This excerpt is taken from “The Desert Road to Turkestan” by Owen Lattimore, published in 1929. It is his incredible account of traveling with a camel caravan from a point west of Beijing to Urumchi in present-day Xinjiang, far western China. Highly recommended and on my short list of Best Travel Books Ever.
“Sheep buying is done by the Mongol usage. There is first a bargaining for quality – small sheep, good sheep, or pick of the flock, at different prices. It is usual to agree that good sheep are in question, at so much per head. The Mongol turns them out by the score, which he says are good. The buyer disputes this with scorn, making the Mongol change as many of them as he can. When at last the goodness of the herd as a whole has been admitted, the Mongol plunges among the sheep, seizes one, and cries “This is it!” “Not so, says the buyer; “it is the worst of a poor lot.” The buyer here is in the right, for I never saw a nomad, whether a Mongol, Qazaj, or Kirghiz, who failed to tackle the worst sheep with speed and skill. The Mongol protests and argues, but after awhile he seizes another; the argument begins afresh, but after several have been rejected the buyer in the upshot gets the mathematically average sheep from a mathematically average lot, the whole deal, with words and antics, having taken from half an hour to half a day.”
Summer is here and I thought I’d present a photo essay on one of the most beloved foods in Mongolia….marmot. Say “tarvaga” to the average Mongolian and watch their eyes light up.
Unfortunately, the native Siberian marmots have gone from occupying the steppes in the millions to Endangered in just ten years, having experienced a 70% population drop. The major contributor to this decline was a demand for the pelts by….the Chinese.
Hunting is still allowed during August and September, depending on population numbers, according the species listing in the IUCN Red List. Hunting can also be shut down if bubonic plague flairs up. It turns out that marmots in Mongolia are the source vector for the bubonic plague that hit Europe in the 1340s. The Mongols know that if they see a marmot behaving strangely, then it is likely that plague is present.
The cooking traditions surrounding marmot in Mongolia is the stuff of visitor legend. A number of the travel accounts I’ve read have an account of the preparation of marmot, always with a “and you won’t believe this, but….” tone.
I finally had my chance to try it last year. Since this was a personal extension of hospitality to me because they knew I liked Mongol food, I will allow my hosts to remain anonymous.
(Important note: if you are squeamish or think that meat starts out wrapped in cellophane, you may want to stop reading here. This photo essay will show the whole process from beginning to end.)
Any Mongols reading this are invited to add comments, stories, corrections in the comment section. This is accurate to the best of my knowledge, based on what I saw and was told.
I think that in order to communicate with some immediacy one single day that had enough incident for three, I’m going to simply quote my journal entry for July 15, adding images as needed.
“What an amazing day. Went south-west with Orog Nuur as our goal. Khatnaa knew there was the Taatsin Gol to cross, so stopped at a petrol station to ask about it. Also there were two van loads of Mongols from Togrog who were heading west to mine for gold. Usual Mongol socializing and information exchange ensued.
A third van showed up and all headed towards the river, which was flooded due to rains in the Hangai Mountains.
We got across one stream, but were stopped by a broad ribbon of streams and mud. The main channel was moving fast and pulsing with even more water.
Went back up to the bluff overlooking the river and had lunch, watching the three van loads of Mongols look for a way across and mess around in the water.
Went back down to the river. Khatnaa walked a long way to see if he could find a crossing point, but came back and told us that the last stream of water was the worst of all. So we were faced with going north 100 km to the closest bridge. Such is travel in Mongolia.
Suddenly, there was action with one of the vans. A bunch of guys had formed a line across one point of the main channel and the van charged into the water, started to stall, but the guys all got behind it and pushed it on through!
Well, if a van could make it, our big Land Cruiser certainly could and did, without even needing a push. We did end up with an extra passenger, a little eej (mother) who wasn’t about to miss her chance to ride in our big car.
We got out on the other side and I photographed the other two vans making the crossing. Then said our good-byes.
We followed one van up a soft sand slope. It promptly got stuck so we rolled back down and went around it and on up the hill.
The entire “adventure” of the river crossing was a perfect example of Mongol practicality, improvisational skills and good humor. No one at any point got angry, showed frustration or swore. When it looked like things had stalled out, the guys took a break and goofed around in the water. Or so it seemed. They were clearly having fun but they were, in retrospect, also searching for a crossing point.
The spot they found was one where the channel wasn’t too wide or deep and where they felt the bottom was solid enough for a vehicle to get across with a minimal chance of getting stuck.
Without winches, cables or even rope, they simply used the same solution they always do – push.”
Once across, we were really able to roll for awhile on good earth roads.
At this point we knew that the lake, Orog Nuur, was 2/3 full and that the river flowing into it was impassible due to run-off from the mountains. But we had also been told that there was a road on the opposite side of the lake.
Khatnaa spotted a ger and drove over to it. I usually just stay in the car while he asks directions, but his time he gestured me to get out and said “Let’s visit.”
We ended up spending around two hours with Batsuuri and his family.
When we entered their large, comfortable ger, the first thing I noticed was two boys sitting on the floor watching Star Wars:The Phantom Menace on a small flat screen tv. Batsuuri was sitting on the floor, a couple of older girls were going in and out and Javhlan, his wife, was just starting, I found out later, to make suutai tsai (milk tea). I’ve drunk a fair amount of it by this time, but had never seen it made before.
A bowl of small squares of fried bread and sugar cubes was placed in front of us. The movie ended and the two boys, both Mongol but one had blond hair, started playing with a bunch of nails they had pulled out of a bag. I watched them happily amuse themselves for over half an hour, arranging the nails in various patterns and finally using a closely lined up row of them as a little hammered dulcimer.
At one point a wrestling competition came on the tv and I knew that we were going to be staying for awhile because Khatnaa is a BIG wrestling fan.
Javhlan asked if we would like to try camel milk airag. We all said yes. It was delicious, of course.
As we sat, and Khatnaa and Soyoloo chatted with our hosts (Besides camels, they have about 300 other animals. They lost 10-15 in the zud, nothing, really.), Javhlan made a meal of rice with meat in it and we ended up having dinner with the family.
Then it was time for her to milk the camels. They have 40 camels, seven of which had babies. So I found myself with another amazing photo opportunity.
I was wearing one of (local Humboldt County artist) Bekki Scotto’s hand-dyed rayon t-shirts and had Khatnaa take some pictures of me standing in front of the camels. I think Bekki will like that.
Once the milking was over it was time to leave, but it turned out that there is more than one road around the lake. Batsuuri offered to take us part of the way on his motorbike. Khatnaa provided petrol from a jerry can he had in the car. They had almost finished syphoning when who should pull up but one of the three vans! They had taken the main road to the river, found it flooded and had come back to the only ger for miles to find out if there was an alternate route, so Batsuuri showed them the way also. Once he’d gotten us to the correct road, we waved goodbye and drove on into a large saxaul forest, much of which was in light, almost white, sand. Many stops for pictures. And berries!
Finally we could see the lake, Orog Nuur, in the distance. The passing clouds were creating gorgeous spotlite areas on the mountain range to our left.
We made one more quick stop at a herder’s ger and then found a track down to the lake. We parked, got out, walked down to the shore and Khatnaa announced that we had arrived at “bird heaven”. Indeed. The shoreline had birds from one end to the other. The lake edge had even more mosquitos. I observed that it looked like we had also arrived at “mosquito heaven”, which Khatnaa thought was pretty funny.
But we sure weren’t going to be able to camp there. So we moved away far enough to be out of the worst of it, put on insect repellent that Soyoloo had handy and set up camp.
It ended up being cook’s night off since we were all pretty full from the meal at Batsuuri’s. Lunch had been a delicious white fish from Khovsgol Nuur. We all had some leftover fish with rice and a few cookies and we were fine.
In the meantime, the mosquitos were getting pretty annoying. We had no netting, so , once again, Mongol ingenuity rode to the rescue. Khatnaa went out and gathered a small bag of animal dung which he piled up and set smoking with a small blowtorch. We put our chairs in its path. Problem solved. Until the breeze kept changing direction. Soyoloo came up with a brilliant solution. She turned a metal flat-bottomed bowl upside down and had Khatnaa got a small dung fire burning on it, which meant that instead of moving our chairs to stay in the smoke, we simply moved the smoke. We dubbed it our “nomadic dung fire”.
We sat until dark, watching a lightning storm across the lake from us, a spectacular sunset to the north and listening to the Javhlan CD I’d brought from UB, finishing off the last of the bottle of Chinggis Gold vodka and chatting about all kinds of things. A perfect ending to a perfect day.”
I’m now one month from departure for my next trip to Mongolia. I don’t have a specific itinerary yet, and probably won’t until I arrive, but here’s some of the things I hope to do and see this time around:
-I’m one of the administrators for a Facebook fan page called “Buuz”, which are dearly beloved steamed meat dumplings. Mongols make and eat zillions of them for Tsagaan Sar, the Mongol New Year. When you ask a Mongol living in another country what they miss most, “buuz” is often the answer. We have over 700 fans now! And it turns out that the person who started the page, an Italian guy who is married to a Mongol woman, is going to be in Mongolia the same time as me. So we’ve announced a get-together for “Buuz People” in Ulaanbaatar on July 13 at the (no fooling) Grand Khan Irish Pub. Who knows who will show up, but it should be fun.
-It appears that the first weekend of August that there will be a Yak Festival somewhere in the Khangai Mountains west of Ulaanbaatar. Now, how could I miss that?
-I would like to get to a number of Naadam horse races, both the national one and at least one or two local ones to get more painting reference. I also want to get a lot more photos of the herders and their horses.
-There’s not much left of the ancient Mongol capital of Kharkhorin. It was sacked by a Ming Dynasty army and then most of the remaining stone was used to construct Erdene Zuu Monastery. I would like to visit both.
-For wildlife watching this trip, I want to go back to Hustai National Park and see the takhi in the summertime. I didn’t have time to go there last year. And I plan to return to Baga Gazriin Chuluu Nature Reserve and Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve for argali, ibex and whatever else comes within camera range.
I’m tweaking my equipment for this trip and will cover that in future posts. At the moment, I’ve gotten a new wind and moisture proof fleece jacket from REI that I really like so far and a new Kata daypack for carrying my camera equipment in the field. More on both next week.