My thoughts on my Mongolian home stays organized through Ger to Ger.
First off, I must say this was one of the most unique, wonderful experiences I’ve had traveling. I spent 5 days/4 nights with four different families in the Terelj National Park area, and then traveled down to Dundgovi and spent 4 days/3 nights with three different families in that part of the Gobi Desert. In Terelj, I was a solo traveler, no one else was signed up for this trip, so I went alone.
During my days near Terelj, I crossed wide green valleys, and forded rushing rivers on horseback, climbed to hilltops and contemplated the vast quiet beauty of the country. I learned to make cheese, milked cows, and even got to bottle feed an adorable baby cashmere goat. I helped prepare meals, prep fresh cheese for drying, and churned yogurt. I played with some of the most darling, engaging children in the world, and practiced my Mongolian, which was laughable to start, but slowly improved with the help of my families and the wonderful guide and phrase book put together by the Ger to Ger staff. I felt so safe and well taken care of by my families, who were such gracious hosts, and so generous with all they had. My comfort was their upmost concern, and they could not stop feeding me! (That was the first phrase I mastered… “Bi tsat san” translation “I am full”). I had my own private ger (yurt) each night, all very comfortable. At night, after some amazing star gazing, I would lay on my bed writing in my journal and fall asleep listen to the rhythmic munching of cattle or horses as they moved about freely, grazing outside my ger.
In the Gobi region, I traveled by public bus, which was very comfortable, and then by jeep over a vast expanse of undulating semi-arid desert. Green with grass, as it had just rained a lot the week before. On this trip I had two other people traveling with me; a couple from Switzerland, who turned out to be just the most wonderful people and excellent traveling companions. We learned to milk goats, rode camels and horses, helped the boys bring in the goats for milking time, and in one of the homes helped prepare the meals and make cheese. We played with the children, tug of war and “Shagai” a game played with sheep ankle bones. (A fun game that can go on for hours...) One of our hosts took us for a hike into the rock formations of Baga Gazarin Chuluu where we climbed among the rocks, took in the views and explored a small cave.
Nothing on either trip was very physically strenuous, what is needed is great patience and flexibility. You needed to be able to “go with the flow” as they say… As Ger to Ger states in their trip descriptions, the home stays are not “guided tours”, the families are bringing you in as a guest, but they are not there to entertain you or take you around to “see the sights”. My main purpose of this trip was to spend time with nomadic Mongolian families. They are busy with their livestock mornings and evenings, times that I joined them and watched, or helped (I truly wasn’t much help milking – I did a little, they make it look so easy!) but I could haul buckets of milk to the ger and move stools and things like that. Between milking and meals I had a lot of free time to myself; I would go for walks, play with the children, write in my journal, or just sit outside and take it all in. It is a great place to go for contemplation.
Due to heavy rains and flooding, my trip itinerary changed mid-stream, the family I was with had to figure out how to get me to my next stop, plans totally changed, but it was exciting and fun. I just learned to roll with it, the great experiences come in not what was planned, but in the surprise twists – the unexpected. Stay flexible, surrender and you’ll enjoy yourself so much.
If you’re fussy about food and what you eat, this is not a trip for you. The nomadic fare is simple, and most tasted good, I grew to love the suutei tsai (milk tea) and drank the sweetest best goat milk in the world there. I still miss it months later. I think the Arruul (dried curds) are an acquired taste… they are hard, and can be sometimes very tangy! The summer food is mostly dairy, lots of milk, dried meats and rice or noodles. The only scant vegetables you’ll see is potato, carrot and onion. Yet as I said earlier, you will definitely never go hungry!
There are also formalities, protocols and customs within the ger that the Ger to Ger staff teach you about in a 2 hour “orientation” they give you before you go. I felt like the staff prepared me well for heading out alone. Respecting your hosts and their culture is of the upmost importance.
Lastly, the most challenging thing I found on the entire trip was the language. Like I said, Ger to Ger sent me out with a booklet loaded with information and a great phrase book (which all the families are familiar with) and as none of us spoke a common language, a lot of time was spent scanning the book looking for the right word or phrase for what I wanted to say or try to understand. And then trying to pronounce it correctly was another challenge! The Mongolians are not big “gesturers” (like Italians) so waving your arms or trying to gesture something most often resulted in blank stares from your host. It could get exhausting.
So that was a long review! If you’ve made it to the end here I will only say this: That a Ger to Ger trip with nomadic Mongolian families will be an adventure you will never forget. You will meet some of the most beautiful, enduring people you will ever meet, have unique adventures, and find that Mongolia and it’s people will hold a special place in your heart forever…
Oh – one last thing – if you’re a woman, make sure you bring a really good sports bra- the trotting gait of the Mongolian horse is very bouncy!