The best and the worst part of my time in Mongolia was the three nights/four days I stayed in the gers of nomadic families out in the countryside. I had arranged the stays through Ger-to-Ger, a community-centered ecotourism company I had read about on another blog. (If you’re planning a trip to Mongolia, I recommend checking them out!). There were three different families that I stayed with, each sharing with me a different slice of nomadic life.
Saturday morning saw me up bright and early for the 8:00am bus to a place called Sansar, 4 hours away. From there, the regional coordinator for Ger-to-Ger, Mrs. Honda, met me and brought me to the first family via a 20 minute car ride.
This is what I saw upon arriving at the first family’s ger:
“This is my home for the night?” I thought to myself, incredulous. I had known already, of course, but reading about it is different from actually seeing it. “This is SO COOL!”
A ger (also called a yurt) is a portable round hut used by the nomads in Mongolia. It’s made of wooden poles and railings wrapped in layers of wool surrounded by canvas. They’re surprisingly cozy inside. Each one has 2-3 beds, a wood-and-dung-burning stove (with a chimney leading through the roof), a cleaning/storage area, and a shrine for prayers. Three or even four generations might live under one roof; my first host family had a man about my age, his son, his mother, and her mother. However, the culture is very community-focused, and it’s rare to be spending time with only those family members.
Here are neighbors and other family members of my first host family in one ger. On the right, Mrs. Honda is grilling pieces of a wheat-based dough that she will later slice into pieces resembling pasta. Meals among the nomads are simple, consisting of a grain or rice, a meat (often lamb or beef, never chicken), and maybe some cabbage, potatoes, and/or carrots, with some salt. The “pasta” is a very traditional Mongolian dish. The man on the left is drinking Mongolian tea, a weak salted tea that is always offered and drank with and in between every meal.
This family took me “trekking” (it was an uphill stroll, really) to a ruined monastery. The monastery itself wasn’t noteworthy….
… But the views were spectacular!
The next day saw me headed to the next family’s ger. Note the “vicious” guard dogs:
(Actually, all families have dogs to guard against wolves at night. Unlike in the West, these are NOT pets and will likely attack an unknown person like me if s/he gets too close. These dogs were sweet, though.)
This family also had horses to ride! So we took a trip down to Swan Lake (looks more like a puddle) and some nearby sand dunes:
During the horseback riding, we came across this monument. It’s inscribed with ancient Mongolian; about 70 years ago, the government successfully pushed for a switch to the Cyrillic alphabet. I have no idea what this monument is for:
The third family had the highlight of my trip: CAMELS!!! In this part of the world, camels have two humps and are called Bactrian camels. In the Middle East live the Dromedary camels with just one hump. (Easy mnemonic is to flip the image of the camel on its side: the two humps form the letter B, and the one hump the letter D.) I had the pleasure of riding Dromedary camels when I lived in Egypt as a teen, and I’m so glad I can say I’ve ridden Bactrian now, too.
The neighbor boy couldn’t have been more than 7 or 8, yet he skillfully brought the camels back home to the ger from the pasture 30+ minutes away. The camels have a piercing through their nostril attached to a rope that the boy (or whoever else) can use to lead them.
I tried to befriend one of the baby camels later. I held out my hand for him to smell so I could pet him (the babies were much more skittish than the adults). Apparently, I smell like food, because he decided that my hand should be eaten, not smelled. And I must have tasted good because after I withdrew, he was licking his lips… and then tried going back for more!! Fortunately, camels don’t have the strongest jaws nor sharpest teeth, so the only consequence I suffered was a smelly hand for the rest of the trip (because no showers in a ger, and even basic hygiene such as washing hands is often ignored).
After the camel ride, I went for a hike on my own up to the top of a rock I had seen in the distance. I was rewarded with a nice view:
This is the outside of the ger belonging to my final host family. Their door was so beautifully painted!
Here is the mother of the final host family preparing dinner:
This is the shrine they had, with an image of a deceased family member alongside that of the Dalai Lama:
I was incredibly impressed with the elaborate carvings of dragons at the top of the support poles inside their ger! I also liked the paintings at the top. Of all the host families I stayed with, this one had the nicest decorations in their home.
I was especially surprised to see a clock with some same images I had seen in Bhutan when I was there. The animals piling on each other are called the Three Friends, and represent… something in Buddhist belief. Around the edge of the clock are the 8 Lucky Signs: vase, lotus, wheel, conch shell, and others. All of these were extremely common in Bhutan – painted on houses, embroidered in tapestries, murals in temples, etc – so I had to take a picture when I saw them here:
The final day was most unexpected. As the colder winds of winter are approaching and snow is starting to appear, the families must dismantle their gers and move themselves and their animals to different pastures. This is apparently a community event as neighbors came by to help my final host family accomplish this. I was pleased to also lend a hand at points, too.
First remove the canvas shell:
Then the sides of wool:
Next goes the roof:
And then the frame is taken apart:
Finally, it’s just the guts, and even those have been mostly transferred to the SUV by now:
Throughout it all, the lady in pink was pouring glasses of beer for people. Mongolian hospitality is based on food and drink: you CANNOT say no when someone offers, you can only accept it with your right hand or both hands simultaneously, and you must take a sip or a nibble immediately before setting it down, no matter what it is:
What was the worst part of the trip that I had mentioned earlier? Well, during the razing of the ger, there was one man who was extremely drunk – totally wasted. For most of the time, he was enjoying being silly and making a fool of himself, occasionally trying to help with lifting heavy objects and tossing them in the truck, lifting the women, and even engaging me in conversation and giving me hugs. Most people, including myself, were laughing about it and enjoying his antics, except his wife, who seemed rather embarrassed. At some point in time, though, something snapped, and three of the men (including the drunk guy) started fighting for reasons I never found out. As in, full-on, rolling-on-the-ground bloody-being-drawn fisticuffs. I couldn’t believe what was happening and snapped a picture of them in their scuffle. My host mother had been trying to break it up, but saw me holding my camera-phone and grew FURIOUS. She came charging at me, shouting angrily in Mongolian, waving her hands, eyes raging. I was trapped and terrified, and tried to say I’m sorry and I’ll delete it. However, I might know more Mongolia than she knows English (i.e. virtually zero), so communication got nowhere. A few moments later, she turned her attention back to the fight, which had cooled thanks to the intervention of the other people around. Soon, however, she came back up to me, accompanied by the drunk guy’s wife, and they confiscated my phone and deleted all the pictures they deemed inappropriate. Ok, I get it, you’re protective of your people and proud of your heritage, but still – when Mrs. Honda’s husband came to pick me up, I was MORE than happy to leave the nomads and Mongolia behind me. Over it!
Am I glad I had this experience (except for the unfortunate ending)? Absolutely. Would I do it again? Nope, this lifestyle is definitely not for me, and once is enough. Would I recommend it to anyone else interested in a unique cultural experience? Whole-heartedly!!