I am going back to Western Mongolia
If you're anything like me, much of your life came screeching to a halt last year. OH MY GOD does it feel so good to say the words "last year" when referring to 2020. Bet you can relate.While it was a year full of changes, as in selling my house in Colorado and moving to Oregon, I had a HUGE adventure planned: another four weeks in Western Mongolia.
Here's the background: in 2019, I spent a month in Mongolia, which included two home stays in remote gers in the middle of nowhere (okay okay OKAY, once you leave the capital city of Ulaan Bataar everything is the middle of nowhere on Mongolia). It was by far one of most superb trips I've ever done, from camping at altitude in the teeth of 60 mph winds, herding 200 goats and sheep for my host while on horseback, and learning handcrafts from a host's mother.
She and I would head to the river where she, at 72, would toss a 65 lb container of water over her powerful back and lead the way home. Tough conditions make for strong women.
Yeah. I was going back to their place.
I think they were really happy about that because I was perfectly willing to rise at dawn and collect huge bags of dried cow patties, which is what is used for fuel. No trees in that part of Mongolia, just thorn bushes, whose sticks we gathered for kindling.
I also loved washing dishes, which was the one and only time my hands were warm. Because tea was brewing all day, and we were forever receiving visitors, the very small collection of cups was forever in need of washing. I signed up, and in doing so, my hosts had free time, time with kids and grandkids. And my hands stayed warm.
The author with my morning's bags of fuel
No bathrooms. You put a plank on the ground outside, heat a kettle of water, and do what you gotta do. In front of all the sheep and cows and horses, and neighbors trotting by in search of lost calf.
Or you can go swim in the icy river, which takes more backbone than I possess.
Homestays in Mongolia are among the most wonderful experiences on earth. As a farm girl born and bred, I love physical labor. Nothing endears you to a host faster than your willingness to pick up poop, lug buckets, help with the endless herding of goats and cows and sheep in a great daily clockwise circle through the forage.
Nothing makes them happier than to see you pitch in with joy, learn the customs, break your teeth on the rock-hard dried milk snacks, play with the kids and show them that you do indeed know how to ride. Mongolians think not without good reason, that Westerners can't ride, and are pleased as punch when you can not only keep up but run with the big boys.
Seku, my host and his nephews, one of whom is upending my water bottle. Julia Hubbel
My trip planners had organized a return to Seku's ger in their summer home not far from the border of Kazakhstan. They were delighted, as was I. This trip was also going to include an extensive camel ride. I love riding camels, and adore the great fuzzy creatures and their unpredictable personalities. I've ridden them in Africa fairly extensively, but the ones in Mongolia have two humps, which makes the ride far more comfortable.
But above all, my cancelled trip had included an extended stay with the remote Dukha people, the reindeer herders in the Khovsgol Aimag area. While it's no longer such an isolated spot, being overwhelmed with too many tourists in the last few years, what I plan to do is settle in for a while and learn the cutlure first hand. Most tourists drop in for a day, and then head out. I want to find out what it's like to live that life, and learn about one of the last nomadic tribes who depend entirely on reindeer for their subsistence.
I just sent an email to my travel company stating my intention to put money down on that trip. Some folks like beaches. Some want expensive resorts and creature comforts. Others need parties. My party, as it were, is all about watching this at the end of my day:
A herd heads back home to the farm in Western Mongolia. Julia Hubbel
Spending time with generous people who sing you a welcome and pile blankets around you to keep warm until the fire gets going, then hand you a cup of hot, milky Mongolian tea, well, that's my idea of a party.
I don't know where you're headed this year as soon as a vaccination makes travel safe(r). I know where I am going in late summer, assuming that we're welcome in other countries again.
In the meantime, I am practicing my heavy lifting, so that this time when I viist Jazeera and Seku I can also heft that water on my back. As an honored guest and part of the family, that's the least I can do for such an adventure.
Jazeera makes breakfast on the floor of the ger. Julia Hubbel