GOBI DESERT, Mongolia (Reuters) - The carcass of a freshly slaughtered goat lies under the bed in a nomadic family’s ger in Mongolia as the sleeping bags of visitors are rolled out on the floor next to its remains. Its head, with fur and horns intact, lolls in a corner by the door.
The temperature is near freezing, but the felt-lined, wood-lattice structure provides shelter from the blustery winds of the Gobi Desert. The thick portable tent of the typical nomadic home traps both heat and the gamey smells of mutton boiling on the stove and strips of meat hung from the ceiling.
Milk in a large cloth sack is left to strain into a metal bucket nearby.
While the Mongolian government relies on the country’s resources such as gold, copper, coal and other minerals to attract foreign investment, some of its nomadic population are offering homestays to supplement their rural incomes, capitalizing on the opening up of their country.
“We are happy to let visitors stay in our ger. In Mongolia, we can drop in on friends and people can visit us without any notice,” said Tovshinto Vaanchig, a 51-year-old horse herder who also owns sheep and goats.
But getting to the homestays, often in the herders’ own one-room gers, remains tough.
Visitors must endure hours in four-wheel drives on bumpy terrain across sweeping steppes. The landlocked country remains in a time warp, with many of its people living side-by-side with animals and retaining old traditions.
The Gobi Desert, which spans northwestern China and southern Mongolia, is notable in history as part of the great Mongol Empire and the Silk Road. More recently, the desert has been a treasure trove for anthropologists and miners.
Tour guide Oyunbolor Demberel and her father Demberel Otgon rely on tourists who want to see the unspoilt natural wonder of the Gobi’s sand dunes, mountains and steppes for work during a few months each year from May to September.
“I am happy to be on the road several months of the year when I have the chance to meet foreigners and take them around the Gobi,” said the 72-year-old Otgon, who used to be a government accountant but now freelances with tour agencies.
After a few hours of driving around a region of the desert inhabited by horse herders, Otgon finds a family who have suitably calm, wild horses for tourists. Mongolian children learn to race these small horses when they are about six years old and many are expert riders who use no saddle.
Apart from horses, cows, goats and sheep, Mongolia’s herding economy depends on the hardy, two-humped Bactrian camel which is indigenous to Central Asia.
Enktuya Borokhin, 52, is the matriarch of a camel-herding family. She moved six weeks ago to find pasture for 400 animals and will relocate again in a month in search of better shelter for winter. The Gobi has extreme temperatures, from minus 40 degrees Celsius in winter to more than 40 degrees in summer.
Borokhin’s tourist ger is spartan but the walls are decorated with colorful cotton cloth from China. The family moves their only stove into the ger for guests and end up cooking all their hot meals with their visitors.
The daily staple is meat, such as mutton and goat, although Mongolians also seat camel, horse and beef. Milk tea is commonly served with curd and fried biscuits.
They cook a stew by candlelight. As night falls, the camp eases into sleep, lulled by sounds from braying camels to barking dogs.
Borokhin is up at dawn when the sun pokes through the horizon in a soft haze of pink.
Her daughter Gantsetseg skillfully lines up goats for milking behind the gers. The necks of the animals are tied with rope woven so that they are lined up in two rows facing one another. The milk, cheese and other animal produce, including wool, are sold.
Borokhin says she is pleased that three of her children are studying agriculture and technology in the city, while three others have chosen to live in the countryside as herders.
“My children have new opportunities in the city but in the country we can live off the animals and the land,” she said.
Mongolia does not manufacture substantial amounts of finished goods and cannot sustain economic growth without significant exports of resources to neighboring countries. People who move to the capital Ulan Bator are hard pressed to find work and unemployment is a problem.
Bordering Russia and China, Mongolia has a population of about 2.8 million, with less than half living a nomadic life. It is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world and does not have the skill base, the capital nor the capacity to carry out large mining projects without foreign investment.
Tourism is also hamstrung by poor infrastructure.
“I earned good money when I worked for a mining company doing data entry, but these jobs are hard to come by,” said tour guide Demberel, 35.
“We hear stories of people who have found gold and now everyone hopes they too can find gold. The big cars in the cities are owned by those people in mining,” she said.
Even as Mongolia looks forward, the past remains close in the form of legendary warrior Genghis Khan, who established the Mongol empire in 1206. His name is on everything from the capital’s airport to postcards and vodka.
“We don’t have much but we are a rich country with a long history. In Mongolia, we say that Chinggis Khaan is still feeding us,” Demberel added.
Editing by Elaine Lies and Jonathan Thatcher