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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My Trip to Govi-Altai, Part IV: Тэмээ

Camels! Camels camels camels.

Riding a camel was really one of the only expectations I’d had as far as what I’d do with my time in the Gobi, but almost as soon as I arrived, it started to sound as though I wouldn’t be able to. When Mongolians give you a possible date for something but then push it back every time you ask about it, chances are it’s not going to happen. The camels were really far away, we were told; it was too snowy here, so they’d had to go further out, where there was more food. The roads were bad and they didn’t think we could handle the ride. We would go on Friday, then Saturday, then maybe Sunday if the weather was good.

And then one day one of Eric’s counterparts informed us we’d be leaving at noon the next day. In most of Mongolia, this would mean we wouldn’t actually hit the road until two, but because Delger occupies a hole in the Mongolian space-time continuum, we actually left at ten. It’s a good thing we knew to be ready early, because bundling up for the occasion involved the time-consuming donning of many, many layers.

I could have just worn my coat, of course; since my deel isn’t lined,  it’s nowhere near as warm as my winter coat. But if you had a chance to ride a camel in the country’s traditional dress, wouldn’t you? That’s what I thought.

An hour in the car brought us past mountains, roaming herds of livestock, and a strange line at which the snow just stopped. It didn’t correspond with a ridge, or a road, or anything that I could see; nor did it transition gradually. It was like someone had laid a giant tarp across the ground and removed it after the snow ended.

Weird, right?

Weird, right?

Finally we arrived at a small cluster of gers. We disembarked from the car, pausing so I could put on my deel –  hadn’t been wearing it because I knew it would be warm in the car, and I’m more likely to get carsick if it’s too warm – and headed for the nearest one. The guard-kid bleated at us as we approached, so I stopped to take a picture.

goats wearing blankets = unexpectedly adorable

goats wearing blankets = unexpectedly adorable

What with my (utter lack of) Mongolian language skills, I didn’t really know what was discussed in the ger. Eric attempted to translate huushuur into English, and we learned that “fried pastry” is an amazingly effective tongue twister for Mongolians; as their language contains neither [p] nor [f], they tend not to be able to differentiate between the two sounds. Our hosts threw some buuz in the steamer and handed us steaming cups of milk tea. I sipped politely at mine, glad that southern suutei tsai is made without most of the fat and salt they use up north, but still unable to stomach a large quantity of the stuff. I was glad to be able to hand my bowl off to Eric when he finished his own.

While we waited for the buuz to finish cooking, Eric presented our hosts with a gift to thank them for their hospitality. This is pretty standard anytime you visit someone, but especially when they’re doing you a favor like letting them ride their camels. In that case, there is a specific protocol to follow. You present the gift with both hands; you might need only one to hold the gift, but the хадаг (the ubiquitous ceremonial blue scarf) must be draped across both. And as when doing anything important in Mongolia, you’re supposed to wear your hat.

The receiver is supposed to wear his hat too.

The receiver is supposed to wear his hat too.

Finally, the sitting and eating and talking and gift-giving were complete, and our hosts took us out to their camels. There were two saddled, but it seemed we’d only be riding the one. They’re much larger I would have thought; it’s one thing to know an animal’s big, but quite another to stand beside it and observe that its head is roughly the size of your entire torso. We were seeing them in all their winter glory, bulked out by a significant quantity of shaggy hair. In the summer, that hair comes out in patches, leaving the camels looking positively diseased.

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Sitting down, he’s almost shoulder height. Told you they were big.

I got to go first, and it was clear they had absolutely no faith in my abilities. I was pony-led the entire time, and they told me to hold onto the hump when the camel stood up – a totally unnecessary direction. Camels aren’t exactly graceful when they stand up and sit down, but the motion doesn’t begin to compare to sitting a bucking pony. Like draft horses, camels don’t seem prone to, or even capable of, large sudden movement. Besides, the humps fore and aft of you make for a very secure seat. A comfortable one, too; Mongolian camel saddles are apparently much more padded than the ones they use for their horses.

I was bound and determined to have another turn, especially after they let Eric control the camel himself. And they were kind enough to let me have one. The camel was biddable, but I suppose I would be too if I was being directed through a piercing in my upper lip. He responded to leg pressure too, which is more than can be said of many of the horses here. And he stood and sat in response to verbal commands. He wasn’t happy about it, though. From all his whining, you would have thought we were doing something much worse than walk him around in circles.

They let us ride double. That was pretty cool.

They let us ride double. That was pretty cool.

I’m not sure what I expected a camel to sound like, but this one certainly defied all my expectations. He moaned and whined and squeaked, emitting noises that doubtless have been used for aliens in movie sound effects. I mean it; that’s the closest comparison I can come up with.

Camels make funny noises. Fancy that.


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A Disappointing Dinner

So it’s nine o’clock and I’m exhausted, probably because I teach a class at 8 am on Thursdays now. I don’t know why that’s such a big deal; for the entirety of my high school career, I was usually at school by 7 am. But with the exception of one twice-weekly 8:30 am class my first semester of college, I haven’t had an eight o’clock class since, well, high school. For matter, I think I had maybe four classes in my entire college career that started before ten o’clock. At least my introduction to a Real Adult Job with Real Adult Hours is a slow one, as I only teach classes three days a week.

But that was not the point of this post. I did not log on to complain about having to walk to work in the dark in the snow, but rather about my failed attempts to make dinner last night.

Most of my friends would agree that I’m a pretty decent cook. I can follow a recipe, I know the approximate extent to which I can modify said recipe without risking disaster, and I’m good coming up with ingredients that will taste good together based on what’s available (an invaluable skill here, where ingredients common in the US—limes, say, or rosemary, or spinach—are not to be found). Nor am I one to confuse sugar with salt, or forget I have something on the stove, or drastically undercook things. In short: I am not particularly used to kitchen disasters.

Yesterday’s dinner, however, was definitely one of the more dismal I have prepared. I don’t know how it’s possible to screw up cooking rice in a rice cooker, but mine went straight from crunchy (when it first said it was done) to mushy (when I attempted to cook it longer) without ever reaching ‘fluffy and delicious.’ I suspect it had something to do with the power cord, which the тогоо recently fried—which is to say that it overheated to the point where part of the coating melted off to expose the wires, though said wires still conduct electricity. Тогооs are standard cooking equipment in gers, but these electric woks are ill-suited to apartment life. Beyond their complete inability to brown food without burning it black, I have every confidence in their ability to blow fuses and start fires.

Needless to say, they’re made in China; Mongolians are deeply suspicious of most Chinese-made goods, and rightly so. All Chinese exports of decent quality go to America, and Europe, while the stuff they send here is virtually guaranteed to fall apart or self-destruct in an unreasonably short period of time.

But mushy rice does not a ruined dinner make, though it does mean that your broccoli goes similarly mushy when you try to keep it warm while waiting for the rice to finish cooking. No, what ruins your dinner is when you fail to distinguish between two frozen, unlabeled chunks of meat and grab your roommate’s хонины мах instead of your адууны мах.

I don’t know if every Westerner who moves to Mongolia promptly acquires an abiding hatred of mutton, but I think I can safely say that most of them do. I had nothing against the stuff when I arrived here; for the first week or two, I had no problem with mutton huushuur and buuz (or at least, I had problems with the amount of fat they contained, rather than with the kind of meat).

But mutton has a distinctive taste, one that everyone I know quickly grew sick of. Unfortunately, you can’t really escape it; it’s by far the cheapest meat available, and it’s pretty much all Mongolians eat. Some restaurants offer beef, chicken, or pork, in that order of frequency, especially if they offer Western food. But if the kind of meat in a dish is not specified, it’s safe to bet it’s mutton.

That might not be so bad if were seasoned, but Mongolians season most of their foods with two things: fat and salt, and lots of them. Sometimes they add onions, and very occasionally, garlic. But the traditional Mongolian diet consists of mutton, sheep fat, flour, salt, milk products—and not much else. Vegetables are a recent addition; nomadic families don’t plant gardens, and Mongolian greenery is mostly grass.

All of which is a long way of saying that Mongolia has pretty much killed sheep meat for me. We’ll see if I can stomach lamb when I get back to the states, but with the exception of tsuivan, I would usually rather not eat than eat mutton. The taste is strong and unpleasant, and the smell it gives of when you cook it is even more so.  So realizing, when the meat hit the pan, that it was not what I thought it was, made my dining experience a distinctly dismal one.

Dismal, you’ll notice, not disastrous. Mutton with mushy broccoli and mushier rice is certainly edible, and as expensive as broccoli is here, it’s not something you can justifiably throw aside in despair as you make a beeline for the nearest restaurant. It’s just not enjoyable.

And I didn’t even have any wine to wash away the taste of disappointment.


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I Couldn’t Possibly Eat Another Buuz: Tsagaan Sar

So you know those thousands of buuz I said all the families in Mongolia were busy making last week? Well, they make that many for a reason. I didn’t bother to keep track of how many buuz I ate during the three days of festivities, but Peace Corps Volunteers say it’s not uncommon to put away 30-50, and this year’s record-setter downed over a hundred within 24 hours. My number was nowhere near so impressive, but we did visit eight or nine households during my two days in the countryside with my director and her family, and you have to eat at least a few at each visit or your hostess will be offended.

Buuz, I must concede, are perfectly suited to the way this holiday is celebrated. When new guests arrive, you offer them candy (or aaruul, which Mongolians eat like candy) and milk tea, and you throw another found of buuz in the steamer. Twenty minutes later, you serve them to your guests, who, despite having eaten the same thing for the past two or three days straight, greet it with seemingly undiminished enthusiasm. To quote Peace Corps Volunteer Andrew, who has already been quoted by my friend Adam in his own post on the subject, “Tsagaan Sar is like Halloween and Thanksgiving – except when you go trick-or-treating, instead of candy, you get Thanksgiving dinner at each house.”

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A bucket of frozen buuz just waiting to be steamed.

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Into the steamer they go!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At least there is plenty of variation between each household’s buuz. Some include more fat than others; some add garlic or dill; most use mutton, but others make them with beef or horse meat. And almost everyone will have soy sauce and ketchup with which to douse them.

But you don’t just sit and drink tea while ou wait for the buuz to cook; quite the contrary. There are complicated greeting rituals to perform, with exacting traditional specifications. You greet the occupants in order of status, which is a combination of age and gender: Grandma comes before Mom and Dad but after Grandpa. Who starts the greetings is also important; head of the visiting household goes first, then wife, and then children in descending order of age. I usually followed the children, since I’m not actually part of the family. It’s a lot of information to absorb at first, but even I got the joke when the director’s husband, who had been outside attending to the car, ended up being last to greet our host.

To greet someone older, you place your hands under they elbows; they may put both hands on either side of your face or just rest their arms on yours. Often, they will kiss you on both cheeks. “Amar baina yy?” they say, or “Saihan shin jilsen yy?” and you return the greeting, asking how they are doing and if their new year has been good.

Alas, I have no good photos of this; Adam's are better. But you do get to see an adorable child in her deel!

Alas, I have no good photos of this; Adam’s are better. But you do get to see an adorable child in her deel!

There’s no kissing when you greet someone of equal age; you both place your right arm above the other’s left and say the words, and that’s it. Respected or closely related family members are often presented with money (not much; usually it was a crisp 1000 Tg bill, worth about $.70). And sometimes you use the ubiquitous blue scarf whose meaning I don’t quite understand, in which case you turn it around before returning to the other person. And you’re supposed to wear your hat, if you have one with you.

And, of course, there’s drinking. As at all special occasions, one of the hosts is in charge of distributing drinks, and everyone usually drinks rom one communal cup, shotglass, or bowl, depending on the drink in question. There is a polite way to refuse to drink that involves flicking the vodka in the air, but this trick, alas, is not one that was included in our orientation. It’s hard to pass up drinks without it; Mongolians aren’t particularly inclined to take ‘no’ for an answer, and often they will not let you return the glass until they judge that you have drunk enough. This means you end up drinking a lot of vodka, and if you like it enough to do more than sip at it, airag. I unfortunately don’t care for Mongolia’s traditional alcohol of fermented mare’s milk, though I admit I would like to see the process by which it’s made.

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Airag in all its sour, greasy glory.

An appropriate decoration for this bowl!

An appropriate decoration for this bowl!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bau, aaruul, urum, shar ukh, sugar cubes, and candy. Appetizing, right?

Bau, aaruul, urum, shar ukh, sugar cubes, and candy. Appetizing, right?

 

The tables are piled high with a number of things – some of them familiar to the American eye, others completely foreign. The bowl of candy is a familiar addition to an American table, though not a requirement as it is here; the bowl of airag, its surface and rim dotted with yellowish fat, rather less so. Fruit trays (usually whole apples, oranges, grapes, and occasionally bananas, rather than the cut-up assortments seen on most American tables) are fairly ubiquitous, as are plates of potato salad, but so too are what I think are called eadees. These stacks of bau, or fried bread, vary in height between houses; my director’s had three tiers, while her parents’ had five. But they are always covered with aaruul, urum, sugar cubes, and sometimes shar ukh, or yellow fat. And then there’s the meat: sheep butt with the fat and tail still attached, from which the head of the family cuts slices and distributes them to his family members. My director’s family doesn’t really eat mutton, so they had beef ribs instead, but what I saw on every other table was most definitely sheep.

Lots of different salads on this table, thankfully; I like the beet and cabbage salads, which use vinegar, and carrot salad is usually palatable because it's light on mayo, but I just can't touch the potato salad.

Yep, that’s sheep butt alright.

So that’s what I did for two full days: travel from house to house, eating copious quantities of buuz and reluctantly sipping shots of vodka in between nervously greeting whatever elders happened to be present. It was cool, and I’m very grateful to my director for inviting me, but I was just as grateful when it was over. At that point, I just wanted to sit in my own room and eat something that wasn’t a dumpling.