Experiences, Mongolia, Solo Travel

Ger to Ger – Cultural Travel in Mongolia

33 Comments 16 August 2009

The Mongolian Ger

The Mongolian Ger

As I looked at the Ger to Ger handbook, I became a bit nervous about my pending journey into the desert. I paged through the lightning strike section with the extensive “flash to bang” explanation wondering if there was something more statistically relevant about Mongolian lightening that I should know. Next I came across the wild animal section and the snake section reading “they usually aren’t aggressive”. Finally I quickly sped through the tick section assuming that since there were no trees or grass in the desert, I shouldn’t have to worry about ticks…right?

Scarily - we did actually encounter a snake!

Scarily - we did actually encounter a snake!

There were many reasons why I chose Ger to Ger.

  • They are a pioneer in Mongolian sustainable, culturally responsible tourism.
  • 85% of the fees I paid goes directly to rural Mongolian nomadic groups and communities.
  • This tourism activity helps increase rural social economic development.
  • It was about meeting people and building relationships, not seeing all of the ‘tourist sites’.
  • It promotes cultural interaction and furthers the education of the herders by exposing them to other cultures and languages.
  • It’s required to go through a cultural ‘orientation’ before sending you out into the ‘real’ Mongolia.

I sat at my orientation with my new travel partners with excitement and a bit of trepidation. Excitement about experiencing the culture and a bit nervous learning about the massive amounts of boiled mutton I would be subjected to over the next 12 days. The route would take us into the Middle Gobi area where we’d go from Ger to Ger via local, traditional means (aka horses, camels, by foot, and by cart) and for the longer hauls we’d have a jeep. We’d eat what the families made for me and we’d pitch our own tent/ger so as to have a small bit of privacy in a land where there’s nowhere to hide.

They weren't your average family pets - they were security

They weren't your average family pets - they were security

The Ger to Ger handbook was a wealth of information. I learned about the relationship between nomads and their dogs as well as the very important Mongolia phrase “Hold your dog!” We also learned other phrases such as “How many camels do you have?”, “I like galloping on the horse.”, “My stomach hurts”, “I would like to wash” and “What is your hobby?” Of course we learned all of the Language 101 things too about name, age, occupation, and ‘toilet’ whereabouts(the word toilet is used very loosely…it was a hole). The families that we would be staying and interacting with did not speak English, so we tried to prepare the best we could. Of course since I’m terrible at learning languages, I knew I would remember none of this, but at least we had a handbook we could refer back to. Plus, after living in Vietnam for 10 months as an ESL teacher I knew I was really good at charades and pictionary so I would get by.

They also covered all of the basic information about gers (Mongolia tents/houses); how to enter them, where to sit, how to sit, what not to touch and what to do if I was wearing a hat (which was a necessity considering there would be no showers!).

The Men rule in Mongolia

The Men rule in Mongolia

Like most cultures the Mongolian society was male oriented so the men had special places in the ger as well as the elders. Strangely enough, with 39 years under my belt, I found that most of the time I was actually the elder in the ger – a sobering truth!

We learned how to accept snuff bottles (always with your right hand with your left hand supporting your elbow). Thankfully the staff taught us how to politely sniff the snuff and pass it on without actually snorting it. The act of being offered a snuff bottle by the man of the ger was similar to shaking hands upon meeting – a gesture of good will and welcoming.

Shagai bones and meanings

Shagai bones and the 4 positions

The staff at Ger to Ger also taught us how to play the wildly popular Mongolian game Shagai. What’s that, you’ve never heard of it – maybe that’s because you don’t have a plethora of sheep ankle bones at your disposal? The games that can be played with these unusual game pieces are endless; they are used as marbles, dice, and jacks. The Ger to Ger group taught us the basics such as the meanings of the various ‘sides’ of the bones. It took me a bit to catch on to the subtleties of the differences, but eventually you start to read them as you would dice.

Nowhere to hide

Nowhere to hide

Finally we needed to learn how to set up our own ger ( a.k.a. our rented tent). Ger to Ger is adamant about travelers using their own tents and not sleeping in the family’s gers. By bringing our own tent this would afford us some minor privacy from the openness of the family ger where we would spend 90% of our time. But most importantly it would help preserve the nomadic heritage. In Mongolia each family has their own ger and sometimes herding relatives live next to each other. This establishment of multiple gers in one area is called a Saahalt (nomadic tribe). I felt a bit like I was all of a sudden a contestant on Survivor and waited for Ger to Ger to pass out our special tribe buff! Really though, in hindsight, this was some of the best advice they would give; definitely bring your own tent!

I was armed with travel partners, a cultural handbook, some Mongolian phrases, a lot of toilet paper, some snacks for when I could no longer take boiled mutton, toys for kids, and sunscreen. I was ready to go to the Gobi!

We caught our local bus the next morning. One other thing Ger to Ger was adamant about; taking local transportation. They believe tourists riding on state buses awaken a Mongolian sense of pride to make the state buses as reliable as possible. The more tourists who went on local transport, the more government officials would see the importance of upkeep of transport. I actually loved this reasoning, it’s similar to the human desire to always look better for strangers than for the people who are around us the most often.

Our bus entertainment - a special man

Our bus entertainment - a special man

I found that the bus ride in Mongolia was one of my favorite in all of my travels. We piled onto the little bus that had a capacity of 29 and now had 42 people on it – reminding me that I was still in Asia.  Locals stared at us nonstop trying to figure out why we were here on this bus, kids smiled, and men shared snuff. One of my travel highlights came from an older man dressed in traditional Mongolian herder attire. He did something I’ve never seen done before, he entertained the whole bus; sharing his snuff, talking to everyone, making them laugh, and even leading them in group folk songs. I sat in my cramped little seat in awe of the solidarity of this bus and was honored to be a part of the culture! When he got off the bus in seemingly the middle of the desert, we all clapped and said goodbye. It was one of those memorable travel moments. It makes you happy to be traveling; experiencing something that most of the world will never experience. As I listened and watched the whole bus sing along, tears of joy started to form in my eyes; so happy to be out doing meaning cultural travel again!

Ger to Ger Information:

Ger to Ger Website
Ger to Ger is a finalist in the National Geographic Geotourism Challenge – learn more about it and please vote for them!

What to bring

Rent or bring a tent, sleeping bag, and a sleeping pad. The rental fees are really overpriced, so if you have your own, then definitely bring it along!
English to Mongol dictionaryand postcards of your home town (the families love these)

Your Comments

33 Comments so far

  1. One of the places I long to go but have never visited… by the time I finished your post I felt I too was living one of those travel moments. Thanks for bringing this to life for me!

  2. Marnova says:

    Really interesting feedback. I’ve been waiting to hear back on Ger to Ger. Thanks Sherry.

    Interesting that they try to dissuade travellers from staying with nomads. I wonder if this is so they can get the volumes of people passing through whilst avoiding the nomads becoming dependent on income from tourists.

    It is an integral part of Mongolian culture for passing travellers to stay over in gers. There are even ‘ger hotels’ (basically a ger that a family lives in with an extra big bed and enough food to cater for more people) in some of the more remote soums (villages) for larger parties – when travelling with some Mongolian friends through Nomrog soum and the roads were impassable, about 15 people from 3 different parties piled into such a ‘hotel’ and yes, we all shared one ‘bed’ 😀

  3. Rhona says:

    Great post Sherry. I never considered Mongolia as a place to visit but you might reform me. I cannot wait to read more.

  4. It’s great to use local companies like this that are there for the benefit of the community and teach you how to get the best from the culture – like the etiquette of sniffing snuff – how would you ever learn this useful stuff otherwise?

  5. Leslie says:

    Thanks for sharing about Ger to Ger! The part about encouraging tourists to take local transportation is really interesting. I’d never heard of a tour operator that has guests travel by bus, but that is brilliant.

    I’ll definitely look up Ger to Ger when I make it to Mongolia one day. Wouldn’t it be a fun adventure to travel with or volunteer with all of the Geotourism Challenge finalists?

  6. admin says:

    @marnova – I’m not sure of all of the reasons why ger to ger suggests having our own tent – however it was great advice. One night we did sleep with a family in their ger due to the wind (we couldn’t put up our tent) and it was really, really tough. There’s no privacy at all…can’t even change your clothes. That’s ok for a few days – however for 12 days it would have been really draining. I’ll get into it more in future posts – so stay tuned! I have many more Mongolia posts to do about the families, landscape, herding, etc!

  7. admin says:

    @leslie – I love your idea to travel with all of the geotourism finalists! That would be a great way to really see what the best have to offer!

  8. jessiev says:

    more, more, more!! i love your journeys – i learn so much, and also want to go right there with you. excellent photos (as always). were you creeped out by playing dice with bones?

  9. Johanna says:

    Love it, love it! Which is your favourite Shagai game, Sherry? I loved the “jacks” like one, though I was really bad at it. We bought a bag of the bones before we came home and were a bit worried we’d get in trouble at Canadian customs…but managed to sneak those 101 sheep bones in!!! Thanks for posting the pic of the blue and brown eyed dog, he was so nice and friendly, wasn’t he? I think we stayed with alot of the same families. Can’t wait to read more. Love the way you express the experience!

  10. Jodi says:

    Love the post. Mongolia was by far my favorite country and ger to ger one of the best experiences. Looking forward to hearing more about your trip.

  11. Barbara @ Hole n The Donut Travels says:

    What a fabulous adventure. High on my list of “things to do.” I loved your description of the man on the bus who entertained everyone; I had a similar experience in the mountains of Honduras and it, too, brought tears to my eyes.

  12. admin says:

    @Johanna – I sucked at the jack’s game – terrible hand eye coordination – but I kept trying! However the Mongolians won’t cut you a break…they are so competitive! I was getting quite good at the marbles game!
    @Jessie – no – not freaked out at all about the bones…I never really gave it a second thought! They had so few things to do in their gers that this seemed completely normal and creative!

  13. Nadia-Pete says:

    We had a blast for 6 wonderful days! Our guide and families we stayed with were wonderful. Language barrier? What language barrier. We participated with the family we stayed with building Ger to cooking even helped dry dung 😉 What cultural shock. There wasn’t any! We learned so much in such a short time. We love this kind tour because it’s so different from any other tour company. The Mongolian herders were very loving and made us feel like part of their family. The tour company Ger to Ger were very professional and we got what we paid for. A life time memories and excellent experiences. We’re going back to Mongolia and Ger to Ger !

  14. Faraz says:

    Fascinating article, especially as regards the story of your bus ride. I’m attempting to cross the Gobi Desert from west to east by foot over two months later this year to film a documentary, raise money for a Mongolian kids’ educational charity and teach school pupils about the country. I’d be very interested to read more about the day-to-day customs you learnt of during your trip. Looking forward to more!

    • Sherry says:

      Hi Faraz,
      Your adventure sounds amazing! I am also going back to Mongolia this summer – but I will be driving through this time – from London to Mongolia raising money for charity too. I went to Mongolia in 2009 – but you can learn ton more about my trip there and in depth cultural stuff on my website – just go to the Destinations navigation, choose Asia, and then Mongolia, scroll back to the older posts and you’ll find a ton about the food, people, and traditions. http://www.ottsworld.com/blogs/category/destinations/asia/mongolia/

  15. Nigel says:

    Mongolia is fantastic. Ger To Ger is not. Yes some people have good experiences… however, if things don’t work out quite so well or you don’t get what you paid for, as seems to be the case in about 50% of their tours, they are not the least bit interested in your problems and will not only abuse you but will hide behind any reason they can think of for why they can’t possibly deal with it. As for the money getting back to the community – their regional facilitators get all the money and are supposed to then pay the locals and otherwise share the wealth. Some of them are corrupt and will pocket the money instead. Ger to Ger have said they are aware of this and it doesn’t seem to bother them. Reviews are hard to find for ger to ger because they seem to keep a low online profile, but you should certainly do your homework before spending money with them. My advice is to just book a ger-stay yourself – most guest houses can organize it for a fraction of the cost you would pay through ger-to-ger. Their introduction session costs about USD$25 and is about half language lessons and half listening to the CEO telling you how awesome he is personally. The actual amount of useful information is small and certainly of marginal use when you are actually out there. Also if you do a Khazak tour you will still have to pay for the Mongol language lessons even though they don’t speak Mongol out west… and no, they won’t tell you anything about the Khazak culture or language. Refunds for not getting what you paid for?… Forget it.

    • Sherry says:

      Sorry to hear about your experience. I’m sure it’s not always wonderful for everyone. All I know is that I went and had an amazing time overall and liked it well enough to go back again a second time and use them. Sure – there are things that are not ideal about the program – but my enjoyment outweighed any issues I experienced. I talked to other people who have taken their tours and I certainly didn’t find that 50% were unhappy. But I’m only there for a short period of time – so it’s not thorough research!

    • Steph says:

      Hi, just stumbling across this now, but wanted to echo Nigel’s sentiments. I’m well travelled and work in a similar line of tourism, and Ger to Ger (in 2010) was without a doubt the worst tourism experience I’ve had to to date. The staff at the local office were incredibly rude and inappropriate, the $25 “orientation” was a joke, a waste, and a rip-off (in mine, Zanjan wasn’t present, but we just played the “ankle bone game” for the entire time.) The tour left out many of the advertised inclusions, and I felt like the company was finding opportunities to charge us extra money as often as possible. I could write much more, but most has been said. And, as many other have experienced, when I expressed these problems to the company, there was little concern and only a string of defensive emails in return. Anyway, little point in writing this three years later, hoping others won’t have a horrible experience like ours.

      • Sherry says:

        Sorry to hear of your unfortunate experience. However for me – it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had traveling – and I used them on two separate occasions – so obviously they have some consistency issues. I can only tell you that I enjoyed it, and I’d do it again. I do hope they can become more consistent though.

  16. Stephanie says:

    Thanks for this post, and especially for not censoring the comments. I’m looking into a trip with ger-to-ger and appreciated reading your perspective along with those provided in the comments.

    • Urban Nomad says:

      Hey! I am considering to book with Ger to Ger too for my hol end July, but have been hesitant as there have been such mixed reviews. But somehow it seems to be the least touristy option, hence most attractive.

  17. Urban Nomad says:

    Hey! I am considering to book with Ger to Ger too for my hol end July, but have been hesitant as there have been such mixed reviews. But somehow it seems to be the least touristy option, hence most attractive.
    Also, do you have an suggestions on which hostels to stay in Ullan Bator? I like to be in the centre of activity :)

    • Sherry says:

      All I can say is that I really enjoyed my two experiences with them immensely. I may be more tolerant than most though – as I travel all the time and am pretty used to difficult conditions. As for hostels – the last time I was there I ended up staying in a hotel and then an apartment. But they have lots of decent hostels there – but unfortunately I can’t recommend one over the other. REad the reviews on Hostelbookers.com – that should give you a pretty good indication. Let me know if you ended up doing Ger to Ger and what you thought. I always like to hear how people’s experiences were.

  18. Pixie says:

    Look at TripAdvisor (Mongolia forum) — lots of independent (and consistently negative) feedback on ger to ger. sounds like a rather awful company altogether!

    • Sherry says:

      Yes – Trip Advisor it a good place to see reviews. I can only tell you about my experience and can’t really attest to other people’s.

  19. Cahir says:

    Good post. I enjoyed reading your review.
    I am taking a trip to Mongolia soon and am interested in using ger to Ger. . How much in advance did you need to book or did you sort once in Mongolia.

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Sherry traveling the world

I'm Sherry, a corporate cube dweller turned nomadic traveler. I travel to off-the-beaten-path destinations to bring you unique travel experiences and photography. But it's not just about travel, it's also about life experiences of a middle age wanderer.
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