Spots of Time

July 31, 2004

A Simple Mongolian Herder's Wife

Camping in Mongolia is amazingly easy. Step one: find a spot that looks good. Step two: stop the Jeep. Step three: set up camp. It's just that easy.

In Mongolia no one owns any land. Most of the people continue to live a nomadic way of life, uprooting themselves and their herds every season and moving to new land for grazing and watering their animals. There are areas used in summer, in winter, in spring and in fall -- depending upon what is needed for the flocks and herds at the time. While most families tend to return to the same spots over and over again, technically the land they live and work on does not actually belong to them.

So, while good manners dictated we didn't set up our tent within shouting distance of a nomadic family's ger (a round felt and wood tent that serves as home for most people outside of the cities), we were otherwise pretty much free to camp wherever we liked. And so we did.

Our driver, Dugre, always managed to find us a good spot. One night we camped in a lovely lush meadow surrounded by mountains, and another night we camped near a little brook with huge peaks as our backdrop. One of my favorite nights was when we camped in a huge field of colorful wildflowers next to the largest lake in Mongolia, Khovsgol Nuur. In fact, of the 11 nights we spent outside of the capital city, Ulaan Baatar, we spent 8 of them camping, and only two in a ger camp and one in a hotel. The freedom and solitude, as well as amazing natural beauty of Mongolia made camping seem like the natural option. The hotel was by far our worst choice and within 10 minutes we were reconsidering the decision (even considering the rain) -- especially when the beds were harder than our camping mattresses!

One of my favorite memories of the trip was on our second night, when, after eating dinner, we received a visitor -- a local nomad from one of the gers in the area. He arrived on horseback and approached quietly, wrapping the harness of his horse around his leg before kneeling down in the grass just a few feet from where I was sitting. I was the only one awake as Ken was snoozing in the tent and Dugre, our driver, was snoozing in the Jeep. I woke up Dugre immediately, as my first thought was that we were camping on someone's land and didn't receive permission. He groggily spoke to our visitor for a few minutes then went back to bed. Meanwhile I pulled out the Mongolian-English dictionary Ken had brought from Indiana University (incidentally, the ONLY school in the US with a Mongolian studies program and my alma mater) and began to try my hand at speaking Mongolian. After about 10 minutes, the visitor and I were "chatting" about whatever random things we could find in the book.

One of his first questions was if I was married. I had anticipated this and asked Ken if he wouldn't mind posing as my husband during our trip around the country -- as a way to protect my honor and inflict less modern "culture" on the local people. He had agreed and so I indicated that Ken, my "husband," was asleep in the tent. He then asked me if I had any children. I shook my head no. He gestured to the tent and then held up his pinky finger -- indicating an unflattering attribute to my companion. True to my "wife" role, I stood up for my "husband" and vigorously denied the charge, laughing inside at how certain gestures have the same significance no matter what country you happen to be visiting!

Another topic we "discussed" was wealth. The nomad had found the word "wealthy" in the guidebook and asked me if I was wealthy. I shook my head no, even though I knew in his mind the lifestyle I lead in the US would be one of incredible wealth. Or, so I thought. After I said no, he pointed to the word and himself and indicated that he was very wealthy. He pointed to the land where we were camping, the gers across the road, his horses and herds -- all a demonstration of his wealth. I was impressed with his "wealth" and his definition of wealth -- so different from that of most people I knew.

After a while, Ken woke up and joined us in our "conversation." We asked each other more questions, showed the nomad (and his son who later joined us) pictures from our guidebook of other parts of Mongolia, shared a shot of vodka and some Chips Ahoy, and even posed on the nomad's horse, per his invitation. One of my favorite mental pictures was the three men, heads bent over the phrasebook, horses at the ready and the sun starting to set behind the tent.

When they finally left, about 10 p.m., we all shook hands with big smiles. This was when I realized there is another gesture that appears to be universal -- and I don't mean the handshake. As the nomad shook my hand, he used his middle finger to tickle my palm -- and winked at me! I immediately pulled back my hand and look disprovingly at him as I walked over next to Ken and stood close. Clearly, my "converstation" with him earlier had given him the wrong idea. Either that, or he felt sorry for me since I was neither wealthy nor with children! I vowed to be a bit more reserved with future nomadic visitors - I was not in the market to be a Mongolian herder's wife!

During our tour through the country, these visits were common, though none was quite as memorable as our first. In a country where people live quite isolated lives, the appearance of visitors was quite a nice distraction and no matter where we camped were almost always visited by locals in the area - and sometimes, their entire flocks of sheet, goats, yaks and cows too!

While we were near Khovsgol Nuur we had the chance to stay in a small ger camp run by a local family. They had just set up for business and we were lucky enough to be their first guests. Set off from the lake at the base of a moutain and at the edge of a forest, the 5-ger camp was idillic and peaceful, and a far cry from the institutionalized ger camps targeting package tourists we'd seen throughout our journey.

As I mentioned before, a ger is the most common form of housing for rural Mongolians and is a large felt lined tent with a wooden frame that can be easily set up and dismantled in keeping with the nomadic lifestyle. The door always faces south. Inside, the men's side is the western part and the women's side is the eastern part with the place of honor being in the north, where the family shrine was placed. Mongolians follow Tibetian-styled Buddhism, with their own flourishes, and their shrines were filled with pictures of the Dalai Lama, wrathful protectors, candles and other offerings. These shrines were placed on large wooden trunks, colorfully colored and decorated that were used to store the family's belongings.

While our ger was a traditionally designed one, the inside was made to accomodate us and was without the usual decorations, furnishings and layouts of a nomadic family's ger. However, on several occasions Dugre took us to visit families in their gers and we were able to get an idea of what life would be like living the real lifestyle. The center of every ger was a large stove which was used to heat the ger as well as cook the families meals, and usually when we would visit one of the women would be heating milk over the stove, preparting some of the many dairy products that were the staples of the family's diet.

The distance we covered in Mongolia was small on the map but large in actual driving since we frequently traveled at only 20 kilometer's per hour. Outside of the capital and a few other areas, there are no paved or sealed roads in Mongolia. Imagine 6-10 hours of four wheeling it through mud, dirt, rocks and water and you will get an idea of our day to day journey - as well as our sore backs and behinds! Road signs were another anomoly, and Ken and I were constantly amazed at Dugre's ability to find out where were going - even if he did occasionally ask a local herder directions.

The end of our tour coincideded with Naadam, Mongolia's largest festival. The festival is in honor of Mongolian independence and features the three "manly" sports of wrestling, archery and horseback riding, though women are allowed to compete in the latter two. We timed our visit to Tsetserleg, a aimag (or provincial) capital east of Ulaan Baatar, for the first day of Naadam and witnessed all three events. The town had a carnival like atmosphere with many families setting up kitchen gers near the stadium and cooking up mutton pancakes, a personal favorite of mine (thought not everyone could say the same).

We watched the wresting in the stadium, the archery not far from there, and the horseback races from a vantage point a few kilometers from town. An impromptu market was also set up near the stadium, and tourists and locals alike wandered up and down, checking out the wares - many of them on horesback! In fact, while pedestrians were common place, as were automobiles, by far the most common form of transportation was horseback. Watching whole families arrive on horseback, five or six abreast, I felt like I had somehow been transported to an old Bonanza episode.

That night we stayed in town, in a hotel, and while Ken practiced his guitar I took a walk around the town. The streets away from the stadium were relatively quiet, since the activities for the day were over and most people were eating or with their families. I passed a few drunks stumbling around after indulging in too much airag, or fermented mares milk. The drink of choice for Mongolians, it was being sold every few meters in the town and everyone was partaking - some a bit more than was healthy! The liquid, which looks like milk, but with traces of a yellow oily layer on the top is a bit sour but otherwise not too bad (again, not everyone could say the same thing).

Walking back to the hotel I saw my 7th rainbow and was nearly run over by two teenagers "drag racing" their horses through the streets of town. The clatter of hooves on the paved road had been clearly heard, but I was unprepared for the speed of the chase. I hoped the boys hadn't been indulging in too much airag. A horse and rider at top speed could do some serious damage!

A few days later we returned to Ulaan Baatar and were immediately depressed by the big city with its large Soviet-era apartment blocks, crowded streets and lack of natural beauty. While were were excited about the numerous food options available to us - our diet of mutton, ramen and canned goods hadn't been exactly haute cuisine - Ken and I both would have rather been out in the country again. While I wasn't keen on the idea of being the wife of a Mongolian herder, perhaps living the nomadic lifestyle wouldn't be so bad after all!

July 02, 2004

Cross with the Locals

At 8 a.m. tomorrow morning Ken and I will leave Ulaan Baatar, traveling north in a five-seat Russian Jeep stocked with enough camping gear, food and vodka for a twelve-day adventure in the remote forested steppes of Northern Mongolia. Our only companion is Dugre, a local driver, who, while fluent in Mongolian, does not speak a word of English.

The fact that I have only been camping a handful of times (including Girl Scouts) does not bother me. The fact that Durge does not speak English does not bother me. The fact that only a tiny percentage of the roads we will be traveling on are paved does not bother me. Why? Because I've got a good feeling about this trip. And, because I think I am in good hands.

Sometimes when traveling it's hard to know who is being straight with you and who is just trying to make a buck. Most local people a traveler meets are "in the business" and real insider tips and honest advice (as well as un-inflated tourist prices) are about as hard to come by as peanut butter in Mongolia. It sometimes seems like everyone's number one goal is to separate you from as much money as possible.

A few days ago I arrived in the capital of Mongolia, Ulaan Baatar, with my old (high school) friend Ken. I'd chosen Mongolia specifically for its promise of wide-open spaces and sparse population a stark contrast with the building and population dense congestion of China. Visiting Mongolia, a remote country sandwiched between China and Russia, has been frequently described as going back in time a full century and I was keen to travel back in time.

Due to the limited amount of time in the country, and the almost total lack of infrastructure (including paved roads!), Ken and I decided a somewhat organized tour would be the way to go as long as there was a high level of flexibility. I'd done a lot of Internet research prior to our arrival, so I had an idea of our options routes, prices, and time required. We just needed to nail down the details, made a decision and go. Surprisingly, it turned out to be much harder than we imagined.

Our first inquiry was with a friend of a friend of a friend, an American man living in Mongolia. Despite our "connections," I didn't get the impression he was being straight with us, and his quote for a tour was nearly double my research in budget tours. My questions regarding tips and advice were only vaguely answered and everything he said ultimately looped back into tours that - surprise - his company could arrange for us.

Disappointed, we turned to our guesthouse owner, a Korean man who was quite accommodating when we first arrived and had been in the business for years. His tour sounded pretty good until Ken mentioned our desire to camp for several days along the way. That's when the owner told us that camping was not a possibility in Mongolia. Ken and I were incredulous. We are talking about a country where no one owns land and most of the rural population maintains a nomadic way of life that hasn't changed in over a century. We are talking about a place our guidebook quoted as being "the most perfect country in the world for camping." When we told the guesthouse owner as much, his replay was, "Your guidebook is out of date....but, we have friends with guesthouses all along the way and we can arrange accomodation every night."

Disheartened at being lied to and feeling somewhat pressed for time, we spent the rest of the day researching other options and running errands. We were about to just book a flight to our first destination and wing it from there when Ken suggested Mr. Bolod, a tour operator and local he'd met him on the train platform the day we arrived in Ulaan Baatar. Ken said he'd "got a good feeling about him" and suggested we at least talk to him about options. We decided he would be our last organized tour effort. Worst case scenario, we'd do the tour independently, come what may.

Thank goodness for Mr. Bolod. A native Monoglian fluent in five languages (his own, Russian, Italian, French and English), I liked him immediately. We told him what we wanted, as well as our experiences to date, and found him willing and able to accommodate our desires for a tour with enough flexibility to feel unrushed but enough structure so we wouldn't get stuck in one place for too long and run out of time.

While clearly a smart businessman, Mr. Bolod was not brisk and businesslike. He spoke slowly and clearly, listening to what we wanted and giving us a tour that fit, not just #6 in his menu of options. While his tour was slightly more than what I originally wanted to pay, I didn't feel bad spending a little more - because I felt like we would be getting a lot for our money. Plus, when we asked him about camping he said, "This is Mongolia - you can camp anywhere!"

After we left Mr. Bolod's office, both Ken and I felt like a huge weight had been lifted off our shoulders. We both liked him, felt like we could trust him, and were confident in him taking care of all the details of the trip. He was a local who knew the country, knew the people and knew the land. We would be in good hands. In fact, thinking back now I wonder why on earth we initially contacted expats who had a few years experience when there were locals who had lived and breathed this country for their entire lives!

It is temping to follow the path of the familiar when traveling. To seek out others like you. To talk to expats living and working in a country instead of locals. To think that someone "like you" will be more honest, more straightforward and more accomodating. Sure, sometimes it's nice to have a translator who can help you get your feet wet. But, most of the time its better to go with the locals - otherwise, why did you leave home in the first place?

I know that once we leave the city of Ulaan Baatar anything can happen. Yet, I feel confident that we're about to have a pretty amazing experience. And, that in the hands of Mr. Bolod and Dugre, we couldn't be safer. When crossing a busy street in a foreign country, common sense tells you to cross with the locals. Why would crossing the country be any different?


Stay tuned for the details of our 12-day Mongolian road warrior adventure - coming to you in two weeks time!