“As we traveled from ger to ger for help, I knew we were doomed, doomed to drink more goat’s milk…”
Mongolia is a quest. The kind of trip you take before you make roots and bear children and become too set in your stubborn ways to travel unhinged. That is, beyond the reach of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia is as unhinging as it is wild. And to travel into its wild (in our case, from ger to ger), you either need to throw done a shit ton of money, or surrender yourself to the inevitable. The no showers. No electricity. And no Wi-fi kind of inevitable. And the harsh embrace of quiet. So much quiet, it’s initially unsettling.
To fulfill our quest for unhingement, we opted for two blocks of time: one week with tour company Selena Travel to journey to the reindeer tribe near Siberia. After a short respite in the capitol, the other chunk in the Gobi desert with a non-profit called Ger to Ger. Week one is for another blog entry. One full of bumpy rides in a beat-up Russian van. Terrifying hours atop restless Mongolian stallions. Frozen nights under the Milky Way. Laughter and beef ribs and one very incessant reindeer.
But that’s for another day. I’m here to prey on Ger to Ger… let’s just say there’s a reason Ger to Ger isn’t listed on TripAdvisor and that the founder feels the need to severely defend his company all over his website. Hint: it’s because you suck, dude.
What is Ger to Ger?
The concept seems admirable: a non-profit working closely with nomadic families. They send tourists—like us— on a journey from one ger (traditional Mongolian housing, known as a yurt to most outsiders) to the next. At each ger, we interact with the family, engage in some activities, eat, sleep, and eventually move along. With the exception to transport and the promise of food and bed, nothing else is provided. So no translator. No strict itinerary. The money you pay, a reasonable amount, is used to compensate the families.
We opted for a trip with the grand title “Trek Gobi Desert’s Noble Rock Range,” a four-day excursion through the Gobi Desert. To save you time, it supposedly caters to budget travelers longing for trekking, camels, and exploring Ih Gazriin Chuluu, an amazing national where T-rexs once roamed in herds. Each night, we would stay at a different ger, interacting with the family through games, songs, and traditional cuisine. How quaint.
The idea of no-strings-attached tourism thrilled us. The chance to float around— nomadically— from ger to ger seemed romantic even. We imagined candlelit evenings surrounded by a local family, laughing about our awkward language exchange. Perhaps drinking a bit too much vodka and sharing a convivial atmosphere. To be fair, Leg 1 with Selena Travel was the culprit for all these preconceived notions. Because that’s what we experienced. Sure, we wouldn’t have a translator in the Gobi. And sure, the landscape would be a desert, rather than a tundra. But the Mongolian mechanics would be the same, wouldn’t they? WOULDN’T THEY?!
“The idea of no-strings-attached tourism thrilled us. The chance to float around— nomadically— from ger to ger seemed romantic even…”
The train wreck started with the orientation back in Ulaanbaataar. Ger to Ger participants have to suffer through a “2-hour” orientation. It ended up being ridiculously longer (no bathroom breaks, no customary offer of tea/ coffee), which wouldn’t have been a problem if it was useful. The orientation seemed to mostly revolve around the founder bragging about the company, and giving us condensed, confusing, and condescending lessons on history, psychology, and culture shock. There was some useful information about emergency situations, but it was delivered quick. (God help us if the local camel decides to jolt with us atop). The last part of the orientation was language practice guided by non-teachers, while the founder twiddled away on Facebook at his desk. We basically listened and repeated using our very-photocopied handbook, the words impossible to phonetically pronounce.
Transversing through the Gobi
If it wasn’t for the beautiful landscape and the chance to babysit, I mean, play with small children, and if I weren’t in the desert many hundreds of kilometers away, I would’ve waltzed right back into Ulaanbaatar and slapped Mr. Ger to Ger across the face. For shame, non-profit. For shame.
Overall, the basics of the program were met. We were received by the first nomadic family after a relatively drama-free bus and van ride. And as is tradition, we were served hot goat’s milk and stinky cheese by a mother and young daughter. The end.
Ok, not exactly but pretty close. The next three days consisted of a similar routine, plus a few bonus soundtracks. In this case, food and drink were followed by the mother pushing her daughter to teach us a traditional Mongolian game. Now I might not be able to speak Mongolian, but I can read stubborn ass child. One that has taught stupid foreigners this game a thousand times and would rather die than play it again. But mom pushed so the daughter consented… making sure to cheat and dupe the foreigners along the way. Meanwhile, mom disappears to go about her duties, dropping off food occasionally. We then are pushed on to our next ger.
Fast forward three days and you pretty much have it: Showing the foreigners to their sleeping quarters (usually a private ger). Making sure the foreigners are fed. Dropping the kids off at foreigner daycare. Never interacting with them otherwise. No other game nor activities as outlined in the itinerary (do we insert ourselves as helpers or would that be cultural inappropriate?) The foreigners having no idea who anyone is because the handbook is about 10 years outdated and most of the families in them have drastically changed (the 3 year-old in the book is now in college, Mr. Ger to Ger).
Let’s be positive. The families themselves seemed lovely. The children were adorable and loved having playmates. The landscape of the Gobi and Ih Gazriin Chuluu was incredible. Think never-ending sunsets. Archeological wonders where dinosaurs used to roam. We were never hungry nor thirsty. Always slept well. Immersed ourselves in a very unique cultural experience. And to be fair, we even weaseled our way into observing some daily chores, including the milking of goats. As usual, we managed to have a good time despite the ramifications of our choices.
The verdict via infographic
You get what you pay for and we were happy to have had the (expensive) experience with Selena Travel beforehand. With Selena, we didn’t feel like intruders. We could ask questions, share stories with the locals, and actually learn about Mongolia. But with Ger to Ger, we were just another group of foreigners, seemingly ignorant and confused as to why we were there. Money perhaps…
If this particular area of the Gobi entices you, strategize better. Hire your own transport from the town of Mandalgovi or conjure the dozens of superior companies catering to tourists. Otherwise, take your chances with Ger to Ger. Reviews on the company are purposely scant but here’s a positive one by Otts World (seems like he had the less jaded version of mine!).