Maarla and Me (Nomadic Homestay, Part II)

For the first installment, click here.

The cart drivers unhooked the ox so that it could drink from the river as we pulled our bags off the cart. Then we stood around for a while, looking at the river, wondering what was supposed to happen next.  Eventually a woman with a shaved head – the matriarch of this particular ger group – invited us inside.

You know how it’s awkward to be invited in for tea by someone you don’t really know? Imagine that instead of a living room, you’re in a Mongolian ger. You don’t speak each other’s languages. There are three beds arranged around the circumference of the room, on which people are lounging, totally silently. There’s a wood-burning stove at the middle of the room, and on it is brewing a large bowl of a milky liquid: Mongolian milk tea. Unlike American or British tea, it’s nearly white, brewed from low quality leaves and stems that don’t impart anything other than a vague hint of the tea,  a fading memory of a cup drunk long-ago. What’s more, instead of sugar, Mongolians use salt.

We’d learned in our orientation session that it is extremely rude to ignore a cup of tea, so we both dutifully sipped it, trying to ignore the slightly gamey flavor of the milk and the beverage’s similarities to a warm saline drip. In retrospect, I don’t think the nomads were bothered by the awkwardness of the situation – our experience over the next few days indicated that they are used to spending a lot of time silently lounging in gers. But we didn’t know this, so Peter pulled out our Ger-to-Ger phrase book and attempted to make small talk.

“So,” he tried. “What is your hobby?” (“Ta yu sonirhdog ve,” says the pronunciation guide in our handbook, which sounds nothing like the actual Mongolian words.)

The Mongolians looked at him, confused.

“Are you having a good summer?” (“Ta saihan zusaj bain u?”)

Eventually we just passed the phrase book to them so that they could read the Mongolian cyrillic and point to an answer.

When that conversational vein had been exhausted, we turned to the small photo album we brought with us. As I watched one of the young women flip through it, I realized that perhaps we should have picked a different selection of photographs to represent our everyday lives. There are number of photos of us wearing climbing helmets, strapped to a rock (taken the only time we’ve ever gone climbing outside) and me dancing with my Oakland over-30 hip hop group (again, not something I do every day). But while perhaps not accurate, they at least proved entertaining; our Mongolian hosts responded by showing us some of their own photographs and trying to explain how everyone was related to one another. Long story short: I still have no idea.

According to our Ger-to-Ger itinerary, we were supposed to spend the afternoon with Mr. Chuluunhuu, the patriarch of this ger. “Mr. Chuluunhuu will help you learn and practice how to saddle a horse and prepare ox cart,” said our booklet. “Afterwards you will be welcomed a nomadic dinner and tea. In the evening you will have great time to play ankle bone game which named Shagai in Mongolian, with family.”

In reality, Mr. Chuluunhuu was spending the day in Ulan Baatur, and hadn’t appointed anyone to teach horse saddling in his absence. So instead we set to work pitching our tent under a nearby tree. While doing so, I noticed that the ground around the ger camp was covered in animal droppings. Not a pile here and there, but an evenly distributed layer of goat pellets, horse chestnuts, and smushed cow patties, as if someone had deliberately applied them to the ground like sprinklings on a cake. This meant there was no non-dung covered area to pitch our tent – but it also made me notice something interesting about the cover of our Lonely Planet guidebook. It’s a beautiful shot of brown horses nibbling grass against a dramatic background of grass-covered hills. I’d looked at it many times. But I’d never noticed that the grass the horses are standing on – which takes up over half of the image – is covered in horse shit. There are turds everywhere. Seriously. At least you can’t accuse them of over romanticizing things.

Anyway, with our tent pitched and no ox-cart preparation in store, we decided to take things into own hands and relax on a stump at the side of the river, Peter reading and me writing in my journal. It sounded – and would indeed have been – quite pleasant. But that was before Maarla found us.

Oh, Maarla. She was one of the young women inside the ger, possibly the mother of a pantsless baby boy who had been sitting on the bed between her and her sister. She was only 16, Maarla, and the suspected father was, unfortunately, the drunk guy (more on him later). But Maarla didn’t let her dubious past get in the way of making new friends.

We’d read about the differences between American and Mongolian definitions of personal space, so I wasn’t too surprised when Maarla took a seat next to me on my stump – which wouldn’t usually have qualified as big enough for two people – and asked for my notebook and pen. She opened it to a blank page and, with great concentration, began drawing Mickey Mouse, tracing and retracing her lines until they had pressed through several pages. I asked her to write her name and she wrote, “Your name is Mickey” and some smiley faces before moving on to a carefully drawn heart.


Suddenly a small boy – young enough that in America he wouldn’t have been allowed to cross the street alone — cantered past us on a horse, bareback. Maarla sighed and put her head on my shoulder. The same horse raced by, this time with an even younger rider.

Snapping out of it, Maarla handed back my notebook and stood up. It was time to go to a different ger. She motioned for us to follow her, then linked her arm in mine as we walked along the river. Earlier in the afternoon Peter and I had claimed that one of our hobbies was music, and Maarla had gotten very excited. Now she began to recite a list of her favorite artists – Shakira, Beyonce, and what I eventually determined was the Pussycat Dolls. We walked between gers as Maarla and I joined together in a heartfelt version of “All the Single Ladies.”

The second ger was much more sparse – three beds with ancient mattresses, a small table and a big blue barrel in the corner that held a beverage beloved by nomads and feared by Western guests: airag. Fermented mare’s milk. An older man – presumably the owner of the ger – ladeled two plastic cups full of the stuff and handed them to us with a smile. We had to take a sip.

How would I describe the flavor? Slighty fizzy, sour, with a strong barnyard flavor that wasn’t specific to horse, but wasn’t unhorselike, either. It also had a chemical aftertaste, possibly from the plastic bucket in which it had been fermenting.

Regardless of its origin, I knew for sure that I couldn’t finish the cup – and had been explicitly warned not to, since it is reputed to be quite hard on the stomach (nomads drink cups of it to clear their systems). It also, as noted above, had come from an unrefrigerated plastic barrel sitting in a ger. I’m not 100% sure on this, but if I had to guess the recipe for airag, it would be as follows:

  1. Put horse milk in bucket.
  2. Let sit.

Luckily for us – though unluckily for Maarla – our airag sampling was interrupted by the arrival of the drunk guy, who attempted to grope Maarla’s chest before falling off his milking stool onto the floor. The older man shooed him outside as Maarla, not one for lingering to begin with, decided it was time to leave. Thanking our host, we stepped out of the ger over the drunk guy, who was now kneeling on the ground cradling a moist cow patty in his palm.

Then things got weird. I’ve noticed that when I encounter something truly bizarre, words fail me; all I can do is repeatedly state what I’m looking at. For example, later in the trip Peter found me staring wide-eyed at a guy on a moped with a white animal on his lap, saying “Sheep on a motorcycle. Sheep on a motorcycle” over and over again.

The scene outside the ger was so discongruous that I didn’t even get that far. As Maarla picked her way over the drunk guy, I noticed several white men walking toward us across the grass, surrounded by beefy-looking Mongolian men in suits with white earpieces in their ears. They were clearly bodyguards – and yet my mind couldn’t wrap itself around the discongruities of the scene. “Bodyguards,” said one part of my mind. “Mongolian ger camp,” said another. (“That airag was disgusting,” insisted a third.)

The white guys interrupted my interior monologue.

“Hello!” said one of them. “Where are you from?”

“America,” Peter said. “You?”

“Israel. What state?”

“California and New York,” said Peter.

“But this is more like Wyoming, no?” the man replied.

We laughed and I smiled at a bodyguard, who did not smile back. The Israeli men joked about how much they enjoyed nomadic bathrooms and invited us to attend services in their ger. Bidding us farewell, they ducked into the ger we had just left, explaining that they really wanted to try some airag. (They weren’t kidding.) As we walked away, I noticed that despite the fact that their entourage was only about five people, they’d arrived in three white Lexus SUVs. Who were these people?

Peter, who has spent several years in the middle east, was wondering the same thing. As we walked back to our original ger, Maarla hanging onto my arm and singing Shakira’s Africa, he turned to me suddenly.

“Holy shit,” he said. “That was Ehud Olmert.”

As in, the former prime minister of Israel. Unbeknownst to us, we’d just experienced the weirdest celebrity sighting of our lives.

Click here for Part III.

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