On the opposite side of the Baga Gazariin Chuluu rock formations and mountains, where the rocks give way to a scrubby plain, we see gers (the Mongolian term for yurt) and learn they belong to the family who will be our hosts for the evening. They have four extra gers they rent to tourists, but we’re the only guests who stopped in for the night. The wife greets us and shows us to our ger, a round tent-like home. It’s furnished, as later we’ll learn most spare gers are, with five or six single beds lining the walls, a small rectangular table behind the two wooden pillars, and some small stools. We heave our bags and backpacks onto the spare beds and head over to the family ger to greet our host family in accordance with Mongolian etiquette.
It is in this moment of ducking through the doorframe, into the family ger, with the smell of fermented mare’s milk and the sight of colorful rugs and furniture blasting our senses that reality for both of us sets in – we are in Mongolia, with a nomadic family whose culture and traditions, at many centuries old, are still vibrant and alive today and still practiced among most of the country’s people. The moment feels surreal. We are ecstatic to be one of few foreigners to experience this rural, nomadic lifestyle that is vastly different from our own, but try to contain our excitement to avoid seeming more out of place than we already are. We’re asked to sit in the only two chairs within the ger. The chairs are wooden, painted in bright colors, with thin cushions and very short legs. Our guide, Sena, sits politely on a small stool and our driver, Ishva, sits on a colorful rug with legs stretched out like he’s been here before. A round man with a well-worn unbuttoned collared shirt also sits on the rug snipping his toenails. He gives us a brief nod as we say, ‘hello’ and continues his ‘man-tenance’. We learn he is the husband of the woman who greeted us and asked us to sit down. Our driver and guide are unfazed by the man’s foot grooming, and help the wife pass us bowls of infamous airag. We later learn that when families live in one small home like this, without rooms, it is not unusual to walk in on people grooming, changing clothes, and such. The presence of guests doesn’t really interrupt the happenings of regular life.
One of the first things you’ll learn about Mongolia, besides the famous tales of the great Genghis/Chinggis Khan and the travels by Marco Polo, is that Mongolians drink a substance called airag. Airag is fermented mare’s (horse) milk and the Mongolian countryside drink of choice. It is tradition to give this or “Mongolian tea” to any guest upon arrival to your ger (ger is the Mongolian word for yurt and also, doubles as the Mongolian word for home) and it is respectful to always accept and drink a little bit of airag or tea. Airag smells distinct – unlike the sweet cream of fresh cow’s milk, and more like a mixture of vinegar and bread dough with a hint of dairy. We’re served generous helpings in cereal-sized bowls. We can no sooner process our first sip before being offered a bowl of snacks we’ve never seen before – dried milk curd and stamped cookies. I pick a small oddly shaped, creamy-colored curd, assuming that the stamped cookie is a larger version of the milk curd and set it down to process my first explosion of flavor from the airag. Art takes a big gulp of his and says it’s not too bad. It certainly wasn’t as awful as I had anticipated. To me, it tastes like sour, creamy beer. The flavor was so foreign that there was no way that either one of us could stomach the full bowl at first introduction. Luckily, we were forewarned, by our guide, not to attempt to finish it or it could lead to many midnight outhouse runs.
The milk curd was more palatable, overall. Art finished his quickly and I remarked that it was sweeter than I had imagined. Sena quickly translated this into Mongolian for our hosts and the wife of the ger said she added sugar to some of batches mixed up in the bowl. Sena said she must have grabbed one without the extra sugar. I learned that the big stamped pieces were actually biscuits and opted for one of those after I finished my curd. They were delicious!
We hear a few snores and heavy breathing and notice that the husband has finished his grooming, grabbed a blanket and curled up on the rug to nap. The wife sits down and resumes the chore our arrival took her away from– making more dried milk curd. This is the same milk curd we sampled, but she is extruding it from a plastic bag onto a wooden board in short, spaetzle-like pieces. Sena explains that the wife wants these to dry faster so she’s making smaller pieces. After filling about a baking sheet size wooden board with pieces, the wife asks if we would like to join her in milking the mares. Of course, we said, “Yes! We wouldn’t miss it!"
We jumped up, cameras in hand and headed about 200 yards from the ger where 10 or so foals were tied to a rope that is staked to the ground. A herd of about 50 horses was nearby. The wife’s husband and nephew appear and one by one untie a foal and walk it to its mother. Our driver, Ishva, jumps right in to help wrangle the foals. Each foal drinks a little bit of its mother’s milk before its head is pulled away and the wife swoops in to fill her bucket with the remaining milk from the mare. The men keep the foal alongside the mare to fool the mother into thinking her foal is still drinking. This process is repeated until the wife has milked all of the mares and is an event that takes place six times a day.
After this excitement we head back to our own ger to arrange our ground pads and sleeping bags on the beds. The ger accommodations are sparse. Small pillows and thin blankets are provided and the beds have half-inch mattresses made of felt that offer very little cushioning. Exhausted from the day, we put our feet up and black out for a few hours.
We wake up in a panic. The sun is setting and we worry that we rudely missed dinner. We walk to our neighboring ger only to realize our guide was also sleeping and our driver is busy fine-tuning the van. We walk to the family ger and see the milk curd drying on the roof and a freshly slaughtered lamb’s head and body parts surrounding the boards with curd. We snap some photos of the scene and correctly assume this is our dinner. Sena appears wearing a del, a traditional Mongolian overcoat, and tells us the wife apologizes for the late dinner (it’s now 9pm), but it will be served soon.
A few minutes later, we walk back into the family ger assaulted by more new scents – airag mixed with extremely gamey, bloody meat. The ger is now dimly lit, but we can make out the contents of a huge silver bowl placed on the table between the two chairs that we are, again, offered. The bowl is filled with boiled sheep intestines and organs. Ishva motions for us to sit, pulls up a stool next to us, and begins sawing into the steaming guts handing us the finest pieces, first. Sena sits down on a stool and tells us the first piece is a blood filled vein. Art gulps his down with what seemed like little effort. I begin to chew my piece and have a flashback to a childhood mistake I repeated for years when sampling oysters. I’m engaged in a futile attempt to chew the vein until it dissolves into more manageable pieces. I realize that the only way to get it down is to give it one or two chews and swallow it quickly like an oyster. The rubbery texture of the vein combined with the powerful scent of bloody meat in the ger was more overwhelming than the flavor of the animal part itself. The vein tasted similar to blood sausage and while not my favorite food, it wasn’t entirely unfamiliar. Next served were pieces of heart, liver, and stomach. The wife handed us steaming bowls of rice and chili sauce as Ishva continued to stack more chunks of cuts on top of our bowls. I finished off the liver and heart pieces with large bites of rice, but couldn’t stomach much more. Art ate a larger amount of his pieces before throwing in the towel on this extraordinary dinner. The wife could tell that we were about finished with dinner and poured us each a teacup full of another foreign fluid: “milk tea”. Milk tea is mostly watery, salty boiled milk, typically from a cow or yak, with the small addition of some tea. Our Western tastes are accustomed to sweeter dairy products and tea with sugar, but the bland, salty flavor of milk tea has grown on me throughout our stay in Mongolia, and if made with yak’s milk can be quite creamy.
While we slowly sip our milk tea, still attempting to process the flavor, Ishva, who has polished off a generous helping of sheep innards, gains control of the TV remote and we all watch the small, flat screen TV seated on a table to our right. The giant bowl of entrails is passed to the husband and nephew, who are both seated on the carpet at the north side of the ger, near Ishva. They continue to slice bites to enjoy while watching the television. The wife bustles about grabbing a piece of meat here and there while completing other chores and commenting on the various TV programs. The crowd pleasers seem to be a Russian cartoon (Sena gives us a quick history on watching this one growing up) and a recap of some Mongolian horse races and events. As horses remain such an integral part of Mongolian culture, many favorite activities and sports are equine related. Our favorites were the distance race and the twin and triplets horse show. The distance race featured children racing horses bareback for miles. Sena explained that children from age 7-12 always compete in these distance races because they’re lighter and after age 12, generally weigh down the horse too much. Our other favorite event was the twin and triplet horse show. Two to three people (it could be only men, only women, or a man and a woman), dressed in matching traditional costumes, parade around a circle on nearly identical horses. It seems the horses are judged based on how similar they look and the people’s riding and costumes are the icing on the cake. Everyone remarked on how incredibly similar the horses (which are not genetic twins and triplets) looked. There were horses with matching spot positions and every other color of horse that not only matched its partner in coloring but seemingly, in height, weight, and stature, as well.
One of the chores the wife was working on, in between eating bits of boiled innards, was “beating” the airag. The airag, at this home, was stored in a blue 50-gallon plastic drum along the western side of the ger. The wife would spend 5 minutes out of every 15 simultaneously slamming and whirling a wooden plunger-like tool at a pace that created a perfect swooshing beat. Sena told us that beating the airag was a tiresome chore often given to her and her siblings, as children, when they visited their grandparents in the countryside. They would rotate beating it 100 times each and when their turn was up, they would yell for the next kid to relieve them. Art thought it looked fun and asked if he could give it a try. The wife laughed and said something to the effect of ‘you don’t have to ask!’ She said this in a way to suggest that he didn’t know what tedious and tiring work he had volunteered for, but she was more than happy to have the help. It took a number of tries for him to get the motion correct and create the proper swooshing beat. He learned that the wooden plunger never actually hits the bottom of the drum and the motion is similar to beating eggs in a bowl with a fork. The beating is instrumental in the fermentation process. Art was content with (aka tired of) this chore after about ten minutes of beating and sat back down. After watching him toil for ten minutes, I was content as well. A few minutes later Sena remarked on the late hour, cueing us in that it was ok to say good night. We thanked the family for our dinner and reviewed the day’s wild events before turning in for our first night’s sleep in a ger.