No matter where we go in the world, there are people that live where we visit, doing their thing, living their life, and what’s intriguing to us as visitors may be just a normal way of life for a different culture.
I’m Rachel Seiler, and my husband Andy and I had the opportunity to travel to and work with Digital Paradigm. I’m making that sound more neat and tidy than it actually happened. You see, in May we bought an RV and truck and left our jobs in Colorado with plans to work and travel the U.S. filming and editing for a year or two. Our first stop was Lincoln, NE to visit my parents, and while there we met the biggest hail storm that has ever hit Lincoln. Long story short, the RV and truck were both totaled and taken away to an auction. Just like that our entire plan was turned upside down. Thankfully we had good insurance, but even though we were monetarily okay, we had no idea what to do next.
We spent some time in Lincoln with my parents, who graciously welcomed us into their guest room for about 5 weeks. I spent that time feeling anxious and antsy, it was like all of our planning and renovation had led us up to this point, and in one fell swoop it was completely destroyed. We then headed to Dallas for a “short” visit to Andy’s parent’s home. We ended up having an opportunity to stay there and fix up one of their rental homes to sell, so instead of a short visit, we stayed 5 weeks with them as well. When we decided to stay, we made August 1st the day we would leave from Texas, whether we had plans or not, we were going to leave. As that date drew nearer, people started asking what our plans were. Every time we had to say, “We aren’t sure…we don’t know yet”. 10 days before August 1st Andy’s friend Aaron Thomas, who had has worked with Digital Paradigm multiple times, called and told him of an opportunity to go to Mongolia.
It just so happened that the departure date was August 1st!
We felt like this trip was the perfect next leg of our journey. It just fit too well. Bryan, from Digital Paradigm, needed a videographer on short notice, and we had wanted to leave August 1st. We had also really wanted to go somewhere overseas. And Mongolia was definitely overseas.
After some thinking and praying, we told Bryan we would love to go, and just like that, our tickets were booked for August 1st , traveling to Ulaanbataar, Mongolia.
On our descent into Ulaanbataar, we could see all of the yurts, or gers, as the locals call them (yurts are the Russian version we learned) dotting the countryside. They were just white dots from the air, but they were everywhere. Of course Andy and I found them intriguing, but I’m sure to all the Mongolians on our flight they thought we were crazy for being so excited.
We landed, met the rest of our team, including our trip leader Keri and our producer Bryan, and then headed out to a local market to try some Mongolian treats. One of the most interesting was the dried horse milk yogurt thing. It came in various shapes and sizes, some stars, some tube like, but it was in bulk and the lady of one shop let me taste some. Though it wasn’t bad, I wouldn’t say I would want to eat it on a regular basis, it was more like dried tart yogurt, with a hint of horse.
Another interesting fact was that until 20 years ago, Mongolians didn’t eat vegetables. The main dish of any Mongolian meal is…meat. Meat, meat and more meat. They love beef and mutton and some even eat horse. ADRA introduced greenhouses to Mongolia 20 years ago and the people learned to plant and grow vegetables and now have worked it into their diet. One of the local church girls told me that before she ate vegetables she had very bad skin and felt very sluggish all the time, but now that she eats a lot of fresh vegetables and fruits, she looks and feels so much better. It seems like an obvious thing, eating vegetables makes you healthier, but since they weren’t readily available until 20 years ago, the education was also less available.
Once we drove into the city, I was surprised on how normal Ulaanbataar was, or UB as the locals call it. There wasn’t anything really unusual about it, just buildings and roads and people. The driver’s seat in the car is on the right side, but they also drive on the right side of the road. There were not an insane amount of scooters and motorcycles on the roads like I was used to in my other travels in Asia. The city wasn’t super clean or super dirty, it wasn’t really pretty or really ugly, the drivers weren’t really bad, but they also weren’t really good. The downtown city itself was fairly forgettable. I thought maybe all of the city was like this, until one day when our guide Mandah took us to one of the ger districts. A ger district is like a suburb. It seems a little like a campground with bumpy, steep, dirt hills and blocks of land with gers everywhere. Most of the “yards” seemed desolate, with just more dirt and a few blocks or bricks scattered about. Andy, Bryan and I jumped out of the car to get some shots of some of the children running around the roads. They were shyly curious, and a few wanted their photo taken, but Mandah really knew how to gather them around him when he went into a shop and bought a bunch of candy to give out. After filming the children, we made our way to a church member’s ger where she invited us in for tea and cookies.
Mongolian tea is very different from what we associate tea with in the U.S. They add salt and milk to it, so more than anything it tasted like warm salty milk. I didn’t mind the flavor, and Bona, our hostess was so sweet to offer us bread and butter and tea and cookies. She graciously showed us around her ger, which on the inside seemed much more spacious than outside. It was about 20 feet in diameter and had a vinyl floor. The whole family slept on the floor on a rug and they would bring out all their bedding every night. They had a sink, and a table and chairs, a small stove and fridge and TV. The space was very clean and inviting. I was so surprised that a family of four lived in this space and did it so well- they didn’t seem to be in need of anything even though their space was small and cozy. It reminded me of how little we really need to be happy and even when you have very little, you still have enough to offer others.
We met that wonderful hospitality everywhere we went in Mongolia. The people were so kind and welcoming. The local pastor’s wife cooked 3 meals a day for us, even bringing them to the hotel so we could eat together. She made wonderful sauces and stir-fry, dumplings and bibimbop, my new favorite Korean dish. The church welcomed us into their space, and helped us plan out our trip, gave us their cars and drivers and made sure we had everything we needed.
We filmed for almost 2 weeks and felt like we knew the city well by the time we left. Yes, the city itself may be forgettable, but I realized that this trip was about the people, and not as much about the sights and tastes, though we had some great experiences with those as well. It was about how the people here in Mongolia gave whatever they had, even if it was just some tea and cookies, but they gave it to anyone who came into their lives, regardless of who you were. Andy and I left Mongolia with a rich experience in generosity and love, and we hope to share that with visitors in our own country when we get home.
-Written by: Rachel Seiler