We loaded up our watermelons from the garden and started the day’s journey west. Now we were in the deep Gobi, where there were no herders or their gers to be seen. We camped for the night in or near Alag Hairhan Uul Nature Reserve. There were no boundary signs, so I couldn’t tell for sure.
One of the interesting and, to a lot of Westerners, amazing things about traveling in Mongolia is that the thousand-plus year old traditions of hospitality out in the countryside are still practiced. It feels very odd to walk up to someone’s ger (assuming there are no dogs in sight), open the door and walk right in without knocking. After four trips, I still get a twinge doing it.
I found myself very intimidated the first time. There are no windows in a ger and the door is solid wood so, even with a guide, you are walking into someone’s home without any idea of what to expect. Fortunately, the Mongols are patient and understanding, like my first time, when I turned to the right instead of the left and circumnavigated the ger to get to the stool that I was to sit on.
At least I remembered not to step on the threshold or walk between the upright supports.
The older gentleman approved of the fact that I was wearing Mongol boots. He said to me, through my guide “I see Mongol boots and I look up and see… a western face”. It was spring, which means really cold and windy, and they were the warmest footwear I had with me, having purchased them at the State Department Store in UB. They worked, of course. I asked if he would be willing to have his picture taken with a westerner wearing Mongol boots and he immediately sat up, buttoned his del and made room for me to sit beside him on the bed.
Those thermoses keep water hot, hot, hot for over 24 hours. I want one. I just have to figure out how to carry it home.
Now ger visits are one of the things I MOST look forward to when I go to Mongolia. A ger, maybe because of the quality of space that the round shape creates, is one of the most pleasant and peaceful places that I’ve ever been in. I just happily sit sipping milk tea or airag and nibbling aruul as conversations that I don’t understand a word of go back and forth between my guide and our hosts.
Gilmour seems to have relished ger visits also and provided a good description of the customs:
“As for entering tents on the plain, there need be no bashfullness. Any traveler is at perfect liberty to alight at any village he may wish and demand admittance; and any Mongol who refuses admittance, or gives a cold welcome even, is at once stigmatised not a man but a dog. Any host who did not offer tea, without money and without price, would soon earn the same reputation, the reason being, I suppose, that Mongolia has no inn, and all travelers are dependent on private houses for shelter and refreshment. At first sight it seems rather exacting to leap off your horse at the door of a perfect stranger, and expect to find tea prepared and offered to you free; but probably the master of the tent where you refresh yourself is at the same time sitting likewise refreshing himself in some other man’s tent some hundred miles away; and thus the thing balances itself. The hospitality received by Mongols in travelling compensates for the hospitality shown to travelers.”
We hosted our Mongolian friend, her husband and two other couples for a Tsagaan Sar party this past Saturday night. Tsagaan Sar is the Mongolian New Year and the name means “White Moon”. In Mongolia, it’s about three days of visiting, gift-giving and lots of food and drink. As I was thinking about what to post today, I realized that I haven’t written about the food and, when I poked around my photos, found that I’ve ended up with quite a few images (I take pictures of everything). So, here’s an “album” of Mongolian food, with commentary. My apologies in advance for any homesickness this may cause my Mongolian readers.
One of our stops when I was in western Mongolia in 2006 was this huge salt deposit. And, yes, we drove right out over that “bridge”. If you’ve ever played the game “Civilization”, then you can understand how this resonated with me. For how many thousands of years have people been coming here to get salt?
There happened to be two men doing exactly that. Some of our party had to give it a try. At the end of the handle is a scoop with holes in it to let the liquid run out. It seemed to be trickier to do than it looked, so the local guys were pretty amused.
The brown meat in the bowl is goat. The “Mongolian BBQ” that we get in the US is a Chinese invention and has nothing to do with how real Mongols eat. Their diet has traditionally been meat and dairy, diary and meat. Sheep and goats are slaughtered by cutting a slit in the stomach area, inserting a finger, hooking and pulling a vein (Thank you, Narantsogt, for the correction from what I had previously written. He has more info in the comments section) . Pretty humane and it keeps blood from going all over in a country where there isn’t extra water for cleanup.
Here’s the meat in the pot after the foal branding at Arburd Sands. We were invited, but it was getting dark and it looked like the guys were settling in for a very convivial evening that was going to run very late.
Sometimes the goat is simply butchered and hung up in the ger for use. I was told that this much goat meat would feed 3-4 Mongols for about two weeks. The humidity in Mongolia hovers around 10% max., so meat will keep in the dry air. On the other hand, the Mongols have been eating this way for centuries and have defenses against whatever might get into the meat. Westerners don’t, so we have to be careful what we eat. The head will be on the menu too. Nothing is wasted.
We stopped in a soum center (county seat) in western Mongolia for lunch. While we were waiting for our food, I saw these three ladies with meat to sell. They saw me take the picture and I went over and managed to tell them that I was from California. More smiles. Hope they sold out.
Maybe the most beloved item of Mongolian cuisine. Families make thousands of them for Tsaagan Sar. Generally the filling is mutton. I asked if I could take pictures and, from their expressions, their reaction was along the lines of, “Well, if you want to photograph something sooo ordinary, be our guest….What will those visitors think of next?” I guess the equivalent here would be taking pictures of a McDonald’s. I ate four. I practically had mutton fat running down my arm. They were one of the best things I’ve ever had when traveling. I can’t possibly miss them as much of the Mongols, but I’m really looking forward to my next trip.
There’s a recipe for buuz here. We’ve done them now with lamb and on Saturday we used ground beef. We are going to try to find mutton later this year.
On to dairy:
Aruul is essentially dried milk. Mare’s milk is heated up on the ger stove and separated. The solids (which Narantsogt says he remembers as cheese and yogurt) are mixed with water and flour and formed into a variety of shapes and put out in the sun to dry, usually on the top of the ger. It tastes kind of like an slightly acidic yogurt and is an acquired taste, I would think, for most westerners. It took me about three bites. Careful bites, with my molars, because this stuff is hard. But it’s the perfect snack food in the field. Pure protein.
We were visiting a ger adjacent to Hustai National Park and, instead of aruul, I was offered this: pure cream to spread on the bread. Oh my goodness. I really had to get a grip on my manners, because I could easily have eaten all of it. But one has to remember that the Mongols will give you the last of what they have and do without in order to meet their obligations as hosts and many live pretty close to the edge.
Then they handed me a glass, which I assumed at first was the usual milk tea. After a few sips it dawned on me that it had to be the legendary airag (or kumiss, fermented mare’s milk). This was in September, so it was very late in the airag season. It can be “problematical” for western digestive systems and the feedback loop is very, very short. I decided to throw caution to the winds and drank about 4-5 oz. No problem. Whew.
Last year, at Arburd Sands, we were hosted by a local horse trainer and his family, who have 300+ horses. So there was LOTS of airag. This vessel was full to the brim. Fortunately, we weren’t expected to drink the entire contents of those rather large bowls. I think the idea was more for the host to be able to demonstrate the household’s generosity by offering brimming cups. The vodka was Chinggis Khan Gold, I think, which was excellent. The little cubes behind it were a soft cheese. Also delicious.
Finally, a menu item that I have not had the opportunity to try yet, but which is probably as near and dear to as many Mongol’s hearts as buuz. That would be….marmot.
The Mongols who like marmot, REALLY like marmot. When speaking of it, they get this kind of far away look as if remembering every bite they’ve ever had and are savoring it all over again. I’ll leave the hunting details to another time. If any Mongols reading this want to send me an accurate description and/or account, I’ll gladly post it. The traditional preparation involves gutting the animal and removing the fur with a, wait for it, blowtorch. Then it’s cooked over a fire. On a cultural note, it turns out marmots living in Mongolia are the original disease vector for the bubonic plague (Black Death) that hit Europe in the late 1340s.
When you’ve come in from the countryside, there are lots of good restaurants in UB, including…a Chinese-style Mongolian BBQ, which has proved to be very popular with the actual Mongolians.
If you are going to Mongolia, get the Lonely Planet guide.
For more on Tsagaan Sar and things Mongolian, I HIGHLY recommend the Asian Gypsy blog.
I was given a bag of aruul on my last trip to Mongolia in the fall of 2006. I’ve kept it in the freezer and have been eating a little at a time to make it last. I’m now down to the final three or so pieces, plus some bits of dried cream. So, I’ve kind of had Mongolian food on the brain, thinking about the upcoming trip.
One of my first goals upon arrival is to snag a bag of aruul for snacking on the road. Aruul is essentially dried skim milk. It’s really hard and is definitely an acquired taste. My first encounter with it was when I was out in the early morning viewing the takhi at Khomiin Tal and the ranger offered me a piece for breakfast. I hadn’t even had a cup of coffee yet, so I started to chew away at it and figured I’d better make it through most of it to be polite. By the time I was done, I liked it just fine. It has a yogurty tang.
The humidity is so low in Mongolia that they can keep raw meat and dairy without refrigeration, although Westerns had better be careful what they try since we don’t have the resistance the Mongolians have built up. On the way back from Khomiin Tal, we stopped at a soum center (county seat) for lunch, which turned out to be what is almost the national dish, buuz, pronounced more like booooz, with a long “o”. Every culture, it seems, has some version of meat/veg in a dough pocket. Think Cornish pasties. So here’s the inside of the cookshop. I asked to take a picture and the reaction was along the lines of “Sure, if you want to photograph something so utterly ordinary and uninteresting it’s fine by us.”
While waiting for our order to be prepared, we wandered around the busy central “plaza”. Over in the shade were three women setting up a table with their wares, a dismembered carcass of some kind. They saw me taking the picture and we made eye contact. I went over, gestured with my camera and thanked them. Then I summoned up my very minimal Mongolian and told them that I was an artist from California. That elicited all kinds of smiles. This kind of experience is a big reason Why I Don’t Take Packaged Tours.
The soum center. I’m not sure of the name. It’s on the north shore of Khar Us Nur and I have maps with two different names. Someone help me out here.