Hello friends! This is my last post about our adventures in Mongolia. If you’d like to see more photos of our excursion visit my Flickr page. It’s back to all things photographic from here. As always, thanks for reading!
Then on one of the days we were driving we picked up a hitchhiker (as you do – in Mongolia hitchhiking is actually a very safe, acceptable, and popular mode of transport). He was a nomad wearing the gray coverall-type garb that’s usually worn when working with livestock. He smelled of mutton and earth, had a smile missing a few teeth and seemed genuinely good-natured, although we did not exchange words due to the language barrier. Then suddenly he reached in his pocket and gave me and the husband each a small handful of these tiny brown roasted things. My husband immediately pops one into has mouth, at which point the driver and the hitcher started yelling for him to stop and show him they must be cracked open. The outer shell was thicker and harder than a sunflower seed, and before eating it I went to examine the small snack and what did I find? A pine nut!!!
From that point on I noticed that crunching on pine nuts was somewhat of a Mongolian past time. While standing in line, waiting at the airport or just walking down the street everyone seemed to have some pine nuts in their pocket or a trail of shells following them. Soon after, we stopped at a market to buy some. I managed to convey to the woman selling them, “how much?” at which point she held up one finger. I started to pull out a one-hundred tugrik bill, when my husband stopped and said, “No no, surely she means 1,000.” The lady takes the bill and pours a double dose of pine nuts into our bag. As we were walking away we realized that yes, she meant 100. Keep in mind the exchange rate is about 1300 tugrik to 1 USD. In other words, at $.73 we over paid for nearly a pound of pine nuts by 1000%. Imagine the surprise when I told one of our guides, Oogie, how much pine nuts cost in America.
Since this my last post, here’s a little gem sent along from my father-in-law showing how a ger is put together.
As an avid foodie, eating for me is almost half the fun of traveling. To start, the Mongolians don’t eat “Mongolian barbecue,” apparently that’s a made up American concoction. Like many things in Mongolia, the cuisine is kind of separated into two camps: city and countryside.
In the cities, the food is very much a blend of the two countries it’s sandwiched between: Russia and China. The bulk of the cuisine consists of noodles, rice and dumplings with mutton as the main protein, though other meats are available. The dumplings definitely took center stage. Buuz, as they call it, is minced mutton (usually) wrapped in a thin dough and either steamed or fried. Bansh is another type of dumpling boiled and served in soup. The interesting thing is that you can kind of see the progression of the dumpling from Asia up to Russia (or is it from Russia down to Asia?). Bansh and buzz have the thinner wrapping like an Asian dumpling, while a fried meat dumpling (called khuushuur) has a thicker and more pastry-like wrap, kind of like a polish perogi. With a lack of western fast food, the Mongolian version of “fast food” are little cafeteria-style places called guanz that serve up dumplings and other noodle/rice dishes, fast and hot.
As far as vegetables go, it’s kind of slim pickin’s, however, there is always some kind of salad floating around that’s usually of the vinegar, cabbage and carrot variety and is clearly of Russian influence.
In the countryside, eating can be a completely different experience. The nomads live off the land and eat mostly meat and milk products, in addition to a few basic veggies in the summertime and preserved cucumber or cabbage in winter. During the summer months milk and yogurt is plentiful, as is butter. The yogurt is extra tangy. They also make a slightly alcoholic drink out of fermented mares milk called airag. It’s a bit similar to Turkish ayran or Indian Lassi, but tangier. The Mongols sometimes even take it one step further and distill the airag (or other milk) into a clear vodka they call “yogurt vodka” in English (I have no idea what they call this in Mongolian). It’s about the strength of Korean soju (around 20%) and it’s NOT, I repeat NOT for the sensitive palate. Imagine the most sour yogurt you’ve ever tasted that’s turned quite a bit and add a little alcohol to it. My husband didn’t mind it. I, however, almost tossed my cookies after about the third or fourth large shot and had to politely decline their offer of more.
During the winter months, the nomads mostly live off meat and fat. Probably the most delicious nomadic culinary experience is khorkhog, where meat (usually lamb but sometimes a goat kid or marmot) is cooked with hot stones. They also preserve the milk by making aaruul, aka dried milk curds. This is often offered with tea when visiting a ger in winter or summer. It’s rock hard and tastes about like a parmesan rind that has been left out on the counter for a few weeks. Not horrible, but it’s no fine cheese.
During our home stay, our hosts prepared a dessert-like treat that I can’t seem to find a name for. It’s basically like a shortbread cookie dough and is made over the stove with flour, sugar and butter. The interesting part is that they basically clarify the butter, then take out the clarified part using only the milk solids. They then add the clarified butter back in at the end. It has the taste and consistency of raw cookie dough even though it’s kind of been cooked. We were served this tasty treat before dinner. They make a lot at once, so with the leftover dough they form little patties and leave them out on the ger’s roof to dry in the sun so they are left with a cookie.
While Mongolia today has many settled cities and towns, their nomadic roots play a huge role in Mongolian customs and culture, and roughly 30% of the population is still nomadic (or somewhat so).
The countryside in Mongolia is remote and sparsely populated, although a ger with a family of nomads is never too far off. Combined with the renowned Mongolian hospitality, it’s a little comforting knowing that you’re not likely to succumb to the elements in some freak scrape, accident, or from just plain getting lost. It seems apt that in such a harsh landscape, survival means being able to pop in on any ger for a meal and a warm place to sleep, and this is still the case today. Even western wayfarers can knock on the door of any ger in the countryside and enjoy snacks, hot tea, and awkward silences, unless, of course, you speak Mongolian or have a translator. And yes, if you’re really in a fix, they will even put together another ger (if a spare is not already in tact) and give you a bed.
So what is life like for a Mongolian nomad? It mostly centers around the care and maintenance of the livestock and, in the winter months, keeping warm. Wake up, chop wood, graze the livestock, milk the cows etc etc. A self sustaining herd is usually around 300 heads, so most Mongolian nomad families have at least a few hundred head of livestock in any variety of goats, sheep, horses, camels, yak or cows. Wealthier families will have upward of 1000 heads of livestock.
Inside the ger, both the husband and wife (at least at our home stay) spend time preparing the milk into tea, yogurt, dried milk curds, cheese and airag, a fermented milk drink that’s lightly alcoholic. The children go to school during the winter months at the nearest town, where they stay, and visit home over the summer months and holidays.
During down time, they read, listen to radios, play Shagai (a game where they throw the ankle bones of a sheep or goat) and now even watch TV thanks to an entrepreneur that went ger to ger selling a combination satellite dish and solar panel package for an affordable price. This led to us sharing a chuckle with our Mongolian home stay family after watching the dance scene in Little Miss Sunshine (dubbed in Mongolian). I was wondering how they would feel about A) toting around a dead family member in a van and B) a little girl doing a provocative dance; it didn’t seem to offend and they thought it was hysterical. It’s funny how you would think you couldn’t be more different than a Mongolian nomad only to realize when it comes down to it, we’re all quite the same.
Driving in Mongolia can be an adventurous and rewarding experience, once you learn to roll with the punches. To start, the traffic in Ulaanbaatar is comparable to that of Manila despite the fact that they have about 10 million less people on the road. Once leaving the city, though, the roads are nearly empty and the scenery of Mongolia’s beautiful steppe is simply breathtaking.
Then you run out of pavement. Mongolia only has four paved highways (one in each direction leaving UB) and they are really only paved for a few hundred kilometers or so. After that, it’s all dirt roads with limited signs (by “limited” I mean “none,” except maybe leaving a city or small town) and it’s extremely easy to get off course. The main “highways” are incredibly potholed from trucks and other commerce, so most individuals stick to the tire tracks next to the main thoroughfares, aka the frontage roads. These little tracks, however, kind of cross and veer all over the place, so without a good GPS you could find yourself having driven in the wrong direction for hours.
We discovered that it was generally better to follow the power lines. We hired a driver, which was almost the same price as going it alone, thinking it would be nice to not be liable for anything that happens to the car. I’d suggest not hiring a driver and just getting a really good gps in your language.
Sometimes getting from point A to B in Mongolia requires things that aren’t currently available, like bridges. Driving through a river crossing is relatively common, but, of course, there are risks.
Don’t worry, everyone made it out of the vehicle OKAY, albeit a little wet.
Well, the summer turned into fall, and fall turned into the holidays and excuses, excuses, etc etc. I’ve been duly ignoring the blog. I do apologize, but now I’m back for your reading and all-things-photo pleasure. The next few entries are some images and thoughts on our trip to Mongolia in the late summer/early fall. It’s not really photography based, but there will be photos and it’s my blog so I’ll write what I want. Enjoy!
Mongolia is a vast and interesting place with a rich history and a culture to match. (You can google the history lesson on Chinggis Khan and communist control.) Nestled between China and Russia, Mongolia is the poster child of democracy for a formerly communist nation. Despite the trials of their recent history, Mongolia lacks that sense of desperation that can be found in third world countries. Yes, there is poverty, but there is not a lot of crime and very few peddlers vying for money at tourist hot spots. Maybe it’s just that there aren’t that many tourists, almost none during winter. Or maybe it’s simply that in this land of nomads, livestock and genuine hospitality, nobody goes hungry.
We started our journey in late August, just as summer was sighing her last breath with fall tapping at the back window. Flying in to Ulaanbaatar makes for a scenic landing; the city of about 1 million is condensed at its center and expands into a series of ger camps on the outskirts of the city. Along the countryside, single gers dot the rolling landscape amongst a seemingly confusing network of lines swirling on the ground (I later found out these were roads and highways, but more on that in another post).
As the world’s coldest capital city, the weather turns chilly quickly and early before the city sets in for a long and cold winter. After the day we landed (which was a lovely 80 degrees farenheit), we whipped out our chilly-weather clothes as the rest of our family and friends sweated out the worst heat wave in decades back in Texas. No complaints here, so far.
Ulaanbaatar is not the prettiest of cities in the world as most of it was built by Soviet communists in their typical high-on-function, low-on-aesthetics fashion. Since their liberation from the Soviets in 1990, however, a few modern buildings and sky scrapers have popped up around Sukhbaatar Square (in front of the parliament building) adding a delightful contrast to the otherwise bleak building facades.
Amongst the one million citizens of UB, you get the full gamut of personalities, from faux-hawked kids to countryside nomads to suited businessmen, all jam packed into one neat little package. Only the really old ladies or people performing traditional Mongolian music and dance wear traditional clothing anymore. Yes, even in Mongolia everyone’s homogenized.
Among the hustle and bustle of the city is a gentle blend of both Russian and Chinese influences with a big helping of the strictly Mongolian nomadic culture thrown in for good measure. There are also some unavoidable Western influences when it comes to clothing and music and the like, however, this is (so far) the only capital city I have visited in which I did not see a McDonald’s or a 7-11. Unfortunately, I’m sure it’s only a matter of time. Once you get used to walking on a lot of unpaved and uneven pathways and probably some of the worst traffic in the world for such a small city, Ulaanbaatar is a pleasant city to explore that offers most of the usuals for a metropolitan area: history, arts, good food, and one million friendly faces.