Sep 23 2010

Our Nomadic Homestay, Part I

I had read about Ger-to-Ger, a nonprofit organization that arranges homestays with nomadic families, long before we left the United States. It sounded interesting – a chance to experience firsthand what life is like in a culture completely different from what I’m used to. But I had questions. First, are there really still nomads in Mongolia? And second, if there are nomads, how you can stay at their homes? Isn’t “nomadic homestay” an oxymoron?

Let me answer the first question first: yes, there are nomads in Mongolia. A lot of them. They live in gers – which are essentially white, one-room yurts insulated with heavy felt – and they move two or three times a year, depending mostly on the availability of water. Being nomadic, they don’t grow crops; instead, each nomadic family has a herd of animals (usually some combination of horses, sheep, goats and an ox or yak or two) and they survive mostly on meat, dairy products and carbs.

As for the second question, the nomads stay in one spot for a whole season, so you actually can arrange a sleepover. Ger-to-Ger takes care of the logistics of coordinating homestays in a selection of gers and arranging activities for the nomads to teach their hapless visitors, like Mongolian archery, or how to make dried milk curds. In return, the nomads get an additional source of income. It’s a great idea.

When we first arrived at the Ger-to-Ger office in Ulan Baatur, though, my impression was not quite so positive. For while the mission of Ger-to-Ger is very admirable, it hasn’t quite mastered the art of dealing with its actual customers. Like, for example, if your orientation sessions are mandatory — and your customers have already paid for their entire trip — why do you charge an additional $25 per person to attend them? If you list two different types of sleeping bag pads on your list of rental equipment – and if there are indeed sleeping bag pads leaning against the wall in the room where the orientation session is held – why would you say you don’t have any?  And as for the orientation, I appreciate the time we devoted to learning how to correctly receive a snuff-box while making hypothetical small talk about goats and sheep (hypothetical because I’m unlikely to remember how to say “How are your camels?” in a proper Mongolian accent) – but I would have preferred a little more attention to things like, say, how to ask for boiled water, or a bit of background on where nomads poop.

Instead, we got a short introduction to the horse head fiddle and then learned the basic rules of shagai, a traditional game played with a set of sheep ankle bones. We also had a primer in Mongolian, which involved us repeating a list of words and expressions after the teacher. Unfortunately, the phonetic pronunciation guide did not correspond at all to what the words sounded like (Mongolian is a very gutteral language, with sounds that can’t be captured in writing unless you’re already familiar with them). I wished that we had instead focused on memorizing the correct way to pronounce two or three basic sayings we might actualy remember – maybe “Hello,” “What’s your name?” and “What part of the sheep is that?”

The next morning we found our way to the public bus stop indicated in our xeroxed orientation booklet (transportation, it turned out, was not included in our trip). I’d hoped it’d actually be a station, but instead it was simply a stand on the street that half of Mongolia’s buses seem to swing into, usually stopping for no more than 20 seconds at a time. Our mission was to correctly identify the Mongolian cyrillic letters for “Terelj Park” before our bus pulled away. Oh, also, to make sure not to miss it, since it only comes twice a day.  Our booklet claimed this would give us a sense of how “real Mongolians” travel. That it did, and in a different context, I would have indeed chalked it up as an “interesting travel experience” when the bus became so crowded that a young boy actually sat down on Peter’s thigh. But not in this context. In this context, I was just pissy.

Luckily, there were several things fighting against my bad mood – and my overall experience ended up being quite positive. First, the night before, still fuming from the orientation session, we’d gone to the State Department Store to investigate possible sleeping bag pads and I found a substitute so ridiculous that it made both Peter and me laugh out loud: an inflatable pool raft, printed with brightly colored polka dots. When I hesitated – who shows up at a ger with pool toys? — Peter pointed out that the metaphorical significance of bringing my own life raft was worth far more than the $5 price tag.

What are you laughing at?

Second, there was a man sitting across from us on the bus, a short Mongolian guy with a weather-beaten face and a faded baseball cap. His sweatshirt said “Cute Enough to Cuddle.” That alone was almost worth the bus ride.

The thing is, it's true.

We had been told to get off at the last bus stop and look for a man holding a sign that said Ger-to-Ger, who would then check our Ger-to-Ger laminated ID cards before leading us to our first camp. Instead, at what we later learned was the second-to-last bus stop, a thirteen-year-old boy wearing a sun hat and a dirty sweatshirt that said Korea got on the bus and approached Peter. “Ger-to-ger?” he said. Confused, we followed him off the bus. He didn’t introduce himself further, and there was no ID checking. This was either a disorganized system, we decided, or a very clever scam.

Our route description had said we’d be transported to our first ger by ox-cart and, sure enough, there it was: a flat piece of wood resting on two wheels attached to a large brown-and-white spotted ox. On the cart sat our other guide: an eleven-year-old girl in short sweat-shorts,  pink t-shirt, and a white Ger-to-Ger cap. Figuring thtat was a good sign,we tossed our bags on top of the cart and clambered on. The boy perched himself on the edge of the cart and took up the reins, which were attached to a ring that went through the ox’s nose. (In addition to looking quite painful, this made for very sudden, imprecise turns – imagine a boat with its rudder at the front.) Smacking its bottom with a stick, the boy said what we soon learned was the Mongolian word for “giddy-up” – it sounds like “Choo!” – and we were off.

Or, at least, we were moving. Ox carts are not the fastest form of transportation out there; we probably could have walked beside it at roughly the same pace, and saved our spines a lot of pain to boot – ox carts have no shocks. An additional benefit to walking: presumably the person walking in front of us would not defecate in our faces.

The same could not be said of the ox. Its butt was right there, ready to go. And before you think, “Oh, how big of a deal could that be – haven’t you ever taken a carriage ride?” you should recognize that the distance between an ox and its cart is much, much shorter than the distance between a horse and a carriage. That ass is right there, so close that when the ox raised its tail in warning, the driver had to move his legs. There came a time later in the trip, thanks to a gust of wind and a ox with loose bowels, that I had to clean my glasses.

But I digress. The kids took us as far as a candy shop, where they paused to treat themselves to ice cream as we reclined on the cart, Peter taking pictures and me trying to get over my bad mood. (To be fair, this was in large part due to the fact that I hate camping and was nervous about the logistics of the toilet situation.) Eventually the kids delivered us to two older men driving a different ox-cart, the platform of which was covered in a battered and filthy oriental rug (I later saw goats perched on top of it). Once we’d transferred carts, we bounced along through a clear, rock-bottomed stream, the driver smacking the ox’s bottom with a stick, as the ox alternated between a walk and a pissed-off trot. It also kept veering sharply to the left, giving the impression that it was drunk.

After the stream, the landscape opened up into one of the vistas that Mongolia is known for – a wide, flat valley flanked by rolling green hills, white gers mushrooming from the grass. Flocks of livestock stood out against the green, large herds of sheep mixed with goats. The most surprising thing, though, was the horses. Not only were there free-roaming herds of them, but about 20 minutes into our ox-cart journey, we heard a torrent of hooves and looked behind us to see three men galloping toward our cart on horseback. The sight of a young man riding a horse in a traditional Mongolian silk coat, tied with a sash, made me feel like we had suddenly been transported 300 years back in time.

Sadly, this impression was short-lived: unlike the ox, the young men (especially the one in costume) really were drunk, which made their horse-riding all the more impressive, but also made them intimidating. “I hope this isn’t the scene where our ox-cart gets held up by armed bandits,” I said to Peter. But the ox-cart driver and his friend were not concerned. Not only did they know the young men but, as we soon learned, they lived in the adjoining ger. So after some small talk, we simply continued on our way, eventually arriving at two gers pitched near the curve of a small river. Between the gers sat a pickup truck, its cab jackknifed forward with several men working the motor. Our host was nowhere to be seen.

Click here for Part II.