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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Stepperiders and a Visit to UB

October 9, 2012

To all who expressed sympathy or concern in response to last week’s post – thank you. Your messages of support have been immensely helpful, even when they come all the way from the other side of the world. The past week has been difficult, but I think this one will be better. I had an expensive but fun and productive weekend in Ulaanbaatar, which seems like a promising way to kick things off.

I arrived in UB by train around 8 am. The train station is about a 40-minute walk from the apartment where I was staying – if you know where you’re going, which at the time, I did not. But I met up with Alex and Matt eventually, as well as the French couch surfer who had stayed with them the night before. The four of us went out to breakfast before meeting the rest of the group for the drive out to Stepperiders.

The drive wasn’t as long as I had feared it might be, nor as nauseating. The setup, out in the hills south of UB, was quite simple: about five or six gers on concrete platforms, an outdoor eating area, a corral full of horses, a shed full of helmets, and an outhouse. (A really nice one – it even had toilet seats and toilet paper!) The place was clearly catered to tourists: the saddles were Russian (and therefore padded); the guides spoke reasonably good English; we were offered coffee with breakfast, as well as milk tea; they had Sriracha and Tabasco. I usually dislike such tourist-type operations, but in this case, I was glad of the pandering. Since my Mongolian is limited, and I dislike Mongolian-style saddles and milk tea, the tourist experience was both easier and more enjoyable.

They even let me ride bareback, though not without several assurances that yes, I was sure I didn’t want to use a saddle, and no, I didn’t mind that the horses were bony. In retrospect, I should have minded – though they put me on the fattest little pony they had, I could still feel his spine digging into me the entire time. I quickly decided that it was easier and more comfortable to walk downhill than to spend the whole time trying not to slide onto his withers. Luckily, my little pony was so short that I could hop onto him without difficulty, even when he was uphill of me. He was a grumpy thing too, keeping his ears perpetually at half-mast and trying to bite me when I asked him to go faster than he deemed reasonable, even though I smacked him around each time he did it. But he never tried to buck or kick. I liked him.

The ride was long and fun, and we got to do plenty of running. My pony and I had some disagreements about whether or not trotting was permissible, and these were primarily responsible for my ongoing soreness and my first-ever saddle sores – or more aptly in this case, should-have-used-a-saddle sores. Spines, tailbones, and bouncing are a painful combination.

We had tsuivan (stir-fry with noodles) for lunch and curry for dinner, both of which were excellent. I built a fire in Lisa and Chris’s ger, but only with Joe’s help: those stoves offer very little room to maneuver, and there isn’t much in the way of kindling to bridge the gap between paper and split logs. Mongolians usually solve this issue by lighting their fires with a blowtorch, but ours was nowhere to be found.

We also hung out with the other people at the camp. there were three other “tourists,” though the term doesn’t exactly fit, since they all lived and worked in UB. One was British, another Indian by birth, though he’d spent most of his life in Britain; the third was Mongolian but American-educated. We had a good time hanging out with all of them, and also with a member of the Stepperiders staff – a French college student who’d hired on for the summer to teach the rest of the staff English. I was glad of the chance to practice my French with the two native speakers, since I’ve let it go rusty recently.

We came back around 1 pm on Sunday, tired and hungry but happy. I spent the afternoon lazily: napping, getting food, and eventually wandering down to the train station to purchase my return ticket to Erdenet the next day. I made two more stops on my way home – one for food, and one because I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to check out a place called the Edinburgh Scottish Pub. It was nice and had a reasonable selection of whiskey (by Mongolian standards, at least), though nothing else about the place was particularly Scottish. They did give me ice with my whiskey, though, which isn’t a very common occurrence here. And I had a nice conversation with the bartender, who had lived in Norway for two years and spoke very good English.

On Monday, I got in contact with an Australian expat who’s scheduled to leave in a couple of weeks and was looking to sell her coat. It was a little tight in the shoulders but otherwise seemed great, and I’d rather buy from an expat than Narantuul. More quality guarantee, for one thing, and a chance to keep goods recirculating. Why buy new coats when other people are looking to get rid of their still-good-but-no-longer-needed ones?

Catherine’s apartment turned out to be in the same block as Alex’s, so the whole process took very little time. I then set off on the familiar bus ride to Zaisan to visit Lisa and Chris for lunch. There are a lot more people in the area now that school has started, and the buses are much more crowded, but the area still feels like home. Even if the women at the reception desk didn’t want to let me into the dorm. And I enjoyed the chance to catch up with my hosts, of course.

Eventually, I headed back to the city to meet up with Lisa and Baagii so we could go to Narantuul together. I got a coffee at the Grand Khan Irish Pub while I waited for them and struck up a conversation with some oddly-accented English speakers. They turned out to be from South Africa; the Germanic-sounding language I’d been straining to catch was Afrikaans. They were very nice, and one of them insisted on giving me his email address. He runs a farm and a guesthouse along the coast, where he said I was welcome to stay “when I come to South Africa.” While that seems unlikely to happen anytime soon, I still took his name and email address. No sense in burning any bridges.

Finally Lisa and Baagii and I made our way to Narantuul to do some shopping. Since neither Lisa and I can manage more than a few mangled sentences in Mongolian, Baagii proved invaluable. It was he who negotiated things like trying on shoes and finding out which ones were available in larger sizes. Lisa and I each found a pear of lined felt boots (mine are embroidered reindeer and stars) and a pair or two of woolen socks (since you can never have too many. I now own two of camel wool and one of yak, as well as many of the standard US sheep). I also bought a dress, also made of wool, though I’m not sure which kind. Baagii swears it’s long enough for me to wear to work but also says I will probably attract a lot of attention in it. Exactly what I need with classes full of sixteen-year-old boys, right?

All of those purchases added up, of course, but I knew going into this weekend that it would be an expensive one. The coat and boots and socks, at least, were necessary, and preparing for winter ain’t cheap. But I got what I needed, and I had fun with old friends and made new ones along the way, so I would call the weekend a complete success.


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Nomadic Homestay, Part 2

August 29

Today I woke up both earlier and later than I wanted to. One of hour hosts came in and built the fire at 5:30, which was a little earlier than I had planned on getting up. But the grey light of the sky told me both that the sun was already on its way up, and that it was too cloudy for us to see much of a sunrise. Since that was what I had wanted to get up early to see, I stayed in my sleeping bag instead, wondering how on earth Mongolian women can build a fire so quickly when they don’t appear to use paper or itsy-bitsies.

The answer, I gleaned from the leftovers of our established fire, is birchbark. I had tried to build a fire two mornings before, but I was unable to bridge the gap between toilet paper and the largish kindling they provided without first going to collect twigs. But birchbark’s longer burn time seemed to make this possible.

She had build this fire to heat, not water for сүүтей цай, as I would have expected, but cream. I watched from my sleeping bag as she assembled the dough for боорцог and set it before the fire to rise. I observed this step with some satisfaction; I knew these small, slightly-sweetened pieces of deep-fried dough were leavened, even though they told us yesterday that they contained only flour, өрөм (clotted cream), and sugar. We had some fresh out of the oil yesterday, and they were marvelous.

We’ve tried a lot of new things this weekend, both tasks and food. Lisa and I try to help with the chores, though I think we mostly just get in the way. I can hold my own when peeling potatoes or washing ger poles, but that’s about it. And even peeling vegetables was a slow business on the first day – not because we were peeling with knives rather than peelers, since a potato’s no different from an apple in that respect, but because Lisa and I asked so many questions. We sounded a lot like three-year-old Элхэ with our constant chorus of “Энэ юу вэ?” (“what’s this?”). But Ану, our six-year-old teacher, was patient and taught us the words potato (төмс), carrot (лоован), beet (манжин), and knife (хутга). In fact, she was constantly trying to teach us new words, but I’ve already forgotten most of them. Mostly she taught us pronunciation, since we never figured out the meaning of many of the sounds we dutifully repeated.

Ану was your favorite playmate, but we also played many rounds of хөзөр (a card game) with the teenaged boy, Баатаар. He broke his arm when he fell off his horse last week, but that hasn’t stopped him from working or playing. While he abstained from joining his sisters on the nightly ride out to round up the cattle for milking, he was still an integral part of the milking process. It was he who released the calves, one by one, from the pen separating them from their mothers. Once a calf had run to its mother and begun to suckle, it was he who checked to make sure the milk was flowing, dragged the calf away, and tied it up to allow his sisters to milk.

I had tried my hand at milking once more, but found that I was embarrassingly bad at it; I could coax out a light stream of milk, but nothing compared to the waterfalls the more experienced girls managed. Rather than waste the family’s time and risk spilling the milk, therefore, I joined Баатаар in the calf-wrangling. Even this was more difficult than I expected; the older calves were large, strong, and quite determined not to be hauled away from their evening meal.

But I managed well enough, which is more, I’m ashamed to admit, than can be said of my attempts at riding. Mongolian tack has changed very little in over two thougsand years, and while the bridle is quite similar to a Western one, and there’s no appreciable difference between the traditional Mongolian bit and a modern snaffle, the saddle is another story altogether. They are tiny, and the high cantle and pommel have very little padding in their centers and none at all around the edges. Sitting deeply in one rotates your pelvis forward and under in a way I’m not used to, and while it was bearable at the walk, both sitting and posting a trot proved extremely painful. Cantering was somewhat better, but the trotting required to reach, and then retreat from, that speed left me with angry bruises that would persist for the next week and a half. I longed to have done with the saddle and just go bareback, but given the half-wild reputation of Mongolian horses, to say nothing of Баатаар’s broken arm, I didn’t dare.

Happily, those bruises were the worst injury any of us sustained during that long weekend, but it was a close call; our trip to the nearby stream to get water with Ану and twelve-year-old Саруул was nearly disastrous. The process involves setting an empty, sealable jug in a cart and wheeling it to the stream, settling it securely, then filling it and wheeling it back. The cart is superflous on the way there but entirely necessary on the way back, no matter how rough the ground you’re covering: 60 liters of water weight about 132 pounds, more than I can readily lift and far more than I can carry (in my arms, at least) for the fifteen minutes it took to walk back. Саруул or Баатаар usually performs this task alone, moreover, and I don’t think either weighs as much as the quantity of water they’re trying to transport!

When the car isn’t in use to haul water, the older children often give the younger ones rides in it; Cooper in particular delighted in taxiing Элхэ, obeying her squealed commands of, Баруун! Зүүн! Чигээрээ!” (“left! right! straight ahead!”). So Ану thought nothing of climing in back with the full barrel of water, and while I resented the extra weight, neigther Саруул no I said anything.

All was well until we hit a bump. Suddenly, the cart tipped backwards; the handle flew up and out of Саруул’s my hands, and the barrel toppled backwards onto Ану, pinning her feet at an awkward angle. She screamed as Саруул and I tugged at the handles, trying unsuccessfully to lift it off of her. Lisa took Саруул’s place, and Саруул moved to tugh at her sister’s armpits; we managed to free one of Ану’s feet, but were unable to extricate her completely until Yoki ran to our aid. With his help, we moved Ану to the side and righted barrel and cart.

Ану continued to cry and rub at her right foot, so I coaxed her to sit up and let me examine her ankles. She didn’t whimper or even flinch when I applied pressure to the afflicted foot, and nothing looked swollen, so I figured she didn’t have any breaks or sprains. I gave her a hug and ruffled her hair, and after a few minutes, she got up and we walked home, with Yoki firmly in charge of the cart this time. We were all a little shaken, but glad that serious injury had been avoided. Countryside kids are one tough bunch!