“Can you get water from the lake to fill the barrel?”
“Please go to the forest and get firewood for boiling water.”
“These dishes need washing.”
“Bring the bread, jam, and butter to the resturant for the guests.”
“Collect the bedsheets from the guest gers and wash them for the next guests tomorrow.”
“We need two persons to wake up at 6:15 to prepare breakfast.”
Nellie, the German travelling worker at the Khovsgol lakeside ger camp, was busy giving instructions to each one of us. For 9 days she was the only foreign worker at the tourist ger camp. When she heard that an “American” family of five was coming to work at the camp, she was overjoyed with anticipation. She was pleasantly surprised when she realized there are six persons instead, an Asian family of five and another Chinese traveler, Kerry, a fellow couchsurfer whom we met at Ulaanbaator.
This was the first place we signed up on workaway.info to work and travel on the Silk Road. I planned for our family to work in different places throughout our one year travel in order to really understand the local life and culture, as well as saving on room and board. There were several farms looking for workers in Mongolia on the website and I chose this one because in the description, it said that help is needed by individual families to milk cows, herd sheep, and cook local food. We can also sign up for horse treks. It sounded like something we would pay to do on a tour package anyways but we can to experience all these for free.
We arrived in Moron after a 14 hours uncomfortable overnight bus ride that had only narrow upright seats, full of cargos and children sleeping on the aisle of the bus. We were told to buy vegetables to bring to the camp but we had difficulty finding them even in the provincial town of Mongolia as these are scarce and were only able to bring some cabbages, carrots, and potatoes with us. After another two hours of car ride and for Jonathan a ride on the back of a motorcycle on dusty dirt road for 23 kilometers due to lack of space, we shouted in awe at the first sight of Lake Khovsgol.
Lake Khovsgol is the second largest lake in Mongolia but the largest in terms of volume as it is 136 km long and 262 meters deep, equaling to roughly 90 floors deep underground. It contains 1 – 2% of the world’s fresh water. What we were not prepared for was the multi-colors of the water ranging from light aqua to deep black blue criss-crossing each other in the same area. The log cabin we were told to stay in was nestled at the edge of a vast pine forest with swiss alp-like mountain peaks in the background and saturated blue sky decorated with white puffs of clouds.
“Doesn’t the log cabin reminds you of the book ‘Little House on the Prairie’?” shouted Joani, who recently read the book.
“Yes, indeed!” I responded with joy. “Do you know that the book series ‘Little House on the Prairie’ by Laura Ingells was what inspired me to want to live in the countryside to build my own log cabin, make my own furniture, and grow my own food? This is dream come true.”
However, I hardly had time to daydream and take in the view before we were ushered to the small log cabin to put down our backpacks. in the roughly 10 meter square cabin there were only three small beds for the six of us, which means Nathan and I had to sleep on the floor. Fortunately, there is a wood burning stove at the corner for keeping warmth.
“Where can we take a shower?” Olivia asked as we all desperately need a shower to get rid of all the dust on our face and body.
“Yes, we need you to build a shower inside the forest,” replied Bayar, the owner of the ger camp.
It was then that we realized that this was not the farm work that we had expected. Furthermore, this camp did not have electrify, running water, or shower. We were here to serve guests by fetching water from the lake shore 150 meters away, gathering firewood from the forest, and installing electric lines and switches for an electric power generator that has not yet been bought. This was not the simple farm work that we had originally expected.
We woke up at 7AM every morning and worked until 10PM each evening with very little breaks in between since there were many of manual labors that need to be finished.
“Take this bucket, put the dirty dishes inside, pour hot water, and add dishwashing soap. Use another bucket with clean water for….what do you say in America?” Nellie asked.
“Rinsing.” we replied.
“Yes. Rinsing.” Nillie completed her sentence.
“Use water carefully. Remember to reuse the soapy water from the previous dish on the next one, just like what we did at Begz’s home.” Annie reminded the children.
“Yes, the fewer trip to the lake to fetch water the better.” Nathan agreed. “It’s so heavy that I have to use my legs to hold up the water container.”
“When you are done, pour the dirty soapy water into the toilet pit so that we don’t waste it.” Nellie added.
The fewer buckets of hot water we used equaled to fewer firewood we had to gather to boil the water and fewer trips to the lakeside to get the water. Before at Begz home, their children got the water from the water pumping station. Now we had to carry the water ourselves and without any water cart. Filling up the 120 liters water barrel several times a day means 20-30 trips to the lakeside. The children were very motivated to use water carefully.
“Do you need any help?” Joani asked me while I was busy stripping copper wires and connecting them to switches and light.
“Why are you asking me if I need help…are you trying to hide and not be caught doing nothing?” I realized with a chuckle.
“…Yeeeeeah…” Joani blushed and admitted her scheme.
However, Olivia, Nathan, and Joani did work hard from early morning to sunset. I was especially surprised at the attitude of Joani who usually complains or tries to jokingly get away with doing house chores back at home. When I asked her why she worked so hard without complaining, she admitted, “Didn’t you say that this is where we are suppose to work to for food and for bed. So I assume the hard labor is part of our job. Also, Nillie works harder than all of us combine. She wakes up first, cooks us breakfast, clean the kitchen, doing everything that we do herself. I can’t bear to have her do even more. Even though there is no electricity, I didn’t have a need to charge my iPad because I haven’t touch my iPad for days!”
I felt proud of her answer to my question. Although it was hard work, when each one of us saw others working hard, we naturally worked hard as well. Team spirit was contagious. Our dinner on our first full day of work was simple with small bits of lamb meat mixed in noodles. However, we ate like it was a food from a five star hotel because we were famished on one hand and on the other hand we were proud to earn the right to eat our share of the food the day. There was satisfaction in a hard day’s work.
When a group of around ten local Mongolian tourists left the ger camp on the second day we were there, we went inside to change the sheets and clean the floor. The bedsheets were dirty, the floor was oily with oil drips from their lamb BBQ, and there were trash everywhere. As we cleaned the ger and got on our knees to mop the floor with cloth, we commented on how messy was the inside of the ger.
Nathan made a solemn promise, “Next time when I see someone who is cleaning my room, I am going to go up to the person and shake the person’s hand and say ‘thank you’ for your hard work.”
There was another group of local Mongolians that left a little later during the day. None of us wanted to go in and see the mess. Eventually when we did, we were ecstatic! The sheets were clean and folded, the coverings tucked, and the floor was swept. It is amazing what we get excited about was completely different just in a few short days. Also, it was interesting that in the short few days since we changed role from tourists to workers, our perspective changed completely as well. Instead of wanting more guests to stay like what the owner would have wished, we secretly say to each other, I hope there is no more unexpected guests today, because more guests means more water to carry and more sheets to wash.
After breakfast on the third day, Nillie announced the work for the day, “For today, we will build a volleyball court and a campfire pit! We have a nice net and we can charge tourists for using the volleyball court.”
“Yeeeeah! That sounds fun.”
“Why don’t you all go to the lake and get small stones to make the boundary for the volleyball court and big stones to make a ring of stones for the campfire,” Nillie added.
We thought to ourselves, “Yesterday we worked more than 10 hours just getting water, firewood, washing sheets. We don’t have time to do more heavy labor.” But as good workaway worker, we still followed order and carry the big stones one by one for 150 meters to the campsite and used a bucket to carry the small stones as well. It took a while to make sure all four corners of the court is straight and to dig the deep hole for the two poles so we didn’t have time to finish the campfire pit that day.
It turned out the Nillie was an avid volleyball player and after we washed our dishes that night she proposed for all of us to play volleyball. Degi and Ochka, the two older children of Bayar who also worked with us a the camp, joined us too in volleyball. Joani and Nathan had played volleyball at the Kunming International Academy so they were really into it. Olivia had never played so Nillie tried to coach her on how to serve the ball. Little did we know, volleyball is quite popular in Mongolia. Soon after we started playing, another four local Mongolia tourists joined the game. Prior to this, we didn’t have much interaction with the local guests, but volleyball became the bridge that got us laughing and high-fiveing with the locals. We were no longer just working but really having fun.
The next day, after Bayar pointed which spot we can put in the campfire, we began digging the pit. Unfortunately, the spot he pointed had an old tree stump. What originally should be a quick job turned out to b 2 grueling hours of chopping and removing roots and stones. At one point, we were ready to give up or move to a new location. Then an Hong Kong tourist, Andrew, came to our camp after finishing three days of horse trekking. When he came down from the horse, he walked awkwardly with his legs spread apart as if he was riding an invisible horse. We laughed to ourselves thinking that he must not be so athletic. We were wrong. He came over and began to help us. With strong strokes he broke up the ground and we began to make progress again.
That night, when the sun set at 10PM, we had an international campfire celebration all to ourselves. Among ourselves, we have those from Germany, Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Canada, US, and Mongolia. Nellie made flour dough and wrapped it around the tip of the long wooden stick to bake over the campfire. I called Bayar to asked him to buy two kilograms of fatten lamb meat, which my mom from the US generously paid for. Andrew brought out his precious award winning USD100 whiskey from Taiwan. Bayer added more soft drinks and Mongolian beer to the mix. Joani took out her ukulele and Olivia played our family theme song, “Dumb Ways to Die” on her iPod. At midnight we retired to our cabin, but true to herself, Nillie was still washing the dishes.
Everything seemed to be going well. We got used to the hard work. We got to have fun. We enjoyed the beautiful sunrise and sunset over the lake each day.
Then they came.
Even before the 17 Serbian tourists arrive at the camp, we felt the pressure. Nellie passed down to us the order from Bayar, the big boss: “Start fire in each of the four gers to warm up the room for the guests. Connect wires to the new electric generator for lights. Put up the electric water heater for the hot shower. Fetch more water from the lake for hot water and shower.”
We didn’t have any break that day. Each person concentrated on his or her task. Even the Hong Kong guest Andrew, who did not have to work, pitched in and seemingly be working the hardest. It was as if the President of Mongolia was coming to the camp.
The Serbian tourists took the Trans Siberian Rail to Ulaanbaator, flew over to Moron, and took two mini-bus to arrive at the lakeside camp. The moment they arrived we can sense their disappointment at the primitive condition of our camp, even though we had set up firewood, hot water, hot shower, and electricity just for them. Little did they know that before today, none of these existed. Olivia haven’t washed her hair for 7 days and was dying to use the hot shower even while helping the guests to mix the hot and cold water together to be used for their showers.
“Need more hot water.”
“There is not enough water for shower.”
“Where is the coffee.”
“Where is the vegetarian dish.”
“Prepare the campfire for our after dinner chat.”
Everyone seemed to be barking order at us. One man even mistaken Andrew for a worker, looked at him in the eyes and gestured with his index finger for him to come over! Due to all the confusion and inexperience of the ger camp in handling such type of non-backpacking foreign tourist group, there was not enough rice for one Serbian lady. When she found out, she was silently angry in such way that made Olivia shuddered in fear. The organizer of the tour group spoke up angrily to say that this is unacceptable and the lady kept asking where is the food in a foreign language. Luckily, the lady lived in Austria for 45 years and speaks German. Nellie, who is from Germany, spoken in German to the lady trying to explain the reason for the situation. The lady was so surprised that there was a worker at the camp that can speak German, she forgot all about the food and they chatted for more than 30 minutes and didn’t mention about the food problem any more. Nema, the wife of the camp owner, made more rice but by the time it was cooked, all the guest had left the eating place so we got to eat all the left over sauce and rice from the guests. Since we were usually hungry even after eating ourselves, we gladly took the food and had a fun late worker food party in our small log cabin, laughing over all our funny interactions with the Serbian tourist group.
After our initial experience with the Serbian tourist group on the first day, we encouraged each other to prepare for another hard day of “serving” these demanding customers. In the morning, we heard a drunk Mongolian man came inside the ger of the angry Serbian lady and she couldn’t sleep for the whole night. When we heard that there was another mistake of taking half of the group to the wrong starting point and leaving the other half stranded waiting for the transport, we were even more scared.
However, after their day trek along the lake, they came back as if they were reborn. Instead of demanding water, shower, food, some went with us to fetch water, some went to the forest to gather firewood, and everyone who took shower said Olivia’s mixing of hot & cold water was “perfect!” After dinner, some guests played card with us next to the campfire. The angry Serbian lady even gave us candy from Russia and a can of liver pate! We couldn’t account for their change of attitude. Maybe it was that they were very tired yesterday or that they realized how much work it took us to fetch water and boil hot water or that they realized we were not local Mongolian but “tourist workers” who came here to experience the local life. No matter what the reason was, we were very glad and thankful for the experience of trial and blessings that came our way in these two short days.
On the morning of our last day there, we hugged and said goodbye to the Bayar family and Nellie. Even the Serbian tourists said goodbye and took photos with us. One lady who played card with us the night before even invited us to visit her place in Belgrade, Serbia. The Bayar family gave us a gift made of sheep felt. Nellie cried when she hugged Annie. It was hard to leave Nellie to work alone again.
“I don’t think I had made such close friends in such a short time before,” reflected Joani. “We did so much in five days as well, building the volleyball court, campfire, electric lines, and decorating the interior of a ger. The lake, trees, mountains were so beautiful. I would like to be buried in a place like here.”
“Although it was hard work, but I am so glad we get to work in such beautiful setting,” added Olivia.
During our family Sunday worship time, Nathan led us in reflecting John 15 and Colossians 3, sharing about how if we are not connected with the vine, we will wither like dry branches and be tossed into the fire to burn and that there are two types of workers, those who complain and those who don’t complain because they are working for the Lord and not for man. These verses were so appropriate for our time here as we gathered and burned hundreds of branches in the short five days and we also learned the lesson of obedience during our laboring here.
After a long 10 hours car ride, we arrived at our next destination, Erdenet, the 2nd largest city in Mongolia but only has a population of 80,000 people, 1/60th of the population of Kunming where we live. Through the help of a colleague in Mongolia, we lived in an apartment of a Mongolian family who were out of town for a few days. After living 3 days in a ger, 1 night on the bus, and 5 days in a log cabin by a lake, we were so excited to be in a “normal” place with hot shower, running water, washer, and internet, yet feeling a bit of a culture shock.
“Hey, we don’t have to carry water anymore or to gather wood to boil water,” Annie said happily.
“When I took shower, I kept turning off the faucet to save water,” mused Andrew the Hong Kong guest.
“The soap smells so nice,” Joani smiled.
“I am glad to have a room all to myself,” Olivia shouted jumping onto the bed
“Although I still have to sleep on the floor, but it is definitely an upgrade!” laughed Nathan.