I think it’s safe to say we’re done roughing it for a while. Since leaving the States six weeks ago, we’ve spent two weeks living with nomadic families in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia and an additional two weeks trekking through the Himalaya mountains of Nepal. That’s four weeks without flush toilets and very limited running water and electricity. Four weeks of frigid temperatures where I went to “bed” every night wearing two pairs of pants, six tops (including a winter jacket), wool socks and a wool hat.
Don’t get me wrong- I love nature, really I do. I enjoy being outdoors, the fresh air, the peace and quiet, blah blah blah. I even enjoy camping…for about three or four days. After that, it’s less about pleasure and more about endurance for the sake of the benefits. And there were some benefits…I just need some time in a nice, warm room with modern amenities while I reflect on what those were.
And no doubt, with the passage of time, memories of the monotony and hardships of the great outdoors will slowly fade, leaving just a collection of warm and fuzzy memories and a heightened awareness of how I’ve grown as a person. Exactly the type of delusion that will eventually convince me that these types of experiences are a great idea and that I should do it all over again.
But in the meantime, the post-traumatic flashbacks continue, reminding me of…
.. the fields of black that turned out to be covered in animal manure (FYI: camel manure- large pies! goat manure- small, round pellets!).
.. the unusable animal parts discarded throughout the desert.
.. the dinner meats drying in the sun.
.. the outhouses. My god, so many outhouses.
And that’s just Mongolia. I suppose I should explain how we ended up
in this predicament on this epic journey through the Gobi, meeting and living with 14 nomadic families in just a matter of two weeks.
Well, we signed up for a tour. Sort of. Ger to Ger is an award-winning agency that organizes cultural immersion experiences with nomadic families throughout the country. J and I love these types of initiatives because they generally offer a more organic and intimate introduction to local life and culture.
Most Ger to Ger trips last just a handful of days but we, being the sadomasochistic adventurers that we are, signed up for their longest tour- a two week trip gloriously termed the Great Nomadic Quest that combined three of their other routes and traversed the entire Dundgovi region of Mongolia.
The experience offered enough culture shock that prior to leaving for the trip, we were asked to report to the Ger to Ger office in Ulaanbaatar for a three-hour orientation where we were given a Mongolian language lesson and a comprehensive schooling on the ways of the nomad. Afterwards, having mastered no new words and armed with knowledge about all the ways to offend the families, tips to avoid death in the Gobi, a healthy dose of paranoia, a handy reference guide and promise of a great time (“Just take this 6-hour bus to the middle of the Gobi and someone will find you. Don’t worry.”), we began to prepare for the adventure.
We spent the remainder of the day procuring all of the necessary supplies: a winter jacket for cold Gobi nights (“temperatures will drop to below freezing”), wet wipes (“you’ll get to take a shower on the ninth day”), food (“they’ll try to accommodate a vegetarian diet but we can’t promise anything- Mongolians like their meat”), and soap and kitchen towels (“bring a gift; they need everything, like soap”). An additional two sleeping bags and a tent rental later and we were ready to go.
Snacks, spices and packs of ramen
Handing a family a bar of soap as thanks for staying at their home: not awkward at all.
Did I mention that there was no tour guide? For the two weeks, we circled the Gobi Desert, changing locations each day, escorted by one family to the home of the next. Contrary to their label, the nomadic families didn’t actually move with us- they only relocate 2-4 times a year as necessary based on weather conditions.
At each family’s home, we either stayed in their extra ger or pitched a tent in what was essentially their backyard.
Most gers stood by their lonesome, a single room structure made of felt and wood where families slept, socialized, cooked and ate.
Larger families sometimes had more than one ger. Regardless of size, most families also had satellite dishes, solar panels and consequently, televisions, working lights and cellphones which they tied to the ceiling of their ger for optimal reception.
Because each family was limited in their space and resources- and to preserve the intimate quality of the trip- there were only three people in our group: me, J and a fellow named Christian. Christian was an extremely important asset because…
…none of the nomadic families spoke English. Correction: everyone spoke English as well as we spoke Mongolian. It was a problem. We quickly learned that there’s a huge difference between trying to communicate a specific need without language skills (e.g. buying a train ticket, ordering food) and just sitting around trying to get to know strangers with whom you have nearly nothing in common. Consequently, J and I appreciated Christian’s contributions as the three of us gestured, smiled blankly, and spliced together random Mongolian words through the two weeks of our trip.
The booklet of phrases that Ger to Ger provided us proved useless after the first five minutes of meeting a family. After the initial introductions (Hello. Where are you from? How old are you? What do you do? Local family responds that they’re herdsmen. We feign surprise since every family we met worked as herdsmen.), there was generally dead silence punctuated only by the sound of us drinking our milk tea and eating the provided snacks which were always bread and dairy products made from one of four possible animals that nomadic families owned: horse, camel, goat and sheep. By the way, in case you ever wondered, milk tea made from the milk of camels tastes like boiled peanuts.
Boortsog (fried dough) and aarul (cheese curds)
After a few minutes, one of us would inevitably start flipping through the Ger to Ger phrasebook, looking desperately for something that we could offer by way of conversation. Finding nothing useful (randomly asking someone to “argal tuuh” (i.e. collect dung) really never seemed appropriate) we would try making conversation utilizing gestures or grammatically incorrect English or Mongolian to no avail. Stunned and confused, the nomadic families would start laughing awkwardly and then we would join in and pretty soon everyone would be chuckling over absolutely nothing. And then the laughter would suddenly end, leaving us to sit again in silence.
Some of the families made an effort to communicate with us by referencing their own Ger to Ger phrasebook. Others were a bit less enthusiastic about our arrival.
After a couple hours, either the families would show or teach us something about their culture (more on that in the next post) or suddenly things would just start happening around us without explanation and we were left to adapt and take it in. Like the day thirty of the family’s extended family members unexpectedly came for a visit and we all sat in their ger together as they stared at us and we pretended not to notice. Thankfully, there were also vodka shots involved. It was 10:45am.
Before long After what sometimes seemed like an eternity, it was time for lunch, which was always either rice or noodles and mutton. Always. And repeated again for dinner.
During the latter half of our journey, potatoes and carrots also began appearing in the dishes, which seemed rather progressive since on two separate and unrelated occasions, locals in Ulaanbaatar explained to us that “Mongolians are slowly starting to learn about the importance of vegetables.”
Because I’m a vegetarian, Ger to Ger provided me with a letter written in Mongolian that they failed to translate for me but instructed me to show the families so that they knew I was a vegetarian. Christian, J and I joked (in a sort of serious way) that the letter probably described something along the lines of my mental disorder because inevitably after reading it, the family would laugh, give me a sympathetic smile and pat me gently on the head. Just kidding, they didn’t pat me on the head. But the rest happened.
With the letter, I would also show the family my packet of ramen which I would point to and say in Mongolian, “tsagaan khool” (vegetarian food) followed by “bustalsan us” (boiled water) while pantomiming tipping a thermos over a bowl. I can’t imagine why the families always just ignored this and generously made me my own special meal which generally consisted of rice or noodles in warm milk.
After a few days of this routine, it finally dawned on us that the families were too polite to tell us to stop sitting in their gers staring at them and we learned to use the downtime to take walks, read and attend to other important matters:
Sneaking in a hair washing on the side of a mountain
Every few days, we had the thrill of being able to stay in one of the small villages in the Gobi. I called this village (population: 1000) “Fantasy Land” because by the time we unexpectedly arrived there, we had already spent six days eating the same bland meals and six nights sleeping in drafty gers and tents. By comparison, everything in the village seemed absolutely fascinating and indulgent.
A couple of local girls took us on a tour of the village
A room that on any other day would have seemed stark felt like an oasis
The surprises continued as we marveled over things that we hadn’t seen in days- sugar, salt, napkins, toilet paper, coffee, vegetables, and garbage cans.
And when we arrived at breakfast the next morning to find a bowl of vegetarian sushi waiting for each of us- well, you’d think we’d just won the lottery.
And so it was that the trip became a game of deprivation and indulgence, as our comforts were taken away and returned. We learned to appreciate the little things and were bestowed dozens of other lessons besides. Such are the joys of travel. So what were those lessons from this trip? Stay tuned for the next post.