Archive for September, 2011

Let’s go on a picnic!

Last Saturday morning dawned bright and beautiful with Mongolia’s incredibly blue sky studded with a few mini marshmallow clouds.  Mornings are chilly now, but the temperature would rise to the high sixties later.  I hustled to get dressed and gather a few items: my ayuk (cup), an extra sweater just in case, my camera.

At 9:30 we were to meet near our ger craft shop in the middle of town and would head for the hoodo.  “Hodoo” means countryside in Mongolian.  You use the word a lot here since everyone has relations in the countryside—that’s anything outside the town.

Our destination for the picnic

Our picnic was our celebration after the close last Friday of our craft shop.  Not many tourists around now and we have no little stove for the ger.  (We hope to find another place to open the shop during the winter months.)

So, with some of our profits, we planned a picnic with khorkhog as the main event.  Khorkhog is a distinctly Mongolian recipe usually prepared outdoors in celebration of something.  A couple of people had been assigned the planning and shopping.  Here’s our shopping list:  1 fresh goat, potatoes, carrots, onions, jars of pickles, jars of carrot salad, bread, candy, vodka and Mongolian wine, juice and water.

I was the first one to arrive  but by about 10:30 we were on our way, all 16 of us piled into a little minibus—plus the goat.  We drove about ½ an hour south of Muron into the hills to a group of little camps strung out along a narrow valley.  Each one is a collection of little wooden houses, sort of like a camp in U.S., where various groups go for a summer camp or special retreat.  No one is around now so we had a camp all to ourselves.

The first job was to gather firewood from the woods and build a fire.  Then we gathered some fist-sized stones and buried them in the fire. Meanwhile, two men started cutting up the goat while several women climbed down a steep bank to the stream below and washed the vegetables.

Washing the veggies down at the stream

Cutting up the goat for khorkhog

One of the young women pointed out various plants and berries indicating which ones are good for which part of the body.  People here often use the flora for medicinal purposes.  She also finds me a piece of chewing gum from one of the pine trees.

While we wait for the stones to get hot, we amuse ourselves exploring the stream and woods around us. One group plays a no-net version of volleyball.  To do so, people stand in a circle and “volley” the ball back and forth to each other as you do on a volleyball court.  Volleyball is popular here and this is a good way to hone your skills when a net is not available. At one point a herder came riding by and stopped to talk.  Everyone was in a happy mood and so we all took turns mounting the little horse and having our pictures taken.

Salesperson Jagaa posing on the horse

Dinner cooking on the fire

After about an hour the stones are ready.  The milkcan is produced and the rocks were dropped in along with the meat and vegetables and some water, the can’s contents steaming and hissing noisily.  Then the milk can was sealed up again and put back on the fire. An hour or so later, the khorkhog was ready, carefully removed from the fire and the lid cautiously opened.

Lifting the milk can off the fire

Steam burst out and then the vegetables could be seen looking all hot and shiny.  A togoo, the Mongolian’s traditional cooking pot, is brought up and the meat and vegetables transferred into it.  As the stones are taken out—now intensely hot, black an shiny from the fire and the fat from the goat, each person is handed a hot rock, quickly flipping it back and forth from hand to hand since it’s too hot to hold more than a fraction of a second.

The finished feast being transferred from milk can to togoo

The rocks are thought to have healing powers and are sometimes touched to a forehead or a back or or other part of the body for extra effectiveness!

We all hastened to get our ayuks and each is served a bowlful of the hot broth as a starter, meaty and delicious.  Then we gathered round a low table—improvised from a wooden bedstead brought out from one of the little cabins.  No plates or utensils are needed; we all just help ourselves to whatever piece of meat looks good to us as well as a potato and a pieces of carrot.  We share a couple of sharp knives to slice off a bit of meat or else we just chew the meat off the bone.  Delicious.

When everyone is satisfied, food is cleared away, and the vodka and wine are opened and the rounds begin.  The main feature is for someone to go round the table giving each person a shot of vodka and in return the person sings a song, generally joined in by the group.

Our picnic group

This is the part I love—to hear the Mongolian people sing.  One of the women from the group that made our felt products sang a song from the Tsaatin people, commonly known as the reindeer people who live up near the Siberian border. She must be in her 70s and her high clear voice was almost unearthly out here in this little valley with only the mountains and trees and the sky surrounding us.  My contribution was “This Land is My Land”, an old Woody Guthrie classic from my college hootenanny days.

Later, more volleyball and some games:  eat an apple that is hanging on a string from a line stretch between two trees—I lost, put a match between your lips and pass it from one to the next in two teams–our team won,  and have a race relay where two people race back to back from one spot to the next over a three-cornered course—we all lost.

Batbayr wearing the goat's tail as a beard

Yaks heading home

Late in the afternoon, a small herd of yaks passed through the camp on their way home.  And then, our driver and the little minibus arrive to pick us up about 7:30 and we head for home, still singing and laughing.  As we drive down into the valley back to Muron, we witnessed one of Mongolia’s magnificent sunsets, the western sky aflame in streaks of gold and red and orange and as the sky faded the one-day-old full moon shined down on a happy but tired little tribe.

A day to remember and a perfect way to cap our little ger shop’s success.

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September 13, 2011 at 2:05 pm Leave a comment


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