The highlight of my trip to Mongolia was the three nights I spent in a real yurt helping to herd sheep in the Mongolian countryside. Travelers that are brave enough to stay in a traditional ger (also called yurt) can find tour operators in Ulaanbaatar who can arrange homestays, but I went one step further. As I mentioned in other posts about Mongolia, my Mongolian friend, Misheel, from Washington D.C. linked me up with her family in UB. Misheel’s family arranged for me to stay with her uncle deep in the countryside so my experience ended up being about as authentic as it can get. For better or for worse, I’ll never forget these three days.
Getting to Mogod
Misheel’s uncle, Ganbaa, lives about 15 kilometers from Mogod, a small sum capital in the aimag (province) Bulgan. To get out here, Misheel’s other uncle, Zorig, arranged for me to get a ride with a truck driver taking his recently purchased vehicle back to Mogod. As with all things in Mongolia, the original plan to leave Thursday afternoon at 1 pm came and went. It wasn’t until 4:30 that I actually met up with the truck driver. After just a few days in Mongolia, I quickly learned that nothing ever leaves even remotely close to the scheduled time. But to be honest, things like this don’t bother me. In Mongolia it is important to just go with the flow.
I meet up with the driver and it still took another 2-3 hours to get out of UB as he had multiple errands to run before we left the city. The traffic in the capital certainly didn’t help speed anything up, but finally by 7 pm we were off. On one of these errands we picked up another lady also heading to Mogod making three of us in the front cabin. Unfortunately I got stuck in the middle seat.
Before I left, Zorig and I joked that our conversation would be my last one in English until I got back, and he was completely right. The driver and lady were quite interested in me, but all we could really say to each other was “my name is” and point at one another to learn each others names. They were nice people, and even though the drive to Mogod was extremely uncomfortable in that middle seat, it went by quickly at least at first.
I had incorrectly assumed that the roads would be at least paved all the way to Mogod so I was never too worried we would have trouble finding our way with the setting sun. I was quite surprised though at 11 pm when we took a turn off the main highway onto a dirt road with a sign that said “Mogod – 54 km”. The sun sets pretty late in Mongolia, but at this point it was completely dark. And dirt “roads” on the Mongolian steppe are not usually single paths, but rather crisscrossing tracks leading every direction making nighttime navigation very difficult.
Luckily the lady in the passenger seat knew the area quite well so she was using mountains and hills slightly visible in the distance to help us navigate. At one point we went down a small track and got quite off course. Most people would just turn around and go back, but on the steppe there are virtually no natural obstacles so we just drove the truck perpendicular to the main road hoping we would eventually come across it in the dark. We ended up having to do this a couple times with each attempt to find the main road seemingly longer driving further anxiety in my mind that we were totally lost.
I still don’t know how they found it, but somehow in the night we made it to our passenger’s ger to drop her off before continuing to Mogod. As tradition in Mongolia, we were invited inside for some tea which quickly turned into vodka shots. Not wanting to be rude, I ended up taking three before the driver saw I wasn’t too keen on anymore and said we should get going.
It was another 30-45 minutes to Mogod from here, but at least I could relax in the passenger seat. After several hours sitting on the hard middle seat, I felt like my tailbone was going to break off. Around 12:30 am we reach Mogod where I was greeted by Ganbaa’s son, Tuvshin, and his wife.
Staying in the Ger
Early Friday morning Tuvshin wakes me up and tells me to get to the car because we’re going to the ger. It was about a 15 minute drive to Ganbaa’s new home. I say “new home” because Ganbaa is a nomad so he moves his house from time to time depending on conditions. He does this so his herd of sheep will always have green grass. When I arrived, he had only been living in this current location for a couple of weeks.
As is Mongolian tradition, upon arriving we stepped inside the ger for some tea. Mongolian’s drink a type of tea called tsai which is essentially a small amount of tea combined with a whole lot of milk. Every couple of hours throughout my stay we always went back inside the ger to drink some tsai. In fact, outside of Ulaanbaatar I don’t think I’ve seen a single Mongolian drinking actual water. They only drink tsai. How they don’t die – I really don’t know.
After tea I presented Ganbaa with a gift of some vodka I brought up from Ulaanbaatar. Of course with a new gift and guest around we all needed a few shots of vodka before breakfast. When we eventually got around to eating, we had tsuivan – a traditional Mongolian noodle dish with mutton.
Coming from UB and arriving late the night before, I was exhausted so the family prepared my bed and let me sleep a few hours following breakfast. The ger layout is quite simple – at the middle there is a stove with the pipe poking out from the center while all of the furniture or possessions are lined up along the circular edges of the tent. In this particular ger, they just had one bed currently occupied by their 27-year-old daughter, Amraa, while the parents and I both had sleeping pads on the floor for our beds. Ganbaa’s son, Tuvshin, went back to stay at his home in town.
Over the first day or so our routine pretty much consisted of eating a massive meal, taking a nap, doing a little work, and then eating another massive meal and continuing the cycle. Ganbaa is a big guy so he definitly likes his food. After my post lunch nap, Ganbaa took me out to their small farm patch, and I helped him dig water drainage trenches for the plants. Digging trenches with Ganbaa was essentially about 10 minutes of actual work before taking a 10 minute smoke break. Needless to say we didn’t get a lot of digging done at this pace before going in for another meal.
Food in the Mongolian countryside, while delicious, is extremely simple. For the most part, just about everything we ate came from the land itself. We usually had soups cooked over the fire. Every meal had mutton that was originally dried out, stored in the ger, and then cooked again so that it would become moist. The only food brought in from the outside was flour. The flour was used in endless different ways to make noodles, dumplings, and bread. Milk was also usually mixed into the stews, served hot as a drink, or boiled down to make urum – a sort of thick butter – to be spread on bortzig, a type of Mongolian biscuit. We would often sprinkle sugar over the urum once we scooped out a bit on our bortzig. Even though the food sounds simple, it was the best I had in all of Mongolia. Nothing can compare to eating food right from the land I was sitting on.
If there was a main highlight from my trip, I’d have to say it was the food. Mongolian food is extremely unhealthy because its mostly just meat and fat, but it is so delicious. My favorite meal Ganbaa’s wife made was buuz – a Mongolian dumpling. I’ve had buuz throughout Mongolia, but nothing will compare to the buuz I had in Mogod. I literally ate myself into a coma after this one meal.
Throughout my time in Mogod, I helped Ganbaa with various tasks around the ger. Sometimes helping meant riding on the back of his motorbike while we herded up the sheep, but other times, I was sent out into the field with a big stick and told to round up the sheep and move them to another area. When it came to milking the cows or goats, I mostly just watched, but I was surprised to learn how intricate the milking process actually is. Often the younger calves will be locked away in a pen to attract the mother. When the mother comes, they let out a calf to get her milk started then send him back to the pen. At this point, we would milk the cow for a little bit, and then let the calves back out to finish the mother off.
The one farm task I’ll never be able to forget was when we had to castrate the bulls and goats. Sunday morning after breakfast, we all went out to the goat pen for the annual ritual. Being Buddhists, they brought out some incense and said a prayer for the animals then we got to work holding them down while Ganbaa performed his surgery. In order to ensure that only the strongest goats reproduce and to keep the rest from being too aggressive, herders will castrate their youngest goats annually towards the beginning of summer.
As we continued to do the deed, the testicles piled up into a small bucket we took out to the pen. Now you’re probably wondering what we did with that bucket when we were finished? Well this is Mongolia after all so I won’t beat around the bush. We took them back to the ger, cooked them, and ate them! I was not looking forward to this part, but I had to give it a go. I’ll just say this – they don’t actually taste that bad. If I didn’t know what I was eating, I would have been fine. They taste something like liver.
My New Friend
On my second night before sunset, I went out for a little walk to take a look at some of the sheep and goats. While I was out there I noticed a little sheep wandering alone far from the pack. I went up to approach him and I was surprised to find that he wasn’t afraid of me at all. We took a few selfies together, and then I put him back down. But I was even more surprised to see him follow me all the way back to the ger.
I later learned that he was one of the rejected lambs, and he was never able to fully integrate himself into the pack. Lambs are actually extremely friendly and sociable animals, and if they are one of the rejects, they will often cling to humans and act like they are their mother. In this pack there were actually three rejects of varying degrees. One morning we went out to milk the mothers so that we could provide the milk to the rejects so they could grow up strong as well.
I was even further surprised to find out that Ganbaa’s family was totally okay with allowing these lambs into the ger to hang out with us. They’re unbelievably cute, but I was just so surprised that lambs acted had this social side. To be honest they remind me a lot of dogs. I even did some research and found out lambs can be house pets. Aside from the mess, a little lamb would be such a cute pet!
During my stay in Mogod, my verbal interactions were extremely limited because no one in the family knew any English. Often all I could do was repeat certain words, but I did know how to say “my name is” – “minii neriig … gedeg”. About halfway through my stay, Ganbaa had an idea that I should get a Mongolian nickname. He knew right away that he wanted to call me “Gomp”, and the name instantly stuck.
Before long I was walking around the ger telling everyone “minii neriig Gomp gedeg.” As this was pretty much all I could say in Mongolian, this sentence became almost a catchphrase for me constantly repeated to express approval with whatever I was trying to communicate. Later on when we met some of the neighbors, I proudly said “minii neriig Gomp gedeg!”
When I got back to UB, I found out that Gomp or Gombo is a common Mongolian name that roughly means someone that likes to eat a lot – that couldn’t be more accurate.
Getting Back to Ulaanbaatar
The way back to UB was much quicker than they way there. Ganbaa’s son, Tuvshin, had to head back to UB for something – I don’t know what because I don’t speak Mongolian – so he drove me and his sister back to the capital.
One thing that’s probably oversharing, but she’ll never be able to read it was Ganbaa’s daughter, Amraa’s, reaction when we left the ger. Through my experience staying in the countryside I learned how important the nomadic lifestyle is to Mongolians. To me the experience was nice, but I really wanted to get back to UB to take a much needed shower. But to Mongolians, living in a ger and being able to move their home around represents the ultimate freedom. City life is just a burden; the true Mongolian needs to be free in the countryside. As we packed up the car and begin to leave, Amraa broke down in tears because she was leaving her true calling – living in the countryside with her parents. Even though we could never have much of a conversation, I instantly understood what the countryside meant to her. While just a small moment, I think this was probably the most revealing part of the “Mongolian mindset” I was on the trip.
In my two weeks in Mongolia, I visited Terelj National Park, spent time in Ulaanbaator, and traveled down to the Gobi desert, but this opportunity to stay in a traditional Mongolian home was absolutely incredible and something I will never forget.
For someone who has been to over 70 countries, saying something like this can really attest to how nice, welcoming, and friendly Ganbaa and his family were to me. I am forever indebted to Misheel for setting up this incredible opportunity. Experiences like this are really what “Authentic Traveling” is all about. Taking a leap, going into the unknown, meeting locals, and really getting to truly understand a country are what I strive to do.
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