12/17/2010 11:21 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Beware the Gher: Going Native in Mongolia (PHOTOS)

Our passions, much like our addictions, often drive us to what some might see as flights of excess. Where I used to aspire to travel around the States or Europe, I now find myself seeking places that are farther from the beaten path. This search for increasingly remote destinations led me to fixate on Mongolia, the homeland of Genghis Khan. I'm not sure why it occurred to me to travel to Mongolia, but I guess the kernel of the idea came from a friend whose parents had once worked there. Next, I looked at a map and decided that any country with a capital city called Ulaanbaatar had to be pretty cool.

Mongolia's roughly three million inhabitants live in a vast expanse that has the lowest population density in the world. Approximately 40% of the population is nomadic and horses outnumber people. Outside of the capital, nearly every family lives in ghers (also called yurts), or circular cloth covered huts that are roughly the size of a typical American living room and are windowless save for a hole in the roof to release cooking fumes.

In the Gobi desert, I traveled through the vast and largely unpopulated expanse to visit families in their ghers. Upon arriving at the gher, the routine is pretty simple. Hosts and visitors sit on woolen rugs, snack on local favorites such as horse or camel milk cheese, and hit the snuff bottle. If everyone's feeling a little wild, the host will break out a bottle of fermented horse's milk called airag. Unfortunately, unlike the cheese, which you can pretend to eat and then subtlety slip into your pocket if it's not to your taste, you've got to swallow down the airag heartily lest the host be offended.

Not content with just visiting a gher, I also stayed in a gher camp for visitors. Heck, I thought to myself, if rural Mongolian families can spend their entire lives in a gher, I could handle a few nights. At around midnight, I settled into sleep with the contentment that I, like any true Mainer, was roughing it. Within minutes, my self-satisfaction was pierced by the sound of something tapping the floor every couple of seconds. The noise suggested that a series of small objects were falling onto the floor, and soon enough, several of these small objects fell onto me. When I turned on my flashlight, I realized that the cooking hole on the roof also provided a convenient entry point for the hundreds of desert beetles that were now crawling all over the roof and, increasingly, the floor of the gher. Somewhere in the night, I heard a British woman cry, "Something just fell in my ear!"

Mongolia's strong connection to the past and to tradition serves as a reminder of some of the qualities that we sacrifice to live in a fast moving society. While our culture has been penetrated by amazing technologies, the creeping intrusions of modernity often blunt our appreciation for life's simple pleasures. I, for one, find myself increasingly happy to leave behind my cell phone and blackberry for a while to immerse myself in an entirely different world. Luckily, in Mongolia, I enjoyed this transformative experience without having a beetle fall into my ear.

Magnificent Mongolia