Mongolia Monday (More from “Among the Mongols”)- Hospitality

Ger near Arburd Sands, Sept. 2008

One of the interesting and, to a lot of Westerners, amazing things about traveling in Mongolia is that the thousand-plus year old traditions of hospitality out in the countryside are still practiced. It feels very odd to walk up to someone’s ger (assuming there are no dogs in sight), open the door and walk right in without knocking. After four trips, I still get a twinge doing it.

I found myself very intimidated the first time. There are no windows in a ger and the door is solid wood so, even with a guide, you are walking into someone’s home without any idea of what to expect. Fortunately, the Mongols are patient and understanding, like my first time, when I turned to the right instead of the left and circumnavigated the ger to get to the stool that I was to sit on.

At least I remembered not to step on the threshold or walk between the upright supports.

The older gentleman approved of the fact that I was wearing Mongol boots. He said to me, through my guide “I see Mongol boots and I look up and see… a western face”. It was spring, which means really cold and windy, and they were the warmest footwear I had with me, having purchased them at the State Department Store in UB. They worked, of course. I asked if he would be willing to have his picture taken with a westerner wearing Mongol boots and he immediately sat up, buttoned his del and made room for me to sit beside him on the bed.

First-ever ger visit; ok, I'm hooked; near Hustai National Park, May 2005

Those thermoses keep water hot, hot, hot for over 24 hours. I want one. I just have to figure out how to carry it home.

Ger interior; the Gobi near Bayanzag, Sept. 2006

Now ger visits are one of the things I MOST look forward to when I go to Mongolia. A ger, maybe because of the quality of space that the round shape creates, is one of the most pleasant and peaceful places that I’ve ever been in. I just happily sit sipping milk tea or airag and nibbling aruul as conversations that I don’t understand a word of go back and forth between my guide and our hosts.

Mutton almost ready; my driver really tucked in; I passed; western Mongolia, Sept. 2006
Boortz soup; Yum!! Mutton I can believe in (and eat safely); Baga Gazriin Chuluu, July 2009;
Aruul; an acquired taste that I had acquired after about three (careful, 'cause it was rock hard) bites; western Mongolia, Sept. 2006
Mongol-style clotted cream; to die for- near Hustai National Park, Sept. 2006

Gilmour seems to have relished ger visits also and provided a good description of the customs:

“As for entering tents on the plain, there need be no bashfullness. Any traveler is at perfect liberty to alight at any village he may wish and demand admittance; and any Mongol who refuses admittance, or gives a cold welcome even, is at once stigmatised not a man but a dog. Any host who did not offer tea, without money and without price, would soon earn the same reputation, the reason being, I suppose, that Mongolia has no inn, and all travelers are dependent on private houses for shelter and refreshment. At first sight it seems rather exacting to leap off your horse at the door of a perfect stranger, and expect to find tea prepared and offered to you free; but probably the master of the tent where you refresh yourself is at the same time sitting likewise refreshing himself in some other man’s tent some hundred miles away; and thus the thing balances itself. The hospitality received by Mongols in travelling compensates for the hospitality shown to travelers.”

Young hostess; near Hustai National Park, Sept. 2009 (the ger with the CREAM)

Mongolia Monday-More From “Among The Mongols”; Traveling By Horse

While I’ve done my traveling in Mongolia by vehicle, the following, for me, really evokes what it’s like to journey through the countryside. I’ve included a few images from my trips.

“Traveling in Mongolia has many pleasures, but ordinary traveling is so slow that the tedium threatens to swamp them all. Horseback traveling does away with the tedium as far as possible, and presents the greatest number of new scenes and circumstances in rapid succession. Night and day you hurry on; sunrise and sunset have their glories much like those seen at sea; the stars and the moon have a charm on the lovely plain.

Ever and anon you come upon tents, indicated at night by the barking of the dogs, — in the daytime seen gleaming from afar, vague and indistinct through the glowing mirage. As you sweep round the base of a hill, you come upon a herd of startled deer and give chase, to show their powers of running; then a temple with its red walls and gilt ornamented roofs looms up and glides past.

Hill-sides here and there are patched with sheep; in the plains below mounted Mongols are dashing right and left through a large drove of horses, pursuing those they wish to catch, with a noosed pole that looks like a fishing rod. On some lovely stretch of road you come upon an encampment of ox carts, the oxen grazing and the drivers mending the wooden wheels, or meet a long train of tea-laden silent camels.

When the time for a meal approaches and a tent heaves in sight, you leave the road and make for it. However tired the horses may be, they will freshen up at this. They know what is coming and hurry on to rest.”

The previous post is here.

Mongolia Monday- “Among the Mongols” Book Review

I have built up a decent collection of books about Mongolia from a number of sources and now have most of what is readily available, some of which have been reviewed in past posts here, here and here. This one was a major find, however. It fits into what is really a sub-genre of travel literature: books written by western missionaries who have gone to “exotic” faraway places to seek converts to Christianity, something I will say up front that I have no sympathy with whatsoever.

“Among the Mongols” (The Religious Tract Society, 1888) is, however, a delight from beginning to end. The Rev. James Gilmour may have originally gone to Mongolia to save souls, but seems instead to have had a romping good time spending 21 years traveling from ger to ger across the countryside learning as much as he could about the Mongols and their culture, including the language, providing free medical treatment and talking about the Bible when opportunity permitted. About halfway through the book he allows as how he never gained a single convert and then writes two entire chapters explaining why converting the Mongols is almost impossible and maybe even not such a good idea. The second chapter is called “The Mongols’ Difficulties About Christianity”. And then it’s back to important business- how the Mongols celebrate Tsagaan Sar, their New Year. Here’s a quote from that chapter on how Mongols eat that demonstrates his good-humored enthusiasm and eye for the telling detail:

As soon as the banch (small meat turnovers) was finished, every man pulled out his knife and set to work on the meat (a large platter of mutton). It is a little alarming to see a Mongol eat. He takes a piece of meat in his left hand, seizes it with his teeth, then cuts it off close to his lips. The knife flashes past so quickly and so close to the face, that a spectator, seeing it for the first time, has his doubts about the safety of the operator’s nose. Practice makes them expert, and their hand is sure, and I have never heard of any one, even when drunk, meeting with an accident in this way. The configuration, too, of the Mongol face makes this method of eating much safer for them than for us. A Mongol’s nose is not that prominent, sometimes hardly projecting beyond the level of the cheeks, and the foreigner’s nose lays him under a considerable disadvantage in dining after the Mongol fashion. “

Needless to say, Highly Recommended! More excerpts to come.

You can purchase your own copy here and here. Don’t pay over $30 for a decent copy. There is the London edition, which is the one pictured above, a US edition (cited by Michael Kohn in Dateline:Mongolia as recommended reading) and a new paperback reprint.