The past week has been many things for me. Through an organization called Ger to Ger – an eco-travel agency based out of Ulaanbaatar that focuses on interacting and living with local nomads – I booked a 7 day, 6 night tour through the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park. During the course of the week I was so cold my limbs were numb and so hot I could barely breathe. I defecated in countless toilets which were merely two wooden boards over a pit and went the entire week without bathing. I ate with my hands, drank gallons of tea, and got used to having animal hair in my food. I chopped wood for the fire, collected frozen cow dung for when the wood ran out, broke ice out of the river to drink, and fed and herded cattle. I also met some amazing and/or interesting people. From giggling and too-cute-for-words kids to cackling, dirty old men; Terelj Park has ’em all. All in all it was an exciting, exhausting, challenging, heckuva week.
Rather than give you a day by day account, I’m just going to lump everything together in categories.
First, just to get them out of the way, the downsides.
Ger to Ger promises several key experiences during the course of each tour. For the tour I signed up for, the 7 day 6 night winter trip with nomads in Terelj, these experiences were: visit a nomadic family, wear traditional costumes and learn to glue the pattern for them, collect fallen wood for the fire, experience Shamanism, trek around the local area, and clean the winter shelter for livestock. Some of these things I experienced. Some, however, seemed little more than tourist stunts to get me to buy more things. That was slightly disappointing, but at the same time I can understand the families wanting to make a little extra money. Wearing traditional costumes consisted of me putting on two different shirts and then being asked if I would like to buy one. Experience Shamanism consisted of being shown a display of ritualistic items on the wall, a very brief explanation of how the shaman became a shaman, and silently observing a pre-meal offering. If I had expected the tour to unfold exactly as it was described in the brochure, I would’ve been very disappointed.
Luckily, I found many other things to enjoy about the experience. Being able to interact with people from a completely different walk of life than my own was amazing. Struggling to communicate in fledgling Mongolian with people who spoke almost no English was both frustrating when it failed and incredibly rewarding when communications were successful. And, of course, the nature… phenomenal. Cold, crisp, clean air. Brilliant stars at night. Rugged mountains with frozen trees clinging to their flanks and rivers frozen all the way through by the frigid winter cold. As far as landscapes go, Mongolia’s is proving to be unforgettable.
So here’s what my experience was like…
People: Despite the point that I paid for a tour and was accorded some hospitality, the people I encountered during my trip were awesome at making me feel welcome. From the moment I stepped into the comforting and/or stifling heat of a ger, I was doted on with boortsog (cookies), suutetsai (milk tea), and a steaming bowl of some meat and dough based dish. More on the food later.
People at first could seem a little cool and reserved, but that usually melted into smiles and warmth as soon as I started horribly butchering the Mongolian language. The thing that made my interpersonal experience so positive was also the hardest for me: being proactive about starting conversations. It was hard to remember that most of the people I came across spoke very little English. A few of the wives were able to hold a basic conversation, but other than that I was pretty much on my own. So, with the help of a phrasebook, I had to plunge in and try and bridge the communication gap; feelings of shyness and doubt aside.
Once we started stumbling through conversations, experiences unfolded.
Like when I asked about Mr. Bold’s wrestling medal he had mounted on the back wall of his ger and found out he had been awarded ‘Lion’ status at a Naadam festival (Lion means he was the champion of one Naadam competition). Mr. Bold – a hulking, physically intimidating, giant of a man – lit up with pleasure as he demonstrated a wrestling stance for me and jokingly challenged me to a match. We both laughed, then he surprised me by actually challenging me to an arm wrestling match. Now I’m not buff or anything, but I thought I had a little bit of strength in me. All such beliefs disappeared as my veins popped out, my face turned red, and my wrist felt like it was going to snap as Mr. Bold watched me impassively. He didn’t even grimace with effort as he firmly pressed my arm back and defeated me as soundly as possible.
Or when, at my second home stay, I was talking with Amra – the wife of the herder – and found out we both collected money from different countries. I traded her some Burmese kyat for some old, outdated Mongolian currency.
Then there was Mr. Zorigt. Oooh, he was a gem. A 65 year old Mongolian herder with a wrinkled, weathered face, missing teeth, faded tattoos, and a sense of humor as inappropriate as any pervy high schooler. For two days, I was joined by two other tourists: a guy from France and a girl from Taiwan who were traveling together. Through our interactions with Mr. Zorigt, I learned a valuable lesson. When traveling in Mongolia, travel with a girl and a bearded guy (but don’t be the bearded guy!). The girl will make your male hosts more talkative. The bearded guy will bear the brunt of every joke. Seriously. Mongolian herders don’t trust beards. Throughout the 3 days/2 nights I was with Mr. Zorigt, he kept insisting that the poor Taiwanese girl sleep in my bunk and stay away from the bearded guy. He would chuckle, then wink lasciviously at the girl as if that would drive his point home. Talk about awkward. We all took it in stride though, and laughed the whole thing off. I mean, what else can you do when the guy doing the teasing looks like this?
Finally there were the kids. The thing I love about visiting families with kids is that the kids provide one of the best ice breakers out there. You can ask the hosts their children’s names, ages, and hobbies. When the kids are young enough, you can play and be ridiculous without even speaking! Something about acting silly and laughing transcends language; and for that, I am thankful. Whenever conversations petered out into awkward silence, I could still strike up a giggling match with one of the kids.
Some horses belonging to Mr. Bold.
Dusk at Mr. Bogi’s.
Straight up yak attack
So adorable. So delicious.
My friend Sandy nearly had a cuteness-induced seizure when she saw this…
Food: Before coming to Mongolia, I heard from many sources that Mongolian food is bland, greasy, and always contains mutton of some form. That’s mostly true… but I love it. Living with the nomad families, I quickly became used to the daily food routine. In the morning, we would have suutetsai (milk tea) with boortsog (cookies) for dunking in the tea.
The milk tea was usually made with yak or goat milk (fresh from the udders) boiled with some tea and seasoned with a little bit of salt. It’s a very… unique drink that I fell in love with midway through my second bowl. In addition to dunking cookies and bread into it, you can even chuck some mutton dumplings in for a hearty, protein-laden bowl of meaty cereal.
Lunch usually consisted of some sort of noodle or rice boiled with chunks of mutton or beef with maybe some onions as seasoning. As a drink, we had have either suutetsai or khortsai (black tea). I was always down for the suutetsai. I think my favorite lunch was something Mr. Enkhee and his wife Zorga served me: a bowl of a sweet rice porridge. Absolutely fantastic, and it helped to calm my tumultuous stomach.
Dinner usually moved beyond boiled foods into the fried section. A common dish was that staple Mongolian food: buuz (mutton dumplings). I loved these. It’s just a bunch of mutton and onion fried in a ball of dough and served piping hot. The best way to enjoy them was to dunk each dumpling in the suutetsai before devouring the meaty, greasy, fatty goodness. Mmmm…