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January 16, 2011

6

Photojournal: Mongolia

by brainoids

This entry is a bit overdue; at the time of our nomadic homestay trip to Mongolia in 2009, NASA was just beginning a period of significant “disruption”, and I never found the time upon return to write or post about it. However, it was one of the most transformative trips of my life. I hope in this post I can capture in some small way the incredible beauty of both the landscape and the people of Mongolia.

First, a few words from “Badger” Byambatogtoh, the cutest kid in Bulgan Aimag:

We chose Ger-to-Ger, a sustainable tourism outfit, for our trip.

Ger to Ger returns profits directly back to its host families, as well as community funds for their local towns.   They serve more as travel coordinator than tour service: upon arrival in Ulaanbaatar, G2G provides a brief cultural orientation and tutorial, handles getting local ground transportation to and from your host families, and, well, not a lot more!   Once delivered to your first host family, transport to each next leg of the journey is up to them, whether by horse, camel, cart, or hiking.   Ger-to-Ger is remarkably cheap, but that’s not the reason to choose them; there are an increasing number of ger camps and tourist lodges in Mongolia, most of which provide the scenery but not very authentic captures of nomadic life.   Ger-to-Ger provides the real deal.   (And while never a real hardship, the real deal is also not for the faint of heart!)

I’ve selected some photos below mainly for their “artistic flourish” rather than as a complete travelogue.   A link to a more complete album is at the end of the post.

Mr. Byambatogtoh, our first host in Khogno Khan Uul, at the door of his ger

Mr. Byambatogtoh, with constant companion of the binoculars. Nomads let their herds graze pretty far afield during daytime...

The Byambatogtoh family were our first hosts in Mongolia, and thoroughly endeared us to the country.   I think a combination of their natural and authentic hospitality, the fact that it was early in the season (just after Naadam festival), the fact that they were the most ‘remote’ family, and the fact that they had both the six year old Badger (above) and two sons in their 20’s to cut up with, helped us ‘click’.   Subsequent host families were friendly, but slightly more professional; we felt the Byambatogtoh’s were genuinely glad to have us visit and interact.

"Horse, steppe and sky" - quintessentially Mongolian

More horse, steppe and sky

Tsaraa, the second oldest Byambatogtoh son, shows off his horsemanship. Tsaraa has a shy disposition and a wicked sense of humor (as best as I could gather with my kindergarten Mongolian...)

Mongolian horses are significantly smaller than western horses (though to call them “ponies” would be cause for offense).   Most of the horses we rode were either just recently broken, or hadn’t been ridden for the entire (very long) preceding winter.   Their small stature shouldn’t lure anyone into thinking they’re a cakewalk.    We also learned that unlike in the West, horsemanship in Mongolia is far more about the rider, and what he can accomplish, than about the horse, and what the horse can accomplish.   That adds to a somewhat “unruly” time in the saddle for unpracticed westerners!

"Stool and stool" (if you don't get it, note that all of the herds of smaller animals are brought in to the ger camp hilltop at night for protection from wolves). I love this picture mostly for capturing the brilliant orange paint that covers so much of ger furniture.

The delicacy that is "urum" (an unbelievably creamy/buttery food)

Blue sky through the roof of a ger, with horsehair braided rope at right

Stern lessons in braiding horsehair

Gers bring old meaning to the phrase "multifunction device"

The preceding photos give a little glimpse into ger life.   I love the shot above for both the “dry curds and laundry at the same time” angle, as well as for communicating how truly portable nomadic life is.   While spartan on the outside, ger interiors can be quite colorful and comfortable (well, that’s easily said in 70 degree summers rather than -40 degree Mongolian winters, I guess).  The walls are insulated with big, loosely woven pads of horse mane or tail hair – separated one strand at a time, to help increase the air pockets.   I can vouch that this is a time consuming process!

During the summer, and for visitors, food is primarily dairy, including hard (very hard) curd, urum cream, as shown above, tarag (the best yogurt I have ever tasted), or other variations.  One of the other variations is airag, or fermented mare’s milk.   Airag is a unique and apparently acquired taste, and occasionally visitors need to be “encouraged” to drink it in the same way baby animals are encouraged to accept food:

I needed a little "encouragement" to take my first sip of airag, fermented mare's milk

Got tarag?

The summertime dairy focus is fortunate for visitors, as the Mongolian approach towards preparing and consuming meat is … well, let’s just say it’s pretty hardcore.

Sand dunes in Khogno Khan, a unique area of steppe, dunes, lakebeds and mountains.

Beautiful but eerie seasonal lakebed, with wind-driven mounds and sand dunes in the background.

Mama, papa and baby. (not weeping)

Our visit was to the southern tip of Bulgan aimag (province), in central Mongolia, west of Ulaanbaatar.   The landscape was primarily steppe, but contained many reminders that the vast Gobi desert was not too far to the south.  The region was truly “transitional” between desert, steppe, and mountains to the north.

A senior member of the Idersogt family, the third of our host families in Khogno Khan Uul

Tsaraa on horseback

The view from inside Khugnu Tarni monastery.

Transitional between the steppe and Ulaanbaatar are a number of small towns, where seminomadic families either settle or winter, and where kids such as Badger eventually go off to school in.  Near Khogno Khan in Rashaant sum, Rashaant is the closest settlement, but the town is more commonly known as “Sansar”, which is Mongolian for “space”.   This, in honor if it being the hometown of the first and only Mongolian cosmonaut, Jügderdemidiin Gürragchaa (that story may only be about 65% right, and is highly dependent on my limited translation abilities!).  Needless to say, this gave me some great topics of conversation with the host families, and they appreciated the NASA swag gifts I brought for the kids to no end.   I still look back on that as one of those great serendipities in life: “in all the cowtowns in all of Mongolia, we end up in (near) the space capital…”

Now, “cowtowns” above was chosen very intentionally.   These small settlements have what can only be described as a “wild west” thing going on.   It truly adds to the eerie sense that we’re stepping back a century and a half to some odd but familiar Asian reconstruction of America’s prairie past.   To me as a Westerner, the “frontier” vibe of the nomadic horse and herding culture made Mongolia much more culturally ‘accessible’ than other Asian destinations I’ve been to.

 

Welcome to Sansar, the space capital of Mongolia (no foolin'!). Saloon in rear.

Storms at sunset. The fixed buildings along the "highway" are only part of the town; ger encampments and other buildings are a little further off the roadway.

Mongolia or Wyoming?

Finally, a few photos back in Ulaanbaatar.   Lest it be over-romanticized, UB still carries many dismal reminders of its Soviet-dominated decades of history, but there are some beautiful corners.

Little known factoids of Mongol history:  in addition to founding (well, rebuilding) Beijing (the Yuan dynasty), the Mongols also installed the first Dalai Lama in 1578 (dalai is Mongolian for “ocean”, thus “ocean of wisdom”).   Today Mongol religions are a combination of animist/shamanic, Tibetan buddhist (the Soviets allowed some monasteries to survive for “show”) or non-religious.

Vista of Ulaanbaatar, with a mixture of fixed buildings and ger enclosures

Blue is for sky!

Monks at Gandan Khiid monastery, UB

Pilgrims to Ghandan Khiid monastery in Ulaanbaatar. The gentleman's orange deel is striking...

Pigeons, a worldwide phenomenon...

A more complete gallery of photos from Mongolia is here, and I would heartily recommend “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World“, or “The Secret History of the Mongol Queens“, both by Jack Weatherford, for some really, really interesting reads on an often-forgotten corner of history.

Postscript:

XacBank (pronounced “hahs-bank”) is a microfinance lender in Mongolia that partners with Kiva.org.   In addition to scoring in the top 25 (#16) in my recent assessment of global Kiva MFI’s, XacBank has a very cool practice of passing back 9% of the interest it charges to the borrowers themselves, upon full repayment of their loans (a practice known as “microsavings”).   It’s just all around good.   And they put out quite a tearjerker of a holiday card last year:

The whole process is described a little better here:

Finally, some great photos from the One Laptop Per Child deployment in Mongolia in 2007:

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6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jan 20 2011

    Great photos. I am dying to go to Mongolia, have been for years, so it’s good to know about the ger-to-ger option. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Jan 20 2011

      Awesome! I can’t say enough good things about Mongolia, especially if you’ve “got the itch” 🙂 (Actually, having the itch really helps take some of the inconveniences in stride!) If you ever decide to go, feel free to ping me for tips or anything else. Cheers!!! – Dennis

      Reply
  2. Stephanie
    Jun 23 2013

    Very interesting post (and lovely photos). I found it whilst poking around for information on Ger-to-Ger, researching a trip I’m taking in September. Unfortunately there is a lot of negative press online (eg: http://www.tripadvisor.com.au/ShowTopic-g293956-i9383-k4819257-Ger_to_Ger_Ulaanbaataar_review-Ulaanbaatar.html). It was nice to read your perspective.

    Reply
    • Jun 24 2013

      Thanks so much, Stephanie … the discussion on tripadvisor is disappointing. Our experience doesn’t track with most of that, although it was four years ago. Of the three families we stayed with, one was delightful, one was friendly if a little on the “professional and standoffish” side, and one not so good (very friendly mother and children, father, not so much). The days are not exactly action-packed, that much is true, and the one main “outing” per day on horseback/camel/etc was the main event, but that was fine by me. I saw the comment on the guest who was dissatisfied with being in spare ger rather than ger camp – which is odd, as *not* being in a ger camp was one of the main reasons we chose this venue. Two of the families we stayed with also put us up in their family ger while the family slept in their much smaller cooking ger. Not luxury but I think that’s the point.

      We did have a bit of an adventure on the van ride back to UB, which kept breaking down (not uncommon) – though between the driver and rounds of calls to the G2G office in UB we made it back late but intact. I think that’s a plus not a minus, and counted it as part of the adventure.

      That said, the brief time we were in the main office I definitely got enough of a vibe to see how some of the complaints on the tripadvisor discussion could happen in some cases, an odd tweak of culture and management “offness” which could lead there. I think the best I can say is folks should manage their expectations right and understand what they’re getting with G2G, which is basically just an arm’s length, low cost broker between booking and the families. In 2009 it certainly was dirt cheap compared with the companies that charged a fortune to stay in manufactured tourist “experiences” and probably kept most of it for themselves. G2G is probably not for folks wanting a highly managed and comfortable outing in Mongolia, while for those who feel confident they can offroad it themselves, it may be too much (though given the fragility of the infrastructure there, that’s pretty adventurous indeed!). If you want to push the envelope of authenticity with minimal cost, and are able to be flexible and adaptable enough to deal with unexpected contingencies (as well as the reality that not all host families are created equal), it may be the right fit. For us it was, and the occasional “hardships” weren’t detractions but rather part of the adventure.

      Hope this helps!

      Reply

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