How to describe the best the word « hospitality”?: Go to Mongolia!

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Asia » Mongolia
August 30th 2014
Published: September 1st 2014
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My journey in Mongolia has been the best experience I have had since I have started my world trip in January 2014. I didn’t know what to expect from this country. We indeed know so little about it in Europe and I was a bit afraid of not being able to travel on my own there –without agency or driver I mean-.

However, my journey there proved me every day that travelling on your own is the best way to really get a true experience in a country and that in Mongolia, it’s even easier to get to know the local people than in other countries.

Mongolians are in fact the exact definition of hospitable. It’s in their culture to know how to receive guests. At their home, they will always have some tsai (traditional salty milk tea) and some food ready to be offered to the possible unscheduled guests. To come unannounced at someone’s else place is indeed very common there, even on a Saturday early morning. They will just open the door of the ger and will sit down to get something to drink and to eat. It was something that I wouldn’t have believed if someone had told me about it, but I experienced it when I was there! It doesn’t mean that the guests will stay at the place for a long time: they will drink the tsai and the snacks quickly and then go out of the ger, as quickly as they had entered. It’s a totally different culture than the French one. In France, you would invite people to come over for dinner, prepare a nice meal with aperitif, starter, main dish, cheese and dessert. People will stay at your place for hours but they will come when they are supposed to.

Now, let me explain you about my trip in this country and you will see why I think that Mongolia is the perfect definition of hospitality.

My trip wasn’t starting very well: my luggage got lost during the flight, my host didn’t show up at our meeting point on my 1st day and my trousers had a big hole right below my butt (and all my clothes were in my lost backpack!). However, very quickly, everything turned out the right way: I found another person to host me –my host Shiori became then a good friend in Ulaanbaatar-, she helped me call the airport and asked her company’s driver to take me there as my luggage had already arrived in the same evening and I could thus wear another trouser without holes 😉

Anyway, this was just the short story about my chaotic arrival in Ulaanbaatar –capital of Mongolia-. This city is in fact as chaotic as my arrival. That’s why, I didn’t like the city at first and even after several days my opinion about it didn’t change: it’s messy, dirty and the architecture is a mix between Soviet time, Buddhism –even though most of it was destroyed or closed during Soviet time- and modernity. There was nothing there to charm me, which is the reason why I left it quite quickly. It was Naadam period, when I came: yearly festival all around Mongolia, where the whole family gathers, eats special dishes and attends the 3 games of archery, horse racing and wrestling.I didn’t want to stay in the capital as most of the tourists do for that festival, but to experience it in a village in the countryside. That way, it wouldn’t be that crowded, I would have the possibility to be closer to see the games and I wouldn’t have to pay the high fees to go to the stadium in Ulaanbaatar. What I didn’t know at that time, is that I would have the possibility to experience much more than the games with that decision.

The tourist information told me that in the neighboring province called Tüv, Naadam had started on that day and would still be held for 2 days. I thus decided to go there early the next day. I went to the capital of the province with a local minibus and then went to the village Sergelen, which was the closest to the province capital, by taxi. It is indeed the normal way to do it: minibuses are leaving from Ulaanbaatar to each province capital and then you have either another minibus going to the other cities of the province or a taxi, as it was the case for Tüv province. I got a good price for the taxi ride, as I asked the bus driver before what should be the price for the ride by taxi 😉

Arriving at the village, the driver asked me where he should drop me off, I showed him a picture of Naadam, so that he could understand why I was coming here and would take me to the right place. Well, his reaction was not what I had expected: he wrote something on a paper, but I couldn’t understand or communicate because of the language barrier… Fortunately, a young girl walked by, she could speak a bit more English and she explained me that Naadam was only in 6 days not today!! I didn’t want to go back to the capital and as I had my tent I decided to stay there at least for a couple of days to enjoy the nature and quietness of countryside. When I said that to the girl, showing her my tent, she told me “why not stay 6 days and wait for Naadam?, you can stay at my home with your tent until then”. I said I will think about the idea but I for sure wanted to stay with her for the next 2 days to really live the local life in Mongolian countryside. I was amazed by how quickly and spontaneously this girl had offered me to camp near her place after talking to me for 5 minutes! I felt very lucky to have the chance of living such an experience.

It was indeed a whole experience. I decided quite quickly in the day that I will stay with her family until Naadam. There were so nice with me: offering me food and drinks. As I explained, Mongolian people are very hospitable. When you enter their ger, they will offer you everything they have. So, I got a lot of things in a very short time: traditional tea, biscuits made out of cheese, some small bread pieces, some liver, some fermented horse milk (called “airag”) and so many things that I probably forgot to write down some of them in this list. When they could see that I didn’t like one of the dishes, they were saying “organic, organic”. It’s true everything in Mongolia is organic, but it didn’t change the taste of liver or of that fermented horse milk 😉

During this day, I got other nice moments and new experiences: I milked the goats for the 1st time, went to bring the goats to drink water on the other side of the village and looked at sunset at the top of a hill overlooking the village with my host. The colors of the sky were very nice. It was at that moment that I told her that I would like to stay with her family until Naadam. She just asked me whether I wasn’t afraid of staying there for so long time.

The time milking the goats was quite funny: while her sister had a lot of milk already in her pot, in the same time, I had almost nothing in mine. How was she doing to get so much milk out, when I had only a bit each time?! Well, I know why: experience 😉 So, afterwards, we decided that I would hold the goats when she would be milking and not the contrary. It was the best solution, if we didn’t want to stay the whole day there milking them.

Another very funny moment was when I was bringing the goats to bring water with the young daughters of the family and I wanted to go to the toilet quickly. Well, the problem was that they didn’t know the word “toilet” and all the ways I tried to make them understand what I needed to do didn’t work –trust me I tried by every way!!-. Only when we came back at the ger and I showed them the toilet paper, they took me to the toilet 😉 It was funny! For information, the toilets were a latrine outside of their winter brick-house.

The next days were quite similar: taking care of the goats and cows, playing ball with the children, cleaning the stables, helping them milking the goats and looking at them cooking to learn Mongolian traditional recipes. I learnt how to cook the traditional huushuur and how to make your own noodles. Preparing huushuur was another funny moment: mine were looking much bigger than theirs. They looked at me laughing saying “those ones will be for you to eat 😉”.

What is a traditional day in the countryside?

• Waking up at 6am to milk the animals and then take them to the hills for pasture
• Preparing cream or yoghurt and tea with the milk collected in the morning (the milk and meat production were only for their own use and they don’t sell it)
• The breakfast was simple: some tsai with some biscuits
• Cleaning the house and the ger in the morning and bringing the animals to drink water
• Preparing lunch: mostly a soup with noodles and meat (the only vegetables available there were green onions)
• Milking the goats, cleaning the stables
• Making dry the shit of the animals to use it later for fire (as we use wood, but there aren’t so many forests in Mongolia!)
• Taking the animals to drink water again
• Heating up the mix of cow and goat milk to drink it before going to sleep
• Sleep in the ger: parents on the bed and children on the floor with covers used as mattresses

Reading my description, you might think that the children are working hard all day and not happy but you would be wrong! I never saw those children complaining when they had to do household and farming work and I saw them smiling all the time. I would always remember the smile of the boy, when we were running next to each other, racing to his house. It was making my day each time! They had a lot of free time and during those moments, they would play ball together. The 2nd day, they built all by themselves a basket to play basketball near their ger! We would then play basketball a lot of time with the neighbors in the morning, afternoon and evening.

The 2nd day, I was invited for breakfast at the neighbor’s ger. The mother offered me as well a lot of the things that she had at home. The best was her yoghurt, so fresh and good. The 15-year-old-neighbor even played the traditional instrument for me on that morning. I felt very lucky to have the opportunity to enjoy this private “concert”.

Regarding the food, I have to say that the dairy products that they make in Mongolia are indeed good. My only problem was that they don’t have any vegetables or fruits and that they eat all part of meat (intestines and fat as well, which I am not used to in France) . I missed having some variety in food after a while of only eating meat, dairy products and flour made products.

By the way, you may wonder, how we can communicate, as I don’t speak Mongolian. Well the answer is we were communicating little with words but more with gestures and body expression. It was quite difficult for me sometimes to have no way of understanding them and expressing myself with them, but thinking about it now, I don’t remember this feeling of language frustration, I just remember the perfect experience sharing their life.

One day, I decided to go walk in the nearby hills in the afternoon but after 10 minutes walking a woman came to me in her car. I couldn’t understand her and I thought she was a taxi going to the capital province, so I told her that I was just enjoying walking in the hills. She wasn’t at all what I thought in fact… She was a woman living in the ger nearby and she invited me to come sit down for a while. Entering her ger, I remembered her young baby that I had seen a few days before at the other family. I even had taken pictures of him, so I showed them to her 😉 I also had already met her sister, who was studying medicine and who was coming to treat the mother at the ger. They offered me as usual some tea, meat and biscuits. The sister offered me her dress: looking at me, wearing most of the time the same clothes, she probably thought that I had not enough clothes 😉 Then, they invited me to come for dinner again and to sleep with my tent next to their ger for the night. That’s how it is in Mongolia. You go for a walk and you find people hosting you, even without looking for it! After dinner that day, they asked me whether I would feel confortable sleeping with them on the floor inside the ger, as they were afraid I would get cold at night and of course I accepted 😊 From that day on, I would never again be sleeping in my tent in Mongolia, as each time, people would offer me to sleep in their ger!

The next days were finally Naadam 😊 They prepared for a while: that’s indeed the only days in the year when people will dress up with traditional clothes and put make up, in opposition to every other day, when they have to work with their animals and won’t take care of their looks. For the 1st day, there were some awards ceremonies and then local people would perform on stage to dance, sing or do some acrobatics. The girl, who had invited me to stay at her place the 1st day, was taking part in some dancing performances, the neighbor guy was playing his traditional instrument and his sister was dancing as well. That was thus a very interesting experience for me, much more personal as I knew the people on stage. The performances were nice, I was fascinated by the music and quick dances.

The 2nd day were the games performed: archery, horse racing and wrestling. However, that wasn’t the most interesting part of the day. I loved more the fact that local people would move around on their horses to see the games (much more convenient to see from higher when there is a big crowd😉) and to be invited by people to drink and eat under the tents or gers. The most traditional drink is called “airag” –the horse fermented milk” and the 2nd one is vodka. So, I would be invited to sit down and drink those beverages. In one tent, I even was offered to drink vodka when I was already holding airag in my other hand!! I don’t drink usually, but it’s interesting to experience the real way of celebrating Naadam!

After this amazing week, I came back to the capital. I am missing those 2 families and their joy of life a lot, but anyway they invited me to come back next year for Naadam again :D

After a couple of days in the capital, resting for a while and eating more diverse food, I went back on the road. That time, I went to the West, to the famous Khosghol lake. The road was really bumpy, which made the 16-hour bus drive quite long… However, I loved the landscapes that I was seeing: the small rivers, the hills, the 1st forests! Arriving at the lake, after this bus journey and an hour drive in a minivan (10000T), I decided to rest for a while swimming in the cold but clear lake. When I came out, a guy came to talk to me –I had noticed that he was looking at me before and was wondering whether it was allowed to swim there-. The guy however was just interested in knowing about me, as a foreigner. Communicating with him, with the small dictionary, I had made the week before, and showing him the drawing I had done of my world trip, he invited me to pitch my tent where he has his guesthouse! Again, after 5 minutes talking, I was invited by local people! This would be the beginning of 5 great days with its community.

I would see how to build a ger and help them building it, I would go swimming in the lake every day, I would enjoy the nice scenery, I would eat great food, pose in a traditional dress for his guesthouse marketing, I would help them build a fence and mostly, just sharing their life. The good thing is that one girl there could speak Chinese, so I could communicate much more with them than it was the case the week before 😊

So, overall, I had an AMAZING experience in Mongolia. Yes, I had no access to shower and internet most of the time, yes sometimes, their food was not diverse enough, but that’s not what is important: the generosity of the people, the experience of the Mongolian life, the possibility to live with them and enjoy such scenery, that what's important!!

I hope I convinced you that Mongolia is much more than what most of the people think. There is nothing boring in this country! It’s like a life lesson to go there on your own and to enjoy the purity of nature and life there.

From Ulaanbaatar, I went to China, but stories about it will be in another post 😉

Additional photos below
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1st September 2014
Near Khosghol lake

Now, this is real travel!
What fantastic experiences you have--really, you are my most inspiring traveler. I love the way you stay open and take chances, and then are rewarded with unique experiences. The ger was so beautiful as were the festival costumes, and it was pretty funny how the mom said the liver was organic, so you should like it. I imagine the people you stayed with will talk for a long time about the foreigner who came to stay and work and play with them.
2nd September 2014
Near Khosghol lake

Re: Now this is real travel!
Hi Tara, I am indeed travelling a bit more freely everytime: travelling at a slow pace. I am for sure seeing less of each country but I can experience much more in each place I go. It's a real honor for me to read that I am your most inspiring traveler! Inspiration is what is making me go beyond my limits each time a bit more. Hope it can make more people travel and be open about each other.

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