Ger to Ger – Cultural Travel in Mongolia

August 16, 2009   33 Comments »

Ger to Ger – Cultural Travel in Mongolia

August 16, 2009 33 Comments »

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?

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.
ger to ger

Kids showing us their culture

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.

ger to ger cultural travel

Dogs weren’t 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!).

ger to ger

A typical Mongolian family

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.

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.

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!

ger to ger

Nowhere to hide in the Gobi Desert

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 special singing man on the bus

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)

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