Camping Nomads

By Julian Dierkes

Historically, Mongolians are a nation of “campers”. While perhaps less than a third of them still are mobile pastoralists, and even they are less mobile than they once were, nomadism and the movable home still play large in the Mongolian imaginary. Even in political discourse the symbolism of the free nomad comes up often.

In recent years, on short countryside trips within a day’s drive from Ulaanbaatar, I’ve noticed that camping has become a part of domestic tourism. No, not visiting relatives and staying in their spare ger. But actual camping, like we would do in Canada, i.e. with a tent, ideally with another family, a camp fire to sit around, etc.

The Mongolian countryside is set up well for camping. Except for the climate, of course, which restricts comfortable camping to the summer months. But otherwise, nature is very accessible, with relatively few unsurmountable obstacles like rivers and mountain ranges. There’s grass everywhere, though it is rarely a soft carpet of a lawn, more interspersed individual plants with rocks peaking through. Surface water can be hard to find, but Mongolians are more accustomed to life without ready access to unlimited amounts of tap water, so this seems like less of an obstacle.

Catering to Campers

And so it seems that businesses are catering to Mongolian campers.

Ger camps are the main infrastructure catering to foreign travellers in the countryside as they offer the experience of sleeping in a ger and they are set up only for the summer, as custom is very unlikely in other months in any case. Even in early June it can be hard to find an open ger camp as their business is so seasonal and also dependent on students on summer holiday for help.

But ger camps increasingly seem to be targeting Mongolian travellers in addition to foreign visitors. Often they have added small a-frame houses or cabins. Since they typically offer food to their patrons, they can easily extend restaurant services to nearby campers. More and more, they are offering electricity and running water, making them attractive for visits by campers as well.

They tend to be located near tourist spots that are as attractive to Mongolians to visit as they are to foreign tourists.

Tourism Business

Eco-tourism is often touted as a possibility for economic diversification. Unspoiled landscapes (if it wasn’t for the trash floating around in so many places), the eternal blue sky, life among animals, great accessible hiking… these are all features that are touted for these businesses. But, tourism remains underdeveloped as most travellers who will have some frustrating experience during their travels will know, and that is part of a critical mass challenge. You need some critical mass, but it should’d be so big that the “eco” aspects recedes.

Perhaps domestic tourism will give the business a boost? As incomes are on a longterm upward trajectory, more leisure activities are likely and foreign travel remains cumbersome other than to the large cities of Northeast Asia. Visits to Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo are exciting, but they are generally not relaxing.

Domestic tourism certainly seems to be growing in Mongolia. Here’s an example of one of our favourite Mongolia analysts modelling the 2017 domestic Mongolian tourism look.

Хархорины орк

A post shared by Mogi Munkhdul Badral Bontoi (@mbbontoi) on

A Changing Relationship of Mongolians with the Land

Even Ulaanbaatar residents often talk about summers spent with relatives, learning to ride horses, helping with animals, etc. Their relationship with the land is built around these experiences, I think.

But the growth of domestic tourism may be changing that. Some Mongolians at least are travelling across the country like Canadians travelling to national and provincial parks, i.e. in appreciation of the amazing resources and opportunities for recreation that the country offers. The same attitude can be observed on the banks of the Tuul River in the summer with hundreds of cars parked right on the river with BBQs and kids splashing in the river.

Along with this appreciation for recreation comes a different view of the land as a resource, one that is focused on the pristine beauty of the countryside. Well, not so pristine as many Mongolians have been noting in tweets from their summer travels this year.


Dissertation, Please!

Isn’t there some grad student out there who would want to look at the meaning of camping to Mongolians and perhaps the business of tourism?

About Julian Dierkes

Julian Dierkes is a sociologist by training (PhD Princeton Univ) and a Mongolist by choice and passion since around 2005. He teaches in the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He toots and tweets @jdierkes
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