That was my introduction to solo ger life. That incident provided fodder for plenty of teasing. Soon the days evolved into something of a rhythm. Although I smoked myself out three more times (to the great hilarity of the family), I found a way to become useful. First thing in the morning I would walk the mile along the low hills which paralleled the river and shoo the yaks, cows and yak/cow hybrids towards the house for milking.
Then I had my choice of chores: I could get a bucket and hand-wash the kitchen floor, which was always collecting crumbs, or I could help hand-wash laundry, which was always gathering dust, or I could wash dishes, which were always gathering since all of us ate and drank all day, or I could feed animals, which were always hungry if they weren't trying to steal drying cheese off the metal grating next to the kitchen window.
Or I could cook. I learned how to make the boortsog, the traditional deep-fried finger-sized bread that is a staple of every household in Mongolia. Made with butter, salt, water, milk and yeast, the dough is flattened and then cut into small pieces. Then they are dropped into smoking hot fat where they bubble into golden brown shapes. I spent one morning seated next to the radiating stove, managing the frying bread, while the mother molded, rolled and cut. She was delighted I hadn't burned any. I sure had eaten plenty. They're like potato chips but denser. Hot, they are unbelievable. With honey, there are no words.
Serka, the daughter, and her husband were both eagle hunters. At this point late in September, it wasn't yet time to use the eagles to hunt. It was the start of eagle festival season. The popularity of the original eagle festival some fifty years ago has evolved today into nearly two hundred smaller events all over Western Mongolia. Mongolians love to give medals, including for being “Good Mother,” which, loosely translated, means having lots of children. Especially boy children. In a country that is largely populated by sheep and goats, more people are welcomed, especially outside the bustling, overcrowded city of Ulaan Bataar.
The first full day I was on the farm I was introduced to Gogo, the orphaned baby camel that had been adopted by this family. She was two years old and fairly big, her great brown eyes ringed by long lashes. Her body was marked in gooey white paint on either side with the family brand, just in case she wandered off. She had no reason to, as the family adored her, even if she did periodically try to steal cheese.
Initially Gogo was wary of me, as I smelled different (not of boiled mutton, as everyone else does in Mongolia). Once she learned I came bearing raisins, the deal was sealed. She followed me everywhere, including nearly running me over with her crockpot-sized footpads, in her eagerness to get into my pockets.
She was very delicate. I quickly learned to trust her to take my entire hand in her mouth, while she gently moved the raisins with her tongue off my palm, then releasing my hand back to me covered in camel spit. She took to lying down right across the entrance to my ger, which was her way of demanding a raisin tax so that I could get inside.
We started riding Gogo, who was not a fan of the idea. Mongolians ride and race their camels, and Gogo needed a gentle introduction. While she tried to buck me off, I bribed her with raisins and pieces of cheese, which softened the indignity somewhat.
Soon, the irritable, suspicious white dog, who watched the camel and the puppy get plenty of affection, let me touch his head. Instantly his eyes softened. Once he found out that I was happy to scrub his ears and sneak him pieces of cheese and biscuits from my supplies, I had a protector. He stationed himself at my ger all night long, and stood watching me from just outside the opening in hopes of a treat. He got plenty.
Which is why, when I emerged in the icy mornings, he would launch himself into the air, turn in joyous airborne circles, and then give himself up for a good morning scrub to get rid of the frost on his fur. It's remarkable what a little love and little homemade cheese can do for a pup.
After four days on the farm, which were marked by drives into the local hills to track antelope and walk quietly with the herds of milking mares returning to the stables in the gold light of sunset, we had a celebratory dinner. I'd bought a watermelon to share with the family. We opened the melon with great ceremony. Instantly the cold red slices were devoured. As I munched on mine, I was startled by a spectral head circling around in the dark, just outside the kitchen window.
Gogo wanted in on the treat. One of the kids opened up the small rectangular window, which was twinned on the other side of the kitchen to allow cooking smoke to be released. In snaked Gogo's long muzzle, seeking treats.
We fed her watermelon rind, which she devoured as happily as she had stolen my raisins.
A happy family and a camel in the kitchen.
Just a day in the life during a Mongolian homestay.
Julia Hubbel is the author of two books, a prize-winning journalist, and adventure athlete. Her primary interest is in adventure sports in the farthest reaches of the world, learning about indigenous cultures and discovering the last of the world's pristine places.
Cutting the Cheese Mongolian Style - Marco Ferrarese
Kirkegaard in Mongolia - Edward Readicker–Henderson
No Country for Honest Men - Marco Ferrarese
A Digital Detox While Connecting With Nature: Four Weeks Unplugged in Remote Canada - Julia Hubbel
See other stories on traveling in Asia in the archives
Books from the Author:
Buy WordFood: How We Feed or Starve Our Relationships at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Buy Tackling the Titans: How to Sell to the Fortune 500 at your local bookstore, or get it online here: