Traditional Mongolian Fragrances & The Importance of Sheep Poo

by Chris Devonshire-Ellis

August 20th, 2014


Returning to my Ulaan Baatar apartment for the first time in a few months means opening up the balcony windows, arranging for a good clean – March brings Gobi dust storms and even with my tight fitting, German manufactured window and door frames, Gobi dust manages to find its way in – and I prepare the apartment for the summer and autumn. I like to use it as a base for adventures, exploring, and writing. I have a huge library here on all matters Mongolian, Tibetan and Central Asian, and listen to Shoshtakovich’s String Quartets while sipping Georgian Sapervari.

Yet the air still feels a little stale, so it is useful for me to spot a new local product – different varieties of local incense cones. One is marked “traditional” as has an image of a Nomads Ger on it. The others are Thyme, the herb that grows wild throughout the Steppes here, and Juniper, from the Forests to the north.

One of the issues the Mongolian Nomads have, both out in the Steppe, and certainly in the Gobi, is the lack of fuel. There are no trees or bushes. So it is the lot of the young children, armed with a wicker basket, to go out and pick up dried sheep, horse, camel or goat poo and bring it back. Inside the Ger, these are then used as fuel for the fire, and with these animals being herbivores, the content of the poo is mainly dried grass, seed husks and other plant material, mixed in with a bit of the toxins being expelled from the animal and natural animal sewage moisture. It’s not an unpleasant aroma in fact, although it is rather smoky. Inside the Ger, the smoke is expelled through the roof flue, outside in the Steppes, that smoke is a useful mosquito repellant. After days if not weeks of travelling around and staying with nomads or even making such fires myself, clothes soon become impregnated with the smell.


The Author, and a Friend Making a Sheep Poo Fire In the Gobi

The Author, and a Friend Making a Sheep Poo Fire In the Gobi

Back home, I light the traditional fragrance incense cone. It is of, course, exactly like the sheep poo the Mongolian nomads use as fuel. I have in fact, just purchased a box full of tiny little bits of sheep shit.

I try the Juniper, it is more akin to the Northern Forests and rather strong. The Thyme Incense provides another surprise, it smells exactly like marijuana. I breathe them all in, happily, sheep shit and all. I love this country.