The North Star Project, 2013-2014 Report Number Sixteen — Picnic in the Mongolian Countryside, by Gina Sterk

The North Star Project, 2013-2014 Report Number Sixteen — Picnic in the Mongolian Countryside, by Gina Sterk

Picnic in the Mongolian Countryside

A few weekends ago I joined the staff of all language departments of my university for their annual countryside picnic.

gina 2

I was told to be at the school at 9 am, although the first hour or so of the day was spent sitting on a bus waiting for everyone who got the memo, which I missed, that there is no reason to come on time.  More and more teachers (on “Mongolian time”) trickled onto the bus throughout the hour, all of which were in great moods and untroubled by their lateness as I would have been.

At some point it was mysteriously determined that we had waited long enough, and the bus finally rolled out of the parking lot.  As soon as it did so, the bus’s karaoke system was taken advantage of; a microphone was passed around and music was blared.

gina 22
Not long after karaoke was started, the vodka was too.  Two male teachers walked up and down the aisle of the bus full of teachers — bottle in one hand and communal cup in the other — passing out shots.

After about an hour we reached our destination, which was a ger resort not far outside of Ulaanbaatar.  (A ger is a Mongolian traditional dwelling — what we would call a yurt.)  The resort was essentially a ger hotel; it consisted of numbered gers which could be rented and a large central building which served food and alcohol.

As soon as we got to our gers (which were fancier than normal gers — they had attached bathrooms and electric heat), it was snack time. Once every teacher had brought out his or her contribution, our small table was heaped with treats.  The most popular item seemed to be sausage, which was eaten on bread with a slice of cucumber on top.

gina 222

Our snacking was quickly interrupted, however, by lunch.  The dining hall served us salad, followed by mutton soup with fried bread, followed by more mutton, with rice and a side of fried mashed potato.  It was incredibly delicious, but incredibly filling.

Once our lunch wrapped up, it was time for the day’s opening ceremony (I’ve noticed it seems to be popular to start events with opening ceremonies in Mongolia — the school year started with one and so did a teaching conference I recently attended).  The ceremony took place in a grassy area near the gers, which was surrounded by beautiful steppe and a small forest.  The ceremony involved giving gifts to teachers and administrators who were leaving or retiring and giving gifts to new staff members.
Every gift of course included vodka, each bottle of which was immediately passed around the audience with a cup.

After the ceremony ended, it was time to dance.  A large speaker was brought out and everyone was on their feet.  Two songs that seemed to be big hits were “Cheri Cheri Lady” (Modern Talking, 1985) and “Brother Louie” (Modern Talking, 1973).  I seem to hear these songs everywhere I go in Mongolia which fascinates me, because they are old (in my opinion), and I had never heard them before coming here.  Maybe it’s my age, or maybe Mongolian’s have different taste in music.

The rest of the afternoon consisted of more dancing, more snacking, playing games, lying in the grass, and the non-stop distribution of vodka.

Another lovely Mongolian thing that occurred throughout the day was arm and hand holding; my friend and co-teacher Oyuna, who had been made responsible for the foreigner (me) for the day, held my hand or linked arms with me wherever we went.  Fortunately it wasn’t because I was viewed as the incompetent foreign person (although I usually am), but was a kind, common Mongolian expression of friendship which I appreciated receiving.

After several hours of relaxation, we reconvened for more food.  At this point I was still stuffed from lunch (which I didn’t know was possible), but I wasn’t going to turn down horhog.  Horhog is a traditional, uniquely Mongolian food which is very popular at outdoor events.  It is a sort of stew made with vegetables (carrots, potatoes, and cabbage,) and of course mutton, cooked with stones in it.

When the horhog was ready, we all sat in the grass on the hillside, with the sun setting beautifully in the background.  When it was brought out (two giant pots carried by four men), the first thing that was removed from the pots and passed around the crowd were the hot stones.  I was handed one to pass quickly between my fingertips until it was no longer hot and was told that doing so would keep me healthy through the very cold Mongolian winter.

Once our stones cooled and our future health was secured, we feasted on the mutton and vegetables, of course with a side of milky tea (hot milk with black tea and some salt in it) and several shots of vodka.

After dinner it was time for more dancing, this time on the basketball court, with another group of guests at the resort.  As I was spun around to Modern Talking songs until I learned all the words, I had one of those wonderful moments of vivid awareness that I am really in Mongolia…finally…this place I waited for months to hear if I would be going to, this place I spent even more months preparing for and wondering about, this place I never could have imagined I would travel to.

As the sun set, the boom box’s battery died, and we slowly made our way back onto the bus, I was satisfied and grateful for the truly Mongolian day I had gotten to be a part of.  Of course the day wasn’t actually over at this point; little did I know, 4 straight hours of karaoke were to follow.  Though unbelievably tired by the time I returned to my apartment, it was a great day of Mongolian food, music, tradition, and friends.


For all of the North Star Project 2013-2014 Reports, see

For all of the North Star Project 2013 Summer Reports, see

The North Star Project: Collaboration between The Middle Ground Journal Student Interns, The College of St. Scholastica, and North Star Academy 8th Grade Global Studies Classes, 2013-2014 School Year Reports.

Under the leadership of our North Star host teachers and student interns, The North Star Project has flourished for two years. For a brief summary, please see a recent article in the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History, at:

Having re-tooled and re-designed the collaborative program, we are drawing on the experience of our veteran student interns, ideas from our host teachers, and new projects provided by our incoming student interns. This school year The Middle Ground Journal will share brief dispatches from our North Star Project student interns, particularly from those who are currently stationed, or will soon be stationed abroad. As of the time of this report we have confirmed student interns who will be reporting from Mongolia, Southern China, Shanghai, northeastern China, The Netherlands, Tanzania, Ireland, England, Finland, Russia, and Haiti. We also have students developing presentations on theatrical representations of historical trauma, historical memory, the price individuals pay during tragic global conflicts, and different perceptions of current events from around the world.  We will post their brief dispatches here, and report on their interactions with the North Star students and teachers throughout the school year.

Hong-Ming Liang, Chief Editor, The Middle Ground Journal, The College of St. Scholastica, Duluth, MN, USA, 2013-2014 School Year

(c) 2013 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 7, Fall, 2013. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy.


Filed under North Star Student Editors, Professor Hong-Ming Liang

20 responses to “The North Star Project, 2013-2014 Report Number Sixteen — Picnic in the Mongolian Countryside, by Gina Sterk

    • Tayler

      I found it interesting that it was noted that the Gers had attached bathrooms. In our culture that is definitely something we take for granted. Pointing out that the Gers with attached bathrooms were “fancier” than normal Gers makes me assume the culture is primitive, even though I know through other sources that they use modern technological advances as well.

  1. Pingback: The North Star Project, 2013-2014 Report Number Sixteen — Picnic in the Mongolian Countryside, by Gina Sterk | lianghongming

  2. Brianna Curtis

    It is very amusing hearing more about the Mongolian traditions we also studied in class. Food seems to be a major factor within these traditions and knowing that a lot of what Mongols do has a reason behind it, I question if some of these foods have a story or reason behind them as well. Similar to what I viewed in the video our class watched, it seems true that Mongolian people are very friendly and inviting. Even when the two Mongolian-horse racing families are against each other in races, they still continue to hang out and be very respectful to one another. It’s interesting the tid-bit about the alcohol, but like many other customs and societies, drinking alcohol is common especially because people are considered adults at a younger age like how the young boy was riding a horse at age 4.

  3. Joe Chell

    I was again fascinated with the similarities the Mongolians had with western culture, as I, probably similar to other westerners see them as a world away from our own culture and traditions. However when the celebration was describer they seem to do many of the same things that we would do, such as karaoke, lots of drinking and lots of dancing

  4. Jojo Jurgens

    I thought it was interesting how the common Mongolian expression of friendship involves holding hands. Im from Brazil, where actions like that are extremely common, but I have noticed that in the United States people like having more of a distance between each other.

    • I definitely find the handholding and arm-linking here to be one of the most endearing Mongolian habits, and it seems to be common in many cultures throughout the world — including Brazil, as you mentioned. I think it would be interesting to research the prevalence of these behaviors or the size of “personal space bubbles” in cultures throughout the world, and how these social norms come about, as I’ve never heard of any culture that likes it’s personal space as much as American culture and often wonder why.

  5. Shane FInnegan

    I find it fascinating that the diet that they regularly consume can be so nutritional without any state of the art cooking and cleaning supplies.

  6. Francisco Ortiz

    It shocks me on how different we find ourselves from the rest of the world. Its as simple as the type of food we eat and how that is a factor in our life.

  7. Kirsten Olsen

    I am amazed at how much drinking that the mongolians do, but I guess it is similar to beer that americans drink almost all the time. I also would like to take in account how similar their life style is to ours, in the way of karaoke and dancing they do just like we do in america.I know we discussed that before on the first day of class but it is interesting too hear it from an american who had first hand experience in the lifestyles of the Mongolians.

  8. Cheyenne Lemm

    The communal meal, opening ceremony and dancing are all mirrored by Native American cultures as well. I think that the use of symbolism is an amazing aspect to the Mongolian culture, the hot stones cooling off to mean good health is an interesting tradition.

  9. Zhiyu Yang

    I found that Mongolian picnic culture is very fascinating. First Mongolians have a different sense of time. They tend to appear later than the schedule time. And it is a forthright and generous nation. They tie closely to Vodka, horse riding, and dancing. Opening ceremonies are very popular to start events among them. Last but not least, Mongolians value friends very much. Arm and hand holding is a common way to show the love of friends. The author uses the true experience telling us what a Mongolian annual countryside picnic looks like. After reading this article, I even wish I could be there among these lovely, passionate Mongolian people.

  10. Posts like this one make me want to study abroad even more than I already do. I think it would be splendid to experience these things first hand and to try new food that I wouldn’t have dreamed existed. The assemblies there also sound much more entertaining than ours here in the US!

  11. Ruby Przybyl

    I like learning about other cultures and the things they do for fun. I find it very interesting about the concept of “Mongolian Time” it just shows the differences among the different cultures. However, in my opinion a bus ride for four hours full of drunk karaoke singers sounds like a headache to me!

  12. Jimmy Lovrien

    Food and music. Universally, people come together when these are present. The flavors and genres, however, can differ heavily.

    The importance of time can differ from culture to culture. Looking at the US, our schedule can be traced back to the industrial revolution and factory schedules. The Mongolians, according to this example, seem to be more relaxed when it comes to time. Why has it remained he same for so long?

    • Gina Sterk

      I think it’s interesting that you noted that the importance of time differs from culture to culture. I’m not sure if it’s the level of importance that varies so much as what is valued — being on time is valued in some cultures, and in others, the present moment seems to be more valuable. In some ways, Mongolians may need to adapt as we have to the “factory schedules” of the modern day. Yet I’ve also benefited from adapting to traditional “Mongolian time” by becoming less anxious about keeping schedules — everything seems to get done one way or the other.

  13. Samantha Frascone

    I thought it was interesting to learn about this Mongol tradition, and it really makes you realize how similar the Mongolians actually are to us. It’s interesting to learn about what other cultures like to do for fun. For some reason, I would have never guessed that karaoke was an activity that the Mongols enjoyed.

  14. Morgan Schmitz

    What I thought was very interesting was the idea of popular music. When I was in London, any night club you went to (and I’m pretty sure I went to just about all of them) played American 80’s and 90’s music. They have a well developed music scene too but this is what was considered ‘cool.’ It seems to be the same in Mongolia and it is so surprising how far American pop culture can reach.

  15. Sam Yocum

    I found it interesting how there was a lag in schedule. Most trips that I have heard of have had very strict schedules and reading about such a lax one is kind of amazing to me. I was also interested in the fact that there was vodka and karaoke on the bus. That seems like it would make an interesting bus ride.

  16. Ashley Kittelson

    I started reading this article because I was interested in the kinds of food they eat in Mongolia, and the pictures are spectacular. However, I was struck by the concept of “Mongolian time.” I would be terribly embarrassed to be so late to a gathering. I have had friends show up an hour late to dinner, and they aren’t invited out again. I also wonder how pervasive the “Mongolian time” is in other aspects of life. For example, do students show up perpetually late to school without any repercussions? I just may have to visit Mongolia and find out.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.