During my first morning in Mongolia, I stood in front of the landmark, Sukhbaatar Square, waiting for the bus 20. With several numbers posted on each bus, I had a little confusion with catching it to CouchSurf with a Mongolian family. I showed someone the bus stop name in the Cyrillic alphabet and she guided me to hop on the correct bus after a failed attempt. After twenty minutes of bumpy riding, I exited the bus and witnessed a complete change in scenery from the Soviet-esque Ulaanbaatar. I had entered the “ger district”, where 70% of the capital’s population live. Every Mongolian is entitled to a certain amount of land at no cost (one of the perks of having the lowest population density in the world) to place their gers, build a simple wooden house, and keep their cows.
I followed the careful directions, complete with photos, and entered what appeared to be a yard. Since I had climbed a hill to get there, I took a moment to enjoy the scenery of distant hills with colorful rooftops sprinkled within. My peripheral vision saw the wide field with grazing cows to the right and the city center to the left. It really hit me then: I’m in Mongolia.
“Hello,” a tiny voice broke my daydream. I looked in the corner to find a little girl.
“Hi, what’s your name?”
“My name is Gaadmaa. That is my ger. Come on,” I was surprised by her English skills and openness with strangers, but she did spend five out of her seven years of life with hundreds of people from around the world visiting via CouchSurfing.
We walked to the ger where I was greeted by Begz and his wife, Sayumbo. They wore gigantic smiles and warmly welcomed me to their abode, treating me as if I was the first visitor even though in reality, they’ve been welcoming strangers since 2008.
I first washed my hands from a pouring bucket outside (there isn’t running water in the ger district) and took my shoes off when I entered the home. From the outside, the ger looks like every other ger: white and round. Inside, however, was lovely. Carpets, flags from several nations, a big TV screen hooked up to the computer, a coal stove in the center, some dresser, and health products and posters scattered about. I was pleased to see an unsolved Rubik’s cube because I brought one to teach the kids. I contributed to the collection with a South Korean flag and a few other souvenirs from the country. Two of the girls, who I later learned were Manujin (11) and Manglun (6), were sleeping in the corner and the 13 year old boy politely introduced himself as Todo.
Sayumbo was quick to give me some green tea, homemade wheat bread, and a creamy cheese spread made from their own cows’ milk. She also served buckwheat and milk. Even though I was full from a vegan lunch at The Loving Hut, I still politely ate all of the delicious food. I noticed everyone licked their bowls when empty; I was a little bashful and didn’t start the habit until the following day. I later learned that they lick the bowls to compliment the chef, save on cleaning, avoid wasting food, and exercise the tongue.
I didn’t just want to be a guest in their home, I wanted to be a participant just like the rest of them.
One of the chores I helped out with was picking up dried cow dung. During my time walking in Mongolian steppes, I noticed one thing: shit everywhere. With seven cows, there’s going to be a lot of poop in the yard. Mongolians don’t waste it; they use it as fuel to cook and heat the house. The two youngest girls bent down for hours, turning over dried poop covered in grass. When it’s completely dry, they can collect it and put it in a pile to be ready for burning. At first, I was appalled by the prospects of getting poo under my fingernails, but I pushed my first world problems aside and manned up. These little children were doing it, so can I! It’s all a part of this authentic experience, right? I quickly adjusted to the task and it wasn’t terrible. Since cows only eat grass, it wasn’t stinky either. When we were finished, I washed my hands and played with the girls. I carried Manglun around (she always begged me to hold her) and she ran her fingers through my hair. It was then that I realized that she didn’t wash her hands. Yes, poop in my hair. When I told her she put poop in my hair, she looked at her hands and belted that contagious giggle of hers. There is no possible way I could ever get remotely angry with her. I just laughed along and spun her around.
Another chore involved helping the two girls fetch the baby cows. They bring the four calves up to a hill in the morning to fill up on grass all day and bring them back to the ger in the evening to be milked. The walk is along some dirt roads through neighborhoods, past mean dogs, and up a few hills. Gaadmaa held my hand, which made my heart melt. The hill boasted a gorgeous view, but unfortunately, we couldn’t find the calves. For over an hour, I helped the girls by shouting what sounded like “umbau” or “come here”. “Where is the baby cow?” Gaadmaa would always ask, as if I knew. I remember thinking adults always had the answers. After playing for a while on the hill and searching up and down, we eventually found the four cows on the street corner. Overjoyed, the girls raced to the cows, shouted at them, whipped them with their jump ropes, and got them to briskly walk back home. Out of the four calves, three were female. Begz will raise the females and use them for milk while the male will probably be used for food during the brutal winter. He said Mongolians tend to survive on meat during the long winters and eat dairy during the summers to cleanse their digestive system from all of the meat.
When the cows weren’t farting, they stopped for a few bites of grass. Manglun, a sweet, tiny child, would come out of her shell by shrieking at the calves and whipping them. Maybe it seemed more intimidating because I didn’t understand the language. I soon learned that while Mongolian people are incredibly warm and friendly, they are also tough and fierce, especially the women. I like that.
After that task, I played with the kids by teaching them some gymnastics, playing hopscotch, card games, doing their hair, and just running around and chasing them with tickles. The air became chilly when the sun went down, so we warmed up in the cozy, well-insulated ger. Begz and I talked about CouchSurfing and Mongolian culture. He introduced me to five guestbooks where every CouchSurfer wrote about their experiences in Mongolia and gave tips for any kind of travel. It was an incredible collection of bursting worldly knowledge and nothing but kind words about the family. I read almost every entry and later wrote my own, mine being the 187th.
Todo later broke out his guitar, one of the three instruments he can play; he’s very talented. He also played a traditional Mongolian instrument, the horse-headed fiddle. His passion and talent for music is apparent. I loved watching him get lost in the music. His response to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” was “I want to travel the world. I will go to Russia by bicycle”. Immediate high fives.
When 10:00 rolled by, the kids set up the beds. The family of six slept together on the right side of the ger while I slept on a mat on the left. I slept well and I had some interesting dreams.
At 6:00am, I woke up to a loop of the same three inspirational songs and Begz capturing flies in the ger with a water bottle and some kind of liquid solution. I fixed my bed while the kids went to work on their chores. This is the same exact way I woke up each day.
Begz runs a morning health club every single day of the week. His club is a part of the company, Herbalife, an organization promoting health through nutrition and community. Of course I wanted to support his passion and I enjoy living a healthy lifestyle, so I joined the club every morning. About five people joined his home. Sayumbo’s grandmother, 77, always looked at me with a smile, touched my hands, and said something in Mongolian. She was a kind being. After recording our weight and body composition (fat, water, bone mass), we sat around the table to ingest our liquid breakfast: aloe water, tea, and a protein shake, all products of Herbalife. Begz provides a lesson with each meeting. The first topic was protein, the second was love. Because Begz was kind enough to translate, I thoroughly enjoyed the positive lessons and was glad to contribute my knowledge about nutrition. The last portion of the health club was exercise. Begz led some stretching and breathing exercises. We all got to contribute by leading our exercise of choice. I ended up teaching them some taekwondo forms and punches, which they got a “kick” out of. The best part of the session was when everyone hugged.
Sayumbo and Manujin were responsible for all of the cooking. The stove cooks rather slowly because it uses slow-burning cow dung as the heat source. With an abundant supply of milk, dairy products such as yogurt and cheeses were always brewing. Manujin patiently sat next to the stove, poking at the cow dung to allocate the heat, and mixing the milk for what seemed like hours. I was happy to help in any way, including chopping carrots and cabbage for salad and rolling wheat dough to make a sort of fried pita bread. All of the ingredients were wholesome and meals delicious. I don’t use dairy products in my normal diet, but I still ate every bite that was served to me. Enjoying the local food is an essential thing to do while traveling.
Building a Bunk Bed
On the second day, Begz came home from a Herbalife conference and was inspired to have his children be more independent. He decided to move the children’s sleeping quarters into the second, smaller ger that he owns. At the time, there was nothing but a dirt ground inside the ger. Since they shouldn’t sleep on the dirt, he decided to build beds for all of the children. Using some wood scraps and old doors, I helped him build bunk beds. He was so handy and smart while I barely knew what I was doing, but I learned through the experience. We worked until the sun went down. When Manglun and Gaadmaa saw the final product, their faces lit up and they immediately claimed the top bunk. I was a little nervous that the doors weren’t strong enough, especially since one had a gigantic hole, but some wooden planks were placed on top. They lined the beds with wool and placed sleeping bags and blankets on top. It was amazing to see how something as simple as a few doors to make beds made them the happiest children of the hour. They were so appreciative and grateful; it was a refreshing reminder. The kids got to work on personalizing the ger. Gaadmaa placed a baby picture of her mother next to her pillow along with some jewelry in a little purse. Todo brought in all of his instruments and Manglun brought the Rubik’s cube, which was permanently attached to her hands. The end product was impressive. I’m glad to be able to take part in this big step of their lives: moving out of the family ger!
As you probably have noticed, everybody in the family is not exempt from contributing. Each individual has assigned roles and they fulfill them, no questions asked. This is how a family should be. The reason why people had children is not only to pass their genes, but to help with the household. In America, the case has become different. While I’m sure having children is giving the gift of life and I myself would find being a mother joyful, the role of children have changed. Having children is not essential anymore. Instead of alleviating household work, they create even more work as their main duties are to study, go to soccer practice, have play dates, and play with their piles of toys. I’m not arguing that any family system is better than the other, they are just different and it has opened my eyes up to real simple, basic living. The kids are mature, responsible, and obedient, but they are still children at heart and it shows with their giggles, curiosity and imagination. They don’t have much, but they have each other and they seem to be perfectly content with life. No matter where you travel in the world, kids will always be kids.
Staying with this family is the best introduction to Mongolia someone could ask for. As a CouchSurfer wrote in the guestbook, they are exemplify what it means to be human. Their love for each other, life, and the earth is obvious. They live within their means, don’t waste a single resource, and never make any complaints. I have been reminded once again to appreciate the simple things in life and not get carried about with the small worries that don’t matter in the end.
They carry out what CouchSurfing is all about: cultural exchange, trust, and living like a local. While I learned about Mongolian culture, I taught them about Korean culture and language and some about America. I taught the kids some games and gave them some healthy snacks and they did the same for me. I passed some boundaries by picking up cow poop and using a toilet which consisted of a hole in the ground in an outhouse. I learned so much more than if I would have stayed in a hotel alone and went to some museums.
Begz and Sayumbo are doing a wonderful deed for their children by hosting CouchSurfers. Each person that enters their ger has some new skill, knowledge, story, or inspiration to share. While it isn’t possible for them to travel at the moment, hosting CouchSurfers simulates traveling by bringing the world to them. I miss them all a lot and hope we can cross paths some day, maybe host Todo while he’s traveling the world or see Manujin on TV as a famous dancer.