“Have you heard of this Mongolian proverb?” our couchsurfing host Begz asked with a twinkle in his eyes. “If you wake up early, you will see for yourself. If you wake up late, you will only hear it from someones else.”
It was very early Friday morning.
The sun came up at 4:55AM in the city of Ulaanbaator so I woke up very early to take photos of the myriad of white cotton candy cloud puffs that were scattered across the deep blue sky as the sun peaked over the hills. I was also watching our couchsurfing host Begz milking his 8 cows. In the background there were a valley with green pasture on the right and a sprawling urban center on the left.
“Do you know what ‘Nomadic’ people mean?” Begz asked again.
He continued, “‘Nomadic’ does not mean ‘Moving’. Otherwise, they should be called ‘Moving’ people. Nomadic people are those who move so that they can be in a better position, like playing chess where you want your next position to be better than your last one. That is why Mongolians are called Nomadic People.”
I kept nodding and admiring Begz, a person of small stature but with big heart. Not only was his words full of wisdom, the actions of his entire family of six during our 3 days 2 night stay taught us many life-long lessons during our first stop in Mongolia.
First Lesson: Hospitality Redfined
Begz’s family was the first couchsurfing home we have stayed but we have hosted many couchsurfers during the last four years. Couchsurfing.com is a website where people offer their home for free for travelers to stay. It is a way for travelers to get to know the locals and for locals to know people around the world. We tried to be friendly and generous to all our couchsurfing guests, but we were not prepared for Begz family’s hospitality!
Begz’s family of six live in a simple ger at the outskirt of Ulaanbaator. They have 8 cows and 4 calves, which Begz milk twice a day to make yoghurt, selling the extra as income. Every morning the children herd the cows to nearby pasture or hill to graze and take them back home in the afternoon to be milked.
Their whole family sleeps, cooks, studies, and play inside their ger roughly 3-meter radius. But they didn’t mind our entire family of five plus another single couchsurfer to live and sleep together with them in the same ger, a total of 11 of us. They shared their yoghurt, milk, tea, and other food with us and let us use and drink their precious water which they have to cart from afar. They let us trying milking the cows and each child danced and played Mongolian songs (plus some trendy Korean dances) to entertain us. All the above they give without asking anything in return. They eat and dress simply and enjoy simple games made out of bones of sheep. Because of their need, their third child is being helped through World Vision’s community development program.
Begz began hosting couchsurfers in 2008. Seven years later, we are his 287th group! We estimated he has hosted around 800 people. Afterwards when we shared what we learned from our experience, Olivia immediately shared, “True hospitality!” We all unanimously agree.
The Begz family gave out of their heart, not out of their extra.
Second Lesson: Every drop of water counts
We went outside of the Begz’s ger to wash our dishes after eating the refreshing cold yoghurt made by Begz’s wife from the milk of their cow. But we were dumb-founded at the contraption that we saw.
“What is that?” Nathan asked
“Push up the white plug. Water come out,” Gamat laughed.
“This is interesting..”
The strange contraption was like a container with an opening at the top to pour in water and a hole in the bottom for the water to come out. There is a white tube that allows water to flow out of the bottom whole when pushed up. This way by pushing gently, only few drips of water will come out. It is used to wash dishes, hands, face, and everything else.
Although Begz’s family is right on the outskirt of the capital of Mongolia where 30% of the population lives, there is no tap water system in their community. Everyone has to go to a water station, similar to a gas station, to buy water for 1 Tugrik per liter. Fortunately they have a water cart but pushing the cart up and down the hill was still very hard work. Nathan tried but couldn’t pull the 120 liters up the slope by himself.
Naturally, we became very conscious of how to reduce the use of water around the house. First, the Begz family licked all their bowls shining clean with their tongue, which according to Begz is also good for the digestive system just like the cows licking themselves and their young calves. Second, when washing each dish, we pour the dirty water from one dish to another dish, reusing it each time. Third, we carefully rinse the dish with few drips of water rubbing the dish clean with our fingers. Because we can see the change of the water in the contraption, we can know how much water was used.
“I couldn’t believe we use so little water to wash all these dishes!” Joani said with a surprise.
“Their family don’t use any soap for washing dishes either,” commented Nathan.
In Kunming, the children used water without thinking about the amount of water used. Here, they realized how precious is water for some families, the hard work it took to get the water, and seeing visibly the amount of water used for different activities.
Here at Begz family, we learned the lesson of the preciousness of water.
Third Lesson: Healthy food when least expected
We tried not to laugh as we sheepishly peeked at Joani who was staring into her bowl of salad containing cabbage, carrot, and yoghurt in obvious great discomfort. Joani is known as the meat eater of our family so never had she had dinner with just a big bowl of salad and she was afraid to complain or not eat in front of the host.
“Thank you dad for saving my life,” Joani later said to me when I took the rest of the salad in her bowl. “I couldn’t even see the bottom of the bowl and was panicking.”
Mongolia is known as the country of meat eaters as the harsh weather makes growing vegetables difficult and their lifestyle of raising cattle and sheep means meat are plentiful. All there dishes are mostly meat and flour. In China, dumpling is mostly vegetables with some grounded pork. Here in Mongolia, dumplings are almost entirely of lamb meat.
However, to our surprise, the Begz family eats almost no meat. Begz has been leading a community Health Club everyday for the last 3 years, where he advocates eating healthy fruit shake, tea, aloe drink, and vegetables. At the club, they measure the circumference of our neck, arms, legs, and waist to calculate body and visceral fat % and weight, with reducing these as the target and not the total weight. Naturally, for our meals at Begz’s home, it is also very healthy with mostly vegetables and yoghurt. After 2 days, we each visibly felt we lost our weight and healthier but we got hungry quite quickly.
The children laughed that our grandmother would love making friend with Begz because our grandma is also very health conscious and always stock us fully with all sorts of vitamin.
“This is so worth it!” the children all agreed after we left Ulaanbator for our next destination in Mongolia.
“I asked God to show me new experiences this trip. And I learned so much about doing chores, using water, and nutrition here.” Nathan shared during our meal at the bus station leaving Ulaanbaator.
Unexpected lessons left us with surprise and thankfulness as we hugged each member of the family. We knew then that the Begz family will be our lifelong friends and will always have a special place in our Su Family Backpacking Adventures highlight.