Everywhere But Home

News and musings from wherever my crazy life takes me. My body may be back in Illinois, but at least for now, my mind is still in Mongolia.

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Horses are Delicious

Those who know me at all know I’ve always been a horse girl. As a child, I collected figurines and books, and not just The Saddle Club and Black Beauty, either; my bookshelves were cluttered with anthologies and lots of non-fiction. I attended a sleep-away horse camp from age 11 to 14 and took several years of horseback riding lessons in middle and high school, as well as two semesters in college. And then, of course, I spent three summers leading trail rides and teaching horsemanship and animal science merit badges at MaKaJaWan Scout Reservation.

My love of horses, in fact, was a large part of my decision to come to Mongolia. I’ll admit that I didn’t know much about the country when I applied to be a Fulbrighter here. It was cold, I knew that much. It was the home of Genghis Khan. And it was a country in which horses held great cultural significance. And that was enough for me.

So it comes as a surprise to most people when I tell them that I eat aduuny max/адууны мах – horse meat. “I thought you loved horses!” they say, or “how can you eat them when you’ve worked with them?”

Here’s the thing: Americans tend to think of horses the way we think of pets. We name our horses, build relationships with them. I wouldn’t be able to kill and eat one of the camp horses unless a) I had no other sources of food, or b) doing so was a mercy to that animal. I wouldn’t want to kill them because I love them, but if they had to die, I don’t see how eating them would dishonor their memories or make my love of them any less.

But Mongolian horses are a different story. To call them “a breed apart” from the domesticated horses we know is an understatement. They’re a different subspecies: Equus ferus przewalskii instead of Equus ferus caballus, commonly known as Przewalski’s horses. They’re shorter and stockier than most domesticated breeds, and exceptionally stubborn. Even the prized Naadam racers are still half-wild; they may be broken to bridle and saddle, but you’re not going to see them performing dressage.

More importantly, the Mongolians view them the same way they do yaks, sheep, and cows: as livestock. They are arguably the most highly-valued variety of livestock, and one of only two that are commonly ridden (camels being the other), but they are livestock nonetheless. They are not typically named, but referred to by color or other attribute: “the grey one,” “the brown one.” They are ridden, and they are milked (more on that later) – and they are eaten.

In America, cheap cuts of meat are full of fat and connective tissue, while leaner cuts are more expensive; in Mongolia, it’s the opposite. Americans might like fat that’s well-marbled into the meat, but we don’t typically eat chunks of straight-up fat; Mongolians do. “жаахон өөх!” we Americans plead at the meat market – only a little fat! – to bewildered and often uncooperative butchers. Every Mongolian knows that the fat is the best part, and good for you besides; why wouldn’t we want it?

Stockily built they may be, but Mongolian horses are skinny, and that skinniness shows up on the butcher’s block. Aside from a thin layer of disconcertingly orange subcutaneous fat, horse meat is the leanest that is widely available. We Westerners flock to it for that reason. We also love it for its price: 5000 tugruks per kilo during the winter, versus 7500 for beef. Most of the Americans in Erdenet are Peace Corps Volunteers barely getting by on only a few hundred dollars per month; those 2500 tugs make a difference.

For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, horse is only eaten in the winter. Some Mongolians have told me that they only eat horse in early winter; by spring, the horses are too skinny. Others have said that horse meat is considered particularly nutritious and thus is saved for consumption in the winter, when it’s most needed. Whatever the reason, it is definitely the meat most subject to seasonal availability. There’s none to be had at the market now, and I miss it.

So yes, I eat horse. It’s cheap and lean, and tasty besides. I’ve never been squeamish about eating other farm animals; why should I start with horses?

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I fail at hiking.

Or, to be more specific, I have thus far failed abysmally at hiking the hills around Erdenet. This is hard for me, as an avid outdoorswoman, long-time Scout, and veteran of several backpacking trips, to admit, but it’s true. And for this, I blame one trait: my hatred of wet feet and squelchy hiking boots.

“I must be cursed,” I recently commented to a Swedish long-time resident of this town. “Every time I try to set foot out of doors, it starts to rain.”

“That’s not a curse, it’s a blessing,” he replied. “Rain is always a blessing in Mongolia.”

He is, generally speaking, correct. If you look up Mongolia’s climate, chances are that one of the words your’e going to find describing it is arid. Even this far north of the Gobi, rain is still considered rare and special. The first rainfall of the year is considered especially lucky; when it fell on April 20th this year, during my friend’s wedding, we were told that this was a particularly auspicious sign for their marriage.

But while the rains did not begin until late this year, with skies that seemed not to remember how to deliver liquid precipitation and continued to dump snow on us until May 27th, they have fallen with a vengeance in the two months since. I would estimate that it has rained at least four or five days out of every week since that final blizzard; much to my dismay, the weekend always falls into the wet side of that statistic. It has rained on every single Saturday and Sunday since May.

The internet, in typical fashion, offers widely conflicting statistics as to Erdenet’s average rainfall and, so far as I’ve found, precisely none regarding this year’s actual rainfall to date, but all the Mongolians I’ve asked agree: this year has been unusually cold and wet.

Case in point: there is water in this rock. It has not yet rained today.

Case in point: there is water in this rock. It has not yet rained today.

Thus, I haven’t made much of an effort to get out onto the hills. When you’re on a week-long backpacking trip with a campsite to get to before nightfall, you trod onward through rain and muck, seeking shelter only when the conditions grow too dangerous for you to do otherwise; you’ve no other choice. But who willingly starts a day-hike in the rain, especially in the Land of Eternal Blue Skies? Especially especially in three-year-old hiking boots that only two weeks ago demonstrated how very not waterproof they are, in their old age?

Today, I vowed, would be different. I would set out in the morning and get a good chunk of the “trails” beneath my feet before thunderstorms started rolling in around noon, as they are wont to do.

Then, of course, I slept later than I’d intended, dallied about on the Internet, and decided to have one more cup of coffee before I left. I finally packed up the essentials (full Nalgene and knife, toilet paper and hand sanitizer, camera and phone, journal, walking stick, and some snacks) and headed out the front door around 10:30, just in time to hear the first rumble of thunder. I paused on the threshold, debating. The day was warm and, so far, sunny. I had a plastic bag to protect my journal and electronics, and if it rained, I’d end up with wet feet whether I had a raincoat or not. I was clad entirely in quick-drying synthetics (except for the wool hiking socks); did I really want to schlep my raincoat along with me?

No, I decided, I did not. The rain might not fall for hours, if it fell at all; the skies overhead were blue, and the sound of thunder carries a long way across the steppe. That storm was probably still far away. If, in despite of all this rationalizing, it rained anyway – well, then I’d just get wet.

How could it possible rain on such a lovely (albeit hazy) summer day?

How could it possible rain on such a lovely (albeit hazy) summer day?

Within minutes, I’d made my way beyond the roads and garages that circle Erdenet and started uphill. Grasses and wildflowers swayed in the light breeze, and the buzz of grasshoppers served as a pleasant – and, blessedly, quieter and less annoying – reminder of the cicadas that would be singing incessantly at home. I let my thoughts wander to previous hiking trips as I rambled back and forth in search of easy passage uphill. I stopped to take pictures of flowers and Tibetan prayer flags, mentally composing an entry I meant to write about the many scripts of Mongolia, and almost managing to ignore the continued grumbling of thunder from the west.

Pretty prayer flags. Not-so-pretty skies.

Pretty prayer flags. Not-so-pretty skies.

As I approached the first peak along the ridge I meant to follow, the clouds shifted to cover the sun, and the wind began to pick up. The temperature dropped from uncomfortably warm to noticeably cool, and when I turned my eyes westward, I found that the clouds from the foreboding bluish-grey that threatens rain to the streaky, lighter hue in the process of delivering it. The clouds directly overhead, meanwhile, had begun to darken. Don’t be a baby, I told myself. It’s just rain.

But it wasn’t. As I watched, a bolt of lightning streaked through the clouds to the west. It was still far away, but was it far enough? Did I really want to be on an exposed mountaintop in a lightning storm? Or even one of the larch forests growing on the mountainsides – would that be better, or worse?

Bayan-Undur is the shorter peak at the center. Not too far - I should be able to make that!

Bayan-Undur is the shorter peak at the center. Not too far – I should be able to make that!

I changed my game plan. I’d summit this little mountain, circle its ovoo, and then head for Bayan-Undur. I hadn’t seen that spectacular ovoo since the fall, and I wanted pictures in a different season. Just those two peaks, I decided as I started uphill once more. I should be able to do both of those before the rains hit.

Then I heard a new sound from the west: not a crack or a boom, but a long, drawn-out rumble, the kind that lingers like a lion’s roar. It was answered in kind by a louder rumble just east of me before fading into a faint, scratchy crackling to the west. Either the western storm front had just thundered so loudly that the sound had echoed off the mountain on which I was standing and then been bounced back again by the mountains to the west, or the storm fronts to the east and west had begun to thunder in concert.

The skies overhead do seem to be getting awfully grim...

The skies overhead do seem to be getting awfully grim…

Either way, the message was clear. I picked my way over to a narrow, twisted track, the kind trod by many little hoofed feet, and started down the mountain. Sheep and goats might not have a whole lot in those tiny brains of theirs, bless them, but they do have the sense to seek shelter from the elements, and to create wonderfully nettle-free trails to places in which to do so. Without even pausing to tuck my camera and journal into the Ziploc bag I’d brought to protect them, I began the downward climb in earnest. IMG_1364

I made it home just as the first few drops began to splatter on the pavement around me. So far, as I sit and type this in my warm, dry apartment, it’s done no more than drizzle; the thunder has stopped, and the skies above this little valley have turned gorgeously, infuriatingly blue. But the sky to the north, above those hills I long to hike, maintains its threatening cast, and until it clears, I think I’ve tempted fate enough for the day. The heavens have spoken, and I shall obey.


How to Play Cards with Mongolians

If you visit Mongolia at any point, you will probably find yourself playing a lot of card games. Mongolians love their cards and rarely pass up an opportunity to play or to learn a new game. I almost always have a deck with me, because a) It allows you to interact with those around you even when the language barrier is too great to allow meaningful communication, b) It takes up next to no space and can be used to play a huge variety of games, and c) It’s a great teaching/learning tool, no matter what the target language; I played Liar with Mongolian friends to practice my Mongolian numbers and Go Fish with my students to reinforce English numbers and “have.” Even if you forget your cards, they’re easy to acquire; most delguurs sell them, usually for no more than 300-500 MNT ($.15-.25, about the price of a cup of tea).

There are many Mongolian games, some of them quite similar to ours: the game they call “Liar” closely resembles BS, and another whose name I’ve forgotten is much like Crazy Eights. But if you’re asked if you’d like to play cards, the game you’ll most likely find yourself playing is Хөзөр (khuzur), which is also the name for playing cards in general.

  1. Remove the 4s, 5s, and 6s from the deck, but make sure you have the jokers.
  2. Amaze the surrounding Mongolians by shuffling Western-style. Most people here shuffle by holding a small portion of the deck longways above the rest and gently shaking the cards until they fall in randomly, though a few will pull out the center section of the deck and slap ever-smaller portions of it atop the rest of the deck. My only guess as to the reason for the popularity of these methods is that they do not bend the cards. This greatly contributes to their longevity, since the playing cards available in Mongolia are typically not plastic-coated.
  3. Don’t forget to let someone else cut the deck, or you will be called out for it.
  4. Deal five cards to each player; up it to seven if only two are playing. Put the rest of the deck in the center, face down.
  5. Flip the top card and tuck part of it beneath the deck. This card marks your trump suit and should remain untouched until the deck is exhausted, at which point it may be drawn. The player holding the 7 of the trump suit may, however, exchange it for this card at whatever point he or she wishes.
  6. The first player may play one or three cards if all players have five cards in their hand; he may also play five if all players have seven cards. If playing three cards, two must be a pair; if five, two pairs must be played, and so on. The entire hand cannot be played until the entire deck has been drawn.
  7. The player draws until he once more holds five cards. All players should have at least five cards in hand until the deck runs out.
  8. Play continues in a circle. The second player must beat all cards played by the person before him, either with a card of higher value in the same suit, or with any card from the trump suit. The cards, in decreasing order of value, are as follows: 3 2 1 A K Q J 10 9 8 7. A card in the trump suit beats any in another suit, regardless of numerical value; jokers beat trump; red joker beats black joker, making it the most valuable card in the deck. Once the appropriate number of cards has been played, the player draws to refill his hand.
  9. If a player cannot beat all the cards played, or if he wants to save his trumps for later, he must take all the cards in play. This forfeits his turn, and the next player begins the next round of play.
  10. If the round makes it all the way back to the player who started it without being picked up, the cards are discarded from play, and the player who finished the round begins the next one. Thus, if a round was begun by player B and all players, including A, were able to beat the cards before them, A would start the next round.
  11. Once all cards have been drawn, players may begin attempting to go out. Players may play as many cards as they wish, so long as a) they abide by the pairs+1 pattern, and b) they do not play more cards than any player has in hand. If all players have at least five cards, up to five may be played, but if one player has only two, only one card may be played at at time.
  12. The first player to go out wins. When playing multiple games, the winner of the previous game begins the next.

Шинэ Үгс (New Words):

  • хөзөр – card
  • холих – to shuffle
  • тараах – to deal
  • авах – to take or draw; if you forget to do so, your opponents may cry, “Аваагүйштээ!” (that’s an approximate spelling)
  • чиний/таны элж – your turn!
  • хожих – to win; ялагч – winner
  • тамга – ace
  • хаан – king
  • хатан – queen

Cut and jack are notably absent from this list, I know. If you know them or have other words to submit, please share below!


Dinner in the Second World: Cowboy Potatoes

Life in the second world presents as a series of paradoxes. In some ways, I live the same life I might in America, with only a façade of Mongolian-ness thrown in for effect; in others, the roles reverse, and my assumptions about an apparently familiar subject are thrown into constant revision. In this series, I will attempt to bring this funhouse to life.

“What do you eat in Mongolia?” people ask, and it’s not always an easy question to answer. What I eat in the burgeoning metropolis of Erdenet differs greatly from what Mongolian people in Erdenet eat, which is different again from what people out in the hudoo (an Anglicization of хөдөө, or ‘countryside’) eat. But let’s explore this question via what I had for dinner tonight, and how I made it, because it does a pretty thorough job of reflecting multiple facets of a complex question. Also, it was delicious.

Cowboy Potatoes (a recipe shamelessly yoinked from fellow Fulbrighter Teresa and then modified to reflect my own notions of deliciousness)

  • Set some water to boil in your demonic тогоо (electric wok). Make sure to turn it on a lower setting so that it does not melt its own cord, and also that you put it in a room on a different circuit than the kitchen so that you do not blow a fuse by attempting to boil water in two different rooms at the same time again. Check periodically that it has not set itself on fire.
  • Throw out the carrots that have gotten moldy, and ascertain which of the potatoes are salvageable if you cut off the many, many sprouts. Attempt to peel them.
  • Sigh in frustration at the fact that your roommate has clearly been using the knives to open cans again, even though you bought a can opener. Grab a ceramic bowl, turn it over, and sharpen the knives on the unglazed bottom edge. Before using them, be sure to rinse off any metal or ceramic shavings they may have accrued in the sharpening process. Also run your thumb along the edge to remind yourself of their newly-sharpened status, as one trip to the emergency room is plenty.
  • Peel the potatoes and carrots using the smaller of the knives. In America, I’d just cook the potatoes with the skins on, but these were probably grown in China, and who knows what chemicals they spray their crops with. (Aside from distrust of all things made in China Mongolia has instilled in me, potatoes really are one of those foods you want to buy organic when possible.) Wash the dirt from the peeled root vegetables. Mongolians do it in that order (peel first, wash second) while Americans would do the reverse; I suspect the Mongolian method is chosen because it uses and dirties a lot less water.
  • Cut the carrots and potatoes into chunks and throw them in the water. Hope the тогоо doesn’t melt anything while you go back to the kitchen.
  • Fry up some bacon on on your little hot plate. Keep the drippings.
  • While the bacon cooks, cut onions, garlic, and cabbage. Most Mongolians prefer green cabbage, but I buy red when possible, because it’s pretty and because phytochemicals are tasty. They’re even tastier fried in bacon grease, though obviously not quite as healthy. Start the cabbage first, with a little water so that it steams for a bit while you do the aromatics. Add a little butter before mixing in the onions and garlic if the cabbage appears to have absorbed all the fat.
  • If the potatoes and carrots are cooked through, strain them using your dish drainer (since you don’t have a colander). Toss them back into the тогоо, as it’s the largest bowl you’ve got. Mash them, and thank the Korean home supply stores for the fact that you are able to do so using a potato ricer rather than a fork.
  • Add milk and butter and mix. Don’t use much butter; there’s already plenty of fat in the cabbage mixture, and whole milk’s got plenty of its own.
  • Cut up some cheese and add it while the mixture is still hot enough to melt it. Don’t use a lot, because it’s prohibitively expensive. Be sure to thank the Russians for the fact that it’s available at all.
  • Chop the bacon and sprinkle it in, along with the cabbage, onions, and garlic. . Dig out the aforementioned can opener and dump in a can of corn (drained) for good measure.
  • Season liberally with salt and pepper and mix.
  • Dish out; put individual servings of leftovers in ceramic bowls, since they can be reheated in the toaster oven or in boiling water without shattering.
  • Enjoy!
Cowboy potatoes: colorful and tasty

Cowboy potatoes: colorful and tasty


Travel on the Horizon

Dear readers,

I know things have been pretty quiet on this blog for the past month or so, and for that I apologize. The reasons for my absence, as well as those for my return, will be posted on an occasion when I have had the foresight to type them out before traveling across town to the place with a reasonable Internet connection. In the meantime, I present to you: my exciting plans for the future.

As my current visa expires at the end of August, several months before my intended return to the US, I’ll be participating in a time-honored tradition well-known to the expat community: the visa run. A visa run, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a trip to another country at the end of one’s visa in order to re-enter and acquire a new one. In a lot of cases, including when one is changing visa types, you can’t just extend your current visa. Instead, you must leave the country and come back in order to get your new visa. Runs to China and Russia for this purpose are pretty common among the EiM (Expats in Mongolia) community, since they can be reached by train rather than plane. Korea is also a common destination, since Americans don’t need a visa for a quick trip there, as they do for Russia and China.

But since I’ve no pressing desire to visit any part of China beyond the Great Wall (because really, who doesn’t want to see the Great Wall?), and I plan to venture to Russia on a later date, I’ve decided to take this opportunity to see other parts of Asia. I’m an avid reader of Stupid Ugly Foreigner‘s descriptions of his adventures while teaching in Korea, and as much as I love his blog, it has made me both frustrated and envious. So far, despite having lived in Asia for nearly a year, I have yet to visit a single other country on the continent (the Tokyo and Beijing airports, obviously, do not count). It’s mightily discouraging to read another’s beautifully-written accounts of his wild romps through Asia with the knowledge that, despite being in Asia yourself, you have little  chance of similar experiences. Lack of infrastructure here makes even in-country travel difficult and time-consuming, and the fact that Mongolia is on the way to precisely nowhere makes for a limited flight schedule. I’d have had a hard time getting away from work for a long weekend even if I lived in the capital – which I don’t.

So now that I have to go somewhere, you can bet I’m headed for one of those places that, so far, I’ve only been able to read and dream about. Which is to say: Thailand. I though about Dharamsala for a good long while, but even if the news hadn’t been recently flooded with ills befalling female travelers, I think I’d still be a mite nervous about tackling India while traveling solo. I will go there someday – just not on this trip. After a year in a country with almost none to speak of, the promise of paved roads and other actual infrastructure in Thailand is just too tempting.

So, readers who’ve been to Thailand and Cambodia: where should I go? Tell me what you remember most fondly, be it a place you stayed, a sight you saw, or a thing you did. (Accommodation and food recommendations especially welcome.) So far, I’ve got Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Chiang Rai on the highly-recommended list, since I’m more interested in hiking and temples and elephants than beaches. A day on a tropical island sounds lovely, don’t get me wrong – but I’m going here to see and do things, not just laze. Also, prolonged exposure to the sun turns me roughly the same hue as my trusty berry-tinted Kelty backpack, and carrying a Kelty in that condition strikes me as a profoundly unappealing proposition.

I also want to drop into Cambodia at least briefly, if for no other reason than because there’s no way I’m getting that close to Angkor Wat without actually seeing it. I don’t know much else about the country, so your recommendations in that regard are particularly welcome. In total, I’m looking to be spend about two weeks in the region and return to Mongolia mid-September.

Leave your recommendations below, where others can find them, or drop me an email at my very creative email address: my first name, followed by my last name (both lowercase), at gmail.com.


Misery, Thy Name is Mikr

If there’s one thing that my recent trip to Khuvsgul taught me, it’s that where travel is concerned, transportation is my Achilles heel. I’m very okay with roughing it when we get wherever we’re going – I can deal with hard beds (or no beds) and not showering, with life without television or Internet. I don’t expect the locals to be able to speak English to me, though I certainly appreciate it when they can. But put me in a crowded, untrustworthy vehicle on a winding, uneven set of muddy tire tracks, and it’s all I can do not to put my head between my knees and cry. I spend the entirety of the journey wondering whatever possessed me to attempt this madness, praying that we don’t crash, and contemplating the fact that this unfortunate ending would at least bring an end to my constant state of semi- to complete nausea. If I’m lucky, I can curl up in a corner before the going gets too rough and sleep through the worst of it – but when corners and sleep are not to be had, the entire experience is an agonizing one.

The ride up to Murun (the provincial capital of Khuvsgul aimag, about 1.5 hours from the lake itself) was nine and a half hours long, and only an hour of it was spent on paved road. I spent the majority of that time leaning my head against the rolled-up sweatshirt I’d wedged between the window and the seat in front of me, desperately attempting to will myself into unconsciousness. It mostly did not work. I did plenty of dozing but remained acutely aware of how slowly time plodded by. 

Nine and a half hours is a long time to be conscious, vaguely sick, and unable to do anything about it. You listen to your iPod; you munch half-heartedly on the snacks you brought, especially the candied ginger; you attempt to ride the very fine balance between the agony of a dehydration-induced headache and the agony of a full bladder on a bumpy road.  You open the window a little wider to offset the combined body heat of twenty people in a fourteen-seat vehicle, resigning yourself to getting coated in dust if the breeze lowers the temperature even infinitesimally. You shut your ears to the retching of the child in the seat in front of you, hoping he doesn’t throw up on your friends, who are seated across from him, but mostly trying not to think about it so that you don’t join the puke parade. And you grumble to yourself that this trip had better be worth it, because you’re going to go through the same thing all over again to get home.

But really, I needn’t have worried about that. In some ways, the return journey sounds much worse: it took twelve hours, starting at 5 pm, in a fold-up seat that left me nowhere to rest my head. But there were only fourteen of us in the mikr this time, and the only drunk passenger was all the way in the back. The driver turned off both the lights and the radio in the wee hours of the night, immensely helpful in the snatching of brief bouts of sleep. Most importantly, the temperature in the vehicle never climbed beyond the mid-sixties, remaining well shy of the threshold of misery. All the same, it was a very long night.

Never again will I complain about driving in the US – if I do, remind me about Mongolia, and that will shut me up. No matter how long the drive, paved roads and your own seat make all the difference. AC and the ability to go to the bathroom at need don’t hurt either.

Will I get in a mikr again? Sadly, that answer is a definite yes. There’s just no other way to get around most of this country, and there still so much more country to see. Though I decided long ago that this is a country I would rather see on horseback than by car, no matter how much more time it took, the unfortunate fact is that that’s not really an option. So I’ll bite the bullet and remind myself that yes, the sights I’m headed for are worth the misery of mikrs.

Khuvsgul was.