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Q&A with George Clipp: Finding ‘A Mongolian Couch’

In a documentary called 'A Mongolian Couch,' a man named Begszuren hosts foreign visitors and shows them what life is like in the hills surrounding the capital city of Ulan Bator.

Life is filled with adventures and not always close to home. One way to get really acquainted and learn firsthand with those living far away is by couch surfing. Couch surfers rely on an international non-profit network connecting travelers with local residents willing to open their homes and make cross-cultural connections. Couch surfing has 9 million participants around the world, with the largest number from the United States. Germany, France, Australia and China are also among the top 10. And it’s free.

In a documentary called A Mongolian Couch, a man named Begszuren hosts foreign visitors and shows them what life is like in the hills surrounding the capital city of Ulan Bator. Begszuren lives in one of the city’s “ger” districts, an overcrowded area with little or no electricity, running water or waste disposal. He lives in a one room, 36-square meter house with his wife and four children. Travelers get to stay with them and experience many of Mongolia’s traditions and daily living conditions, unsophisticated by western standards.

In return, guests offer Begszuren help and know-how with such things as improved irrigation, hot water, and cooking. While Begszuren does not have the material possessions enjoyed by his foreign visitors, the documentary shows a quality of life that is often lost in today’s modern world. Living in such close quarters is less expensive, promotes close family relationships, and a heartfelt willingness to share with others.

A Mongolian Couch is directed by George Clipp. VOA’s Ray Kouguell spoke with Clipp, born in London and now based in Melbourne, Australia, about the couch surfing experience and how he came up with the idea to make a film about it.

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CLIPP: I was actually in Mongolia. I was there doing an internship with one of the state television stations in Ulan Bator. And I wanted to do a project outside of the internship. I thought why not couch surfing because I had used it before while I was traveling and I was just trying to find interesting people with interesting stories. I came across Begszuren’s profile and I was just amazed by the number of people he had hosted and the cool things he was doing so I got in touch with him, arranged to meet with him and went from there.

KOUGUELL: Were you able to offer the family any practical advice and did you receive any from them as part of the experience?

CLIPP: They taught me a lot about Mongolian culture. The family told me about Mongolian music and Mongolian food and the countryside. I think I taught the kids a little bit about film making and definitely some kind of cultural exchange going on between us. He taught me how to ride a bike around a busy city and we were learning stuff off each other all the time, really.

KOUGUELL: Did Begszuren and his family help any other families nearby with couch-surfing?

CLIPP: I think other families were very, maybe skeptical at first of the idea or weren’t entirely sure of what Begszuren was doing and I know, like, he was couch surfing so it changed his diet which makes a lot of changes in his family’s lifestyle. So I think the neighbors sort of watched keenly but as far as I know, none of them have hosted. But when we were there we met a few of the neighbors and they were friendly. And where he lived, not so many people spoke English, so I guess it’s more of a barrier with the other families. But I’m sure since then there’s been a knock on impact on the neighborhood with the projects and stuff he’s been doing through couch-surfing.

KOUGUELL: How prevalent is couch surfing in Mongolia and elsewhere in Asia?

CLIPP: When I was there I think there are maybe six or seven couch surfers listed for the whole of Mongolia, [and] I know that’s increased since. When I was there, there really was very few, it’s quite a small community. But I think with couch surfing, word spread fairly fast and there’s a lot more now in Mongolia. As for the rest of Asia, I know in certain places there’s a lot, in other places, not so much. But I think couch surfing now has a pretty good coverage all over the world.

KOUGUELL: Would you say there’s some kind of message about inviting foreign visitors to live in your home?

CLIPP: There’s a strong message of just how much there is to gain for everyone. I mean there’s so much more than a place to sleep. Such an exchange of ideas and cultures, it’s so beneficial both for the people staying to get ideas of what to see and what to do from locals, rather than from tour books or tour guides. And then for the people hosting, to see so much of the world without leaving their own house, I think is amazing. You have people who can’t travel or committed to work or committed to a certain city or place. They can host people from all over the world and just learn so much about countries that they may get to visit in the future, [even if] they may not, but they still [experience] so many ideas being shared.

KOUGUELL: Begszuren says that couch surfing may change the world. Do you agree with that?

CLIPP: Yeah I think definitely. I think there’s been so many connections forged between people from all over the world. I think it’s already, maybe in a small way, it’s already changed the world. For some people, definitely, I think there’s lots of friendships and people have met on couch surfing and stayed in touch for years and years and they’ve sort of gone to each other’s places. Yeah, I think it shows a great side of humanity which some people may not think exists anymore. People would let complete strangers in and put them up and that element of trust I think is fantastic and the more positive experiences couch surfing generates, the more trust there will be between people. So I think it can definitely change the world.

KOUGUELL: Clipp is certainly making his contribution. At just 11 minutes long, A Mongolian Couch is the winner of several independent film awards and screened around the world in the United States, Europe and Asia. The film shows that reaching out to others is a mutually rewarding experience and as Clipp’s work proves, couch surfing is the essence of sharing, no matter the distance.