Before setting off for Mongolia, Holly asked if we wanted to stay in a ger, which is a traditional Mongolian hut or yurt used by nomads. Holly found a tour through Ger to Ger, which gives tourists a chance to live with a Mongolian host family in their ger and participate in household chores like milking the cow, collecting dung, and shooting things with a bow and arrow.
I’d read the itinerary that Holly had sent before the trip, and it listed all of these activities. In the evening, we would play a mysterious game called “the ankle bone game” with the family’s young children before retiring to sleep in what I imagined would be a frigid ger. Of course, we all eagerly said yes, so Holly signed us up.
Going into it, we knew nothing. A few nights before leaving, Holly, Rosie, and I met up for wine and a bit of Hocus Pocus and chat about what we’d packed for the trip.
“I read to pack layers. We should anticipate anything from warm to freezing,” Holly told us.
“I don’t have boots. Do you think they sell yak boots? Do you think they’re cheap?” asked Rosie.
“What kind of sleeping bag do you have? Is it 3-season? I don’t know what I have,” I fretted.
Uninformed and underprepared, we knew we needed to attend the 2-hour session at the Ger to Ger office in Ulaanbaatar, though none of us really wanted to. We’d been on a train for 26 hours and were desperate for some sleep before we set out the next day.
Nevertheless, we tromped a few blocks over to the office in positive spirits and heavy coats. Holly had informed us that the session would cover basic etiquette and Mongolian culture, as well as a brief lesson in Mongolian.
This was the extent of our limited knowledge going into this meeting, and so we were drastically unprepared for what followed.
We were crowded into a little office lobby whose walls were adorned with paintings of Genghis Khan and black and white photos of furry camels. A large man in a T-shirt and sweatpants rolled out from behind a computer and greeted us.
“Listen guys, I’m gonna get you out of here in less than two hours. You’re only staying one night, ok? So you don’t need the whole deal. I usually do a longer intro, but you’re not staying long, ok? So this is Mongolian culture in a nutshell. Asian face. Black holes.”
I can’t be sure that he actually said any of that, because he spoke a mile a minute.
“There’s the Sea World approach, ok, where you got the animals in cages. But this is open ocean, ok? Some nomads are dolphins and some are orcas. Mongolia is like an operating system, like Windows 95, ok? It’s been reformatted.”
As he chased his scattered thoughts around like farmers chasing a bronco around a plain, I entertained an onslaught of thoughts myself:
- Too much at once! He isn’t a teacher, clearly.
- Oh my God, do the others think he’s a good teacher? Look at them all watching him intently. Alicia doesn’t look happy, but Holly is smiling. Are they inspired by him?
- Mixed metaphors don’t work. Note to self. Remind Creative Writing class.
- I am going to accidentally break Mongolia.
What little I learned about Mongolian culture from his lecture was that the country is much like the Philippines and much like Finland in a sense that other global giants were always grappling over the land and imposing their cultural and religious beliefs on the people, so much so that Mongolians (like Filipinos and Finns) are still struggling to assert themselves and establish a national identity.
That was the “nutshell,” but it was hard to dig it up among the pile of mixed metaphors, braggadocio, and allusions to “common” experiences that none of us could relate to. What I had wanted to learn was a) what to actually expect when we arrived at the ger, b) how to behave, and c) a little bit about Mongolian culture.
What we actually got out of the lecture was a bizarre potpourri of science, badassery, and loose ends.
“You know how to find a black hole?” he began at one point.
Silence. Holly bravely ventured, “Gravity?”
“Well, yeah, but I’m talking about distortions, light, and matter,” he went on. (Oh, he went on.)
What do black holes have to do with Mongolia, you ask? Beats me.
Derek (we named him later over dinner, since he didn’t provide his name) enthusiastically guided us through a number of wild scenarios we might find ourselves in while exploring the Mongolian wilderness.
First, he talked about “Asian face”, which we’re still unclear about, but Derek describes in the following way: “You know what happens if you go up and slap a samurai in the face?” Silence. “I’m just talking flap flap flap in the face.” Silence. “You get your hand cut off, your head cut off. Ok?”
Next, he told us how we could ride horses to our ger. Instead of asking about whether or not we’d ridden before, he jumped straight to the important part: “If your horse takes off, you gotta know what to do. Does anybody know the proper way to dismount a runaway horse? Anybody? No? Well I’ll tell you how not to. Pulling the mane and choking the horse won’t work. Do you know how many tiny bones are between the wrist and shoulder? A lot. 15. You’re all experienced parachuters, right? You don’t wanna do that. What you wanna do is an 11 o’clock roll, obviously. Not 12, not 10. Not here, not here.”
He then proceeded to describe how we’d launch ourselves off the horse safely. Afterwards, without a breath, he pointed to the painting of Genghis Khan on the wall. “See that guy right there? That guy rides a horse like a boss.”
Then, he ran through a list of possible calamities that might befall us. First and foremost, he explained that if we were “fooling around” on a long hike and one of us fell over, we’d need to text Ulaanbaatar for first aid.
“You know how to tell if you cut a vein in your hand or the meaty part? First, you cut off circulation in your arm. Then, hold your hand in the air. Find a rock and tape it to your palm. If it’s bleeding all over, it’s a vein. But you can avoid that. Just wear gloves.”
After this, he thought hard for a second.
“Yeah, not too many animals around in the winter you need to worry about. Oh! PIT VIPERS! Watch out for crevices, they’ll be full of pit vipers. But, you know, once you get bitten, you’ve got like five months.”
“…to live?” came Holly’s voice.
“You might also see wolves. You know what I do when I see a wolf? Throw my meat pack at it and take a selfie before it runs away.”
Here I had to pause a little longer to understand why I’d be carrying a pack of meat with me out to the ger. A sleeping bag, I understood. Toiletries in a backpack also made sense. But a separate bag stuffed with raw meat?
After finishing that part of the lecture, Derek scrutinized us and began lecturing us about what to wear.
“Some of you are dressed OK right now. Some of you aren’t.”
He didn’t elaborate on this any further, so we were left exchanging quick glances to see which of us might have accidentally worn a bikini and board shorts to the meeting.
Finally, with a great bound, Derek was out of his chair and circling us.
“OK, now it’s time to go over how you enter the ger.”
At this point, we were all trying very hard to listen to what he was saying. I, for one, was extremely nervous about accidentally offending our Mongolian family, so I tried my best to take notes. We’d be staying with a former Mongolian wrestler – Carl’s face brightened at this – whom Derek categorized as a dolphin in his open ocean analogy. The family would be somewhat modern, but we still had to respect the traditions.
Derek told us that as the eldest, Carl would be responsible for entering the ger first and then introducing each of us in turn from oldest to youngest. Poor Carl was all ears, though it was useless. Derek delivered the information like a madman firing a machine gun at a horde of zombies.
We were to enter the ger right foot first, with our packs in our left hands, and bow to the fire and our host. Tripping through the doorframe was considered bad luck and made for an awful first impression.
If our host had his hands behind his back, we were not welcome to shake his hand. If he wanted to shake our hands, we could then remove our gloves and do so. If not, we could awkwardly stand in the ger with our winter clothes on.
Once we’d all filed into the ger, we would be seated. We were to only move in a clockwise motion once inside the ger. We were, under no circumstances, permitted to do the following:
- Point our feet toward the fire
- Walk between the two poles holding up the ger at the center
- Touch anyone’s head or hat (both are sacred)
- Walk counterclockwise
- Touch items on the religious table
- Play with their funereal oil lamp
- Shake our hands to warm up (a sign of aggression)
- Roll up our sleeves (also a sign of aggression)
- Slouch when seated (a sign of weakness)
- Whistle (damns someone in the ger to death)
If, while walking clockwise, we tripped on someone’s extended feet, that person had to apologize, or it was bad luck.
Derek explained that Mongolian hospitality is a little different from western. Once we’d entered, they would have us sit down and would serve us milk tea. Anything served to us, he explained, had to be consumed immediately.
Afterward, they might leave us alone in the ger to rest. We weren’t to interpret this as hostility. Eventually, they’d return and serve us dinner. Again, we’d have to eat it immediately and eat all of it, otherwise we’d be rude.
After dinner, our host would pass around a bowl of airag, or mare milk, and we would each take a sip.
“I’d bring antibacterial soap to rub on the rim,” Derek advised. If we didn’t want to drink from the bowl, we could dip our fingers in and bless everyone in the circle with the airag, or raise the bowl to our foreheads and present it back out again in a sign of high honor.
“Not a lot of people know that one,” Derek confided with a proud smile.
Next, they’d pass around a bowl of yogurt vodka, which sounded good to me. We would take a sip of this, and then each of us would individually be responsible for singing a song to the family.
“Anything,” he told us, “but ‘Happy Birthday.’ They called and asked us to tell people not to sing that one anymore.”
Then Derek laughed wildly to himself.
“Yeah, like these nomads are wandering 20km in subzero temperatures to a payphone to call Derek and tell people to stop singing ‘Happy Birthday,'” Blair said later.
At the time, it was impossible to decipher how my friends were taking this in. All of our faces were hard-set in concentration and what looked to me like fear.
After we sang songs, we’d drink more vodka and play games until what sounded like the wee morning hours. This I was on board with. I imagined the tense, cultural differences melting away as we all bonded over traditional songs and vodka.
Derek told us that we’d be taken to our own sleeping ger, which everyone breathed an audible sigh of relief to, and that was that. If we wanted to help with things around the house, we’d have to ask a few times, as Mongolian hospitality means treating guests like guests. (We’d have to beg to shovel dung, basically.)
Derek wished us well and slid away so our Mongolian language teacher could join the circle and go over some useful phrases. She guided Carl through his introductions and then taught us how to say things like, “I am fine” and “Hold your dog.” (Derek had warned us that Mongolians don’t treat their dogs the same way western folk did, and not to be surprised at how barbarian that may be.)
After Holly and Blair rented sleeping bags, we all headed to the State Department Store next door to buy essentials: Pringles, chocolate, garbage bags, and duct tape for our boots for horse riding.
I won’t lie to you here. I was very much in my own head, panicking about learning Mongolian and not tripping over a doorway. I wondered if the others were gearing up for an early night in to study their Mongolian phrase books while I cowered in my room learning the phrase for, “I want to go back to UB NOW!” (Which was in the book, a few pages before the sections ‘Paranoia Will Destroy You’ and ‘Pubic Lice.’)
In line, Alicia turned to me and said, “Well, I could go for a beer right now. I’m pretty stressed.”
I wanted to hug her! There’s solidarity in suffering. We all went nearby to a warm restaurant where we feasted on pasta and carbs in preparation for our long journey. The best part wasn’t the food, but the what-the-hell-just-happened conversation where we all unloaded the highlights of the talk and the absolute fear that Derek had instilled in us, and how out of left field it all was.
By the time our food came out, we were laughing so hard that some of us were crying. Derek’s badass nuggets of wisdom became Franklin-esque adages that we peppered our journey with the next day. The night we got back from the ger, everyone scribbled down their favorite piece of wisdom from Derek, which is listed here in this blog entry, and which has put me in stitches all over again.
Of course, what happened the next day was nothing like what Derek had told us.