The bus bounced along on the road north and for the first time in 5 weeks I just sat back, relaxed and didn’t have to worry about directions, breakdowns, or deal with the nagging internal question of “Will we make it?” The road was bumpy and slow-going, but in Mongolian standards this road was perfection. I was heading on a public bus towards Terelj National Park to experience yet another side of Mongolia; the nomadic lifestyle that is unique to this part of the world.
I had just completed the Mongol Rally, a 5 week road trip from London to Ulaanbaatar Mongolia, and the idea of someone else (aka the bus driver) driving and making decisions was a great relief. We arrived to the finish line of the rally earlier than expected and we had time to kill in Ulaanbaatar before our flights. My other teammates decided to chill out in Ulaanbaatar, but I decided to revisit and relive one of the best travel experiences I had ever experienced; a Ger to Ger adventure in Mongolia.
I convinced another Mongol Rally friend to join me on this cultural journey, John, a young traveler from Ireland. Together we found the correct public bus according to the instructions in our Ger to Ger handbook and we were heading north with other Mongolians and a small handful of tourists.
The barren landscape around Ulaanbaatar gave way to evergreen patches and rolling hills every mile north we traveled. After two hours, the bus stopped at a small looking village in the park. We departed the bus with our backpacks and immediately saw our ride – an ox and rickety cart. A local man smiled at us and said “Ger to Ger?”, we nodded and he took our bags flipping them onto the flat bed cart. We hopped up on the cart and away we went.
We had no real idea of where we were going, but we happily sat on the cart and took in our surroundings. Shortly we were at a strong river and the ox kept powering through as the water rose nearly over the top of our cart. John and I looked at each other slightly nervous, but the ox stayed his course determined to get us to our first ger stop.
We arrived at Mrs. Umaa’s ger where we were immediately invited in and served fried bread stuffed with mutton and onions. Mrs Umaa’s was still frying up batches of the bread as we sat and had our milk tea and surveyed our surroundings. The gers have such a simple, yet functional design. Two poles in the middle with a stove in between are the foundation with spokes jutting out from the center providing it’s stability. Felt surrounds the circular wood lattice wall keeping things toasty warm for the harsh winters.
John and I had familiarized ourselves with the Ger to Ger cultural handbook on the bus ride to Terelj. I was reminded once again about the importance of entering a ger, the respect of age and gender, and the life saving phrase in Mongolian, “Hold your dog!” After our quick, hot lunch Mr. Umaa saddled up two horses and was ready to take us to our next family 18 km away. I took a look at the horse and realized he didn’t look too intimidating thanks to his small Mongolian size, but I knew better than that.
Eighteen kilometers was excruciating to my bum and my legs, but we just kept on trotting along as John and I hoped each ger in the distance was the one we were supposed to stop at for the night. We finally came down a little clearing and saw a ger with puffs of smoke marking its territory and Mr. Umaa pointed to the ger. Hallelujah – we made it!
We arrived at Ms. Amarjargal’s family ger where we immediately bonded with the kids, a boy around 4 years old, and other cousins running around; some younger and some older. Before the sun went down we decided to take the young boy with us on a walk to an ovoo off in the distance. The boy wasn’t intimidated by strangers taking him away from his mother . He had long flowing hair which is similar for many Mongolian boys his age; in Mongolia it’s customary to only cut hair when children reach certain ages.
That night we ate a feast and then listened to the family call their oldest daughter who was 11 at a school in Ulaanbaatar. It’s customary for kids to be sent off to school at a very young age since there are not good schools in the area for children to attend. John and I sat and watched the touching moment between the family as they all tried to talk at once on their cell phone with spotty coverage.
They had an extra ger so they insisted that we stay inside their extra ger instead of unpacking our tent – they didn’t have to work too hard to convince me of that as the temperature was quickly dropping.
The next morning we woke up to a deliciously sinful breakfast of fresh cream and bread. The food in Mongolia is nothing to write home about, however they do dairy the full fat way – nothing but the real stuff. Butter, cream, yogurt; I love learning what these products are really supposed to taste like! We drank tea and ate our bread with cream warming up around the ger stove. I watched as the father dressed his young son in a traditional Mongolian coat and sash and then they played around practicing a little fun wrestling, the traditional sport of Mongolia. It was easy to see how the cultural customs are carried forth from generation to generation.
Part of the Ger to Ger mission is to teach visitors about the customs and culture of Mongolian families. The mother took John and I to the other ger and gave us a sewing lesson. She taught us how to make an intricate Mongolian pattern and silk phone holder. John and I weren’t the most talented students , but we loved how patient she was with us simply showing us what to do without really being able to communicate with us well. We used an ancient peddle sewing machine that I never really got the hang of, but at least I didn’t sew my finger!
We spent the rest of the day playing with the kids who had an endless amount of energy for us. The mother next prepared the ox and cart and took us to our next family ger. Once again I’m amazed at how hearty and talented the Mongolian women are, they remind me of my grandmothers on the farms in Nebraska; they do everything – true working women.
We sadly bid the children goodbye and bounced along on our ox cart to Mr. Bold’s family ger. According to our Ger to Ger handbook, we learned that Mr. Bold trains horses and has the prestigious title of ‘Lion’ from the Regional Naadam Festival where he used to compete. He became the Great Horse Trainer of Nalaih District. By the size of Mr Bold I would have though he was a wrestler; he was the definition of foreboding. It took a long time (and a little vodka) to see him smile, but when he did he looked much less intimidating! Ms. Battseseg, his wife, was also a professional herder and sews for many people around the area.
They welcomed us into their home with milk tea and bread. It wasn’t long before John and I were out with the family rounding up the cows so that the they could be milked. Our job was to find all of the calves and put them into a specific little square fence. John and I were feeling pretty rugged and were actually successful at this task! However milking the cows proved a bit more challenging!
The next day we spent our day learning archery (which proved really challenging!), gathering up horses, and I even was allowed to help Ms. Battseseg make booz (Mongolian dumplings). She showed me how to fill the dough with the mutton mixture and pinch it together in a pretty looking dumpling. However it didn’t take long until I was demoted to simply rolling dough!
Our short stay was over and Mr. Bold loaded us onto the ox cart and we took the 15 km ride back to the bus stop to be picked up that night on the local bus. We were secured and toasty under blankets as we bumped along in the ox cart with our backpacks for pillows.
As I sat on the bus with John sharing a bottle of vodka I thought about this wonderfully rich culture and the fact that Ger go Ger really brings you an authentic experience that I’ve never been able to find in other places. Sure – this type of travel/experience is not for everyone. It’s rough, not at all luxury, and basic; but it’s real.
This is the real deal, staying with Mongolian families on their terms. If you are someone who is looking for authentic experiences, then this is a ‘must-do’ if you are in Mongolia. Other great things about it:
• A large portion of the money goes back to the families you stay with
• Get a useful handbook and training on cultural etiquette before you go.
• You take local transportation which provides richer cultural experiences and exposure
• Provides a great opportunity for photography!
• Get to stay in a real ger – not a ger camp.
The Could be Better (or be prepared for these hardships):
• There is no bathroom facilities besides a hole in the ground with a few boards surrounding it for privacy
• No running water
• The food is very basic
• Have your own tent else you will have to rent one and it’s rather expensive
• The horse saddles are severely uncomfortable
• It’s not well planned and doesn’t really stick to the itinerary in the book. However if you keep an open mind, be patient, and know that you will get to accomplish a lot of great things that may not be in the published itinerary.
Would I recommend it?
Yes, absolutely yes! This was my third trip with Ger to Ger, and I’ve loved each one.
I found it to be really rewarding. However it is more independent travel than organized tour. You have to go into it knowing you will rough it and things won’t go as planned all the time. Be open and the experience can be amazing. I can’t wait to take another; however the next one I have told myself would be in the dead of winter so that I can experience the winter culture which I expect to be very different from the summer!
Ger to Ger Website: www.gertoger.org
Photos from our Terelj Park Experience: