Since my time in Peace Corps, my motto has kind of been “hope for the best, but expect the worst.” With this frame of mind, you’re generally prepared for everything to go wrong and pleasantly surprised when it doesn’t. Keeps the expectations in check.
Before we set out on our ger to ger adventure, I thought we had asked all the right questions, but you just can’t help it when some of the answers are well…wrong. Take food for instance. When two vegetarians are going trekking far, far away from any 7-Elevens into the heart of meat lovers land, you want to make sure you have an adequate amount of food to keep you going. And we did. We packed what we considered to be ample food and snacks to get us through the 6 meals we understood we’d have to provide for ourselves over the course of the week.
Well, imagine our surprise when at lunch on the first day we found out that we were to provide our own food for lunch everyday. Oops. That’s 5 more meals. Well, if we each eat one peanut butter sandwich for lunch, have 8 peanuts and 2 cookies, we might just make it. That is unless our bread molds by the end of the week – which it did. There was also the small detail about providing the herders with a tent and some food on the two nights that you camp out with them away from a family ger. Uh, what? Didn’t know about that either.
So while this sounds like a disaster in the making, it really was not at all. We were extremely fortunate to be tagging along with a French guide, Noemi, and her family for the week. Not only did they share their tea, curry and chocolate with us on a few occasions, but Noemi in all honesty acted as our guide as well. We learned so much more than we could have on our own and were able to communicate a bit more with the families. She also provided food and tents for the herders when we camped, saving us from looking like total dimwits had we been on our own. We owe her something good!
Logistics aside, we had a great time. There’s a vastness about the Mongolia countryside that at times could have been boring, but really just made us appreciate that we were far away from it all. And learning a little about the life of a nomadic herder was really quite interesting. There are no crops, just animals and only ones you can herd such as yaks, sheep and goats. The families move to different valleys or to higher land depending on the season or their needs. They just pack up the ger and go. Apparently a ger can be assembled in less than an hour.
In the summer, families live off the more than 40 dairy products that can produce from these animals and in the winter it’s dried meat. Nothing is wasted. Yak hair can be used to make ropes, sheep wool can be turned into felt for gers and mare’s milk is fermented into an odd tasting home brew. Lucky for us, we got to sample more than a few of the local treats – lots and lots of cheese which is dried and quite hard but kind of grows on you after a couple of days; the yogurt which is divine; and a kind of thick heavy cream which you can layer on top of your bortzig (Mongolian donuts) or eat with fried pancake-like bread. Mongolia is certainly not a good place if you’re lactose intolerant, but we did just fine.
Visiting a families' ger involves a lot of tradition and ritual which we got to experience first hand. Visitors sit in specific places inside the ger, you always receive food and drink with your right hand or with both hands, you never set down a cup of tea without taking a drink first, and you at least act like you’re tasting the airag (fermented mare’s milk) when it’s passed to you…even at breakfast! We survived all this ritual and even the snuff passing with little drama.
So thanks to Noemi and the wonderful families we visited, and despite the misinformation, the many blisters on our feet and the fact that noone came to pick us up at the end while we sat in the middle of nowhere, we had a great experience.
And lucky for us someone at a ger not more than a few kilometers away had a jeep and was willing to drive us 100 km! Or we may still be eating dried cheese and playing cards with our young friend Benti in Central Mongolia.