Dream Primal Vacation: Mongolia

Catherine Price has a piece in Slate.com (here) detailing a feast she attended after an invitation from a friend of her host family while on vacation:

“Good,” Otgoo said, as we nodded from the back seat. “We will get a sheep.”

Her phrasing—”get a sheep” instead of “buy some meat”—should have set off warning bells. But even if I’d realized what she was saying, I still would have accepted her invitation. We were in Mongolia, after all.

Price describes arriving at the house to an unexpectedly alive sheep tied to the fence. If you can handle some images of a dead sheep, don’t miss her photo gallery (here). Her hosts proceed to kill the sheep thusly:

In Mongolia, blood is considered a valuable food that should not be wasted. Hence their preferred method of slaughter: cut a hole under the ribcage and, with your arm deep inside the animal’s body, use a finger to sever the aorta. The heart, unaware of what’s happened, continues to pump blood into the chest cavity until the animal dies. It is difficult to watch…But as grisly as the technique may sound, it is surprisingly efficient: Within 10 seconds, the sheep was dead.

Nothing is wasted. Price proceeds to try all sorts of parts she’s never eaten before: liver, colon, kidneys, lung, and stomach full of boiled blood that she said looked like a dense chocolate cake but tasted like anything but. She notices that, unlike back home, there is no adornment. No herbs, no onions, not even salt.

As much as I have trouble even eating pâté, Price’s report didn’t do anything to dissuade me that Mongolia is my dream vacation destination. I will visit sometime before I die, assuming I have any control over that.

This may surprise no one, but when I was a little girl, I loved horses. But not in the usual way girls loved horses. I actually wanted to be a horse. And most of all, I wanted to be a Mongolian pony, or more specifically, Przewalski’s Horse. It isn’t the prettiest pony out there, but it’s one of only a few truly wild horse species left. It’s never been successfully domesticated. And it has some of the most beautiful landscape as its home. Horizons stretch to sky, interrupted only by sparse wild streams and hills.

The country itself is the 19th largest country and the most sparsely populated, with only 2.9 million people, 30% of which are nomadic. The weather and landscape are both extreme—hot and cold, dry and wet, high and low. Most of the population align themselves with Tibetan Buddhism, along with some native shamanism. Traditional sports include horse racing, archery, and wrestling, all of which are on display during the three-day Naadam festival in the summer.

Maybe this is just my naive American projection, but it seems like a place where you can tap into a life that has existed for a long time. Of course Mongolia is also modern, I have no illusions about that. In fact, I loved reading about the evolution of modern music there on the Wikipedia page, and I plan on checking it out. But the countryside is where it would be for me: yurts, falcons, camels, horses, temples, sky sky sky. Something so far removed from my daily existence and yet something familiar.

But the food would obviously not be in the familiar category. Price describes some of the other delicacies she tried:

…[O]ur most notable Mongolian culinary experience had been drinking a nomadic staple called airag, which translates to “fermented horse milk.” We’d also tried some other nomadic treats, such as aaruul—rock-hard dried cheese curds that taste like parmesan that’s done hard time in a barnyard—and Mongolian milk tea, a weak concoction of low-grade black tea, milk, and salt. (Luckily, we’d avoided boodog, a goat or marmot carcass stuffed with hot stones and then blowtorched—a bold dish for a country that has outbreaks of marmot plague, aka, Black Death.) I didn’t mind Mongolian dumplings, and I actually liked öröm, clotted cream that nomads slather on deep-fried bread. But I wasn’t eager to re-create any of the recipes at home.

Clearly, this will be a very different trip from my other dream vacation: Italy.

My guess is that it may not happen until my daughter is much older (she’s only 21 months old now) or even out of the house. But I’ll be sure to report back on the blood-filled stomach when I do.

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