In lieu of actual content, today I bring you a few pictures from my homestay with a family of nomadic herders in Tuv aimag. The homestay was one of my favorite parts of my own Fulbright orientation, and so I asked if I could join the new Fulbrighters on theirs. Though cold and very wet, it was amazingly fun.
A few facts gathered from discussing the previous post with the Russian friends:
- Some gers are fitted with curtains to provide at least a minimal amount of privacy
- A red rag somewhere on the outside of the ger is the equivalent of hanging a tie (or a shoe, or a sock… while the tie is traditional, I’m sure we’ve all seen plenty of variations) on your door. Only useful during the day, though, given the lack of lighted hallways.
- Irina confirms that children who grew up in gers have a lot more sexual knowledge than those who did not – which manifests in Mongolian children engaging in or imitating sexual behaviors at a very young age. The Russians find this disturbing and discourage it, but they say that their Mongolian counterparts think of it as normal.
I think this last point is the most interesting. Obviously, we have differing ideas of “normal” competing here, and this intersection is a good place to point out that not all cultures think of children as “innocents” from whom sex should be hidden. I’ve never lived in such a culture before – to the contrary, both of the countries I’ve previously lived in were mostly Catholic – so this is an interesting contrast for me. Anyone know what Buddhism has to say about sex?
This account of our trip to the countryside would not be complete without a record of its culinary aspects, which certainly expanded my horizons. Many of the dishes our host families prepared for us were things we’d had before: цуиван (a noodle dish with mutton and the standard set of Mongolian vegetables: potatoes, carrots, onions, cabbage, and sometimes beets), бууз (steamed dumplings), бутаатай хорга (meat and vegetable stir-fry with rice), meat and vegetable soup. But the шөл (soup) and бууз were prepared with бурц, or dried meat, a new variation for us. Sunigel insisted this was a luxury, a demonstration of our hosts’ generosity; in the city, where she’s from, drid meat is more expensive than fresh.
But here in the countryside, I thought it more a matter of practicality. Traditionally, Mongolians don’t eat meat in the summer, subsisting instead on the many dairy products they create from the daily milking of their cows (and sometimes, horses). Summer is a time for fattening the animals, not slaughtering them. And while gers might have solar pannels and electric lights these days, few have refrigerators; thus, the only good ways to store meat are the old ones – smoking and drying. In winter, the entire country turns into a giant walk-in (or rather, walk-out) freezer, so spoilage isn’ta problem; they just put the meat outside. So it made sense to me that unless it was freshly-slaughtered, any meat this family served us would be dried.
I was eager to help with food preparation where I could, so they gave me vegetables to peel, and one эгчээ (the term of address for an older woman) let me help her make бууз. My attempts to gather the dough properly were laughably bad – a trend, it seems, for all my attempts at traditional Mongolian pursuits. I did somewhat better with what she called залхуу бууз, or “lazy dumplings,” which she made by rolling out a large round of dough, cutting it into quarters, spreading it with a thin layer of filling (a finely-minced mixture of meat, onions, and cabbage), then rolling each piece up like a jelly roll and pinching the edges closed. Саруул still had to show me the right way to do the pinching, but she did so with a laugh and a smile.
Lazy or no, they were the best бууз I’ve eaten, and I wished I had room for more of them. But the other family had just fed us, and I was already very full. So it went at almost every meal during our entire stay. It was like having two sets of parents who both want to feed you and take it personally if you don’t finish what you’re given. We’d been told the meals might be skimpy during our stay, but if anything, we were overfed.
But there was one meal that undoubtedly took the proverbial cake. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the three charred lumps when I first saw them on a board on the floor. They were blackened and slightly smaller than a football, and were each trailed by an eight-inch-long ribbed cylinder. “Are those – ” I began, examining them as I walked around the board. Then I saw the teeth. And the eye sockets. Yep, those were indeed sheep heads. Charred and earless, but sheep heads nonetheless.
Their appearance was a lot less grotesque when the smiley эгчээ washed off the soot and blood, though I still wouldn’t exactly call them “appetizing.” But appetizing or no, they were apparently destined for our dinner plates; she tossed them in a pot with a few potatoes and set it on the fire. It bubbled merrily for the next three hours, filling the house with the distinctive (and not entirely enjoyable) scent of mutton. Lisa and I escaped it by going outside to play with Ану.
My hopes were not exactly high when I was summoned inside for dinner, but I steeled myself ot at least try it. эгчээ #2 handed me a bowl, which she had filled with pieces of meat pulled straight from the skull, chunks of potato, and a few pickles, and indicated a bowl of chili sauce to dip it all in. Gingerly, I scooped a piece from my bowl and bit into it.
It was the best mutton I’ve ever eaten: juicy, flavorful without being overly gamey, and delightfully lean. Mongolians don’t trim most of the fat away from the meat before the cook it like we usually do, and I spend a good part of most meals cutting off fat and spitting out gristle. This needed no such treatment, and the pickles and chili sauce added complexity absent even from many of the restaurant meals I’ve had here. I also tried some of the greyish, pebbly-textured хил, or tongue. It didn’t like it nearly as much as the cheek meat, but it wasn’t half bad. I even managed to drink most of a cup of сүүтей цай when one of the older girls handed it to me without asking if I wanted any – a real feat for me.
Sheep’s head is delicious. Who’d’a thunk?
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!
If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you know “timely” isn’t a particularly apt description for it. Brevity isn’t exactly a strong point of my writing, and it sometimes takes me a while to record everything I want to. I write most of this twice, too – longhand in my journal first, and then I retype it in Word and paste it online. Mostly, what it means is that what you read here is what I want to tell you about, not necessarily what’s most current in my life. And the weekend chronicled here was worth the time it took to record it properly. I want to remember it in detail.
August 27, 2012
Our visit thus far has been a strange mixture of quiet and eventful. Just getting here was an all-day ordeal. We left at 9:30 am, meaning to stop once on our way and arrive around 3 pm. But the place we went to pick up food for the weekend didn’t have large bottles of water, so we had to stop again, this time at a gas station. Then the boys saw a vendor selling айраг along the roadside, so we had to make a quick stop for them to buy some. And then it was around 1 pm when we came to the last good-sized town along the way, and everyone wanted to stop for lunch. We were back on the road around 2 for what we were told would be a three-hour drive.
The roadsides as we left Ulanbaatar were lined with all sorts of interesting things – lots of tourist-trap photo ops with camels and the trained hawks the Kazakh people hunt with. But the real fun began when we left the paved roads for the dirt tire tracks that pass for roads throughout much of this vast, uninhabited country. They are not only dusty, but uneven and bumpy, which doesn’t sit very well with my stomach. I had been okay before lunch, and had avoided greasy foods like the хуушуур I’d been craving, but bouncing along had me feeling queasy nonetheless. I moved up to the front of our little bus when it got really bad, sitting crosslegged between Lucas and the driver above what I later learned was the engine. I couldn’t read during our drive, but that was really no loss; I was too busy looking at the mountains and laughing at the cows who dared to play chicken with a bus.
The real problem with our journey was that Mongolia has lots of rivers, and at least in the countryside, most of them don’t have bridges. Even when they exist, people avoid them, since they don’t know how well they’re maintained and whether they will bear the weight of a car. Instead, they find a shallow spot where the banks aren’t too steep and drive straight through the water. We managed to make several such crossings without incident, but then we came to a particularly wide stretch of water. We splashed our way through and had climbed halfway up the far bank when the flooded engine sputtered – and died. At least our driver was a mechanic. We prepared for a long wait while he set the air filter out to dry and made other repairs that included banging engine parts between two rocks to straighten them.
We passed the time by taking pictures, wandering over to the nearby bridge we hadn’t used, and watching a family lose their license plates trying to drive across. Finally, the driver got the engine going, though the exhaust now spewed oil droplets fanned across the water behind us in dark streaks. So we piled back in the bus and continued onward.
This time, we made it as far the town of Mungunmorit, where, out of concern for his floundering vehicle, the driver refused to take us any further. Once more, we found ourselves stranded as we waited for the car we had been told would come to take us the rest of the way. We ended up piling in the back of a pickup track, squished together in the light rain. It didn’t rain for very long, thankfully; but some people did come out of the adventure with wet clothes – we broke out the beer and had a grand time. The road was uneven, though, so there were some spills, not to mention painful landings when the bigger bumps launched us into the air. But at last we made it to our destinations, splitting into two groups. Lisa D, Cooper, Sunigel, Yoki, and I stayed with two families in their little cabins, which were about a ten-minute walk from the other group’s cluster of gers. Our host greeted us with a late dinner – бурц шөл, a soup made with vegetables and dried meat. It was after 9 pm at this point, so the nomads went to bed, and after a failed attempt to visit the other group, we did the same.