|Looking daft in traditional coats ready for our horse trek.|
Ger to Ger is a pretty awesome organisation aimed at supporting nomadic tradition. It is well documented that the nomadic lifestyle once led by the majority of Mongolians is dying out. This wasn't helped by some severe weather conditions in 1999-2000, where a serious drought followed by an extremely cold winter killed livestock and forced many nomadic herders to flee to the city. Ger to Ger was established to try and sustain the traditions of the nomadic herders by helping them to gain from responsible tourism. The idea of the project is that tourists like ourselves, interested in finding out more about nomadic lifestyle, go out into the Mongolian countryside and stay with the families, moving on each night and helping them out with their daily routines. The majority of the money we paid goes directly to the families. We spent 6 nights staying with 5 different families in different parts of the Terelj National Park. Although the edge of the park is quite touristy, with ger camp hotels and even model dinosaurs(!), as soon as you travel deeper into the park the only people you see are the traditional nomads and their gers. At night it is so, so dark and the stars are absolutely incredible, making you realise what a difference light pollution makes to star gazing!
The families we stayed with:
After a two hour ride by ox cart from the bus stop to the first ger, we were greeted by Bold, his wife Battsetseg, their son Bayaraa, and their neice. It was already dark and so we just ate some dinner and practised our very basic Mongolian with them! Bold used to be a wrestler and has won the Lion title for his region. He certainly looked like a wrestler! He's also good at horse racing and had lots of medals hung up in the ger. The next morning we helped to feed the cows and goats, before trying on some traditional costumes (photos of us looking silly are on our Picasa for your viewing pleasure). We were taught how to play ankle bone, every family has a set of goat and sheep's ankle bones and there are lots of different games that you can play with them. Basically the bones when thrown can on any of 4 sides, which look abstractly like different animals (horse, camel, goat, sheep). Whilst we were sitting playing other people took great interest in our techniques (more likely baffled by our techniques!) We were then served tea and enjoyed meeting a one day old baby goat who was stumbling round the ger. We also had a quick ride on a camel who was now tethered outside (not sure where it came from?!). Some of Bayaraa's friends arrived from the city in their souped up sports car along with tottering high heeled girls, looking very out of context! The family were impressed with our handling of camel riding, as the Mongolian city girls were screaming their heads off. We were then led by ox cart to the next family.
Family number 2 was Bolortogoo, his wife Amarjargal and their son Erhembileg, who was very cute. They had a smaller setup, with just 2 cows for milking, 2 oxs, and 2 horses. We went for a walk from their ger out into the more exposed countryside, with the dog trotting along beside us. Amarjargal makes national Mongolian clothes, so with her we learned to make Mongolian buttons/fasteners, and also how to glue material to make traditional patterns. Later on we played ankle bone again. After a freeeeeezing nights sleep and Liam struggling for 50 minutes to get the fire relit in the morning (by which point all our water and toiletries had frozen), we helped to prepare an awesome breakfast of freshly made deep fried flat breads with sugar sprinkled on top, before travelling by ox cart to the third ger.
Family number 3 seemed to consist of quite a lot of people! The main people we had contact with were Zorigt, his wife Jargalsaihan, a 13 year old boy, 9 year old girl and young girl who may have been their granddaughter. With them we helped to collect wood for the fires, by collecting fallen wood and also sawing down some trees, before loading them onto an ox cart. The 13 year old also came along to help and entertained us with Western pop music on his radio. Later on Liam played yet more ankle bone whilst Charlotte helped Jargalsaihan make buuz for dinner; meat and onion filled dumplings - probably the best buuz we had eaten so far in Mongolia, of course due to Charlotte's magic touch! ;) The next morning we helped to collect ice from the frozen river behind their settlement, breaking up the ice with a long metal spike and heaving it into the ox cart. The ice then gets melted and boiled on the stove for everyday water use. On our return we played with kids for a while (Liam even played football with the kids, and afterwards vowed to get fitter!), before 2 other Ger to Ger tourists arrived, Alice and Tom. They were doing the same route as us but running a day behind. After chatting to them for a while we got our things together ready to move on. The family was very worried about us getting cold so wrapped us in the traditional Mongolian large coats - certainly warm enough with our ski jackets underneath! We travelled to the next family for 24km on horseback. The saddles are made of wood and despite some felt padding it was possibly one of the most uncomfortable experiences of our lives! Liam commented that he felt ready to vomit a kidney by the time we got there! We were so relieved to get to the next family and get off the bloody horses!
Family number 4 we stayed with for two nights. There was just one couple there, Enkhbat and Uranchimeg, but they also had a friend whose 15 year old granddaughter was staying with him who were in the ger most of the time too. Uranchimeg was fairly obsessed with watching television and films so we ended up watching a terrible Korean drama which simply seemed to feature a girl who couldn't stop crying. In the evening we played some cards with them which took us ages to grasp; Mongolian cards don't feature a 4, 5 or 6 and the run is 7, 8, 9, 10, J, Q, K, 3, 2, A, which had us scratching our heads for a fair amount of time! We had fun asking Uranchimeg about her Shamanism. She is an inherited sorceress and gave a pretty hilarious account of what happens on the 3rd, 8th, 15th and 25th of each month when she 'drinks milk, tea, vodka, sip sip, eat boordog (little patries), nom nom, and whoosh (hands in the air) go up, and my grandmother whoosh (hands back down) and talk to my husband, and drink milk, tea, vodka, sip sip, eat boordog, nom nom and then she whoosh (hands back in the air) and I whoosh (hands back down)'. Basically she's some kind of medium and her dead relatives can talk to her husband while she's 'up in the air'. She even claimed to have met Chinggis Khan when she was 'up there' - impressive stuff! The next morning we watched 'Universe Best Song' (complete with incorrect grammar) whilst eating breakfast, an amateur looking Mongolian version of X Factor, where half the audience appeared to be asleep and it was impossible to tell whether the judges were impressed or not. We then hiked up a nearby hill to get some fantastic views across the valley. In the afternoon we helped to axe our way through some ice to an underground stream, to fill large plastic containers. Later on Alice and Tom joined us, who thankfully had found the horse riding as traumatic as we did, so we played more cards and a rather raucous game of Spoons which Uranchimeg found thigh slappingly funny.
The next morning we pretty much set off straight away to family number 5, consisting of Chuluunhuu (who we didn't really meet), his wife Battsetseg, 2 daughters of 14 and 11, and a 13 year old nephew. We loved it as soon as we arrived as there was a very friendly cat and the main ger was also home to a baby goat, some lambs, and a calf who had been born that morning! Soooo lovely! We were left pretty much to ourselves that afternoon, but had fun in the evening when the kids got home from school as the 14 year old's English was actually pretty good. We were able to tell her about watching Universe Best Song, and after telling her that we have something similar in the UK she was all "yes, yes, X Factor, Britain's Got Talent, we watch it here". Good to know that the best of British is being enjoyed by the nomads. Ahem. We left family number 5 at the crack of dawn for another ox cart ride to the bus.
Each family that we stayed with had an 'additional ger' which we stayed in. All of the gers were kitted out with identical orange furniture - click here for an example. Each ger has a wood stove in the centre which doubles as a heating and cooking facility. The wood stove makes the gers toasty warm, but it got very cold at night if you let the fire go out. The families we stayed with had solar panels hooked up to car batteries to provide lighting and power for television etc. Every family that we stayed with had a satellite dish and mobile phones. The families had differing amounts of livestock, plus dogs to protect the animals. We had been warned about the dogs at our Ger to Ger orientation (including learning the phrase "hold your dogs!" in Mongolian) which alarmed Charlotte a little, but after an initial bit of barking the dogs were all very sweet. The food that we ate with the families was all pretty basic but tasty, with lots of homemade noodles in broths made from dried meat. In the summer they make lots of things with dairy products but it was the wrong time of year for that. Mongolian milk tea is also quite interesting; bought in big bricks that you crumble bits off, it's quite savoury tasting and they add milk and salt to it. Some families made the tea with leftover broth from the night before. So to think of it as tea is quite disturbing, but if you think of it as a thin milky soup it's not too bad!
Probably what we enjoyed the most about the experience was seeing just what a relaxed yet hardworking lifestyle the nomads live. They are all extremely easy going, very comfortable in everybody's presence, have a strictly open door policy, are never in a rush to get anywhere or do anything, and are very up for a giggle. In fact when setting out on journeys it is customary to have a sit down and a cup of tea even if they are late (Liam's kind of people!) It meant that we were made to feel very welcome at each of the gers, despite the language barrier. The children were interesting, with their Western music and Converse All Stars; it made us wonder whether they would stay out in the gers when they're older or if they'd be hitting the city as soon as possible. All in all, it was a really fascinating and enjoyable experience, and we would love to return at a different time of year to see what the lifestyle is like in summer.
|Terelj National Park, Mongolia|