All night long the piece of canvas covering the entrance of our orts, similar to a tepee, flaps in the howling winds. The pelting of snow can be heard as it hits the canvas a few inches from our heads, and i wrap my sleeping bag tighter around my face as the fire in the wood stove goes out during the night. In the dawn light, with three inches of new snow covering everything, the world appears black and white. The Tsataan, literally the Reindeer People, are already out milking their herd of 60 reindeer.
We arrived at this camp of 3 orts, which house a family consisting of 1 brother, who lives alone, and a younger brother, his wife and 2 sons, after an insane van ride of 12 hrs through the night, and 2 days of horseback riding in the mountains. It felt really magical to see these 3 tepees, wrapped in white and black canvas, silhouetted against the golden larch forests with snow topped mountains, next to a lake, with a herd of reindeer staked behind.
Not only do they herd the reindeer, they ride them! It was so wild to see these people flying along on their saddled reindeer over some of the rockiest, boggiest, uneven terrain, with total ease and grace.
We got to try some reindeer milk, cheese, and even got to help make a batch of reindeer khuushuur. Khuushuur are these fried meat dumplings that are like the fast food of Mongolia, and all of central Asia really. We have had the opportunity to make khuushuur, and buuz, a steamed dumpling, with a few different families along the way.
We have now had reindeer, yak, horse, cow, sheep and goat on our trip. As far as i know, no camel. It is not just the meat though, it is the fat. This is the best part and people have offered us chunks of white fat to eat with bread. It is kind of gnarly, but I have to say that after eating some, I didn't need to eat for the rest of the day. We have also had milk, as well as the fermented, alcoholic milk of most of these animals. From this milk there is made every variation of dairy product imaginable.
All of this animal product makes everything have a particular smell. I call it 'ger smell'. Ger is the Mongolian word for yurt. Or, really, yurt is the Russian translation for ger. It is the smell of smoke, cheese, and meat. Goats in particular have the craziest smell. Just to ride past them on our bikes leaves a smell that sticks in the nostrils for awhile.
Animals provide the sustenance for existence. It is amazing to witness a culture that still exists the way it has for thousands of years. There are differences. Many gers have solar panels, and people watch television and have phones. But most people live almost entirely off of their animals. They eat dairy products and meat.
One night we camped in this beautiful valley, within sight of a few gers. As usual, within a brief time, a herdsman, on horseback, rode over to us to see what was happening. Even with our phrasebook, our Mongolian is bad. There is such variety of vowel pronunciation, and a rhythm to the language that is so different. So, we delve into conversation with this man, and at some point we give him the book so he can try and find what he it
trying to tell us.
He meticulously flips through our tiny book, page by
page, and eventually points to something. It is in the restaurant
section, and says "Is this dish available?".
I look up at him,
wondering if he is making a joke. There is no smile though, and it seems he is just really concerned about our lack of meat. He keeps saying something about bringing us some meat. I am all for trying everything when we are a guest in a ger, and I hate to refuse hospitality, but we have one pot for cooking, a limited amount of water for cleaning, and no way of keeping meat from spoiling. We are trying to explain this in as nice a way as possible, and eventually settle on him bringing us some dried meat.
The next morning he arrives as we are packing up camp with a white shopping bag. The bag says 'I love New York', with a big red heart instead of the word love, and inside is dried goat meat. Excellent. So, for the past 2 weeks, every night a bit of dried goat meat goes in our dinner, and we get to have the smell of ger everywhere we go.
Our dried goat is finally finished in the village of Tsagaanuur. It is from this village that we rent the horses to visit the Tsataan, and while there, are lucky enough to attend a shamanic ceremony, as well as an entire day of a Naadam Festival. Naadam is a traditional festival that typically is held in July, and consists of horse racing. archery, and wrestling. In Tsagaanuur, it also had a reindeer race!
In keeping with the food theme, which is what we spend a lot of time thinking about and doing, we went to the equivalent of a food tent at the festival. Inside the tent were 4 women making khuushuur, while one woman took the orders. Most restaurants here don't have menus, and if they do, you have to ask what they actually serve, because it is often only one or two items anyway. At this tent, it was obvious- khuushuur and soup. It is actually easier for us that way, because otherwise we just pick something and cross our fingers.
There was one table outside the tent which people were crammed around. Once one person left, you could take their spot. There were also only 6 bowls and spoons available. So, the real wait was for someone to finish their food, and then you were served with their bowl and spoon. All of this was washed with some cold tea and dried with a rag. It was like musical chairs with dishes and cutlery.
These food options, or lack there of, make going to town, not nearly as exciting as usual on a long biking, or hiking trip. There is no Pizza Hut- All You Can Eat Buffet, or any kind of breakfast place with pancakes and omelets and cinnamon rolls. Occasionally we have an egg, and find some fresh bread. We are excited if we can find oats and cheese in town. Apples cost about $3 each. In the bigger towns, we can find carrots and garlic. The small towns have noodles, cream of wheat, and thankfully, there are salted peanuts and raisins!
No matter what size shop, there are always an incredible variety of candy, biscuits and chocolates available. Sometimes half the shop is junk food. Guess it never goes bad. In one shop we bought an already opened and half finished package of sunflower bars, because it was the only one left and the only thing that was not just refined sugar.
The one common denominator of all these shops is the Choco Pie! It is also the most prevalent piece of garbage we have seen throughout our trip. We finally broke down and bought a box in a tiny village. They are chocolate covered cookies with a marshmallow filling. I was really hoping for something special, but it was terrible, tasteless and stale.
So, for now, our food fantasies continue. Perhaps Ulaan Bataar will be able to fulfill some of them, but I think they will mostly have to wait for our return. I am most looking forward to eating food that crunches and is raw. Raiding the bulk bins at a supermarket is also high on the list. Breakfast foods, sushi, pizza, thai food, indian....
Hope you are enjoying yours. Looking forward to sharing some with you upon our return.
love, adrianne and tyler