If it's a Ger you want, then it's a Ger you'll get. In Ulan Bator it seems everyone is a tour company. Guest houses, hotels and tour offices will all help you find the tour that's right for you. This particular tour was through the guesthouse we stayed at in Ulan Bator. For two people, it included our own personal driver plus an English speaking tour guide for two nights and three days. We would drive out to Gorkhi Terelj National Park and stay over night with two different Mongolian families, and have lunch with a few more.
This whole experience would cost barely $300 USD for two people. If you wanted to break it down, that's $50 per day for each of us and includes everything except alcoholic drinks and souvenirs. Well worth the price.
Gorkhi Terelj National Park is a relatively short distance away from Ulan Bator, and in winter it's a lonely road ahead. We passed through many tourist Ger camps that shut down for the winter. In the summer they thrive on international tourism coming in from all over the world. My preference for winter travel has much to do with the fact that we were the only two tourists for miles around and in other times of the year, every one of these camps get filled up.
We stayed overnight with in the Gers of two different nomadic families, a traditional Mongolian family and an ethnic Kazakh family. Lunch was had at the Ger of a few other traditional nomadic families.
For the whole trip, there were two tourists plus one tour guide who spoke English. The families and the driver did not. It was a private and personal tour that introduced us to a nomadic life that still lives on throughout Mongolia. This was something better than any tour I have had in a group. This was real.
Over the course of the 3 days I felt a real connection with a few of the hosts. The first connection was the Mongolian family. While there we offered to help on the farm with the animals or however else we could. They politely declined at first, but only an hour later the father invited us to help collect water and split wood for the fire.
The Ger is surprisingly warm inside, with a wood furnace, beds and most other conveniences you'd find in a typical western house. They had a TV as well as a computer. No internet, though. On the TV they would watch movies from the US, dubbed into the Mongolian language. To my surprise the movie Sahara still sucks, even after being dubbed into Mongolian.
We had enough down time during the first afternoon to have a nap and get in a game of Scrabble on our travel sized Scrabble board. Midway through the game the driver, tour guide and the host were watching inquisitively at this English language board game. This lead to them showing us how to play their traditional game. After dinner we were welcomed to the world of Knucklebone.
After dinner entertainment would include the traditional game of Knucklebone, a game that uses the knucklebones of pigs as four sided pieces similar to dice. You roll the bones like di on the table, then click matching knucklebones together, picking up the bone of successful hits, until you miss or hit an non-matching piece. Then it moves onto the next person. What a rousing game and ultimately the first of many cultural exchanges that would take place throughout the next three days.
The Kazakh family that we had lunch with had an eagle which is used for hunting. He was just hanging out in the corner of the Ger, waiting and watching. The man holding now is the patriarch of the family. In each photo taken of them together he seemed so in tune with his bird of prey. Years of training and living together, this man understands his animal.
The horseback riding was the highlight of the scenery department during our trip into the Mongolian wilderness. We were lead up to this temple by our host, the father of the Mongolian family. He motions his arm as we follow him up the hill, panting all the way wearing 20 pounds of traditional clothing (because our jackets weren't warm enough) as this tough 50 year old smoker beats us walking up the hill and hundreds of steps.
To what could easily be considered the best view of Gorkhi Terelj, we followed our host as he motioned for us to circle the monastery and spin each prayer wheel. Even as no English words were exchanged, I knew exactly what he meant. It was an unspoken language as he opened a door to his world for a couple foreigners he never met.
This was a great example of a time when you don't need to speak the same language to communicate. The view was incredible, and after looking out, then looking at our host, he smiled as if to say, "Yeah, I live here and it is awesome."
They move their camp four times each year, a feet that seems difficult for myself. One Ger can be taken down in an hour and a half. After each Ger is packed away with all of the families possessions, they move on to greener pastures.
It is an interesting lifestyle that continues to live on even today. It is a simple life that they hold on to, and one that many travelers want to and should see for themselves. That is what makes Mongolia such an amazing place. Holding onto a long held way of life that is in such high contrast to everything I know back in the states.
Like so many in Central Asia, we emerged from Ghenghis Khans' crotch to see the fruits of his labor and the land he so violently conquered. Today however this would be a view of the surrounding area and what will soon become the next tourist Ger camp. It isn't without controversy, as some think there are enough camps, yet others want increasingly more tourism dollars.
The statue of Ghenghis on his horse towers high above, at 40 meters. Inside the building you have a museum and a stairwell leading to the observation area, on the head of the horse. Its a tourist thing that you have to do, and worth it if you find yourself in the area.
When we first were picked up by the tour driver, I wasn't sure he was serious. I have been stuck in the snow before, and this car he used to pick us up in looked as if it wouldn't make it far into the park. We did however, only get stuck once, and our driver dutifully got out, albeit after a lot of trying.
Overall, the guide and the driver did an excellent job translating and explaining about Mongolian life.
Mongolia is incredible, especially during the winter. This whole time was a great reinforcement as to why I love traveling in the off season. We had a deeply personal experience, meeting our various hosts on a level many don't get. All the frustrations that come with being surrounded by tourists just didn't exist. No waiting in line, or talking about other travels. It was all about the families we visited.
What we got was the opportunity to meet a couple nomadic families and experience a taste of their lifestyle. We tried our best to offer a hand on the farm as well as listen to their stories about nomadic life. What I got over the course of these three days was exactly the uninterrupted cultural experience I had hoped.
Been to Ulaan Baatar yet? It is the starting point for any trip into the Mongolian countryside.
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