Part Six: Gers, Airag and Vodka
Ger: A cylindrical, domed shelter made from a wood frame with a felt exterior. This is the most common form of housing in Mongolia. Surprisingly comfortable, gers double as store, schools and nightclubs/bars.
Airag: A common and popular Mongolian alcoholic beverage made from fermented mares milk. Sold in recycled pop bottles, airag can be found most anywhere and it is common for your driver to purchase quantities from the side of the road.
Vodka: Courtesy of the Russians, Mongolians, especially older generations have a taste bud for this nasty creation. They prefer it served warm and follow a tradition of flicking drops with ring fingers before consumption. It is an odd tradition, given that it really isn’t much of a ‘Mongolian tradition’ as Vodka was introduced by the Russians. Either way, you have to drink.
When one conjures up images of Mongolia, it is likely that these images will most likely be the Gobi desert, horses, yaks and gers. One could also throw Chinggis Khan in there as well. In fact, there is a giant mural of him on a hill facing inwards to UB.
Gers are everywhere, as are yaks and horses, although the Gobi is currently confined to the southern regions, but it does have ambitious plans to expand and take over the world. Staying in a ger is one of the highlights of Mongolia and should be done at least once. However, there can be somewhat of a price to pay.
If you are spending the night, the price is usually money, about 2USD/person. However, if just visiting, which our driver liked to do, the price is usually paid by your belly. Mongolians are incredibly hospitable, and upon arriving at a set of gers, one is immediately invited inside, where they are offered large quantities of airag or salted tea, yak cheese and hard yak cheese. At the risk of sounding like a pretentious westerner, I am going to have to state that Mongolian food is perhaps some of the worst fare I’ve ever encountered. Airag isn’t as bad as you would think it is. I was expecting something quite ‘creamy’, yet it is quite watery and fizzy, given the fermentation. It is drinkable, although in small quantities. Prior to visiting our first ger, my party purchased a bottle and spent about an hour passing it around the van in conjunction with performing acrobatics in synchronization with the sway of the van to avoid any spillage. Therefore, upon entrance to our first ger, we were somewhat prepared for the airag. Yak cheese was a little different matter.
I would consider yak cheese to be cheese in name and butter in reality. It is created by boiling a mixture of yak product over the stove. The result is an incredibly rich and fatty butter with a thin crust on the surface. It is eaten using the fingers and while Mongolians appear to pack it away, we could only stomach small quantities of the substance. I didn’t mind it in small quantities. The hard cheese was a bit difficult to stomach. I can’t recall the name, but this item was created by taking the cheese and drying it in the sun, thus creating a very firm square. This, like the airag and cheese, was served in large quantities. Everyone in my party was well traveled, educated, open minded and culturally sensitive, yet this was one product that none of us could eat in any quantity. We would politely nibble on it, upon which it would disappear discreetly into a pocket, to be disposed of several kilometers away. If there are men present (which there always are) vodka drinking is mandatory, coming at you in large shot glasses. Vodka, combined with items that our stomachs are barely coping with is, as you might imagine, a recipe for hard times. Upon leaving we would give gifts such as crayons, pens to the children and matches/lighters to the adults. Sometimes we would give small denominations of money to the children.
After a few nights in tents, our group arrived at a hot spring, where it was decided that we would spend the night in one of the local gers. Being the cheap jerks that we are, we opted against the numerous ‘tourist camp’ gers that are seemingly everywhere in Mongolia. These camps offer showers, electricity, saunas, massage…well you get the idea…all at a measly 60USD. Our driver found some gers outside of the tourist zone, one of which happened to be a kindergarten. We were also approached by a local horse owner, who wished to rent us some of his horses for tomorrow. This is where we encountered our first conflict.
Language difficulties often create conflict, and in this case, it was just that. Running through negotiations with the horse owner via our driver, a pen and a piece of paper, we were under the impression that horse rental was 1000T/hour (about 1USD). Given that this was the standard price, we agreed for 8 horses at about 3 hours of horse time the next day. No problems. The next day we received our horses and our guides and proceeded out into the countryside. We were out for about 6 hours, but no problem, the price was fine. We visited a number of gers and families during the day. We encountered one young boy of about 11 years old who would provide me with the first indication of the negative aspects of tourism in this country. This kid was from one of the gers in the outlying regions around the tourist supported hot spring region. His family obviously wasn’t getting as large a chunk of the tourist pie as those families adjacent to the hot spring, but it is obvious they received tourist/traveler visitors often, given that they were on the horse trek route. Unlike some previous gers we had visited days before which were off the tourist track and clearly suffering. A very friendly boy, he asked to borrow my binoculars (my binos proved to be an extremely hot item among Mongolians) where after he immediately signaled that he wanted me to give them too him. At first I assumed that it was just a far-fetched attempt at obtaining something from a foreigner, but remained persistent, following me on his horse for about and hour after we left his ger, indicating that he really did want me, or expected me to give him my binoculars. I didn’t pay much for this pair of binos, having purchased them in China for about 150RMB (20USD), and had I given them away, it wouldn’t have been a huge loss, but this was an item that I needed while I was in Mongolia. Furthermore, they were of astonishing quality, given the price tag. I was hounded for awhile, and it wasn’t until I had given him some money (which I was going to do anyway) that he stopped his advances. It was obvious that some foreigner had given this child something of significant value in the past, and now he expected that this was to be standard practice. Upon leaving me, he approached a girl in my group, demanding that she give him her watch. Having an interest in tourism, I’ve noticed that tourism as an entity is one of debates, full of catch 22’s and ethical dilemmas, one being what is acceptable behavior on part of a traveler and what isn’t.
Mongolia is poor, very poor…especially the countryside and even small additions of currency and items via the tourism industry can make a significant impact in the lives of the local population. The debate and dilemma arises over what is suitable and what isn’t. In the case of this youngster, he had obviously encountered travelers willing to give items of large value in exchange for just being there. Had the boy desisted upon my refusal to give him my binos, I would have thought hardly anything of the incident, yet his persistence on the matter began to create a negative view of the region on part of myself and my travel partners. Writing about this now, the problems seems minute and insignificant, but while as a traveler, it is very important, for your actions and manners are watched closely and examined under a microscope by the local population, who form opinions and ideas of future travelers/tourists based upon your actions. Maybe future travelers can afford to provide gifts of large value to all local people they encounter on a 15 day expedition, or maybe they are budget travelers like my group, who are willing to provide gifts and contribute to the local economy of all destinations visit, although in small amounts. Unfortunately, the bar is set by the highest bid, with followers expected to meet or exceed that level. I feel that this attitude, over time will begin to discourage budget travelers from visiting some regions, given expectations of local populations with regards to tourists. Obviously, budget traveling, relative to high end tourism does not create nearly as much revenue, but budget traveling injects their revenue to people who need it most. An example being the tourist ger camps around the hot spring. Unfortunately, I’m not aware of the ownership, but I would surmise that such operations require significant capital, most of which is unavailable to local dwellers, thus leaving that high end industry to involve companies in UB or even foreign countries. While at this hot spring, my group was staying in gers on the outlying areas, people who were not benefiting as much from high end tourism and would probably see little profit generated by the ger renting if it were not for low end tourism. Being harassed and given a guilt trip by not contributing as much material goods or money discourages tourism, especially budget minded travelers like myself.
Retreating back to the horses highlights another aspect of tourism in Mongolia where the budget traveler is being marginalized verses travelers with a higher budget. Initially, this event with the horses appears as merely a language problem, but personally, I think it was one of entitlement, given their past experiences with tourists. After returning to the ger, we drank some vodka and airag and ate the standard cheese products before moving to another ger to settle the payment. 1000T/hour for three hours was the original agreement. Given that we were on horses for 5 hours, the total cost per person was 6000T, for a total of 48,000T (about 50USD). Unfortunately, we had misunderstood our driver that previous evening when he was negotiating the deal. Apparently, it was 3000T/hr. Therefore, we were presented with a bill of 24,000T/person. Paying for eight people, we now had to pay 144,000T about 150USD. This is an absolute outrageous price, given that renting a horse all day costs about 5000T everywhere in Mongolia. A member of our group had previously spent time in Mongolia and knew the scene. Naturally, we were obviously upset about this price, and we struggled to figure out why it was so ridiculously high. The language was difficult and our driver (in which was a very poor performance on his part, as he was our driver) lost his cool and began yelling and throwing things as we indicated that we refused to pay this price given that we didn’t understand the first agreement. He had been drinking all day, so I’ll give some slack, but we need an ally, and he didn’t side with us.
It became an incredibly hairy situation, with a member or two of our group refusing to pay the price, some yelling and the Mongolians refusing to accept our money. Basically, in a situation like this, you, as visitors and essentially screwed. If you refuse to pay, you are essentially confirming all of the negative stereotypes regarding foreigners and contributing towards the creation of a hostile atmosphere for future travelers. Our own cultural sensitivities worked against us. In agreeing to pay, we would add to the closure of this area to other budget minded travelers and further encourage outrageous prices. Average monthly income of Mongolians is approximately 30USD to provide a bench mark. Seeing that there was little way out of this, I handed my portion of the money over and went outside, allowing everyone else to argue it out for another 20 minutes. While I was waiting outside, a group of wealthy looking French tourists walked into ger we had previously been drinking vodka in and give gifts and money to the inhabitants. The family just grabbed the gifts as if it was an every day occurrence.
At that point I knew we had been had….and not just slightly cheated, but ripped for everything. I’m fairly certain that this particular family knew our weakness would be cultural interrelations, and they played us on that and won. Because of this we became incredibly skeptical and cynical regarding any future prices we would be expected to pay.
We paid the money as well as a bottle of vodka, and myself and several others went down to the tourist camp for a shower, while Richard (an English fellow in our group) stayed behind to smooth over relations. After showering, we walked back to our tents only to meet an absolutely plastered Richard riding on a horse with the same people we had just had an argument with (all equally drunk). Our ambassador had smoothed over relations.
We all got ridiculously sick over the next two days which we attributed to whatever we drank/ate in that fateful ger by the hot spring. Regrettably, Richard received the worst of it, nursing 4 bottles of vodka in addition to the stomach flu we all had.
5 days into the trek, we all decided that we had had enough of ger culture, with the exception of one night where we all decided that a bed was required for flu recovery. We chose a family on the edge of a national park we visited. Their hospitality, kindness and incredible honesty helped to renew…and the fact that we avoided the men/vodka by escaping into the hills during the evening.