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Culture Shock Mongolia

By: | September 26, 2011

All we wanted was a BBQ…

Mongolia is an amazing place to visit, and one of the best places in the world to ride. The Northern route takes you through some of the best Mongolia has to offer, and although you miss the Gobi desert by taking it, you still get to see herds of camels, vast open steppes, mountains and even a couple of sand dunes. It is not an easy land to ride through however. “Roads” (read dirt paths) turn treacherous with rain and sand lurks mixed in with normal dirt, causing the back wheel of your bike to unexpectedly try to overtake your front. And perhaps the greatest tragedy is that food is of the subsistence variety rather than the delectable tastes that other parts of Asia are known for.

Mongolia can be a shock to the system. Culture shock, much like an addiction or a grieving process, has a series of phases that the sufferer struggles through in an effort to come to terms with their new environment, and we hit them all in Mongolia.

You begin to think, “If they would only just stop punching us, then this land would be perfect…”

Phase one is the honeymoon period. This is where everything in your new environment is shiny and bright, and nothing can ever destroy the love you have for your new surroundings. For me, this was demonstrated by the experience of waking up just before sunrise to the faces of two strange men who had peeled back the entrance to our tent and were grinning in and waving at us.

A person may find that sort of thing slightly disconcerting, but we weren’t going to let it get to us. We were camped next to a mountain lake, the view was breathtaking, I had survived driving my bike off of the side of a mountain the day before, and as we found out visitors in the middle of nowhere is quite normal in Mongolia. (the fact that back home, I threaten friends with death should they ever call me before 10:00am is besides the point)

Private sphere? What private sphere?

By the end of our time in Mongolia we knew that if no one was waiting for us when we crawled out of the tent, it was only a matter of time before they would arrive. Usually, exactly the amount of time it takes to boil the water for tea or coffee. No sooner would our morning beverage be ready than our visitor was there, horse in hand (quite literally).

We had previously been warned that nomadic Mongolians do not have a sense of the private sphere. After all, when you live with your entire family in a circular tent there is no such thing as privacy. We could walk unannounced (and in our view, uninvited) into their homes for tea and dried yak cheese and no one would be surprised. So why shouldn’t they do the same to us?

Most of the time we welcomed it. It was great to check out each others’ bikes or look over their horses. Their sense of timing did give rise to the feeling we were being watched however (given their propensity to show up just as the coffee or tea was ready), and this feeling was later confirmed when they would randomly whip binoculars out of their coats to spy the horizon. Travelers were not so alone in this land after all.

Culture Shock: Phase Two

Phase two is the negotiation period. This is when things begin to feel slightly uncomfortable, and you may find yourself thinking that if this new land was just a little more like home, then it would be better. In our case it wasn’t the complete loss of our personal space that caused this feeling: we accepted the common experience of making a trip into a shop and having people rub their hands up and down over our back protectors while making “ooh” sounds. Less welcome however was the occasional punch to test out our back protectors’ strength. You begin to think, “If they would only just stop punching us, then this land would be perfect…”

…we were almost there when the German wennt and messed it all up by deciding he needed some meat.

Phase three is the adjustment period. This is when things begin to settle down, you no longer find everything to be darling, but neither do you feel like crying at the sight of yet another mutton pancake. For us fermented horse milk was something we still wanted to avoid, but salty milk tea became pretty yummy. We thought we were safe, and about to enter the final phase. This is the phase of mastery, the acceptance and meshing of both cultures together, and we were almost there when the German went and messed it all up by deciding he needed some meat.

The price of a goat

As I’ve mentioned, Mongolia may be high on the outdoor enthusiast’s list of must-sees, but a foodie may find themselves wishing for death. I was torn. I loved just about everything about this land, except for the strange back-fondles and the lack of good food. Every day the menu was cookies for breakfast, mutton pancake for lunch, and pasta with mystery sauce for supper. Every single day. So one day the German and his brother got it into their heads to ask one of our neighbors for meat.

Their logic went along the lines that Mongolians must have more food in their homes than what was available in the little stores. Therefore it shouldn’t be too hard to buy some meat off of them to have a BBQ. We decided to appoint the German’s little brother Jannick as our meat ambassador.

Something got lost in translation. At the request for meat our Mongolian friend’s eyes lit up. He jumped on his motorcycle to return with his kids. Then he abducted the German’s brother, brought him to his ger, and had his wife feed him cheese and ply him with horse milk.

With Jannick safely in the care of his wife, he sped off to his herd of goats and proceeded to strap a live one onto the back of his bike.

Upon returning, he then whipped the goat off of the bike, slit its chest open, reached in and flipped said goat’s heart over. Truthfully the motorcycle ride was probably worse for the goat than the actual death, but the event left everyone a little dumbfounded.

Moreover, we had no idea what to pay him. What do you pay someone who has just sacrificed a goat in your honor? If you ever find out, let us know. Until then I need to struggle with how squeamish I’ve become every time I see a goat on a motorcycle zoom by, and yet how happy I was to find a ready-made burger (as in someone else killed it out of my sight) on my birthday. Culture shock mastery, I fear, continues to elude me.

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