Cultural Travel in Mongolia

January 11, 2024   29 Comments »

Cultural Travel in Mongolia

August 16, 2009 29 Comments »

It was a dream of mine to travel to Mongolia. However, I didn’t want to do it like everyone else did it; I wasn’t looking for the standard tour. As I looked at the Ger to Ger handbook, I realized I had found my answer.

As I paged through the manual, I became a bit nervous about my pending journey into the Gobi Desert. There was a whole lightning strike section with an extensive “flash to bang” explanation. It left me wondering if there was something more statistically relevant about Mongolian lightning 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?

Immersive Cultural Travel in Mongolia

There were many reasons why I chose Ger-to-Ger. Based in Ulaanbaatar this pioneer in Mongolian sustainable tourism caught my eye. I went to their office to learn more about their tours.

Ger to Ger offers trips into various areas of Mongolia to learn from and stay with local nomadic families. You travel from ger to ger each day to meet another family and learn more about the culture. You stay with them (in your own tent) next to their ger and are their guest. This is local travel at its best!

Their tours were about meeting people and building relationships, not seeing all of the popular tourist sights. They promote cultural interaction and further the education of the nomadic Mongolians by exposing them to other cultures and languages. It was a real cultural exchange for both parties – the locals and the tourists.

Mongolian family and ox cart
Our ox cart awaits. Mr. Bold and Mrs. Batsetseg say goodbye…

Fees That Go Back to the Community

The best part is that 85% of the fees go in the direction of rural Mongolian nomadic groups and communities. This tourism activity helped increase rural social economic development.

They were so serious about the importance of cultural interaction, that they even required the guests to go through a cultural ‘orientation before sending them out into the ‘real’ Mongolia.

Learn more about Ger to Ger’s unique local trips around Mongolia

Ger-to-Ger Website

Mongolia children at the ger
Kids showing us their culture

Mongolia Cultural Orientation Class

I sat at my cultural 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 us and pitch our own tent/ger so as to have a small bit of privacy in a land where there’s nowhere to hide.

Mongolian Dogs
Dogs weren’t pets, they were security

Learning How to Communicate in Mongolia

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 Mongolian 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.

communication with pictures in Mongolia
Communicating in Mongolia with pictures

Learning About Ger Etiquette

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!).

Mongolian family outside their ger
A typical Mongolian family

Like most cultures 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!

Learn How to Accept Snuff in Mongolia

We learned how to accept snuff bottles/tobacco bottles, something that all Mongolians carry. The act of being offered a snuff bottle by the man of the ger was similar to shaking hands upon meeting – a gesture of goodwill and welcoming. You are always supposed to accept it with your right hand, while your left hand supports your elbow. Thankfully the Ger to Ger staff taught us how to politely sniff the snuff and pass it on without actually snorting it.

Learn some surprising things about the Gobi Desert

How to Play Mongolian Shagai

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.

Preserving Nomadic Heritage

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!

Travel in Mongolia Gobi Desert
Nowhere to hide in the Gobi Desert

Traveling In the Gobi Desert with Ger to Ger

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!

Taking Local Transportation

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 the 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.

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 I’ve had.

I had experienced something that most of the world would never experience. – the joy of local travel. 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 meaningful cultural travel again!

Read all about my 2 Weeks Traveling Mongolia with Ger-to-Ger

Ger-to-Ger Information:

What to Bring on a Ger-to-Ger Mongolia Trip

  • Tent
  • Sleeping bag and pad.
  • English to Mongol dictionary
  • Postcards of your home town (the families love these)
  • Camera – Mongolia is a photographer’s dream!

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