Excerpts from Kara Pellegrino's Study Abroad Journal: Mongolia
My flight companion is a South Korean chemist, who works as a chemistry professor at a university in South Korea. He is flying with four female graduate students. I am happy to see so many women pursuing what is typically a male dominated profession. The professor has just told me that he hopes to become Catholic, but as we talked more I got the sense his wife wants to be Catholic and he’s along for the ride.
Despite that it’s breakfast time in the eastern U.S. the flight attendant has served us another dinner meal as our second meal.
The flight attendant has announced our descent. One leg of my journey is at a close.
Early morning and back at the Beijing airport. We were convinced to go this early by the receptionist at the hotel who spoke almost no English and all I could figure out was that we should be at the airport three hours before our flight. Customs didn’t open till a little after five and we arrived a little after four.
My single serving friend is a very pleasant Mongolian woman who is the lawyer for a company that disperses the 288 M U.S. dollars that were given as aide through the Millennium challenge. The money is being distributed to five programs. Tsetseg (means flower) is returning from Stanford University, where she spent three works. She did not take to American yogurt.
We are flying over the Gobi Desert and it seems very barren, but the sands are beautiful from above.
Yesterday was a whirlwind after landing. We went as a group straight from the airport to the hotel where will spend the first week before we go to host families. After a ten-minute break at the hotel we went straight to the school and had a lecture on nomadic existence. It was all a bit much. Then we had introductions, ordered dels (dells), which are the traditional over-garment, very similar to a double-breasted overcoat.
Dinner was quite an event. The meal started with Ox tongue, which was delicious and had the consistency of firm ham, followed by a salad that I indulged in. We were warned about the lack of greens that will be the standard for our semester. Following the salad were fried goods called hooshiers that looked like Hot Pockets, but are fried and pretty delicious. The best though were the bootz, which seem to be comprised solely of mutton and fat.
After dinner a group called Altan Urok played, they are Mongolia’s most famous musical group and were responsible for much of the soundtrack to Mongol, which stared Kazaks instead of Mongolians in its portrayal of Chinggis Xaan. They were really great. I could only identify the modern drums and the rest of the instruments were all-new to me, all Mongolian. The music incorporated throat singing and a good deal of whistling. Following the music was a contortionist, which is a profession Mongolian women are famous for.
Today we took a tour of the “hospital”, which is really a medical clinic. A New Zealander named Bettina with a side rattail gave us a tour. The bottom-line message is that it’s best not to get sick and if a dog bites you and you did not get a rabies vaccine you will die. Bettina helped to put me at ease, I did not get a rabies vaccine.
Mornings are beautiful here. The roads are empty and there are few other pedestrians.
Last night I tried every Mongolian beer: Gem Draft Yellow, Gem Draft Black, Borgio, Altan Gov, Chinggis and Khar Khorin (my favorite). Mongolian beers are actually quite all right. The Purity Laws of 1516 seem to have made their way east from Germany and brewing is taken seriously in this country.
Russian President Medvedev is in Ulaan Baatar to give speeches stressing the Mongolian effort in Ally victory in WWII. His presence added an additional thirty minutes to get to school.
Something I’ve noticed is that cars here can have steering wheels on either side of the car, which parallels how drivers can drive on either side of the road so long as there is room.
Went to the U.S. Embassy, met the ambassador, he’s on his way out. Assigned here during the Bush years he will be replaced shortly. He gave us all American-Mongolian friendship pins. I’ve seen similar pins with different countries in lieu of America, but I’m yet to see a Chinese-Mongolian friendship pin, the search for one might be equivalent to the search for the Holy Grail.
Today we were assigned to our host families. I was assigned to a family of three. They seem quite nice, but they have a pretty vicious cat and I’m not sure this will last. I have a mom, a dad and a seven year-old sister and this weekend we are headed to their family’s dacha, which will be my first excursion out of the city. I am very excited to see what a summer cabin looks like in Mongolia. The mom and dad are twenty-six and twenty-seven respectively, which seems quite young to have a child. My mom’s name is Burenjargal, my dad’s is Tulga and my sister is Tsolmon, which is apparently a really popular name as other current host sisters share it.
My host father taught me the micro-bus system to get to school, which is nothing more than squeezing at least ten people into the back of an astrovan. I think though it might save me a chunk of time to take these vans, I’ll be sticking with the full size buses.
Now we are off to the countryside.
The house was very nice and the air quality out of town is a great improvement. I played net-less volleyball with my host father and tried to teach my host sister how to skip rocks into the river, but language barrier prevailed.
Got to try a couple sips of arag, which is fermented milk, it tasted sour and yet it was quite delicious. I would have thought that it might just taste like a Tug, but it has it’s own unique flavor.
Just had my second bottle of Aloe juice and it’s delicious and supposedly great for you. Wish I thought I’d ever see this state-side.
The cat won out and I’ve been moved to a new family.
My new family includes three host sisters, but only two live at the house since the oldest is getting married. The mom is actually quite upset that she is living with her husband before the actual wedding. To make things easier on the mom, my oldest host sister and her fiancé are going to get a marriage deed from town hall though the wedding ceremony and party will be over a year from now. It seems to me that there is a greater emphasis on projecting and possibly not having pre-marital sex.
I was sure to make tonight a shower night as we head to Khovsgol in a day for a two-week excursion to the countryside. I also washed all my city clothes, which revealed to me that they were in fact quite filled with dust and sand. I’m wondering if when the city gers start burning coal if my khakis won’t turn to black, since the bath water now would indicate that my pants absorb the colors around them.
I really adore my new host mom. She just came into my room and put my coat on me, deciding for me that I was cold. Then, when I went to the kitchen for hot water she sat me down and fed me saltines. While I was there she pointed to a fly, said fly in Mongolian, killed it and then said dead in Mongolian. She did this a couple more times every time she found a fly to kill.
I am on board an Eznes flight to Moron, the capitol of of the Khovsgol region. We were told that it had snowed out here in the mountains already, even though Ulaan Baatar is experiencing its nicest three days while we’ve been here. Before leaving for Khovsgol the weather had dipped to below 50F.
We took a van from the airport to a little ger camp that is surrounded by little mountains or large hills and at the same time sits on a little cliff face. It’s really quite a nice view.
It snowed over night and it’s just beautiful out. The ground that seemed to stretch away in only various shades of brown is now covered in snow. Out to take pictures and wander about a bit before breakfast. It feels a bit like being in Wyoming or Montana.
Aimak (generic word for district capital) vodka is very close to rubbing alcohol, which explains it costing less than three candy bars.
I’m with my host family Khodoo host family. They are known for being really quiet. I have a mother, two sisters, a brother and a father though I’ve only met the mother and the brother.
I’m quite impressed with the system my host mother has going in her ger, while I was out running, she tied my hat to the ceiling beams. All of the space is used to the maximum, with the latticework doubling as walls and hanging space. When I unpacked my coat, my mom pretty swiftly swooped in and hung it on the lattice.
Getting to these gers was relatively exciting and mostly enjoyable. The vans are certainly not the best if you’re apt to get carsick, but I was lucky and only sat backwards for the last hour here this morning.
Yesterday, when we pushed off from the first ger camp the snow seemed rather unsubstantial, but as we traveled on the snow got deeper. We had a pit stop to fix one of the vans and it quickly turned into a snowball fight break for everyone else. From the snowball fight we drove to lunch, which we had a t a gooanz or roadside canteen. From the gooanz we had a final stop at the shrines to Chinngis Xaan and the spirits in general. We were given grain to give. The Darkhad Depression and Khovsgol are supposed to, in general, have very harsh spirits, so I’m pretty glad we stopped and made offerings. WE stayed in the Darkhad soum center last night at a guest house.
From the guest house we drove to our homestays. We actually drove to the base camp and our families picked us up, except mine was running late and so I was dropped off by SIT. So far my family seems really comfortable just letting me be, which is great because the area looks fantastic to explore. To the north I can see snow tipped mountains. They seem like they are probably a three hour walk due north, but it’s hard to tell. I may try and see how close I can get to them on a hike. Between the ger and the mountains is a river that is not terribly wide, but we were warned that it is shockingly deep and the water is too cold to risk a crossing. The river runs parallel to the mountains, so I’m hoping there will be a point where I can cross without incident.
My mom is rocking one grandkid to sleep and humming a lullaby.
When I got back from my run my mother put forward a small pot of yogurt. It was really a ton of yogurt and I was a bit overwhelmed by it. I scooped a bit into my bowl, but she seemed to think it was funny that I wasn’t eating the whole lot. I’m a bit lactose intolerant, so I’m interested to see how dairy consumption will fair for me.
My dad came into the ger late at night, took one look at me and asked if I was Mexican. I seem to throw off Mongolians by having dark hair and dark eyes and the little remaining summer tan has them absolutely certain that I cannot be from America. All Americans have blonde hair and blue eyes and it does not help that every other member of the study abroad group has at least one of those attributes if not both. I got my family to accept at long last that I was Italian, but that I was born and live in the United States.
Breakfast this morning was a slice of the best sourdough bread I have ever had and orom, which is almost the same as clotted cream. It is simply delicious. It’s mostly the consistency of cream cheese on a hot bagel, but there are runny bits under the thick more solid bit. Orom is made by bowling milk and continually stirring it and frothing it as the milk boils up, then it is let to set over night. The foam comes together to form the solid bit and underneath is any milk that did not froth, but it’s not quite milk anymore because it was boiled for so long. Orom is really quite delicious and it seems with the sourdough to make a really fantastic and solid breakfast.
Just went for a horse ride with my dad, it was quite a process to get the horse first. So, we were all in the ger when my dad out of the blue made clear that it was time to go, so I grabbed my hat and followed him outside. Once outside he decided to hold my hand and sort of lead me to the horse enclosure. My dad lassoed in quick succession our two horses. I named my horse for the excursion Rick James after the Cake song, but I did not try and share any part of this naming process with my family. In Mongolia most dogs are called dog, most cats cat and all horses go nameless.
My dad with his niece on his lap and me on Rick James head towards the springs and the owa, which is shrine by the springs (I only learned that we were headed to springs after we arrived at the springs). Within moments of leaving for the springs Rick James picked up speed and I could not figure out how to stop him, pulling back on the reins seemed to only increase his speed. Eventually, I got him slowed down and back to my father, but my father took that misstep to realize that I should not have control of Rick James and he took the lead line and we went to the springs in succession. This is the second time a Mongol horse has just taken off with me on its back and while they all seem happy that I’m able to stay on, I’m really quite sure that I have to learn to stop this mess.
Turns out the springs are for health and healing. There are several different springs for several different body parts or body functions. My host father took me to the spring for the stomach. I think that was a pretty decent choice since I am still a bit nervous about how all this dairy will work out.
Just took a walk to one of the hills that are not far from the ger. On the way there it was so sunny and warm that I took off my sweater and walked in my t-shirt, but on the way back it began to rain and now it is raining ice. The weather certainly changes quickly in Mongolia.
The ice storm has passed and while it is only four or so it will be dark soon. I went outside to find my host mom and attempted to ask if I should chop some wood from the pile for the stove, but there were no stumps to be split, so my mom and I sat down together with a double-handled saw to create a log that could be split into the little logs that fit in the stove. It did not go well, for some reason I could not apply the downward pressure and at the same time get the saw back and forth across the log. My host sister took over. I was embarrassed. From there I was given a chance to redeem myself, but when I attempted to split the log I got about six pieces out and my mother got thirty. If they were wondering what sort of wood chopping experience I’ve had in America, they now know the answer is little to none.
Back in the ger and my host sister just ducked out the door with binoculars in a manner very reminiscent to Luke Skywalker’s search for R2D2 in A New Hope.
Learned to make bootz with my mom and sister and I was just terrible at it. Despite using a higher dough to meat ration my bootz still had tears and my sister who had to make super boozs to deal with too much meat to too little dough had no rips and were beautifully sealed. They make it look so easy to “zip” the bootz shut, but it’s no easy feat. The plus side is that I finally know that it takes about ten to fifteen minutes to steam cook bootz, which means during our ISP month I can take the time to get a bit better by making them on my own. My bootz will also probably be a bit healthier. It seems the ration of meat to fat to other ingredients is 1:1:0. Perhaps, vegetarian bootz in the city.
Some of the meat used was meat from various organs, which Mongolians find to be quite delicious, but besides the tongue I have not taken to organ meat. I actually really enjoyed heart when we had it at base camp, but there was no heart in these bootz just liver, kidney and perhaps lung.
Final task of the day is to herd the yaks back to the ger so the moms and calves can be kept safe and be ready to be milked tomorrow morning. My sister has saddled two horses and I’m off to “help”.
I feel like a real champion, my horse did nothing too funny and I learned the different calls to get the yaks moving. Every animal type gets a distinct herding call. I’m not sure I was a great help to my sister, but I herded yaks by horseback and no one can take that away from me.
I got to watch the entire milk tea process and I now have the ratio for the ingredients, 1:1 water to milk. Bring the water to a boil, then add the milk, wait a bit, then add the tea loose. Stir thoroughly with a ladle, flipping the tealeaves around. Let boil for at least five minutes. Then strain into a teakettle. Pour a bowl to the spririts, serve home owner and then enjoy. The tea is not so much comprised of leaves as it seems to be comprised of things like bark and twigs. It’s a lot different than the loose Stash teas I brought with me.
Exciting news: I can carry a lot of wood because my arms are considered extra-long since I am so much taller than anyone in my family and my host father thinks this is funny, but good.
I was supposed to ride to school today, but my horse was missing when we walked out of the ger so we went by motorcycle. It was a blast. I bounced the whole way there and had to hold on fiercely to my dad. It was a real blast to be on a motorcycle in the Mongolian countryside.
I just asked my mom if I could go off on a hike and once I clarified that I did not want to go by horse she let me go. I climbed the large hill southwest of the ger, the views of the north were spectacular from the view. I could see the river flowing across the whole horizon, breaking the land from sky. All of the trees in this region are Siberian Larches, which means the needles are changing color with the fall and will eventually shed. They are an ochre color right now. At the highest point of this hill was a burial mound. Seems like a beautiful place to be laid to rest. Bodies are not typically buried if there is space to let them be left out to nature. It ensures that the body returns entirely to nature and the world, which is an important belief and practice here.
Attempted to make it to the mountains or at least closer today, but I spent my whole excursion trying to find a place to cross the river, crossed the river only to find myself on an island in the river’s path and needing another crossing point. However, despite not making it any closer to the mountains my hike had two really spectacular highlights. I saw two whooper swans, which are gigantic white birds with some black feathers and very distinctive orange beaks. These birds migrate every year from Australia to Mongolia and back again and these two must have been two of the very last in Mongolia as it is about to turn to winter here. The other exciting bit was that I saw a Saker falcon. Saker falcons are very rare as they are frequently poached because they make for excellent hunting birds and are highly sought after. I also spent more time at the springs and had a bit to drink from the one marked to help the heart. I noted that I could also aid my eyes.
Left for class and a cookout, of sorts, at 10 this morning on horseback, and it took just ages to get to class. The riding went slow and it was sort of painful to bounce up and down. Also my host father did not trust me with the reins so I had to go behind him and I think that my horse was upset about having to practically walk sideways. It is a just a really beautiful place and it was nice to have the hour it took to get there to just look around and absorb.
Today we are going to get to watch a traditional cooking method for large gatherings, which is to kill a goat fresh and cook the entire thing in a very large canister with red-hot rocks in the bottom with water filled to the brim. The goat is being wrangled by three men and Nate’s host father has just created a slit that he will put his hand through so he can pinch the aorta shut till the goat’s heart explodes. This method of killing the goat ensures that no blood will be spilt on the ground, which is very important. The goat is then skinned and the parts put into the canister.
After class when we returned to base camp and the goat canister the goat was all done and ready to be consumed. It was really quite tasty and almost like the canister worked as braising does to soften meat by cooking for a length of time at a lower temperature. When the rocks came out they were terribly greasy and still very hot. It’s apparently good luck to pass the rocks around, but they have to be handled with bits of paper that act like pot holders, and then depending on where the rock seems to stay or come back to there is some joke about kids or fertility. Highlight of the meal was the accompanying vegetables, which were my first greens since arriving.
We also met with a ranger, who summarized his job and existence as lonely and depressing. The ma is responsible for enforcing the law in the community of about 150 families with no help and no authority. He has to try and stop ninja miners, which are so named because they look Ninja Turtles, with their axes and buckets on their backs. Ninja miners mine without permits and use mercury freely to free rock from gold, but then all the mercury ends up in the rivers and it’s a major issue, so the ranger is trying to stop ninja mining in the area. It’s sad how ignored his attempts to help the area are.
Then we met with a local shaman, who read each of our futures. I’m going to get sick in the upper half of my body before I leave the country and he told me to stop taking photos of mountains and rivers. This shaman seemed legitimate, which is something to be concerned with in Mongolia. When the Russians left Shamans popped out of the woodwork and some are cons, as we have been warned, but this man practiced in secret and at great risk to himself and family even while the Russians were in Mongolia. He could not show us his full costume, but we got to see his headdress, which was really quite colorful. Long braid pieces of cloth with bells and other jangles attached throughout.
My mom just showed me a one-ruble bill from 1898 and a five-ruble note from 1901, it’s amazing to see. The empire was still standing back then.
Learned to make bortzog today, which are akin to small, extra crispy donuts. They get dipped in sugar when actually consumed, but liked donuts are fried goodness. They are known as the national biscuit or cookie, but are always fried and should be the national donut.
Class was held at my family’s ger today, but it dissolved quickly and we went to the springs as a group. We decided not to take the long route and had to walk on a marsh that was like walking on a sponge, with muddy water rushing up at each stride’s reconnection with the ground. It was very reminiscent of the bog in Lord of the Rings: Return of the King where Golom warns not to follow the light. I love how often Mongolia reminds me of either Star Wars or Lord of the Rings.
After class, when everyone had left, I chopped firewood in an ice storm, which was excellent. I am feeling strong about my survival skills; all I need is a ger and a dull axe.
My family gave me two really beautiful gifts, one of which is a yak horn that has been carved into a fish with a gaping mouth. The other is a beautiful emblem, representative of the symbolic violence it takes to stay on the Middle Path. It was really quite touching to receive these gifts.
Last day with my host family, tomorrow we leave for Khovsgol Noor or Lake Khovsgol, which is the 14th largest source of fresh water. The lake feeds north into Lake Baikal.
Yesterday was a day of travel to this state park, which is one of a handful in Mongolia where national parks are recent phenomena.
This morning started with a hike to a local owa, which was on an incredible overlook with a view across the lake. We are at the lake’s most southern tip.
We headed a bit further up the lake to a “resort”, which means gers and a solid building with a snooker table. I took an afternoon hike with Lindsay and on our trip down the mountain we came back to the lake just a bit north of the resort. Though I was warned of the cold temperatures, I decided that I could not resist the urge to take a dip. So, I took a brief dip, which was me just walking in to about just above the knee, diving in, surfacing with a “yelp” and immediately returning to shore. I did not see the water, which was ten degrees Celsius as likely to feel warm with time.
We head back to Ulaan Baatar tomorrow and while more frequent showering will be welcomed, I already countdown the days to our next rural excursion.