Week 8: Mongolia, Home-stay 1

Posted: November 7, 2009 in Mongolia (Fall)
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Day 4-5 (Tues.-Wed., Oct. 27-28): Out on the Mongolian steppe

Nomad hospitality. A mentally tumultuous hour after our arrival in Sansar, Bulgan Province, we were received into our first ger. Climbing out of the jeep with our stuff, the mother and daughter, having come out to greet us, helped us get our stuff inside the ger.

They showed us our seats and put out milk-tea (hot, water-diluted milk steeped in tea leaves with salt added) and the cookie bowl filled with little, thumb-sized fried bread biscuits; a milk product made by scraping the layer off the top of boiling milk and by letting it dry and cool into a white, crumbly, bendable sheet of almost creamy, almost tasteless, well, food; and a mass of a granola-like substance that was also a byproduct of boiled milk that was aged a different way (crunchy and mostly tasteless, if not sour).

We did the “well, here we are” sigh, awkwardly laughed with our hosts, and then remembered we had our phrase lists at hand, so we offered the greetings, “San ban uu” (“How are you?”) and the more traditional Mongolian “Ta saihan zusadzh ban uu?” (“Are you having a good winter?”). We did names, where we were from (Amerik), said we were students in Russia.

The mom went out, so we tried some more phrases on the daughter, probably about 12 years old. Figured out she went to school and liked her teachers. Also happened to have the vocabulary to say “I mom teacher,” which I’m fairly sure was understood. Next, the son came in. He showed us pictures of him at Mongolian-style wrestling matches and the medals he’d won. He also tried out some English on us, which was also neat.

But soon he left and we were left in the ger alone. Romany and I figured out that this family mostly matched the description of the family we should have stayed with the next day: the son “likes to wrestle;” the daughter studies, but in the wrong grade; and the mother, who we’d heard humming, “sings a song.”

Ger life. We exchanged our first excited impressions and identified different parts of the ger we had learned about in the seminar. Gers are built out of 4-12 hatched walls, six feet tall, which form a circle covered in layers of felt (1 or 2 depending on the season). The roof is made out of a shallow, cone-like structure with 86 wooden rods, all beautifully decorated in bright orange, blue, and green paints, coming out of a central wooden ring, which is probably 10-12 feet from the ground over the center of the ger. The top of the cone can be covered or uncovered with felt depending on the weather and how much smoke doesn’t make it through the chimney out of the oven, also located in the center of the ger and run on burning cow-dung. Interesting smell.

If the ger is a clock, the door is located at 6:00, which faces south. The right side (12:00 – 6:00) is the female-household-related side, containing cabinets with kitchen items, food, and linens, and the left side (6:00-12:00), the male-important-things side, where the family saddle, valued items, and guests are located. 12:00 is where the man of the house sits, his family on his left, the guests on his right, and the table between him and the central oven. As a man, I held higher status than Romany for our trip, meaning I had to go in the door first and sit closer to the 12:00 position than she, and I noted I was always served first, be it a meal, tea, or a horse. Beds (wooden benches about 3 feet by 6 feet with maybe a thin pad topped with an oriental rug) are lined up at 12:00, 3:00, and 6:00. At 1:00 is the sacred area, where a Buddha statue, prayer wheel, picture of the Dalai Lama, candles, and other religious items are housed in a glass case.

The gers are brightly colored: the walls are draped with oriental rugs, tapestries, silk, or other material; the wooden parts of the ger (structure, doors, cabinets) are carefully painted; even the linoleum patterns were usually more exciting than a fake tile or stained wood look.

Their functionality is efficient, which is appropriate, given the nature of life involving a transfer of location every 4-6 months: the beds are also sofas, kitchen surfaces, and dining furniture, during the day; the cabinets hold the covers for the night during the day, and alternately the kitchenware and food during the night; the fire, which is sacred, in the oven heats the house and is used for cooking; bowls are basically the only dishware, with the exception of the random silverware or coffee mugs that the host families have accrued for foreigner-use, which, actually, when offered, was a really nice gesture.

So after sitting for a while, taking in our first impressions of the new aspects of the daily life we’d be living on the trip, we didn’t know what to do. So we took a step outside to see where everyone had gone. We could hear the family in the ger a few yards away from the one we had been in, but decided not to intrude. After all, what could we say?

It was hot-ish back in the ger, so we stayed outside, enjoying the brisk wind and observed our surroundings in the Khogno Khaan Natural Reserve Area, as our guidebook told us. Two gers. A droll-looking camel tied to a string draped between two stakes in the ground (the standard method of keeping horses/camels tied up) about 30 yards off. Low mountains on all sides, but really far away, excepting the hills situated behind the dunes to the east. Oh, and the jeep.

And then in between: steppe.

The friendly nomad reappears. Our driver appeared out of the second ger and invited us back in the first ger. We figured out he wanted the money to get our tickets for us, though handing over the combined equivalent of $60 or so for transportation home (to Ulaan Baatar, that is), we still didn’t know how we’d get the tickets, seeing as somehow the cap lady had been reduced to “No,” and we still didn’t know if it was understood that we were on the four-day “Quest for the Last Emperor” itinerary, and at a different ger than we thought we’d be, and what, if any, implications that had for our ticketing needs. Regardless, the $60 were now in the jeep driving away with our friendly nomad.

The tour begins. We were served a huge plate of puzi (Buryatian “buzi,” Russian “pozi,” but in the end, the same food–boiled noodle-like shells filled with meat about half the size of a palm, though the Mongolian version is slightly smaller than the Buryatian variation we’d already tried in September), and it was made clear that we were supposed to eat them all. Fortunately, we were hungry, and they were really good.

Soon, the father pulled up on his sputtering little red motorcycle. After quick introductions and milk-tea, round 2, in the ger, he motioned for us to dress warm, pointed to the phrase in the phrase book meaning “Today is a nice day,” and made a motorcycle gesture.

Conclusion: Today was a nice day, but we needed to dress warm because we were going for a ride on the motorcycle.

I was fine with said conclusion, except I had paid for travel by ox cart to see and/or participate in an ovoo (sacred pile of stones, bones, wood, and silk scarves on top of a mountain) worship ceremony. Though I’m still not sure whether or not I totally got my money’s worth, since motorcycles are common in the rest of the world, whereas Mongolian religious practices are not, instead, Romany and I got a ride on the back of his sputtering little red motorcycle to the top of a hill where a monument stood (we still don’t know what it was, apart from a structure present outside of most Buddhist temples we’d seen–it wasn’t listed in the itinerary).

On the way back, about 25 km round trip (I know, sorry Mom, no helmets, but it wasn’t very fast–Irkutsk traffic probably ends up being more dangerous), we drove past an ovoo. Instead of having a worship ceremony, Mr. Otgonbayar just honked at it. No conclusion.

Warm evening, cold night, colder morning. Romany and I, despite the wooden beds, immediately fell into a deep sleep after returning home and napped until dinner time, just after sunset. We had fresh, homemade noodles in broth with meat. (Most of the meat we had on the trip was beef, though there was another one we think might have been goat.)

We sat and observed the nighttime business of changing the house over, the kids doing some of their homework, and interacting with their parents. I wrote in my journal for part of that, and, I think, remember writing “tender family moments.” But tender family moments they were indeed. Sensing our level of tiredness from a day of generally not knowing what was happening, culture shock to the extreme, they cleared off the beds, added pillows (rather hard, probably full of camel-hair), and let us make our sleeping bags to go to bed.

It was a tough night of sleep since 1) the beds were very hard, 2) the lights stayed on for a while, 3) about an hour after we’d laid down, 5 people came over to talk and have tea, and 4) the fire went out about two-thirds of the way through the night, and there were no matches left. When we finally got out of our beds, frozen to the bone, the family included, I was wearing all the clothes I had brought (minus the extra t-shirt and pair of boxers) and still cold. Romany and I went outside to see if that would be warmer doing jumping jacks:

[Video coming soon.]

It was only partially helpful. Luckily, the daughter had run to the store for matches. Pause. Literally, ran. By foot. Like 2 km each way. Baller. Too bad all we could say was “Thanks” (“Bayarlaa” for those of you working on your Mongolian). So we were happily thawed in front of the oven, sipping milk-tea (suutei tsai) and having a breakfast of larger cookie-biscuits (boortsog) within the hour.

On the move. Sensing we were due for a move, like true nomads, we packed our bags, and were ready to go when they led us outside where four horses had appeared that morning. The father and the son took our large packs on their horses, and we mounted ours.

Now, at the orientation, the agency rep had told us that we needed to tell the family if we weren’t experienced on the horse, and that we needed to have a little practice time. So we used the phrases “I ride a horse bad” and “I have never ridden a horse,” and the gesture of “one,” to indicate that we had each only ridden once. They laughed. And gave the thumbs up. And we were off, trotting across the step.

Basically, I had somehow not arranged my jeans in the correct fashion when I was getting on, because for the next forty or fifty minutes, with every bounce of the horse, well, I’ll say, “I hurt.” There. I’m fairly sure that the entire half hour I was grimacing as you’d see in a cartoon, which I think the prepubescent son, laughing (to my general displeasure), took for my being afraid of being on the horse or for the general pain of the behind against the hard wooden saddle.

We stopped for a bathroom break, and I was able to readjust, but the bulk of the damage had already been done, and the lower half of my body’s bone, muscle, joints, and tissues painfully bumped along for the rest of the 2-3 hours, on our way to ger number two.

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