Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia: Couchsurfing A Ger

Eventually, we were freed from the claws of Ulaanbaatar's traffic snarl-up. For the first time in four days of being in the country, we left the city center to bask in Mongolia's famed greenness. Aboard our Couchsurfing host Minjin's car, we were cruising the outskirts of the capital in search of another Couchsurfer's residence.

That Couchsurfer named Begzsuren lives in a traditional Mongolian house with his family of six. It was to be our accommodation for a couple of nights.

After a few unexpected detours, dodging omnipresent road constructions, Minjin found our nondescript turnoff. Begz was waiting for us further along the unpaved, narrow uphill alley. The two have previously met, but Minjin has not been to Begz's ger. She politely turned down the invite for tea because of some post-grad class in the afternoon.

We hugged her farewell and followed Begz's trail that led us deeper into the ger district.
 Quite spacious, ain't it?

The air smelt of freshly cut grass and sheep dung. The view of the cramped neighborhood, though far from breathtaking, was a refreshing sight compared to Ulaanbaatar's concrete jungle. We passed a few private backyards before we got to Begz's ger, thankfully without being chased by unleashed dogs. And prior to stepping in, we were asked to wash our hands at the makeshift sink just outside the door — a routine we followed during our two-day stay.

Luna hit it off with the girls right away.
A ger (also called a yurt) is a portable house traditional in Central Asia, with a collapsible frame made of timber and walls made of sheep's wool felt. Its floor can sometimes be made of wooden planks covered with linoleum, sometimes as simple as bare earth. From the outside it seemed like four adults and five children can't fit comfortably in it. But we learned upon entering that it can actually accommodate double that number. Though there will be little space left to walk on.
Our "room" divider's attached onto the ger's ceiling frame.
I don't know about other urban gers, but Begz's is sparsely furnished (they do have a colossal computer monitor though). Following the standard layout, the door faces south for it catches the most daylight. Directly below the toon, a cartwheel shaped opening in the center of the ceiling (which is covered at night with an örkh), is the stove where we found Begz's wife steaming a large pot of milk.

"Sain bain uu!", I greeted everyone, while the hubby sounded like he merely grunted. He never pronounced the words right.
Homemade bread dipped in öröm (clotted cream). Prelude to our dinner's main dish, aarts-tai shar budaa, boiled yoghurt with yellow rice.
The couple's three daughters ran to Luna's side and ushered her in. Begz introduced them one by one. They shook our hands and accompanied the gesture with a well delivered, "Hello, nice to meet you!". Not long after, the only son arrived. Although he worked the entire day tending the family's livestock, he managed to give us his biggest smile and firmest handshake. The exhibit of kind manners was overwhelming, I couldn't wipe the ear-to-ear grin off my face.

Morning, day two.
If I remember correctly, the family has hosted more than a hundred Couchsurfers. For Begz, hosting is a great learning platform for his family. An opportunity for cultural exchange. They may not be able to travel to the world, but a lot of countries — in the human form of surfers — knock on their door and visit their home.
Folks, meet the pit toilet. Not for the weak stomach.
They give guests VIP treatment (and mind you they live a very basic life). Not only were we provided with sleeping space, we were also served home cooked meals (even if we brought our own) which we absolutely loved. The kids taught us how to play shagai, a game that uses ankle bones of a sheep or goat. We can't remember the rules though, or maybe we never really understood them in the first place.

On our second evening in their home, the son played the morin khuur (Mongolian bowed string instrument) for us and the girls performed a traditional dance called biyelgee... And the uhm, non-traditional Jai Ho (song/video conveniently downloaded cause yes, they got WiFi at home).

Morin khuur, a Mongolian bowed string instrument. One of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity identified by UNESCO.
Also, during our stay, we met the extended family. Grandma, aunt, nephew, niece who all live nearby and came every so often for a chat. Everyone imparted lessons about their customs and traditions. We felt blessed by the universe being in their midst.

Epitome of Mongolian hospitality.

Amazing how a brief couchsurf can deeply change your perspective on different aspects of life. Am glad that for those two days we chose to experience other people's lives, rather than look them through glass.


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flipntravels said...
August 4, 2013 at 12:16 PM

ay grabe ang mga backlog natin no? hahahaha

clotted cream sounds like a proper entree (or hematologic condition LOL)

Sky Summer said...
August 4, 2013 at 12:19 PM

Their house looks deceiving from outside, kala mo bahay ng mga ibon. Grabe pala sa laki sa loob. I'm still confuse if it's Ulan Bator or Ulaanbaatar? enlighten me what locals prefer to call their capital? said...
August 4, 2013 at 12:21 PM

The pronunciation's the same, so the spelling in English characters doesn't really matter. They have their own writing kasi, so yung translation iba-iba :) I prefer Ulaanbaatar kasi andaming 'a'. Haha! #walalang said...
August 4, 2013 at 12:22 PM

Suuuuperrr dami backlog.

Katakot nga yung term na 'clotted'. LOL.

flipntravels said...
August 4, 2013 at 3:53 PM

korek, parang may atherosclerotic stenosis na leading to ischemic myocardial infaction!

catherine iblan said...
August 4, 2013 at 3:55 PM

That is one awesome couchsurfing experience! Talk about cultural exchange. I should try surfing more families instead of staying with single people hehehe said...
August 4, 2013 at 3:58 PM

Haha! Yeah family hosts are awesome. Quite overwhelming, but awesome.

catherine iblan said...
August 4, 2013 at 4:03 PM

Puro parties at drinking session tuloy ang napupuntahan ko dahil sa aking mga hosts!

Mica Ivealis said...
August 4, 2013 at 5:45 PM

Wow what an incredible experience. Much better than the bad couchsurfing experience I had in Hawaii. How fantastic that you can overlook personal space for a personal experience with a local family. This was a wonderful story to read.

Aleah | said...
August 4, 2013 at 5:47 PM

I wish that by the time I make it to Mongolia, they'd still be hosting. I would love to experience staying in a ger! The closest native house I'd surfed in was in Yogyakarta, in a Javanese house. *inggit* said...
August 4, 2013 at 5:51 PM

Hahahaha! Ako naman namimiss ko na drinking sessions with hosts!

The Chronicles of Mariane said...
August 4, 2013 at 11:14 PM

Sana they are still hosting by the time I visit Mongolia. I really prefer staying with families, I feel like I am one of their own. :) Inggit ako! I'd love to stay in a yurt too, a superb way to experience Mongolian culture.

Begzsuren Jamsranjav HarUhert said...
August 5, 2013 at 11:10 AM

Dear Shervin family,

Warm Greetings from our Mongolian family.
I'm happy to read and know your lucky days with my family.

You can find some ankle bone games description and rules from What I can teach area of my CS couch profile.

Best wishes,
See you again.

Mustachio said...
August 5, 2013 at 11:30 AM

An experience for the books. I wish I could experience this too. And thanks for posting the pit...I was wondering where the toilet was hehehe :D

Michelle Lopez said...
August 5, 2013 at 1:24 PM

finally!!! i have been waiting for this post! and i couldn't help but smile while reading the article :) such a lovely family (yes, yours included)

docgelo said...
August 5, 2013 at 3:07 PM

isa na naman itong "don't judge the book by its cover (if you're not a judge)"-story! hehe! their shelter outside is utterly modest but so warm and rich inside! their wealth goes beyond that colossal computer monitor but their warmest hospitality in sharing a bit of their music, culture and their family as a whole. inspiring!

as you may know, here in malaysia, local people offer homestay in their kampung or villages, which, correct me if i'm wrong, may be comparable with couchsurfing where one can immerse in the local lifestyle directly; although in a few areas, homestay rates are steeper than tunes hotel's. :(

okay ako sa clotted something edible. ayos din ang toilet nila, pero siguro i'll hum, "sa bukid, walang papel, uy!" :)

the last photo made me wish i captured it for your families. said...
August 5, 2013 at 8:22 PM

I'd give up personal space any day, for such experience :) Now lemme search for that bad Couchsurfing experience of yours in Hawaii. Haha! said...
August 5, 2013 at 8:23 PM

I'm pretty sure they'd still be hosting. They really enjoy it! said...
August 5, 2013 at 8:23 PM

Yes, in a way, it feels like coming home even if you're in an unknown environment! said...
August 5, 2013 at 8:24 PM

Haha! Will definitely read about it, Begz, I brought a few ankle bones home. Thanks again! Kisses to the whole family. said...
August 5, 2013 at 8:25 PM

Hahaha! Not a fan of this pit toilet for it's shallower than most... If yah know what I mean. said...
August 5, 2013 at 8:25 PM

Awww.... <3 said...
August 5, 2013 at 8:26 PM

It definitely is comparable. I haven't stayed in a kampung and will try in the future!

Dami kong tawa sa "sa bukid, walang papel, uy!", doc! LOL.

soloflightEd said...
August 6, 2013 at 3:08 AM

wow! laki pala ng space sa loob! What a great experience to stay with them Gay.
the smaller the house, the closer the family -- I think. lol. hehehe

Micamyx|Senyorita said...
August 6, 2013 at 10:50 PM

One of a kind couchsurfing experience! :D Wah, hindi ko naimagine ganyan yan kalaki sa loob hehe :D

michymichymoo said...
August 9, 2013 at 9:54 PM

What a lovely experience. :) Couchsurfing is more of a cultural exchange rather than just having free accommodations. Wish I could experience that. :)

Jenn Sy said...
August 12, 2013 at 11:55 AM

What an interesting and enriching experience. I too enjoy mingling with locals but the most I've done (and extremely enjoyed) was stayed in family runned guesthouses where (yes) rates can be steep sometimes.

Maria Angela Ocampo Nacpil said...
August 12, 2013 at 6:04 PM

You found a very lovely family! Would love to meet them too in the future! :) said...
August 12, 2013 at 11:00 PM

Yez, kagulat talaga pagpasok! said...
August 13, 2013 at 8:28 PM

Hope you do! said...
August 14, 2013 at 7:16 PM

very heartwarming post. bongga sa laki ng space ha? deceiving sa labas :) said...
August 14, 2013 at 7:55 PM

Verrry deceiving.

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