Monday, October 27, 2008

Cat's Mongolia, Part II

On my first morning out in the Mongolian countryside, I awoke when the top of the ger was pulled back by Kazna, the lady of the house, letting in the morning light. I could hear someone moving livestock, a man’s voice, singing to his animals as he rode horseback.

In celebration of our presence, and in anticipation of the eagle festival, Armanbek brought a goat to the door for a blessing before quietly killing it (no noise at all, and no mess, with everything used, saved and cleaned up). The family was soon busy cooking, cleaning up the pelt and getting ready for us to leave, to begin our three-day ride to the festival.

I watched one of the women burn the goat head, then scrape the hair off, taking off the outer horn shell, and then boil the head in a pot. It eventually became the center of the huge lunch feast, with relatives from nearby there to share in the festivities. The goat was served with deliciously rich yellow potatoes and fresh sliced onion.

All the cooking is done with cattle dung as fuel. Cattle dung is collected in small piles in the fields before it is gathered, dried in a stockade, then stored along the outside stockade walls for use in winter. The smell of burning cow dung is a sweet, pleasant smell, and I liked it much better than the coal-fired heat we used elsewhere on our trip. It burns hotter and faster.

As soon as lunch was over, it was time to leave. I hurried to say goodbye to the women inside the ger, then we were off on the horses. I’d heard horror stories about how the Mongolian trot would jar my kidneys, and I’m certainly not a great rider, but the horses we rode and their paces were excellent. I’m too used to fat American horses, which is something like straddling a barrel for a short-legged broad like me. The Mongolian horses are narrower, which makes riding easier on the knees. I rode a Kazakh military saddle, which was fine as well. The horses had straight, strong legs and their trot was pleasant, and covered miles and miles. We ended up having so much fun on horseback, that at the end of the the fifth day, they had to tell us we couldn’t ride anymore, and we were so disappointed. I hated getting back in the van, but the remuda headed back to their home while we headed elsewhere.

While we rode, the weather was just like Wyoming’s: the wind blew, there was a dust storm, it rained, sleeted and snowed, all in one afternoon. Armanbek rode with us, eagle on his arm, stopping every now and then to drop her on a high rock before riding down below and calling her back to his fist for a meat treat. It was beautiful, but she was a naughty bird once, flying down to playfully attack Armanbek before he could get the meat treat out and call her. He just laughed and took her back up the mountain to try again.

Later in the day, Aralbai rode with us and we stopped at a small bachelor ger alongside a lake. A man and his son were inside and we had a quick Kazakh tea there, then onto further around the lake to the herder ger, where we were to spend the night. As it turns out, our van driver and a 6-foot-tall (at least) herder are related, so they had to celebrate, which means killing another goat. The herders and people out in the countryside use motorcycles as a major mode of travel, but otherwise seem to spend all day with the animals, on foot. They went out into the night, and by the light of the motorcycle, picked a goat, brought it into the ger for a toast, then took it back out and quietly dispatched it. Fortunately, the party moved to a neighboring ger, and our guide tucked me into a sleeping bag right after dinner. There were at least 8 visitors to our ger that evening, people appearing from out of no where. Since this is a herder ger, it is much more utilitarian than the beauty we saw in the Kazakh family ger.


Peculiar said...

Great stuff, Cat, and good to have you officially aboard! Love the photos, too! You're inspiring to go downtown and get some scans of my old Mongolia slides.

Steve Bodio said...

This makes me nostalgic!