DAY 50 – Sitting in a café in Ulaanbaatar
Before boarding our flight for the frontier that is Western Mongolia, our tour operator Bek (nickname for Aynabek) strongly recommended that we pack a pair of ‘long-sleeved boots’ to prepare ourselves for the biting wind and cold of Bayan-Ulgii. Having only short hiking boots for mild-ish weather, we headed to the Ulaanbaatar Black Market and bought the traditional Mongolian boots called nohoi arisan gutal. For a reasonable price of $50CAD, these heavy duty boots make us look like true pioneers and not only keep our feet warm but also make our calves sweat they are so warm.
Walking back to our guesthouse from the black market, city-chic Ulaanbaatarians could not help staring first at our boots tucked under our arms, then back at our faces, wondering what these foreigners were thinking buying these hairy boots which typically no city-dweller wears (or possible would wear), Being too large to pack in our backpacks, we proudly wore our shag boots to the Chinggis Khan airport in Ulaanbaatar, where we were followed by curious smiles and covered-mouth giggles. When we finally checked into our flight on Hunnu Air, we were finally rewarded with a fellow Mongolian packing himself a beautiful pair of the shaggiest boots we’d seen. We had found our people. Landing on the cold wind-swept tarmac of Olgii, our boots no longer seemed so ridiculous.
Now sitting in a cafe in Ulaanbaatar eating mushy chocolate cake, we seem worlds away from the wild untouched beauty of western Mongolia. The only link being the hot lemon water I am currently drinking, which I drank nearly every evening in Bayan-Ulgii after a day spent outside. Being the only one who can’t drink caffeine, our cook, Balapan, would thoughtfully leave a sharp knife next to a lemon on the table so I could craft myself a hot lemon and honey drink.
Without clear roads or any type of signage, the recommended option for travel in the West is a tour operator, who equips you with a large gas-pumping Russian van, camping and sleeping equipment, a driver well-accustomed to the area and seemingly equipped with an internal GPS, a cook, and a guide who speaks English, Mongolian, and Kazakh, as most nomadic Western Mongolians hail from Kazakhstan just over the mountains.
The nomadic Kazakh way of life has largely remained unchanged since ancient times, apart from modest improvements in technology such as radios, telephone landlines, and dim car battery-powered light bulbs replacing candles and oil lamps. Otherwise, the life of the kazakh nomads has remained connected to their family, the land, the weather, and their extended family of animals: their eagle, and their giant herds of sheep, goats, cows, yaks, horses and camels that roam the landscape every way you turn. The second family we stayed with counted over 600 sheep and goats, nearly 100 cows, about 40 horses, and a handful of yaks.
The oft times harsh weather conditions has itself contributed to the renown Kazakh hospitality, offering nomads on horseback some shelter from the elements whenever the need should arise. On our daily expeditions, whether on horseback, camelback, or tucked into the back of the gasmobile, we stopped for lunch or for warming up at the closest ‘winter home’ we could find (the nomads live in gers in the summer from June to August, and move into their wooden and clay winter homes for the rest of the year when the temperatures fall below zero).
Tradition dictates that knocking is not necessary, so our guide Dowka would simply pop his head through the front door to make sure the family was there. Watch your step when you walk in! Stepping on the ledge of the house is considered bad luck as it symbolizes walking on the neck of the owner. And make sure you watch where you sit – our first experience in a Mongolian family had us playing musical chairs until we realized that it was considered bad luck for a third person to sit between us (a couple). We wouldn’t want to divorce before we were even married.
Wherever we stopped, we were offered milky tea just as soon as we sat around the table on low wooden stools, along with homemade yak cheese and bread resembling fried donuts. The milky tea is a traditional beverage made from a large potful of water which is always found boiling on each family’s dung-burning stove. Ladlefuls of fresh milk are added to the pot along with a little bit of tea and a pinch of salt. Served in small bowls, it is a super comforting beverage when coming in from the cold. Not so comforting perhaps, but ever more interesting, is fermented mare’s milk, known as kumis, which is a delicacy that we were offered (slightly reluctantly) during a break from our camel ride in the mountains. Kumis is made from unpasteurized horse’s milk which is distilled in the skin of an animal, allowing it to ferment slowly while being agitated every few days by someone hitting it with a stick. The result is a slightly alcoholic drink which tastes predominantly of vinegar and reminded us of curdled milk, minus the lumps. Glad to try it, but needless to say, we didn’t ask for refills.
The cheese itself varied widely, depending on its age and on each family, who seemed to have secret production methods. Some cheeses so hard you would think someone was fixing up the house outside, only to find out they were hacking away chunks of cheese from a block in the backroom with a hammer and chisel. Other cheeses looked like parmesan but surprised you with a super sour aftertaste that made your mouth pucker. And yet others so strong they tasted just like the animal they came from. A mixed bag of flavours, though one family did have a soft fried cheese which was salty and satisfying and a welcome surprise from the rest.
In culmination of our culinary education and exchange of traditions, the last Kazakh family we stayed with selected one of their own sheep for slaughter to be eaten and shared amongst relatives and neighbours. A full team effort, with brothers and sons skinning and butchering the animal while the women prepared the head and guts. Once cooked, the carnivorous feast was served on a huge platter in the center of the table, and the family elder, Maana, (aged 75 with the heart of a 25 year old), blessed the meal and urged us to dig in with our fingers as he sliced the meat off the bone and skull. Not a thing was wasted! One sheep can feed a family anywhere up to two weeks or more depending on the size of the family, the wool is set aside for boot linings, blankets, clothing, felt, etc., and the ankle bones are cleaned off for a popular game of horse racing where the bones themselves are used almost like dice. We played along with the whole family yelling out Bir! Eki! Ooch! (1!2!3!) as we edged our horsies along the track.
After living with different families in such close quarters for 9 days, all of us sleeping in one room tucked together like sausages, it felt strange to return to a guesthouse in Ulaanbaatar with only Jason and I to share a huge private room. Privacy takes on a whole new meaning when you eat, sleep, and live in the same space together everyday. On the one hand I am hugely happy to be able to change my clothing outside of my sleeping bag and have an indoor toilet which is not located 50m away from the house in -15 degree weather (though my squatting technique is now excellent!!), yet on the other, the closeness of family was so heartwarming and heart ‘filling’ that it left us feeling a little lonesome in our first night by ourselves afterwards. An experience we will not soon forget!
Stay tuned for more on eagle hunting in Western Mongolia in Jason’s next post!