The nomadic sloths

Last night I returned from my Ger-to-Ger (G2G) trip smelling of sheep, horses and sour milk.

As the bus rolled west towards Ulaan Baatar from the hills of Terelj National Park, a dramatic thunderstorm rolled east, dropping gallons of water that turned the streets of UB into muddy streams.

I was joined on my 6-day/5-night holiday by Bjorn and Kjersti, a lovely Norwegian couple. I use the term “holiday” deliberately, because we spent a good portion of the trip lazing around. The idea of Ger to Ger is for you to stay with real nomad families as they go about their everyday activities – milking cows, herding sheep and goats, and so on. The families are not there to entertain you, though in theory there are activities planned – crafts, horse riding, playing shagai with the kids.

In reality, a typical days goes like this:
– wake up around 8:30
– eat breakfast
– hang around doing nothing for a few hours
– eat lunch
– hang around
– get invited by wife of the family to “herd sheep” or do crafts
– pack up tents (which means the kids pack the tents and we stand around)
– horse ride/ox cart to next ger
– drink milk tea
– pitch tents (again, the kids insist on doing most of the work)
– eat dinner
– in bed by 9
– rinse, repeat

After five days of this we started referring to ourselves as the sloths.

Yes, it was interesting to observe the dynamics of the four different families we visited. Yes, we had one ~10km horse ride and another 23km ride between gers. But six days was enough. Neither my Lonely Planet guide nor the language section of the G2G guide gave us the right words to have a meaningful exchange with our host families. There was a lot of awkward smiling, amusing miming and long, long silences.

Some highlights and observations:

– we were picked up from the local bus stop by two boys, roughly 11 and 15 years old, in an ox cart. We spent a good portion of this first ride debating whether they were scammers bringing us someplace else, or if they were really family members of “Chukha” the man who was supposed to collect us. (they were the real deal)

– we helped some of Chukha’s boys (he has 4 daughters, but many nephews/friends/random local boys helping him) “herd” sheep and goats from one side of a mountain to another. To get them to stop climbing the wrong hill we howled like wolves. The animals froze. As we approached we baa’d like sheep. The animals followed us. Pretty cool trick.

– one morning we watched Chukha slaughter a sheep. that afternoon we were treated to a large bowl of boiled sheep entrails as a snack after a 10-km horseback ride. for dinner we joined various neighbors around another bowl of grilled/boiled mutton – just reach into the bowl, grab a hunk, and tear into it with your teeth. after dinner were toasts with a variant of aimag, the local rot gut. Normally made of fermented mare’s milk, this version was made from cow milk.

– hunting for wild strawberries during a rest stop on our 23-km horse ride to the second ger. mmmm, so sweet.

– happening upon a wedding during our ox cart ride between the 2nd and 3rd ger. wedding ceremonies are community celebrations, complete with mini-nadaams: a horse race, wrestling, etc. Not only is the community celebrating the (presumed) continuation of the Mongolian people, but also a continuation of their traditions and way of life. It seemed the perfect way to celebrate a wedding: the bride and groom were guests of honor at a community party.

– the madly in love, happy couple who hosted us at the last ger. And their baby son was adorable.

– on the way back to town to catch our bus to UB, something went wrong with a wheel on the ox cart. So what do you do – change the tire (so to speak)? Nope – you stop at the nearest ger and borrow the ox cart of a “neighbor”. that’s the nomadic culture.

There’s a lot more, of course, but since I lost a day to technical problems (I started writing this post yesterday. in the middle my computer froze, necessitating a 3-1/2-hour stay in a local tech shop reinstalling XP) I’m a bit behind.

More in a bit (plus photos!)

Change of plan

I got voted off the Gobi.

Yesterday around noon one of the people on the Gobi trip called to say that, “Sorry!” there wasn’t enough room for me on the Gobi trip. The max number for a tour is 6, and the guide wanted to treat the kid as a person (fair enough). So the rest of the group (who are all staying at a different guest house than me) had a meeting and decided I was out. Fuckers.

That means I spent the day yesterday scrambling to find another trip to join. So today I’m going on a 6-day/5-night trip to the nearby Terelj National Park with Ger-to-Ger. Unlike other local tour operators, G2G says, it gives travelers an authentic experience (no English-speaking guide or “western” food), focuses on sustainable tourism, and gives 85% of the so-called “community fee” directly to the families.

So I and two others will take a local bus to the park (no private jeep), where we’ll meet a guy who will bring us by ox cart to the ger (called a yurt in other cultures; it’s a felt nomad’s home) of a nomad family who will let us camp in their yard. The next day we move to another family’s ger, etc. for 6 days.

The trip I’m going on is called “Nomadic Challenges” or something. It’s going to be like an episode of the Amazing Race – we’ll compete with each other in dung-collecting, water-hauling, etc. The only difference is that there’s no $1 million prize for the winner.

We’ll also learn how to do some other basic things in a nomad’s life: milk a cow, saddle a horse, sew traditional clothes. We’ll travel mostly by horse (Mongolian saddles are wooden, so that should be fun) though there’s one day of trekking as well.

Anyway, that’s what I’ll be doing for the next few days. I’ll still get to the Gobi – I’ve got a few people looking to hook me up with a group when I return to UB – but it’ll just be a bit later.

OK…time to saddle up…