people, that s the real work ,well done .
I’m so glad you liked the piece. Thank you!
muy linda en verdad muy bella aventura
thank you very much for your attention success in everything you do and that God continue to bless me always love to know
So beautiful. The photos, your words, the life. I wish to one day visit
Thanks a million! Glad you enjoyed it. 🙂
if the photos are very beautiful they teach as they make their own food like cheese from goat’s milk and customs and firmness they have in them true
My goal is to apply for a schollarship if its possible to find anyone that covers my flights and some extra payments that I cannot cover by my self. Do you know any of hose schollarships?
Thank you for your help¡¡
hi – unfortunately I don’t. So sorry. 🙁
beautiful pics.. specially kids. N what a colourful home.
Thank you very much! Yes, the hers were bursting with color
can you tell me how to make my website better because I only had 3 views and I am only 10
Sent from Windows Mail
the truth do not understand what you mean to me
woww..I was left speechless by your post and I got inspired by it.I am also very excited of having such experience
peacock a bird of very beautiful and majestic beauty award in
Very nice post, this is exactly how I like travel blogs to be: high quality photos that tells a story. You catch the light inside the yurta very well, and I do get curious on the lenses you use and if you have done some kind of special treatment of your pics afterwards. 🙂
Thank you very much!
I used a variety of lenses. In these, I switched between a 16-35mm f2.8, 24-105 f2.8, 50mm f1.4. Yes, I do some post processing work in Lightroom and I shoot in RAW. 🙂
Absolutely gorgeous shots. The colors. The warmth. The character. The people. Eager to check out the region. Thanks for the portal into daily life =)
Thank you very much, Alex. I really appreciate the kind words. Welcome to the blog!
Super foto and text.
Thank you Alice!
The families look so happy in their simple gers.
I think they live a tough life, but the families are very close and, yes, I think they are happy.
family togetherness is stronger in life love and family happiness
loved it…from the place point of view , from the writing point of view and from the pictures point of view…
Thank you so much! I really appreciate it. Welcome to the blog.
Beautiful portraits! It feels good just looking at them. Cheers!!!
I’m so glad! Thank you. 🙂
Awesome articel! Emirates (the Airline) is allowing hawks in the cabin, so they might allow eagles as well 😉
Ha! Good to know. Thank you. 😉
Beautifully written and stunningly photographed. The bit about the eagle was great!
Thank you so much Sarah. 😀
It is very rich I love hot milk with a little hocalete is much better
must be very beautiful and fantastic share with new cultures and get many concoimientos their subsistence lifestyle and day to day
Beautiful shots! I love the stunning textiles and the gorgeous faces!
I was floored by how beautiful the people are.
It was incredible.
These pictures are beautiful! You can tell by the photos that you had gained the trust of the people and they felt comfy. So nice! We are also traveling to Mongolia in September, taking the train from Europe.
I follow your your Blog for a while now and it is honestly my fav 🙂 Best wishes and happy travels, Michael
Wow.. You’ve made my day Michael. I’m so flattered by your kind words about my work and my blog. Thank you very very much.
Very exciting about your trip. Are you going to be in the Altai mountains at all?
Incredibly beautiful! Is like seeing another world inside our world. Love each one of your photos! What an experience!
Stunning photography as ever! This time my favorites would be the portraits of kids 🙂 Also the colours – so vibrant, amazing! Also the “clock” approach to the description of the tea table and the ger layout is fun to follow. Great job Susan!
Thank you, Sasha! I love the kids too. I’ve never wanted to have any but I love photographing them. I’m so glad that the clock description worked, thanks for letting me know. 🙂
Wow! Thanks for this slice of culture and history and the photographs are epic. I recently stayed in Ladakh with the nomadic community too and their dwellings are very similar to the Ger too. 🙂 Cheers.
Nice post. Thanks for a nice combo. On 12 Aug 2016 7:47 p.m., “The Insatiable Traveler” wrote:
> Susan Portnoy posted: “We sat on the ground around a low wooden table > waiting for the day to begin. It was overcast, threatening rain and the ger > was dim, throwing everything into monochrome. A pot of boiling milk sat on > top of a battered wood-burning stove in the center of the” >
Thank you for taking a look!
Nice article! Nice pictures! Loved them all! Thanks for sharing 🙂
You bet! Thanks for taking the time to check it out
Great photos and very interesting stories! Who needs GEO magazine??:-) Seeing all those gorgeous colourful embroideries made me quite envious, too. I’m such a lover of fabrics and stitching! I definitely would have bought an embroidered bag, too…
Thank you, Suzanne! There was embroidery everywhere it seemed in the gers. The bags were quite lovely. I’m sure you would have bought one too if you have a penchant for embroidery.
Gorgeous photos and a wonderful post! Tea is so important in many cultures, and you captured the experience wonderfully.
Thanks, Katherine! That means a lot. It’s hard to know how other people will see the post when you’re the one writing it. I’m glad it came across.
Love this article, and the pureness of this lifestyle. I sometimes wish we could go back to that. When the food isn’t genetically modified, babies aren’t sent to VPK…..
Sorry for being dopey but what’s VPK?
Oh! Ha! The new PRE Kindergarten program that has been installed in our country’s school system. Sorry, that’s my world right now!
LOL.. No worries. I don’t have kids so all that kid school language completely goes right by me.
Wow! Thanks for sharing that. That’s my dream vacation! Can’t wait to go 🙂
You’re most welcome!
You’ll love it. I was amazing.
More lovely photos and some really fascinating information on Kazakh life.
Thank you very much and I’m glad you found the information interesting. They are a fascinating culture and so darn nice!
Beautiful photos, wonderful stories. Your respect for your subjects shines.
Thank you for saying that. I really loved our various hosts. They were so gracious and delightful.
a beautiful part of the world. The milky tea gets saltier the further west from Ulaan Baatar, it’s really refreshing. I hope you got a chance to try some Yak curd!?
I was pretty far west. The tea I was given didn’t have much salt that I could taste but I’m also not a big tea drinker I don’t really have a comparison. Yak curd I missed. Should I be happy I did or is it good?
It’s very much a required taste and varies regionally, I’ve tried goat curd which ain’t bad but yak curd is a taste that I miss, it’s packed with calcium, protein and energy. Great for hungry cyclists with disappearing waistlines!
Well, I certainly don’t have a disappearing waistline….LOL.. If I go back, I’ll have to try it.
Susan, stunning portraits. The natural light is wonderful and as you said, more dramatic. Beautiful work.
Many thanks, Allen for taking time out of your busy day to check out my post. have a great day.
Susan, you too.
Great post..Loved it!!
I’m so glad. Thanks for checking it out! Welcome to the blog. I hope you return.
Beautiful captures.. Thanks for taking us on the Kazakh journey..
I appreciate you taking a look. I’m glad you liked it. 🙂
So beautiful – thank you!
Thank you for taking a look. And welcome to the blog. Please share it if you feel your friends or family might enjoy it. Take care…