Friday, September 19, 2014

Making My Way Through Mongolia

I had a rare and unique opportunity to spend last month in Mongolia. If you ever get the chance to visit this magnificent country, certainly do so! The friends I made there are truly great people, the scenery is exquisite, and the food (if you eat meat) is wonderful!

DISCLAIMER- this post will show images of butchering a goat that may be too graphic for sensitive viewers. Please know that ALL parts of this animal were eaten and nothing was wasted. That being said, if photo depictions of slaughtering and butchering animals will offend you, please skip this post.

We traveled through the great steppe that extends as far as the eye can see, and beyond. When we reached the steppe-taiga transition we passed by excited rural Mongol children waving plastic water bottles they had filled with wild strawberries from the mountainside…my inner forager was very proud of them and I was already anticipating a wild strawberry harvest of my own. We also passed yurts, flocks of goats tended by Mongol shepherds on horseback, and a few stands where they sold a traditional Mongol delicacy — Kumis! This is a low percentage alcohol made from fermenting horse milk. Contrary to what some westerners might think, it is actually quite good. The flavor is slightly tart like unsweetened yogurt or kefir while the consistency is smooth and light like low fat milk.


After setting up yurts and tents in a grassy slope that the local shepherd later told us is typically teaming with wolves, we began exploring the area.


The views were wonderful, and though I was far from home the landscapes reminded me of some of my favorite places in northern California…I felt right at home!

One day, after a bath in the river, I met two Mongol boys doing a bit of fishing. Though we could mostly only communicate through hand gestures (Mongol is the most difficult language I have ever encountered…yet it is wonderful to hear), eventually they explained that they usually catch smaller fish, but today had yet to catch anything. The boys both used a long willow pole with a line of the same length, a homemade bobber, and grasshoppers for bait. They reminded me of growing up in northern California with my brother. A few minutes later, the pair began hooting and hollering from downstream. I headed back over to have a look and watched them drag in a sizable trout! “O.K.,” I thought, “I have no fishhooks, no line, no rod and reel…time to do some upcycling and fashion a hobo fishing kit!”

That afternoon I located an old broken flashlight at the bottom of my bag. It was something I had simply forgotten to take out before beginning my adventure. The old saying goes “the stone that the builder refused will always be the head corner stone.” I had previously thought about the old flashlight as a piece of junk and had intended to throw it away. But now, the flashlight was exactly the piece of gear that I needed! I emptied the batteries and removed the springs to produce small hooks, found an old key ring to split in two and fashion large hooks, used a multi-tool and a stone to sharpen and shape my fishhooks, a nylon string that was laying around for a fishing line and the flashlight body as a reel/self contained tackle box. My hobo fishing kit was up and running in no time flat!


Before trying to fish, I crossed over the river into the neighboring canyon and found a sparse, yet productive patch of wild strawberries in the forest. I worked to fill my water bottle and ate strawberries to my heart’s content.


The next day I took my friend Clementine to the river to try our luck fishing. Though we saw many trout and lost some bait, we had no luck. I tried again and again over the next week and a half, whenever I had a moment, and admittedly fed the fish in this river more locusts than they could imagine. Eventually I landed a nice fish…but I’ll get back to that towards the end of the post.

As far as daily food went, our Mongol cook was exquisite. We had a fresh goat slaughtered and served up every four days. Our Mongol friends are experts in butchering.

The traditional Mongol method for dispatching a goat may seem brutal to western eyes, but I can assure you it is no slower of a kill than slitting the animal’s throat, Kosher style. In order to waste nothing, not even the blood, a small incision is made in the animal’s abdomen. The hand is inserted into the animal and the arteries surrounding the heart are severed. The animal dies quickly and the blood pools into the gut cavity to later be removed with a bowl for dinner. Once the animal is dispatched it is skinned and the entrails are set aside and cleaned for dinner as well. All the while horse dung smokes to keep away insects during the process...believe it or not the smoke in not offensive and smells quite sweet! The stomach is then emptied, turned inside out and blanched. After blanching Odsuren and I stretched the stomach out while he scraped the interior clean with a knife. This would be set aside, cut into strips and boiled in broth along with kidney, heart, liver, and a type of blood sausage. As we worked, we were offered a chunk of raw liver, still bloody and warm. The whole crew paused to see our reaction. Both Clementine and I accepted the gift and happily ate it. Everyone went back to work nodding their heads in approval.


The intestines were cleaned and then stuffed with large veins, and other tripe in a meticulous process. I took notes as I am always interested in making the most from a kill…and Mongols certainly do. They wasted nothing other than the windpipe, stomach contents, anus, and member. The head was severed as were the forelegs which were set aside to be cooked by the men. It is traditional that only men cook this. The y first singed the hair with a food-grade blowtorch and then scraped it away with a knife. After the skin is rinsed clean it is torched over and over until cooked. The meal after the process consisted of a bowl full of organ meat and tripe that had been boiled in broth, and a foreleg of the goat. I think many westerners might be skeptical of eating this fare, but I can assure you it was absolutely delicious! The subsequent morning, noon, and nights we enjoyed slow cooked goat meat in a variety of soups, stews, and my favorite, Khuushuur! 

On another occasion our Mongol friends prepared a traditional delicacy called Khorkhog! This is made by layering heated cooking stones, goat meat, onion, potatoes, a bit of boiling water and salt in a steel sealed container. This is placed on the coals with great care. It is basically an old-school pressure cooker. As a result of the pressure that builds up in the container as it cooks, the Mongols are extremely cautious when they release the steam from the vessel. At first the vessel is toppled and everyone runs to a safe distance. This way, if it explodes, everyone will be o.k. Next the vessel is stood back up and one man (Odsuren) stands on the lid shifting his weight to one side allowing massive plumes of pressurized steam to escape from the other seam. Eventually the pressure subsides, the vessel is opened, and the food is ready…and cooked to perfection! It is tradition to then juggle the heated fat covered cooking stones back and forth between the hands for as long as you can (they are still quite hot). This meal was also great!


Later in the trip we experienced a crazy wind and rain and hail storm one day that nearly collapsed two of the yurts and did collapse most of the tents! The velocity was so high that our tarp and 2x4 shower was toppled and rolled by like a tumble weed as we watched from our yurt trying to hold down the roof!

My Marmot tent collapsed momentarily, then popped back up. Every other tent was drenched and flattened. Several had standing pools of nearly four inches of water in them. Mine was nearly bone dry! The Mongols were so impressed with my tent they began asking me specifics on where to get one. I’m just saying that coming from a nomadic culture that has lived in tents for millennia…that was a huge compliment to the Marmot company!

Eating Hot Chicken in the Eye of the Storm

I got bored one day so I fashioned an atlatl from willow and duct tape. This ancient dart throwing apparatus was a big hit!


For that matter, the Mongols seemed to really enjoy all of the traditional technologies workshops I was leading in the evenings. They really got into everything, from flintknapping to bone bead making and friction fire.


As I mentioned before, eventually after unintentionally feeding this particular trout 6 locusts from my hook, he finally attacked it with greater force and I hooked and landed my fish! The barbless former key ring circle hook worked beautifully, as did the hobo kit in general! After getting a little fire going with willow, pine, and birch bark I roasted the fish to perfection and enjoyed the fruits of another wild harvest.


The last night we joined in a Mongol tradition of singing song after song around the campfire. When it came to my turn I had to (of course) represent my favorite musicians and singers, Peter Tosh and Johnny Cash. The Mongols really liked our singing, and I was amazed at the range of songs they knew and their incredible voices. Our cook also wrapped chunks of fresh raw goat liver in goat fat which she placed directly on the pine wood coals. These cooked exactly one minute (just enough time for the fat to get crispy like bacon and the liver to warm up just enough). We ate this traditional finger food with great delight! This song and feast was one of my favorite experiences during the whole trip.


The next day we returned to the capital and after a few more days exploring Ulaanbaatar, I made the long journey home. As I said before, I made many good friends on this trip, enjoyed the natural beauty of Mongolia, and had some great foraging opportunities. That being said, after a month on the other side of the world, I couldn’t wait to get back and hold my girl again.

Life is a journey, you never know where it might take you. I would not have guessed that my path would lead to Mongolia, but it did and I am so grateful for the experience! I leave you with a quote from a fortune cookie I opened a few years back at a Chinese restaurant. “Opportunity knocks on your door every day, answer it!”

Keep the old ways alive!
Photos- Clem, Nicolas,  and me.

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