We departed Ulaanbaatar at 10am the following morning, after struggling to open the van doors that had frozen shut. It was a 2-hour van drive down to the river, where we would be conveyed by ox cart to have lunch in a ger.
The entire van journey was spent quizzing each other on basic Mongolian phrases. Carl rehearsed his introductions and we reassured him that he would make a wonderful patriarch for our little family. We were all filled with a mixture of apprehension and excitement. What would it be like to meet a Mongolian family? What kind of stories did they have?
As we discussed which songs we thought we’d sing for our hosts, the van chugged and sputtered and we pulled over to the side of the road.
“How do you say, ‘Can I help you?’ in Mongolian?” Holly asked, and we all fumbled through our phrasebooks. Our driver rang someone on her cell phone while the 6 of us awkwardly repeated, “Can I help you?” to one another in the back seat.
Once she got the van going again, we resumed our Mongolian lessons, repeating important phrases.
Imagine you are a parent, and you have picked up some exchange students from Mongolia to bring back to your home for a few months. The entire journey back from the airport, you hear foreign Mongolian words and laughter, but every once in a while, you hear one of them say, very seriously, “Hold your dog.”
The others stop laughing and immediately respond, “Hold your dog“, like some kind of weird call and response activity gone wrong.
This is what we must have sounded like. Still, we felt comforted by our driver’s occasional encouragement and the fact that we were doing okay with remembering phrases.
When we reached the river, we piled out of the van and onto an ox cart, which literally took us a few yards down a hill to a small ger. Out front, men smoked cigarettes and slaughtered cows. Blair went to take photographs while the rest of us filed into the small anteroom where a pot of stroganoff bubbled on a stove.
It was surprising how hot it was in there. Almost instantly, we took off our coats and hung them on a rack, and resumed sipping the hot milk tea we’d been given. A few minutes later, Blair came through the door looking enviably rosy-cheeked.
“They wouldn’t let me take photos of the cow unless I drank a bowl of vodka,” he told us.
The family hosting lunch was polite and friendly. At first, we were nervous to speak to them in our broken Mongolian, but we soon began asking them how they were doing and how old they were.
One woman began talking with Alicia and Carl, and introduced a man nearby. Alicia tried introducing her husband, Carl, but the woman regarded her with a strange look. It took a while and some skimming of the phrase book for us to realize that Alicia had introduced Carl as her husband’s father.
Sufficiently stuffed, we all headed back outside where Rosie, the least interested in riding horses, was placed on a shaggy horse and marched down to ford an icy river while the rest of us rode alongside her in the ox cart.
On the other side of the river, they produced two more horses, so Holly, Alicia, and I took over riding while Rosie, Carl, and Blair rode in the ox cart.
I have ridden horses before, most recently at KOA down a rocky hillside. I enjoy it. I’m not a pro, but I don’t normally have trouble getting the horse to do basic things, like move.
Not this guy.
Alicia and Holly’s horses clopped slowly side by side behind the ox cart while mine stood stock still, staring straight ahead. Our Mongolian guide instructed me to kick the horse and say, “Choo!” to get it to move, but I was beginning to think that, too, was a cruel joke.
When our guide came back and smacked the horse, it would take off at a lively trot, which was enjoyable. But I could never tell when it would be done trotting and just stand there. The ox cart would be disappearing down the road with Holly and Alicia behind it, and I would be kicking my horse in the sides while it peed.
The ox cart itself was slow-moving. It would have been faster to walk, and I wondered why we didn’t, until we began passing near the first remote gers. Derek had mentioned that gers are guarded by dogs. He’d told us not to be alarmed at how these dogs were treated by their masters; they were there for a purpose. As we approached our first ger, I heard the barking of a dog up ahead and watched as two dogs slunk underneath the fence and chased after the ox cart, barking it off their property.
Bored with it all, my horse decided to stop. In minutes, I was surrounded by dogs on both sides. I turned to find my guide, who had dismounted his own horse a few meters behind me and was peeing behind his horse. Far ahead, I could hear Carl’s booming laughter even though I could no longer see the ox cart.
The dogs surrounding me looked more curious at the stupidity of my horse than anything, so I just sighed and leaned forward to wait for my guide. I was reminded of that scene in Dracula where Harker’s caleche is surrounded by wolves and he starts screaming out for his driver. At least he was in a caleche.
After fording two rivers and emerging on a grassy steppe, our guide decided we were too slow and told us to get off the horses. In seconds, he’d gathered them up and flown away across the plains at a speedy gallop while we bumbled along toward our ger in the ox cart.
We arrived at the ger pursued by a bear-like brown dog. Once there, we unloaded our things and shuffled nervously outside the door. Carl took a breath and waited to be shown into the ger. We were told to leave our things outside, which we did before anxiously lining up in order of age.
Coming through the door, I spotted Carl standing beside a short Mongolian man who was regarding us with mild annoyance. I bowed to him and the fire. Next to him, a small television showed warriors on horseback galloping over a field.
Later, Carl summed it up like this:
“I prepared for a sacred, almost ritualistic, introduction ceremony. I was led to believe the entire experience hinged on my introductions. Dude never took his eyes off the TV.”
It was completely not what we had expected. Once we’d all filtered in through the doorway, we stood awkwardly in a semi-circle while the woman who had greeted us, Gunsay (so not spelled right), hurried to grab us little seats. We moved slowly clockwise, careful not to kick anything or walk between the poles, and sat down. The man shut off the TV and welcomed the ox cart driver into the ger.
I watched the ox cart driver step through the doorway left foot first, then proceed counterclockwise to a seat behind us. Gunsay served us salty milk tea, which we drank immediately as instructed, and she disappeared outside. The ox cart driver and the man proceeded to converse as we sat whispering to each other, trying desperately to remind each other of proper behavior.
Someone would point at a pole, and someone would hiss, “No pointing! Open hand!”
Someone would stand up and begin to circle back to his/her seat, and one of us would whisper, “Clockwise! Walk clockwise!”
We were six people on eggshells.
As Derek had foretold, the ox cart driver and the man left us alone in the ger, and we looked around, noticing a series of photos on a nearby mirror.
“I don’t think this guy is our host,” Carl said slowly. “He’s way too young.”
“Maybe he’s the son?”
“But where’s our host?”
It was true. All the photos depicted our retired Mongolian wrestler host, whose photo was printed in our Mongolian phrasebook. We worried we were in the wrong ger or worse, that perhaps our host had passed away.
“Wouldn’t the travel company know that?” one of us asked. We all shrugged and ate some donuts on the table.
Soon after, Gunsay returned and motioned us out of the ger. We gathered our things and she led us to the next ger.
“Sleeping ger,” she told us simply, and opened the door. Again, we all stepped through cautiously and lined our things up against the wall. Gunsay closed the door and we all looked at each other.
“Is this right?”
“What about the vodka and the singing?”
We decided it would be best to sit and wait in our ger to be called on, so we claimed beds and sat around the fire. Time passed.
Blair counted the roof poles of the ger and asked us to bet how many there were. (I won with 80.) We noticed a bow and arrow. We looked at the wood in the stove.
No one came for us, so we all bundled up and decided to explore. A dog came with us. We walked out along some fields and down to a frozen river, where we amused ourselves by hurling rocks at the ice and playing a makeshift game of corn hole.
When we arrived back at our ger, no one was there and it was getting dark. No light got into the ger, so we searched for a candle until Alicia and Rosie offered to go to the main ger and ask for more.
“They’re having a party over there,” Alicia said, returning with a candle. “There’s a ton of people. Those guys who passed us on that truck by the river, they’re all in there.”
We shrugged and figured we’d wait it out. Alicia and I read by candlelight, a highlight for me. What better occasion for reading Dracula than by candlelight in the middle of nowhere in Terelj National Park, Mongolia, two days before Halloween? It doesn’t take much to make me happy.
Shortly after, there was a knock on the door and Gunsay entered briskly, collecting bowls from a small table. She disappeared and then returned with steaming bowls of stew. After studying us for a moment, she slipped back out, closing the door behind her.
“What did we do wrong?”
“Do you think they weren’t expecting those other guests and they didn’t have room for us? Derek said people show up unexpected.”
“Do you think I was too quick with the introductions?”
We all shrugged helplessly and ate our food – which was delicious – and then talked about what we could do. Should we ask for vodka? Should we knock on the door and ask to join them? Should we ask them if they needed help shoveling dung?
Outside, stars emerged. They’d built us a bathroom – a hole in the ground protected by a curtain – a hundred meters from our ger, so we walked out there and then shivered outside, looking at the Milky Way. Fortunately, it was hot in our ger. Carl kept the fire going all night, which involved him going outside to chop firewood. Rosie recited Harry Potter to us from memory, and that’s how I fell asleep.
In the morning, I awoke to a frosty sunrise. Toilet paper in hand, I trooped out to the toilet, accompanied by the bear-like brown dog that had pursued our ox cart the day before. Carl said the dogs are probably protecting us from wolves or something.
We ate granola bars for breakfast, followed by some dish Gunsay brought in. Desperate to see how we could help in any way, Holly stood up and called after her, “Excuse me! Excuse me!”
She ignored us and closed the door with a thud.
“It’s like we’re in a low security prison,” Carl observed as she went. With nothing else to do, we walked back down to the river and threw more rocks onto the ice. Some of us played shuffleboard with the rocks while Blair played fetch with the brown dog. I, too, played with the brown dog, but that was a bad idea.
Walking back to the ger, the dog decided to attack my ankles. I don’t think it was vicious, but he was unrelenting, to the point where Blair said seriously, “I think you should go into the ger.”
“Maybe that’s the ankle bone game,” someone else chimed in.
Back in the ger, Gunsay returned to give us information.
“Lunch. Ox cart.” (Translation: Get out.)
“Please can we help milk a cow? Can we help milk a goat? Can we do archery?” Holly asked, reciting from her phrase book. Gunsay smiled a tiny bit and pulled a bow and some arrows from our ger poles.
Carl and Blair shot at a target outside with a Mongolian man who was the friendliest we’d encountered so far. Spurred to confidence, Blair asked him his name in Mongolian. The man stared at him.
“What is your name.” he repeated in deadpan English.
“Oh, you speak English…” Blair said awkwardly.
I am very glad that Blair then aimed his arrow at the target and hit it dead on. The Mongolian man respected this, and actually smiled.
We were promptly herded back onto the ox cart, which was fine by me. Holly was given a horse and led alongside our Mongolian host. As for the rest of us, we got to wobble along the windy steppe in the ox cart.
I have never been that cold in my entire life.
In Mongolia, the cold has teeth. Sharp, horrible, biting teeth. My toes were aching. My fingers were in pain. My nose was frozen. We all bundled up against each other, all struggling to stay positive.
I have to hand it to Alicia, who motioned for a game of Scattergories as the cold grew worse and the skies ahead turned grey. It was somewhat distracting, though when it fizzled, I felt even more cold than before.
“Carl, lead us in song,” I called out, which led to a pretty heartening rendition of Garth Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places.” At that moment, I completely respected the power of music and song over painful things like dying of frostbite.
We would’ve continued, but our next song upset the ox and he stopped moving, so I tried to enjoy Carl and Blair singing “Homeless” from Graceland. And then I got colder and colder. Alicia opened a sleeping bag and we huddled our hands together under it. I buried my entire face in a scarf/blanket and zipped the hood of my down jacket, an enormous, warming thing I borrowed from a man (as in, it was huge and warm and was still almost useless in the cold). I reminded myself that I was wearing 2 pairs of wool socks, 2 pairs of leggings, a pair of jeans, a T-shirt, a long-sleeve undershirt, a long-sleeve T-shirt, a heavy fleece, a women’s winter coat, and a man’s winter coat, plus gloves, a hat, a hood, and my blanket/scarf.
It wasn’t enough. As we rumbled over a giant dip in the road, I felt the sudden urge to vomit. I don’t know how we got back to the golf course – or why we ended up there – but I could barely get off the ox cart. Holly took me to the bathroom and bought me a Sprite because she is wonderful, and Carl gathered some trash bags for me to puke in on the van journey home.
Luckily, I didn’t puke, but I shivered pretty horribly. My teeth chattered so uncontrollably I felt like a cartoon character. I also had trouble breathing. It wasn’t until an hour into the journey back that I started to feel okay again.
It was not a feeling I want to relive, but I will say this:
The scalding Daenerys Targaryen-hot bath I took in the hotel room when we got back, plus the hot cup of English breakfast tea I drank in the actual bath tub, was one of the most relieving, cathartic, amazing moments I have experienced. If you can bottle warmth on a winter day, that is what it would feel like.
We celebrated our survival with complimentary drinks in the hotel premier lounge and singing joyfully along with the Mongolian cover band while penning Derek’s ridiculous advice on hotel stationery to giggle at for years to come.