My Paradise: Mongolian Memories

by Kat Nickola
Stripes Guam

Writer’s Note: Our family is made of wilderness lovers: we camp, we hike, we love plants, we enjoy solitude in nature, and having lived in crowded Korea for a few years made us long for some wide-open spaces. Mongolia’s untamed steppe grasslands tempted me.

I had this vision of spending a relaxing idyllic week with traditional nomadic herders; playing with goats and yaks, living off the land, and enjoying the simple pleasures. To get a truly authentic experience I booked a homestay through our hotel, The Golden Gobi in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar.

I rejected their pre-packaged homestay options in the nearby Terelj National Park, opting instead for a “real” experience with a family living in a valley between the hamlet of Arvaikheer and Khangai National Park (read: Nowhere, Central Mongolia). As it turned out, traditional life is not as glamorous as modern homesteaders make it out to be, and Mongolia is a truly off-grid kind of place. The drive took two days instead of six hours, the food was all meat and milk, and the sanitation was nonexistent. But our hosts, who had never met outsiders, became family and our perspective on necessities is forever changed. Perhaps I should have booked the touristic local homestay, but then we wouldn’t have had the experience of a lifetime.

Kat Nickola

Milking horses
The first two days we stayed here at the family ger were awkward. We are sleeping on the floor. They wake and the wife starts prepping food while the husband leaves for a bit and returns to eat. We usually try to get up around that time because after that they are both out of the ger for a long time milking the horses.

IT takes two people to milk a mare. The husband (Zaya) catches the mare in a lasso, and holds it still while the wife (Zanda) milks it. The milk is disgusting. But I can’t stand drinking any kind of milk. It IS super creamy and raw, and not processed at all except for straining it into another bucket. Their two little girls drink it by the bowl. They get about one large bucketful each morning and evening.

Exploring the land
We spend the day out and about. Packing our tent and lunch (we brought some freezedried fruit and veggies, plus ramen noodles and bread), we venture up the side valleys. It’s really gorgeous high grassland. We are at 6,500 or so feet and well above the tree line, so the whole valley and mountainsides are covered in green or golden grass.

In the side valleys are cute little creeks flowing into the main river in our ger valley. We hike up these and find a spot to pitch the tent for the day. The kids play in the creek, we read, we eat and nap. Hours pass and it’s been awesome. We hiked halfway up one of the mountains one day, read the entire first Harry Potter, made grass boats and slept way better than at nighttime.

Trying to fit in
Back at the ger home, Zanda just kept staring at me and I’m not sure if I’m to help or not. Once I cut some noodles and it was obviously wrong. She and I laughed, which was good, but then I was at a loss.

I’ve tried to help but it’s difficult to know what to do. There are only 10 bowls in the place and a few pieces of silverware, so if she sets a bowl of water on the stove, I can do dishes. But that’s it. She did show me which shelf they go on. I’m at an absolute loss for cooking. Their staples are meat and milk. I can barely offer to add a dried poo to the fire.

The Mongolian kids mostly fend for themselves, so sometimes I feel useful by playing with them and showing them how to color. We are leaving a few coloring books here for them. The little one who is two loves the dry erase maze book so we will leave that, too.

Turning point
Anyway, our turning point was on day 3 when Bryan offered to go to the market with them. Our driver took him, Zanda and the baby into town a half hour away. They bought veggies and coffee and candy and a brick of tea. She was most excited for a container of laundry detergent though. Bryan paid the bill. Since then it’s been less tense. May have been the market trip or just us getting more involved.

Zoe and Avi join the other kids nightly to round up the goats and sheep. They love it! They wander off to find the herd and push them back near the gers. Then, the baby goats are singled out and directed - with whips on sticks and yelling - into a little pen. That is where they stay all night, which keeps the mom goats from wandering. I guess the sheep just stay near the goats because they don’t think to do anything else.

In the late morning, the female goats are rounded up, singled out of the crowd and tied head to head in a long row for milking. There are about 20. After that, the baby goats are freed, nursed and then the herd wanders away for the day.

Uno makes us one
We have played Uno every night, and slowly more family have joined. On the first night, just the 6-year-old and our driver, Sandeek. Then dad, and by the third night (after the market), mom and even cousin Eddie joined in. He’s another extended family member that lives in one of the other two nearby gers.

I was shockingly trusted to churn the butter (Oh, the hideous smell!) while Zanda got to play. By our fourth and final night of our stay, the whole extended family was in the ger laughing and playing. It has been fun and the perfect game to teach people who can’t speak a lick of English.

The game brought us all together.

Bare to the bones
Zanda, Zoe and I also had a blast playing Knuckle Bones. It’s their family game. I can’t explain it quickly, but it’s fun and is played with the knuckle bones from sheep and goats they’ve eaten. I just barely lost. Lots of laughs late into the night.

Dressing up
Our final night was the best though. We returned from our daily outing and they wanted to dress us up! The whole family - including the super nice grandpa from another ger - came to help. We were outfitted with their own personal fancy deel (their traditional dress), and even jewelry and medals. Women in Mongolia, by the way, get a medal for each child they have.

Then it was pictures!! Lots. And other fancy deel and winter deel and more pictures. Just kids, just women, just olds, Cousin Eddie, etc. This was our name for him. He fit the description. We all had such fun!! And they seemed so excited to play dress up on the Westerners.

Giving of gifts
That night we gave them our gifts. We brought a new Uno, a silk and a Swiss Army knife. We also indicated we would leave the girls the coloring books and dry erase maze book, plus a cool Mongolian version of National Geographic Traveler that was all about Mongolian sights and in both English and Mongolian. We found it in the seat back pocket on our Hunnu Air flight to Dalanzadgad last week and found it fascinating. They loved it and all the other gifts.

Then I was shocked when Zanda offered me her deel!! I refused for a while but it was important to her. Our driver translated and said we were the first to homestay with them (I could’ve guessed). AND we were the first foreigners they’d ever met. It was so special. So now I have a gorgeous green silk deel that she made by hand and I can where on special occasions. Amazing!

Saying goodbye
We were all up super late that last night playing cards and “chatting.” Thank goodness our driver Sandeek can translate roughly. They had tons of questions about us, the kids and school and found us so very interesting. We found them interesting as well!

At first it was weird, but by the end we felt very much like family. It was a bit sad to go but we were excited to get showers and use toilets and sinks and refrigerators again. The simplicity of their life, though, is something to take with us. They have very little by nature or by choice.

As we left on the fifth morning, each ger household tossed a bowl full of milk in the air for us. A ceremonial gesture to ensure a safe trip. It was quite moving, especially when I saw grandpa run out so he wouldn’t miss us. Zaya and Zanda road their motorbike up to the ridge crossing to say their goodbyes. It was an honor! I gave them hugs instead of handshakes.

They were surprised. Pleasantly, I believe.

  Kat's take on transportation  

Let’s be frank, transport in Mongolia sucks. Did I expect it to be great? No. But I did expect the time estimates from the tour company to be on target.

Today we drove about 5 hours and are only halfway to our homestay. I was told it would be 6 hours total!! Either our new driver isn’t great or the tour company is vastly confused. Disorganized, too. I had been impressed with her promptness at emails and all the trip prearrangement, but now I’m disappointed. She called the cell phone at our “halfway” homestay to tell me she miscalculated the trip cost and forgot to include the driving to the homestay. Then she wants me to pay the massive difference. No!! We won’t let it spoil our trip, and came to a compromise but it still turned me off.

Not only that, but our flights have been changed on us, too! Hunnu Air had emailed me just before we left that they changed our flight down to the Gobi last week, so I had that under control. But this morning we woke early in Dalanzadgad to catch our return flight - and gather our new driver to the homestay - got to the empty airport to find it was now going 4 hours later! Crazy!! For an airline especially.

I expected delays for vehicles driving on bad dirt roads and slowness of Mongolian service, but I’m frustrated with the tour company and airlines for having such surprisingly poor customer service. What I am happy with, though, is the view. Mongolia is VAST! It is HUGE! Today as we drove, we saw gers dotting the countryside, a nice rain storm, green hills, and goats and sheep blocking the road – a fairly major road at that.

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