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Ellen Shapiro

eGullet Society staff emeritus
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  1. VERY hard to generalize on this. As a member of the Recovering Vegetarian Society (I was veg for 12 years) I can only speak for myself. I have a very strong GI system and was not veg for ethical reasons, I just didn't like the taste of meat so I stopped eating it and that became a lifestyle. I decided to get back into it because I was craving it, because I thought I was getting insufficient nutrition otherwise, and because the foodie lifestyle sort of demands it.

    I started off with a Peter Luger steak, Gray Kunz's short ribs at Lespinasse, hot dogs at Gray's Papaya, and a hamburger at Cafe Centro back when Centro's beer bar had one of the best burgers. All in the same weekend. YMMV.

  2. Oh! How all of you shame me--how can I possibly compete? One of my favorite consistently "worst meals" is at the home of a beloved cousin. She just doesn't know how to cook--no matter what she does--and the whole non-fat/low-fat thing doesn't help either (we must start another thread on that!). Favorites include: ice block coffee cake, freezer burned brownies with internal ice crystals (lest there was any question), frozen challah, frozen cookies (I've acquired a taste for these) and salad with glutinous non-fat Italian dressing (you know the kind--it's yellow and there are flecks of red and gray stuff suspended in the yellow stuff and it makes noises when you squeeze it from the bottle). There are other specialties of the house -- the meat is always overcooked beyond recognition -- and those fresh baked products most usually are too (perhaps it's better that we get to eat the others frozen?) but the saving grace is that we get to see the cousins and it’s never inconsistent -- so we always know to eat something before--and after each visit. :wink:

  3. Two recent experiences...

    Parmigiano Reggiano, hand-schlepped by my mother, from Reggio-Emilia. At first we thought it was better because it was "fresher." But how can something three years old be "fresh"? And now we know for sure because it has been in our fridge for months, that even when not fresh it's better than any Parmigiano Reggiano we've ever been able to get in New York.

    Darjeeling Tea, hand-schlepped by a friend, from Darjeeling. You can't believe how much better and more vibrant and fragrant it is than even the expensive stuff from the tea places downtown in New York.

    Any other examples of great hand-schlepped food? And what could be the reason for this? With FedEx available to commercially schlep anything and everything overnight anywhere in the world, how can hand schlepping still be so much better?

  4. If this is for a Web site you may find that the most important skills here are not photography skills but image postprocessing and manipulation skills. Effective Web graphics are often less about the quality of photography and more about the ability to combine relatively low resolution images into a compelling montage that communicates as much as possible with a few simple visual elements.

    Have a look at the home page for http://calphalon.com/ and you'll see the effectiveness of image manipulation of simple photographs. It didn't take a genius of a photographer to shoot the pans. The real work was in creating the graphic.

  5. Do you know if you'll be shooting digitally or on film? I would make some different recommendations one way or the other. At the high end, the formats are relatively interchangeable, but with amateur or "prosumer" equipment you will have to treat film and digital differently especially when it comes to lighting and depth of field issues.

    One thing I have found when either a) dealing with amateur photographers and b) needing to shoot in a situation where I don't have a full lighting kit or a lot of time is that it can be best NOT to do extensive styling and, rather, to rely on a natural or naturally occurring setting. Unless you really know how to style food, chances are you won't do it well.

    Awhile back we were shooting ice cream from Il Laboratorio del Gelato in New York City for a magazine article. Ice cream melts fast and doesn't react well with lights. We tried and failed with several styling options but they all sucked. So we decided to shoot in more of a photojournalism style, without neatly composing the scoops or using any fake backgrounds. Sometimes this is more appetizing in the end result than a highly styled, glitzy presentation with disappearing background.

    There are exceptions to every rule and sometimes you just have to do the opposite of the standard procedure. There was a storefront window at the shop. It would have made sense to put the window behind the camera for natural light but it wasn't working. But shooting towards the window gave a nice effect, once the shot was filled with one camera-mounted flash and one slave-flash off to the side. This was a digital shoot with an EOS D-60.





    The advantage of digital is you can take a million shots and quickly see your options, and then narrow it down to what you like best.

  6. Aside from my encounters with the Maoists (those pesky renegade guerillas, whom, shortly after my departure from Kathmandu for the mountains, our president declared terrorists--which they are) there isn't much to report on the mishap front in Nepal. Ah, but the food -- it's really going to test all of my skills as a writer to describe to you the astonishing variations in menu options from one tea house to another. Well, without going into too much detail, it's important to note that all of the menus are exactly the same--at least within regions--so it's the variations of the amongst the same items listed on each menu that are so dramatically different. Good thing I can back my stories up with photos, otherwise, I’m certain that none of you would believe me.

  7. Here are a few additional photos from Beijing and the Great Wall.

    J hamming it up with Chairman Mao . . .


    In and around the Forbidden City . . .







    A better idea of the scope of the on-a-stick selection at the night-market -- this is just one of many vendors . . .


    A wider angle on those pork things . . .


    Hungry J ordering dumplings . . .


    More stuff-on-sticks . . .



    Another good street-food snack . . .


    The posse at the Peking Duck place . . .


    There was a photo above of a woman holding a kite. Kites are big in China. At dusk, you can find tons of people out flying them . . .


    Beijing streets . . .



    A few more from around the Great Wall . . .






  8. Okay, okay, captions are as follows in descending order:

    Baby squid on a stick

    Different variety of baby squid on a stick

    Baby jellyfish alternated with mussels (I think)

    Baby chickens (head and all) without feathers—and hey, that’s a lot of bang for your buck considering that you get four per skewer—including the head and the beak

    Grasshopers/crickets (I don’t know the difference between the two well enough to discern)


    Seabirds and on the right, trumpet fish


    Sugar syrup glazed apples

    Sugar syrup glazed mixed fruit

    Yes, those are chicks—some still ½ in the shell--shortly before hatching (I’ll take extra feathers with mine—will that cost extra?)

    Chopped and griddle fried pork and veg in a bread product (similar to that of the pictured bread product featured with the Peking Duck, minus the sesame seeds)

    Fried dumplings

    Steamed dumplings (foreground), the makings of the delicious veggie pancake in the back (pancakes, veggies before they’re griddle fried and sauce, similar to plum sauce in color and consistency but spicier)

    Noodle soup to order

    Peking Duck

    Clockwise from top: Buddha’s Delight equivalent, beans with cilantro, bean puree, eggplant with mushrooms and cilantro, Peking Duck sauce, Peking Duck pancakes (they commonly wrap the duck in pancakes and occasionally stuff the meat into the sesame coated bread/bun in the 11:00 position) Peking Duck, cucumber, pickled vegetable, pickled cucumber (sweet and sour), additional sauce and scallion garnish for Peking Duck.

  9. To read all the parts of this series please click: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, Part VII, Part VIII

    Just a quick final report on my time in Beijing, for purposes of closure and sharing-of-photos . . .

    Checking into the creatively named Beijing Hotel was a delicious (no, really) luxury. By the time J and I had showered ("shower" doesn't do justice to the offerings at the Beijing Hotel: the entire Australian Olympic swim team could have trained in the enormous tub in the adjoining room, while watching Chinese soap operas and sipping the jasmine or green teas provided to every guest), and satisfied our instincts to wrap ourselves up in the plush robes and terry slippers in the closet, the trials and tribulations of Mongolia were already fading into a rosy light.

    Our first stop was the Forbidden City. En route, we walked past Tianamen Square but decided against starting any protests -- after all, J only had this one day, which didn't allow much play in the schedule for altercations with law enforcement officials. We wanted to spend the bulk of our time exploring Mao's legacy (or at least the pretty part of it). We decided to go with the audio tour. Pierce Brosnan was our audio guide. Oh, how very! He kept talking about history and such, and all I could think was "Bond, James Bond."

    We spent hours upon hours viewing the opulence that Mao had enjoyed -- and we also engaged in a healthy amount people watching. It was Saturday so there were many more Chinese tourists out and about than Westerners. Before we entered the Forbidden City, we lined up alongside the Chinese tourists to have our photo taken with the enormous picture of Chairman Mao that hangs from the outside of the City's wall. First I took J's picture, then she took mine. Then we wanted one of us together. (We were at this point fully embracing our inner tourists.) This is when things started to unfold as in a silent movie. J asked a family of Chinese tourists, by gesturing to herself and the camera, if they would take a picture of us. Hey, I understood it, but apparently the universal international sign-language for "please take a photo of us" hasn't made it to China yet. Before we knew it, the Chinese tourist-in-chief had, with military precision, rounded up his whole family and put them in a photograph with J. Then, he took several photos of his family with her, not for her.

    Further gesturing was successful, though: after we repeatedly pointed to ourselves, Chairman Mao, and our cameras, a light-bulb went off in the kind fellow's head and he took a picture of me and J together in front of the Chairman.

    Later in the week, I ascertained -- after seeing it happen a few times -- that Western tourists are considered an exotic-enough curiosity (and us, a blonde and a redhead no less) that the Chinese tourists have a widespread desire to have their photos taken with us.

    We stumbled upon a night market, although it was really a late-afternoon market because it got into full swing at about 4:00pm. The market consisted of a lineup of about forty booths selling all sorts of Chinese delights. While I hadn't burned out my camera battery at the Forbidden City (as most other tourists might do), I feared that this would be the end of my "juice" for the trip. The market was so fascinating. I couldn't take enough photos -- there must have been 500 different food-on-a-stick items on offer. After Mongolia, the selection made me drool almost uncontrollably -- even if it was over skewered starfish and scorpions. Here are just a few examples. If you know what's good for you, you'll skip very quickly over the last photo-on-a-stick here:












    My plan was to walk the entire length of the line of booths, see what looked good, and make my selections on the return. But J had no patience for my methodical plan and after we passed the fourth or fifth booth she thrust her camera at me and said "can you hold this?" and laid down her Yuan to get herself some steaming hot dumplings. I could hear her emitting little sounds of pleasure (grunts, squeals, etc. -- she was like something out of one of Ruth Reichl's restaurant reviews, the proverbial moaning lady at the next table; "I'll have what she's having," sorry to mix references . . .) as she scarfed down her dumplings. It was after 4:00pm and we had hardly had a bite to eat all day (J slept through the meal on our return flight to Beijing, and I can tell you from experience that she didn't miss much). Okay, dive right in. That's one way to do it.

    I walked on and next thing I knew, J was gesturing to the guy at a moo shoo pancake (or something similar) booth. I didn't even have time to snap a picture. Before I could react, the guy had pulled the crepe-sized pancake off the hot metal griddle and, in the blink of an eye, he ran a spatula of some kind of plum sauce derivative (it was wonderfully spicy) across the pancake and then scooped a selection of steaming sauteed julienne vegetables into the pancake's center. He wrapped it up and handed it off to her in a few quick movements. Too fast for me to take even a single picture of the process (luckily, more customers came along shortly).

    Now I could hear J grunting full-throttle and, with the sauce dripping down her hand, she gestured to me and said "you should try this -- this is a good one and it's all vegetables." (My multiple mutton encounters in Mongolia were pushing me dangerously close to a relapse into vegetarianism.) I tried to take a dainty bite but found that a thin line of sauce was dripping down my chin. Before I finished chewing, I gestured to the guy -- yeah, I'll take one of these too.





    J and I continued down the row and back up again to the beginning. I bought some melon-on-a-stick. This would be one of my mainstays over the course of the next week -- but I grossly overpaid at the market (the prices were posted) 5Y as opposed to the 1Y I later paid on street corners all over the city. I didn't know or care at the time, though. Ignorance was bliss and the cantaloupe-like melon was delicious.

    We had just enough time to hurry down the main shopping mall, past all of the McDonald's, KFC, and Starbuck's stores that were interspersed with the local Chinese shops and chains, and back to our hotel for another quick shower, a few laps in the tub, and cup of Jasmine tea before our big event of the day . . .

    J has a Chinese friend in Australia whose very best childhood friends live in Beijing. While Cunxin has not seen his "brothers" for many years, he urged J to contact them upon our arrival. The wife of "the Bandit" (as I understand it, Cunxin's best friend and blood brother from his youth) was the English speaker so she had made the arrangements with J to pick us up at our hotel and take us to the restaurant they had selected for dinner.

    Nothing about that evening could have been better. The company was delightful, the weather was perfect, we sat at a large table with a lazy susan in the middle, the windows opened onto the lake nearby. And then the food began to arrive. The table for eight that had seemed so large for the five of us now was inadequate to contain all of the plates that our gracious hosts had ordered. We ate Beijing duck (which they call Peking duck) in Beijing! Then we ate everything else on the menu. And the tea! The chrysanthemum tea was exquisite. Chinese-restaurant tea is, where I come from, the lowest form of tea -- lukewarm water flavored with old leaves from lord-knows-what plant. Here, I couldn't stop admiring the pot full of beautiful buds. We communicated around the table with hand gestures and the "Bandit's" wife busily translating to keep all of us in the loop. By all accounts it was a flawless evening and J and I were sorry to leave our new friends. But J had to be up at 5:00 the next morning to catch her return flight home and that severe case of bronchitis still wouldn't relinquish its hold on her.



    J and I settled in with a last cup of tea together. In the morning she would be gone and I'd be on my own to explore Beijing for almost a whole week. What was there to say? I wouldn't have wanted to make that trip with anyone else -- I'm sure I wouldn't have even considered it. Funny, I had only just met J two years before -- not long in the scheme of things -- and when we had set out to Nepal together that fateful September of 2001, I had only met her once. While I had thought we'd get along well enough, sharing a tent together with someone for weeks through pouring rain, a leaking tent, leeches, and constipation, I had no idea that she would quickly become one of my closest friends and my favorite traveling companion (with the exception of my top team: my husband and dog, Momo). So, what was there to say?

    J crawled into bed and I took another hot shower under the powerful stream of the massaging shower head. By the time I came out, she was sound asleep under the big, fluffy white comforter.

    I left her a note with a dollar for safe travels home and an explanation of its meaning (lest she think I'm a crazy cheapskate). It's a Jewish tradition to give money to travelers for charity to be donated at the end of their journey. The idea being that if the person is a messenger of a charitable donation, no harm will come to her on the voyage.

    I wished she would stay. Surely my week in Beijing wouldn't be the same without her but I had promised to take pictures for her as if she were right there with me. What a long, strange trip it's been.

    Thanks everybody for reading along.









    To read all the parts of this series please click: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, Part VII, Part VIII

  10. I am home! I am home! In response to J's weigh in--I'm happy to hear her truthful telling of her week in the hotel. She did not give me nearly the amount of detail upon our reunion in UB. Also, I was not nearly so impressed by the so called "UFO sighting." I came up with many explanations but J simply scoffed at me and mocked my so called "speculations."

    I guess I could say that our adventures in Nepal two years ago with the blood-sucking leaches (yes, just like blood letting in Mongolia--though not voluntary) might rival some aspects of this journey but J's observation about our lack of tears is a reasonable barometer.

    I'll lord over her important life-secrets and get her to tell, in her own words, her version of the "UFO sighting." Yeah, whatever.

  11. Thank you everyone. I have really enjoyed writing these pieces and your comments kept me going from one to the next. I'm sorry I won't have much opportunity to engage in Mongolia-related banter this month because there's only internet access in a few places where I'll be in Nepal. But I left Fat Guy with the last little entry on Beijing as well as those photos and some other materials that he can post here and there. Thanks again to all who have shared the adventure!

  12. Mabelline sorry for the delay in replying. My internet access of late has been sporadic. To answer your question about the role of women -- and I wish I had the in-flight MIAT (the Mongolian national airline) magazine with me to quote from because they go on and on about how women in Mongolia aren't subservient at all, ever, in any way -- I suppose your conclusions would have to depend on how you define words like subservient and equal. Just the facts, then, and you can decide: women and men in Mongolia do have strict gender roles at least in the nomadic society (in the city there is more flexibility, witness the female guides I had, which would be unusual in many countries). Both men and women work hard and if anything the women work a little harder. I imagine the standard hypocrisy and double standards about sexuality and the like are present as well. At the same time the women hardly seem subservient or meek. They're strong people and so are the women. They also seem happy. There were no role-based complaints voiced even in private. I hope that in part answers your question.

  13. To read all the parts of this series please click: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, Part VII, Part VIII

    The plan -- always there was a plan, rarely revealed and never realized -- was to fly back to Ulaan Bataar (the in crowd calls it UB, as you may recall) with the translator/guide so as to spend our last day taking in the various local attractions that had been deemed essential to our Mongolian experience.

    The plan was modified, but this time it seemed I was to receive that rarest of rare things in Mongolia: an upgrade. Although I hadn't been a terrible complainer, I had at various times let the guide company's owner's wife know my general level of dissatisfaction with how several of the trip's events had gone down. It so happened that the husband of the guide company owner's wife, aka the guide company owner, had returned to town that day and his wife volunteered that he would personally accompany me to UB and escort us around town for the day so as to give us the most elaborate and expert possible tour and to, as restaurateur Danny Meyer teaches us is the key to customer satisfaction, "write a great last chapter."

    I probably don't have to tell you that it didn't happen that way. I probably do have to tell you -- because the level of absurdity here is so highly counterintuitive that you'll never guess -- exactly what did happen: I wound up returning to UB with no guide whatsoever. That's right: first the translator/guide was dismissed based on the guide company owner's wife's representation that her husband would step in; and then the guide company owner himself decided that he was too exhausted on account of his recent tour with 14 Swedes (or were they Norwegians?) to accompany me. So I was simply to return to UB unescorted, whereupon J and I were to make our way around UB, visit the critical attractions, and enjoy the cosmopolitan and relatively fur-free UB restaurant scene.

    The distances within Mongolia are not huge, but flying from place to place is hardly the same as hopping on the US Airways Shuttle from New York to Washington, DC. On my first unescorted flight within Mongolia, I was to learn just how different.

    Aiyka, Jan, the translator/guide, and the good-natured driver all accompanied me to the airport to bid me farewell. I stayed outside the single-building airport terminal, with dust blowing every which way, doing the hokey pokey (I had taught them the hokey pokey in Eagle Hunter with Obese Eagle's ger) until the last possible minute. Hugs were exchanged all around and I disappeared behind the rusty and ominous sliding metal door. I was handed my boarding pass and I entered the coffin-like waiting room where the aforesaid 14 Norwegians (yes, I think they were Norwegians) were already waiting. We all sat there observing the comings and goings of the one or two official-seeming airline personnel. More people crowded into the tiny room. Soon there was a surge of activity as the sliding door to the dirt airstrip slid open. Just as quickly, the door was slammed closed.

    But it was clear from this pre-activity that it wouldn't be long before boarding would commence, so everyone started jostling for a position close to the door. Despite the printed numbers on the tickets, Mongolian procedure for domestic flights follows the great Chingghis Khaan's tradition of survival-of-the-fittest: the first to push his or her way onto the airplane gets first choice of seat. That, I was informed on the way out by my translator/guide, is how it's done. But what about the number on my ticket? That doesn't mean something? No, it's just a number, apparently with no meaning. And I mean no meaning, not even a theoretical one. They just put the number there, as far as I can tell, because they feel they should put numbers on tickets and not because those numbers correspond to anything real or imagined.

    The door again slid open. I was near the front of the line. We all pushed our way past the uniformed man checking boarding passes and speed-walked across the runway to the airplane. I had the New York City speed-walking advantage (which trumps even the Chinggis Khaan speed-walking advantage) so I was one of the first to reach the metal staircase that had been dragged in front of the decrepit propeller aircraft. Then, very dramatically and out of nowhere, a sizeable woman in the most horrible plum-colored suit pushed to the front of the crowd and literally threw her body across the access to the rickety metal staircase. Facing the crowd, she spread her arms out so that each hand held one of the thin metal railings. Her body obstructed most of the way and her clenched fists further ensured a complete lack of passage.

    Then began a process of genetic selection: Mongolians were segregated from non-Mongolians, and the Mongolians were allowed on the plane. Then she began allowing people on board the aircraft in no identifiable pattern. I started to push and grunt, trying to make my way past her imposing frame. No, she glared, it wasn't my turn yet. Based upon what, I wondered. Then she started yelling out various things in Kazakh. Despite the number of foreigners booked on the flight, and despite the fact that tourists pay approximately nine times as much money for the same crappy seat as locals, there was no effort made on the ground, or in the air, to try to communicate any information to those who clearly weren't from Mongolia. Hey, I was an anthropology major, I don't expect everyone to speak my language (ethnocentric I ain't) but I have been on airplanes all over the fucking world -- even crappier airplanes than this -- and I can tell you that this was probably the only commercial aircraft flying anywhere in the world that day where not a single member of the ground crew or flight crew was prepared to speak a word of English or any other remotely internationally relevant language.

    I watched as people filed past me. All of the Swedes made it onto the plane. Don't worry, one of the Norwegians told me as she boarded the plane, you have a boarding pass, you'll surely get on. Gee, what utopian country do you come from?

    Mind you, the plum-clad woman, still obstructing the staircase and admitting people with a total lack of any recognizable pattern (bribes didn't even seem to figure into it), wasn't in any sort of official uniform and wore no authenticating badge of any kind. She maintained the upper hand solely through attitude, bearing, and physical presence -- she literally blocked the path to the tin-can Russian plane and she looked (and was) really mean.

    I started to push and jostle a bit harder. The mean plum lady pushed back. She pointed at the number on my ticket and shook her head. Not that she knew or cared what the number was and not that the number was anything more than a theoretical construct in the noncorporeal universe. Indeed I watched countless people with and without numbered boarding passes gain entry and ascend the rickety metal staircase. I wondered if I'd be stranded for two extra days in Olgii, miss my return flight out with J, and be stuck in UB with no onward seat back home. It was certainly starting to look that way.

    Finally, I saw my opening -- an ever-so-brief lapse in the evil plum-clad lady's attention -- and I took it. She did not resist me: New York defeats Mongolia! As I mounted the shaking stairs I wondered if I would find an empty seat on this airplane. There seemed to be no possible way for the number of people who had already boarded the plane to actually fit inside. There were, after all, a finite number of seats. But when I stepped inside, I found, much to my surprise, that there were two beautiful empty seats at the rear of the plane -- with windows and away from the propellers.

    The flight attendant blocked my path.

    "Is anyone sitting here?" I politely asked.

    She pointed toward the front of the plane, at what I don't know -- there were no empty seats in the front.

    "Is anyone sitting here?" I asked a bit more firmly.

    Again, she gestured toward the front of the plane. Clearly no one was sitting there and this was all part of some secret Mongolian club that I was not a part of. Well, too bad for the Mongolian club.

    "Is anyone sitting here?" I repeated, even though this time around I wasn't really asking. I simply dropped my bags onto the seat and pushed on through, giving her a choice between moving or being stepped on.

    I collapsed into the seat by the window. If the plane took off, it appeared that I might actually make it back to UB and J.

    Moments after I was admitted to the plane, and only two passengers later, the door to the aircraft was locked shut. The plum-clad woman had disappeared and now an official, or at least a person in an official uniform, stood at the top of the staircase in the same stance as the evil plum woman. His hands were fisted on the railing too. People were clambering to get onto the plane. They all waved boarding passes at the official but he simply shook his head and gestured at the closed door. I watched out the window, extremely relieved that I had made it onto the plane.

    More and more people pushed up the staircase. The official tried to look official and he stood his ground. His knuckles were white from grasping the rickety metal railing. A large man standing one step up on the staircase reached up and with his boarding pass in one hand, he reached out with the other and gave the official a shove. The official was unprepared for this and, being a uniformed official in a former Soviet country (sort of), he puffed up his chest and swatted back at the man -- as in, he slapped the guy.

    Unfortunately for him, the man he had swatted was quite a significant Kazakh and had the appearance of having been in -- and started, and won -- many a barroom brawl. The prospective passenger delivered a right hook and then a left (I believe in boxing this is known as a combination). I guess he figured he wasn't getting on that plane anyway so he might as well beat the shit out of someone to make the trip to the airport worthwhile.

    Now the uniformed airline official was definitely angry. He slapped at the large man and knocked the large man's eyeglasses askew -- one arm dislodged from behind the ear perch and up onto his head. This, in turn, made the prospective passenger angrier and, after he righted his glasses, he really started to punch. Then he got it in his head that he was going to throw the official down the stairs. He started yanking and pushing the official, who at this point was grasping one of the railings with both hands and all of his might, back bent over the railing, anger and frustration coloring his face.

    This provided much entertainment for several more seconds until, eventually, a few good Samaritans intervened and attempted to separate the two men. This wasn't so easy, however. As they were pulling the big Kazakh off the little official, the big Kazakh reached out a giant paw and got in one last mighty shove, sending the official guy over the railing. Two passengers grabbed the official's lapels as he started his descent, such that he was suspended nearly in midair and partly upended over the side of the railing. They were, clumsily, able to haul him back over the railing to safety.

    So that was fun.

    The big Kazakh no-longer-prospective passenger was escorted down to the dirt runway by those who had intervened, and the uniformed airline official, now in the upright position and again king of the mountain (or at least the staircase), straightened his uniform, opened the aircraft door, pointed to one last man in the crowd, and ushered him onto the plane. (Perhaps his ordeal had caused him to be a bit more generous?)

    Then the official guy boarded the plane and began to rearrange the Mongolian passengers. One man had to hold his seven-year-old daughter in his lap for the duration of our four-hour flight (plus a stopover in yennevelt to refuel) so that the recently admitted man could have a seat. Two young women were instructed to squeeze into one seat together so that another man could have a seat. But no one seemed to be standing in the aisles. Now I understood why they limited luggage to 10 kilos per person: so they could make up the extra weight by squeezing on extra passengers who, regardless of what they pay for tickets, certainly pay more than luggage. I silently prayed that the airplane would actually take off and fly. It seemed distinctly possibly that it wouldn't.

    Up, up and away. We bumped along the dirt runway, gaining speed, and the airplane slowly gained altitude. It looked as though the plane would, for the time being, get into the air. I just hoped it would stay there until we were actually ready to come down.

    Eventually, I took a gamble and made my way to the bathroom. Big mistake, really, a big, big mistake. Not only was the bathroom by far the most terrifying I had ever seen on any airplane, train, or even bus (and I've been on buses in Africa, Central America, etc.), but also I caught a view past the bathroom into the depths of the aircraft and came to the unsettling realization of how they managed to squeeze all the passengers onto the plane: there were passengers in the cargo hold. At least I got my seat back, however.

    Then we started descending into what appeared to be nowhere. I knew we couldn't have arrived at UB already. We had taken off an hour late and the flight was supposed to be almost four hours -- plus there was a one-hour time change. Of course there was no explanation, at least not in English. Everyone clambered off the plane but most left their bags behind. When almost everyone was off the plane, I guessed that this was some sort of stop. Hopefully not an emergency stop.

    I asked one of the Norwegians and she told me that her group had been able to piece together that it was a fuel stop. This was all news to me: on the way out (a flight that coincidentally covered the exact same distance) there had been no stop for fuel. And oh, she added, you made it onto the plane! I told her that I almost hadn't and asked what the Norwegian consensus on the big fight had been. It turned out, though, that she had been on the other side of the plane and hadn't seen anything. So after I told her the whole story she insisted that I follow her over to a group of a few other Norwegians and tell them the story. So well received was the story that she then she asked me to tell it again, to yet another cluster of Norwegians. By the third time around I was getting really good at it. I added details about the bathroom and cargo-hold situation. I was a big hit with the Norwegians.

    At long last, in the distance, I saw the lights of UB. It was no Vegas, but for me it was a homecoming. In a short while I'd be re-united with J. We'd have the whole next day to catch up and explore on our own. I'd be able to gorge myself on the buffet breakfast the following morning: Eggs! Vegetables! Cheese! Jam! Not to mention a rotating selection of different covered chafing dishes with delicacies yet to be revealed -- all without very much fur, hair or dirt at all. Oh, home at last, home at last.

    I rushed out of the baggage claim area, found the young man who was there to return me to J and to our hotel, and settled into the back seat of the taxi he had secured for us. I struggled to make polite conversation until he dropped me off at the hotel. I was happy for the escort and delighted that without any further delay (there seemed to have been enough already for one day) I would soon be arriving back to J.

    I knocked on the door to our room -- the very same one that I had left a week ago. J opened the door to me and we both smiled. When I saw her face, relief washed over me. Now I could relax.

    That's essentially the end of the Mongolian adventure. However, I did spend almost a week in Beijing afterwards and would like to share some comments and photos with you (sorry there were no photos this time around, but as you can imagine circumstances did not permit any). So please stay tuned for Part VIII.

    To read all the parts of this series please click: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, Part VII, Part VIII

  14. To read all the parts of this series please click: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, Part VII, Part VIII

    You might suspect that the failure of Eagle Hunter's eagle to hunt -- on account of alleged obesity no less (I ask you, did Eagle Hunter's eagle look at all overweight?) -- was the last straw. But it was merely the penultimate straw. The last straw came shortly thereafter. Eagle Hunter, now designated in my internal dialog as Eagle Hunter with Obese Eagle, wanted to spend some more time communing with his eagle in the field prior to returning the eagle to the other field where it is kept chained to a rock. So he suggested we go on without him to the next stop on our Mongolian Kazakh dude ranch itinerary: the felt-making operation.

    Though I had never had the slightest interest in felt or its production, I had been on the receiving end of several days of propaganda regarding how fascinating the felt-making process really is. And, I was told, it is all the more fascinating when done entirely by hand in a ger. So I was actually getting pretty excited about the prospect of seeing the start-to-finish process of making wool felt. "How do they make felt after all?" I asked myself.

    But I was not to learn the answer at that time. Because after we walked for about half an hour through five-foot-high grasses and thorn bushes (advertised as "5 minute walk to ger next door") in order to get to the felt-making ger, and after milling about interminably until Aiyka was able to ascertain the hospitality readiness status of the inhabitants of said ger, I was informed, "Oh, they already made the felt for today. So sorry." Yes, the women of the ger had already made all of their wool felt that day despite the fact that they had been the ones to extend the invitation to come over and observe the felt-making process in the first place. Apparently the ordeal with Eagle Hunter with Obese Eagle and his too-fat-to-fly eagle had taken too long and we had missed our chance.

    That was the last straw. Although, the way I've portrayed it here, it sounds as though the straw snapped suddenly. In reality, it was a sluggish realization that so many things had gone wrong, and that this was yet another thing gone wrong, and that, dammit, I'm not going to take it anymore. So, yes, even though I know you might think less of me for it, I admit it: I had a bit of a nervous breakdown over the issue of felt.

    The breakdown went something like this: I charged off through the thorn bushes in the direction of Eagle Hunter with Obese Eagle's ger (despite my best efforts and numerous runs through the washer and dryer, I've still been unable to extract all of the thorns and pieces of grass from my shoes -- almost a month later I'm still finding them around my apartment). I grumbled under my breath and as I stomped through the herd of enormous yaks resting in the dirt, who hastily rose up in fear and gave me a wide berth.

    I started to recount the indignities: First I fly out to this god-forsaken part of the country where it's hot as Hades and dry as an oven, all based on the promise of seeing an Eagle Hunter hunt with his eagle. I wait patiently every day to meet said Eagle Hunter. Then I wait patiently to see the Eagle Hunter with his eagle. No, no eagle on the horseback riding trip. No, no eagle today. Then, on my last day, when I finally do see the eagle with the Eagle Hunter, I'm told there will be no hunting because it's summer (so, why exactly am I here?). But, there will be training (woo hoo). And we will be spending a great deal of time with Eagle Hunter and his eagle. And then the eagle won't fly. Because it's fat??? And then the indignity of the felt-making? Is anyone paying any attention here at all?

    Still muttering to myself under my breath like a deranged madwoman, I bounded across the river on Eagle Hunter with Obese Eagle's previously laid stones, fuelled by nothing more than frustration. I returned to the ger, collected my soap and tiny towel, and charged over to the river to wash my filthy hair. I don't know why; it just seemed like the thing to do. To say it was symbolic of the desire to cleanse myself of recent events would probably be reading too much into it.

    Off came my grassy, thorny shoes. Now what? I'm standing barefooted on the edge of a rocky river. There are children, goats, sheep and yaks with Texas-sized horns milling about (well, there weren't any yaks right there -- but they could wander over at any time) and my intention is to get at least some part of myself clean. It doesn't have to be all of me, mind you -- perhaps just the dirtiest patches of skin and my unruly hair would be good.

    Precariously perched on two uneven rocks, I bent over the furious river so that some of my hair fell into the water. I scooped the water onto my head and sucked in my breath -- cold, damn cold, probably around 45 degrees F -- and made sure that no strands escaped. After one too many dunks, the searing pain in my head became so intense that I teetered over on those stones. I put my hands out in front of me to catch myself before I toppled into the river. By this time a small group of curious children had gathered around to see what the hell I was doing. Of course it didn't make any sense, the civilized people in their homes, er, gers, fetched water from the river and heated it up like everyone else in the world does, but on the previous night when the women of the ger -- including my translator/guide -- were taking part in this ritual, no offer came forth for me to do the same and I didn't want to ask, lest I waste some of their precious fuel. Apparently, my translator/guide had no such concern.

    I paused and waited for the pain in my head to subside (think ice-cream brain-freeze times a hundred) before I could wet my hair further. I lathered my hair with shampoo, took my water bottle, filled it with river water, walked 100 yards away from the river and rinsed.

    I repeated this process until my hair was free of shampoo. It occurred to me that the river could easily be unsanitary, full of filth, excrement, or worse (vicious animals?). But I harbored the hope that I was being cynical (what else is new) and bitter and that it was actually a pristine river in the wilderness. I continued with my hair washing charade, knowing full well that before my hair could dry it would already be dirty again with the blowing dust.

    When you're firing on all cylinders from dawn 'til dusk for days on end, you don't have much time for reflection. But at this point, I did stop to ruminate on the subject of eagle hunting. Could this possibly be an effective means of hunting? Was there ever a time in history when a person could depend on an eagle to provide enough food to live on? Is it even possible for an eagle living mostly in captivity to capture more food than it needs to be fed? If eagles don't even hunt for a large part of the year, are they really good for anything more than sport, the lining for your hat, and the occasional freshly killed snack?

    Later, back at my computer, I did some searching online. There aren't a lot of journalists who have gone to western Mongolia to observe the Mongolian Kazakh eagle hunters. But there are a few. I found two articles. The first was by Sheryl Shapiro (no relation to me). Surely, I could vicariously experience an eagle hunt through Sheryl Shapiro's account:

    We rode to several rock outcrops, where we left the horses at the base and climbed to the top. Armanbek circled the base, hoping to scare rabbits out of their burrows. We repeated this in several places, with no luck, but sent the eagles up anyway. They perched on high rocks and circled and soared, returning more or less when called to hand with a bit of bait. The next day we rode in a different direction -- hunters and part of the group up to the rocks, the rest of us along the frozen riverbed, hooting and hollering to scare animals out of their burrows. We crossed the frozen river by spreading dirt from the riverbank to the other side and leading the animals across. The dirt provides traction for both animals and people. The river is frozen through enough to drive a truck across, though it took a small leap of faith for me to walk on it. Again, our hunt was unsuccessful but we did manage to scare up a few rabbits.

    Then I found an article by one Alan Gates (no relation to Bill), a bona fide international falconry expert. What happened on Gates's hunt?

    Our first day's hunting was not the best organised due to the lack of communication. . . . We failed to spook even a sparrow . . . . A couple of hours later and nothing had stirred. . . . the scare boys had flushed a big dog fox, the eagle had covered the ground fast and raked the fox just as he made it to ground again. Try as they may they were unable to reflush the fox. . . . I was riding alongside Kakiyat when we came over a slight hill and startled a mountain hare. The eagle was airborne and after it in a flash, she fluffed her footing and was unable to regain lift as the hare jinxed away. . . . We flushed and reflushed a couple of foxes by the ability of following their tracks in the snow. On a couple of occasions I was close enough to see the eagle close in only to have the fleeing fox turn and face the eagle with her jaw open barring teeth. . . . The quarry had evaded us but we had hunted hard in this unforgiving terrain, the eagle had worked hard and behaved well . . . .

    In other words, three of us travel writers schlepped all the way to western Mongolia and none of us saw an eagle catch a single thing. No doubt, there are more efficient ways to get fur for your cap, catch the fox in sox or little bunny foo foo, and entertain yourself.

    Jan interrupted my reverie when she called and waved for me to come to lunch. Like a well trained dog past the point of challenging any order, I obediently trotted over, even though I knew what was on the menu -- and I knew I wanted no part of it.

    But I was rewarded. I got to sample the fresh white yogurt-milk cheese that we had made just a few hours ago. It was ready to eat and I tentatively tried a nibble. It was delicious. "Damde, damde!" I exclaimed. The cheese was sort of like ricotta salata. I devoured a small hunk and picked at the mutton component of the lunch (thank heavens for the communal plate).

    We were scheduled (all of a sudden, now that we had seen Eagle Hunter with Obese Eagle's eagle, our schedule resurfaced) to begin our journey back to Olgii after lunch, but first we were scheduled to go to one of the neighboring gers where, it was announced with great fanfare, I was to observe weaving. Weaving, apparently, is not the same as felt-making.

    Chica, conspicuously absent from Eagle Hunter with Obese Eagle's ger all morning, smiled up at me when we walked into the "ger next door." In the midst of a bunch of energized children, there sat Chica and two of the neighbor's older daughters on the floor, trading off weaving on the ancient loom with their home-spun and home-died yarn. As I clicked away on the camera the children vied to have their pictures taken. I took pictures of the twins, but one twin didn't smile when I clicked so I took another. Then the women of the ger wanted a picture of all of the children together. I arranged and rearranged them so they could all fit into the frame. Someone ducked down as I clicked, so I took the picture again. Then the women wanted to get in on the pictures too, so they joined the group. And Chica and her friends wanted to be photographed at the loom . . . it went on like this for awhile. To signal the end of the impromptu photo shoot, I broke my camera down and put the components away with great ceremony and exaggerated body movements.




    Our driver was at the ready and the jeep was packed. We were heading for Olgii, and ultimately for away from here. We waved farewell and, tucked into the jeep, we once again forged the river. This time as the front tires of our jeep hit dry ground everyone let out whoops of triumph. "Piece of cake!" I called out. But no one understood what the expression meant so I had to explain it, and that didn't work very well.

    We stopped again at Bayan Nuur By Lake Summer Village. Why, I'm still not exactly sure. Aiyka hopped out to talk to someone. A friend perhaps. We continued on our way and I asked if we would stop by the ger where they had offered to roast the whole sheep in my honor. Yes, that was on the schedule (again with the schedule). I nodded my assent.

    After bumping along the Mongolian superhighway, we pulled up in front of the ger. But wait, where was the man to whom I had given the vodka -- the one that had offered to roast a whole sheep in my honor? He was not in evidence. Not that I actually wanted a sheep to be killed on my behalf, and not that I wanted to eat anymore sheep ever in my life, but I was looking forward to my reunion with my old friends.

    But the women of this ger saved the day when they asked, "Would you like to see us make the wool felt?" It seems that not only had they gone through their entire felt making production for the day but in anticipation that we might return to visit them one day that week, they had set aside enough raw materials to give us a demonstration. From beginning to end I observed the process of making wool felt -- a product the family would use not only for patching the felt on their ger or constructing a new one, but also for bedding ("Kazakh mattresses"), carpets, and decoration.







    While the women were spreading the wool onto a straw mat the size of a carpet, watering it down, adding more wool, and rolling up the mat to flatten the wool, the man of the ger -- or so I thought -- made his appearance. He beamed as he welcomed us back. He pumped my hand up and down, sandwiching my hands in both of his.

    There was no evidence of a roasting sheep and I silently prayed to the spirit of Chinggis Khaan (again, this is the currently preferred spelling, as evidenced by the matching Chinggis Khaan wallet and key-case J purchased for Fat Guy) to spare me. On the way, I had been told that if they did cook the sheep in my honor, as they had suggested, I would be given, as the special guest, the sheep's head -- all for me!

    Please spirit of the great Khaan, please! I beg of you to show mercy on your unsuspecting subject -- please insure that they forgot about my sheep. There's been so much mutton, so much mutton fat and fur. I have shared in all of these meals, I have eaten fur and hair, I have eaten dirt, and grass. Please draw the line at the sheep's head; please show mercy for this innocent, unsuspecting recovering vegetarian!

    People began collecting in the ger and soon there was a crowd including women and children of all ages as well as a handful of older men. Then, out came the vodka. The man apparently in charge poured a healthy round of vodka and toasted my return. The translator/guide translated. We drank.

    I refilled the glasses (by now, I knew what to do) and it was my turn to reciprocate the toast. I thanked them for their warm hospitality and friendship. I wished them safe travels during the winter and good fortune and I thanked them for opening their home and their family to me with such kindness. Down the hatch. And, I told them, in my religion we have a toast and it means "to life" (the translator hurried to keep up and translate) "L'Chaim" and I held my glass up and waited for the lag in translation. "L'Chaim!" they all cheered -- and the vodka disappeared down our gullets. I started to feel woozy and hot -- two medium-sized glasses of vodka is a lot for me.

    But it was not time to go yet. Out came another bottle of vodka. And this is when I learned that the man who I thought was "the man of the ger" was actually a neighbor and while we had just enjoyed the neighbor's vodka, now the actual man of the ger (whom I had not met on my previous visit) wanted to bust out his own bottle of vodka to toast me. So, we did the whole thing again.

    He said pretty much the same things as the other guy -- the translator translated his toast, he lifted his glass, we all followed suit and "L'Chaim!" they all cheered. Down the hatch.

    I then poured what I hoped would be the final round. I made sure the bottle was empty by the time I finished refilling everyone's glass. Again everyone looked at me waiting for my toast. I had pretty much used up all of my material on the first one (not knowing that I'd have to make a second one) and struggled to say something equally nice yet not redundant. The translator/guide translated, everyone smiled, we raised our glasses and "L'Chaim!" glasses returned to the table empty.

    And so, having deposited this bit of Jewish culture in western Mongolia -- will they still be saying "L'Chaim" a hundred years from now? -- and having narrowly escaped the sheep-roast, we stumbled back to the jeep and attempted to depart. But first there were many photos, warm farewells, and perhaps even an attempted grope by one of the "fathers of the ger." Eventually, though, we were allowed to pile back into the trusty jeep for the drive towards Olgii. Not that there would have been any other cars to hit, but for the young people (and mothers) in the audience I'd like to add that our driver did not consume anywhere near the amount of alcohol the rest of us had. This, I had been sure to observe. Being so close to liberation, I wanted to get out alive.

    That turned out to be easier said than done, however. But we'll need a Part VII for that. Stay tuned for the final chapter.

    To read all the parts of this series please click: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, Part VII, Part VIII







    To read all the parts of this series please click: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, Part VII, Part VIII

  15. Well, I have spent all day reading this fascinating saga. I sure hope those folks eventually receive the photos. Do they have maling addresses? I suppose you could mail stuff to Aiyka in Olgii, and then the next time she or her husband are out that way, they could bring the photos. Could take months. What a completely different way of life, almost inconceivable to me.

    What do the teenagers do for fun? Do they dream of leaving a life they might find dreary, but is probably much better than life in Ulan Batuur?

    Do they listen to rock and roll? I guess they don't have radios. 

    Did you hear any Mongolian music? How about throat-singing?

    I sure hope you brought back some of those gorgeous textiles.

    How in the world did you get the cheese through customs?

    Really fascinating. Too bad your friend missed the good part. The landscape in the west is spectacular. I want to go.

    On a more serious note . . . I did indeed send pictures to Aiyka almost immediately after returning home. Everyone was so wonderful about having their pictures taken and I promised to send photos -- and I always try to keep my word on that. Aiyka told me to send them to her and she would distribute them all. Some are friends and some are even distant relatives.

    I did hear throat singing. It is sort of odd at first but really quite remarkable and very difficult, I would think. I don’t know of any other culture that also practices this same art form.

    UB seems to be the place that many of the young people are going to escape the countryside. I did not hear from any of the children about wanting escape the difficult nomadic lifestyle but part of that is likely that I was unable to communicate with them. I do know, however, that there is a mass exodus from Olgii of Kazakhs moving to Kazakhstan. My translator/guide’s mother-in-law has already moved and bought a house. Her son and my translator/guide expect to follow with their two children once they are able to sell their home and car – within a year. Apparently, the quality of life in Kazakhstan is better – salaries are higher and people are better off. When I asked further about this I was a bit confused because while salaries are higher, so is the cost of living. But Olgi is shrinking and there has been no new influx of people in the recent years.

    What else? Many of the gers have radios that are battery operated. As far as I can tell, they only listen to it for a news broadcast every night at 9:00 pm. Apparently, no one in Olgii listens to the broadcast but everyone in the countryside does. I never heard any rock music out in the countryside.

    The cheese . . . well, I double wrapped it in two zipper bags and then I sealed it into a Chinese take out container – the very same container I had been using to store yogurt on the one occasion when I had the opportunity to buy it (in the Gobi). As it was, I couldn’t really smell it through the two zipper bags and I checked it through in my big bag. Oh, and I sent that bag home with J while I spent an extra week in Beijing. :wink:

  16. Too bad your friend missed the good part.

    Which "good part" exactly were you referring to? The fur in the food? Maybe you were thinking of the anticipation of seeing the Eagle Hunter hunt with his eagle, I mean train with his eagle, I mean call to his eagle, wait--what I really mean is that maybe you meant the good part was when the Eagle Hunter picked up his eagle and fed it the sheep's lungs. That must have been it because I don't think it could have been the part when I was crippled from horseback riding or when I saw the black spots in front of my eyes or when we went to see Bayan Nuur the ghost town or the Turkic stone. Hum, maybe you were referring to the Turkic stone. Okay, well, maybe you're right, maybe she did miss the good part. :laugh:

  17. To read all the parts of this series please click: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, Part VII, Part VIII

    As our horses came to the end of the rocky outcropping Eagle Hunter spied a fox moving across the snow-covered peak opposite us. He motioned to us for silence, and set the eagle to flight. The eagle immediately oriented towards its quarry, soared high, chose an angle of attack, and went into a steep and rapid dive. The fox detected the eagle's approach, brought itself up short, turned to face the eagle, and bared its fangs. The eagle returned to altitude and circled around as the fox attempted to retreat to below the snow-line. The eagle made another run at the fox but the fox stood its ground. Then, coming around in a slow westward arc, the eagle got the fox on the run with its back turned. With a mighty ear-piercing scream it descended upon the fox at dizzying speed, braking with its wings in the last few feet of the dive, and digging its razor claws into the fox's vulnerable hindquarter. It picked the struggling fox ten, twenty, thirty feet off the ground and dove again, smashing the fox against a boulder . . .

    I awoke from my dreams of eagle-hunting like a kid on Christmas morning. Today, I thought, today is the day I'll get to see Eagle Hunter's eagle in action.

    We had another leisurely breakfast (it was bulgur day) and at the conclusion of the meal I prepared myself for the big event. At that time I was informed that Eagle Hunter still needed to go get his eagle (from where, I had no idea) so I could see them hunt and train together. In the meantime, I was scheduled to watch the women of the ger engage in the manufacture of different kinds of milk products. I quickly demoted him back to Eagle Hunter Without Eagle for the time being.

    As far as I could tell -- and I tried as hard to get this information as I would have tried to get the codes to cancel the self-destruct sequence on a nuclear submarine -- there were five different kinds of "milk products," but even this limited quantity of information was much harder to ascertain than I ever imagined so I'm still not certain.

    - First, there's the skin from the top of the milk that is skimmed as the milk is being cooked for use in other milk products;

    - Second, there's the white milk product that is cut into small blocks and squares and aged in the sun;

    - Third, yogurt;

    - Fourth, the red cheese that is hard, dried, and stored in small pieces and;

    - Fifth, a yogurt/milk cheese product (which was my favorite of the cheese products)

    All of these milk products are made with a mix of the milk from all of the animals in the herd. They don't drink airag in the west so the mare's milk is mixed in along with the sheep and goat's milk.

    I was able to observe the making of the white cheese, also called yogurt-milk cheese. I realize that this sounds redundant with "white milk product" number two, and I'm not authoritatively saying they're not the same thing -- it was extremely difficult to get a straight answer on the specifics of the different kinds of cheeses. Every time I tried to nail anyone down -- "Now wait; this is the same as white cheese?" -- I would get a moving-target answer. "No," they'd tell me, "that cheese we were making before" (the one my translator/guide told me was white cheese) "was the hard white milk product in its early stages before it's been dried in the sun." I'd go back to my notes and have my translator/guide sit with me and try to clear it up but everyone changed her mind every time we did this (my notebook looks like something out of A Beautiful Mind) so we'll all have to be satisfied with the whole truth resting only with the eagle that I had yet to meet.

    The yogurt-milk cheese recipe follows:

    - Bring milk to boil

    - Add yogurt to turn the milk, and stir

    - As yogurt milk mixture cooks and boils, yellow liquid appears

    - Pour entire mixture into a sack (an old 50-pound flour sack will do)

    - Place large bowl beneath the sack

    - Catch yellow water as it drains from mixture

    - Squeeze on sack at top of mixture

    - Tie sack

    - Find two large flat stones

    - Place mixture in bag on bottom stone

    - Place stone on top and add extra stone as needed for weight

    - Leave outside for approximately two hours or until remaining liquid drains from cooked yogurt-milk mixture

    - Remove from sack

    - Cut

    - Eat










    Pressing the cheese drains the remaining liquid and helps the cheese to keep longer. Milk products are stored and used throughout the very long and harsh winter when the herd is producing minimal milk. Different types of cheese last different lengths of time and are treated accordingly to make them last. One trick is to leave the cheese in the sun on top of the ger (so no animal can get it -- well, except perhaps the eagle, but by now I was beginning to doubt its existence anyway) to dry it further so that it keeps for many months, without refrigeration. Don't forget, all of the milk products -- whether yogurt, yogurt/milk skin, hard cheese or soft -- everything is stored without refrigeration of any kind. Of course, in winter, everything -- including the people -- gets refrigerated but during the summer it does get quite hot.

    The red cheese was the next milk product on the agenda. I can't give a complete recipe on the red cheese because I didn't observe the process from start to finish, but as far as I can tell the red cheese had a similar process to the yogurt-milk cheese with the addition of one critical ingredient: the yellow liquid from the yogurt-milk cheese. Thus:

    - Pour yellow liquid into pot on stove and boil

    - Add milk and stir

    - Add yogurt to turn

    - Stir

    - Allow mixture to cook down

    - Pour (or scoop by hand) remaining contents into flour sack

    - Hang sack and allow liquid to drain

    - Catch runoff in bowl

    - Leave sack hanging

    - When further drained, cheese is on ger in sun (I did not observe this step with the red cheese that I saw being made but I did see cheese at other gers drying in the sun on the roof)

    - Runoff liquid is added to food for herd -- nothing is wasted





    As the dairy production wound down, Eagle Hunter Without Eagle returned and announced that his eagle had been retrieved and was waiting for us (actually it was more like, "Come on let's go."). Could it be? We set out from the ger to meet the eagle.

    But first we had to cross the river. There weren't many rocks to hop on so Eagle Hunter Prospectively With Eagle vaulted across the raging river and proceeded to lift, like Hercules (or maybe it was more like Chinggis Khaan -- that's the currently preferred spelling), several large boulders, which he threw into the river so that we could hop across more easily. The translator/guide, however, was wearing sandals and decided that, even with the newly-placed boulders, this crossing was too much for her so she motioned for me to join her down river at what she thought would be an easier crossing. It wasn't.

    She crossed there (she ended up taking her shoes off and wading across) and I walked back up to Eagle Hunter Prospectively With Eagle's manufactured crossing. But by this time, Eagle Hunter Prospectively With Eagle had returned to his ger. He had feared that I wouldn't be able to cross at all (he misunderstood the scenario and interpreted it as me, rather than the translator/guide, being reluctant to cross) so he had returned home to fetch a horse for me to ride across the river. I tried to explain that I could cross the river just fine, but, well, you try explaining that in Kazakh -- the more frantically you try to explain that you're entirely willing to cross, the more it seems as though you're saying "I don't want to cross!" So, I got back on that damned horse and Eagle Hunter Prospectively With Eagle's youngest (and most adorable ever) daughter was lifted on to ride across we me. We rode over to where the eagle was supposed to be waiting. We dismounted. We waited.


    At this gathering were Aiyka, the translator/guide, Eagle Hunter Prospectively With Eagle's wife, his youngest daughter, our driver, and a few "neighborhood" boys (pretty much anytime you're in a social setting in Mongolia, even inside a ger, there are extras milling about as on a movie set -- when you get home and look at your photos you're constantly saying, "Who the hell is that guy?").

    Eagle Hunter Prospectively With Eagle was crouching down on the far side of a low stone wall a couple of hundred feet away. I fixed my gaze upon him and cocked my ears, watching and listening intently for any signs or indicia of the presence of an eagle: flapping, eagle cries, anything. He then stepped towards us over the stone wall. The group collectively leaned forward, bursting with anticipation: does he have the eagle with him? Surely now, following behind him, will be the eagle? He definitely has the eagle, right? He then turned his back to us, bent over the wall, and reached forward with a long, gloved arm.

    When the arm came up, there was an eagle on it.


    As he approached, the eagle came into focus. It was big. Really big. It looked just like and eagle is supposed to look. Its claws appeared to be four, maybe six inches long and were obviously razor-sharp. Eagle Hunter (he was legitimate now, in my opinion) had to wear a massive leather glove all the way up to his elbow. This was not for fear of an attack by the eagle, but rather because just in the normal course of standing politely on your arm an eagle will cut your arm off with its claws unless you augment yourself with something thicker and tougher than Eagle Hunter's red-white-and-blue Adidas track suit.

    As the eagle bounced along on Eagle Hunter's arm, its wings would occasionally spread out a bit and it was clear their span was equivalent to the height of a human being. And the closer it came, the better I could make out the spectacular pattern of its feathers. The eagle was actually a she, as are, it turns out, all eagles used for eagle hunting in Mongolia. Specifically, this was a female golden eagle (the females are larger and more aggressive hunters than the males), approximately 30 inches tall, weighing about 15 pounds, and with roughly a 7-foot wingspan (these are general statistics; I have no reason to believe they don't apply to Eagle Hunter's eagle who, regardless of actual numbers, seemed pretty damn big). A young eagle is trapped in a baited trap. Weights are tied to its feet and after two days of attempting to fly away, it becomes exhausted and terrified enough to respond to training (very nice). It then works for 10 years before being released into the wilderness.

    As it would turn out, eagle hunters don't hunt with their eagles in the summer (I can't answer that), so I would not have the opportunity to accompany the eagle hunter and his eagle on horseback to watch them hunt per se. Instead, I would get to observe Eagle Hunter in action training and practicing with the eagle. Although I initially felt this might be a step down from actually seeing Eagle Hunter hunt with his eagle, I was quickly persuaded that the training is the more amazing (and less likely to be seen on the Discovery Channel) element of the partnership. It is, after all, the training and interaction with the human that distinguish any old eagle from Eagle Hunter's eagle. Hunting is instinctive to an eagle anyway. You come across any eagle anywhere, it will eventually hunt for something. Big deal. I was to see a training demonstration -- far more impressive.


    And what an elaborate demonstration they had arranged for me. Eagle Hunter, with the eagle still resting on his gloved arm, swung himself astride his horse. He then engaged in a rather dramatic struggle with the eagle as he placed a small black leather hood over the eagle's head. (The eagle was not especially happy about this state of affairs.) Together, Eagle Hunter and his eagle rode to the far side of the field, where the land suddenly changed from flat to a steep incline. One of the young boys followed after them on foot and climbed the hill to join Eagle Hunter and his eagle. Eagle Hunter handed off his hooded eagle to the boy, turned his horse, and rode towards a point across the field. The boy stayed at the appointed place with the hooded eagle and waited for Eagle Hunter's instructions.

    When Eagle Hunter reached the end of the field, he enlisted the help of our driver. Our driver's assignment was to run as fast as possible, dragging behind him, at the end of a long piece of white string, the whole pelt, head and all, of a fox (which, I surmised, Eagle Hunter and his eagle had caught on a previous hunting expedition). The driver began running and the fox pelt bumped up and down on the ground. Eagle Hunter then took out of his bag a pair of sheep's lungs, dripping with blood, and held them at his side.

    Eagle Hunter gave a loud call in the boy's direction. The boy, with a flick of his wrist, removed the hood from the eagle's head. Eagle Hunter, poised on his horse with his gloved arm extended and the pair of bloody sheep's lungs dangling from the other, called to the eagle. I trained my 300mm zoom lens on the eagle. Eagle Hunter spurred his horse into action and they galloped across the field.

    The eagle proceeded to do nothing.

    Eagle Hunter motioned the driver to continue running. He then slowed his horse and called out to the eagle again. The eagle remained where it was, standing on a small boulder and glancing aimlessly about, without so much as ruffling its feathers. Eagle Hunter shook the sheep lungs and still, the eagle would not fly. Eagle Hunter rode on his horse, closer to the eagle, shook the sheep's lungs vigorously, called to the eagle, and extended his arm again. Our driver continued to charge back and forth, dragging the fox pelt on the ground behind him. We watched, we waited.

    So did the eagle.

    By now, Eagle Hunter had stopped riding and was sitting on his horse approximately 100 yards from where the eagle sat. Our fearless driver, now terribly out of breath, struggled to continue running with the fox pelt but was obviously losing steam. There were at this point, and I'm not proud of it, more than a few poorly suppressed giggles circulating among the onlookers.

    Eagle Hunter settled on a different approach: he dismounted the horse and dismissed it. He would stand in one place. He would hold his gloved arm out to the eagle and he would dangle those sheep's lungs in his other hand. Meanwhile, our driver would continue to trot back and forth with the fox pelt bumping along on the ground. Eagle Hunter let out a fearsome cry in order to summon his eagle.

    The bird didn't budge.

    Again and again Eagle Hunter called, again and again, the driver stumbled back and forth. And the eagle wouldn't fly. At this point everybody was on the verge of hysteria, except of course for Eagle Hunter (and maybe Mrs. Eagle Hunter).


    Eagle Hunter nodded at our driver, who stopped running and promptly collapsed on the ground, wheezing (he then lit a cigarette, apparently to help him catch his breath). Eagle Hunter took the fox pelt, moved closer, and shook the pelt in one hand and the sheep's lungs in the other. The bird remained in position.

    Eagle Hunter ditched the fox pelt. He called out and hollered to the eagle while swinging the sheep's lungs around in the air above his head. No movement by the bird.

    Eagle Hunter moved forward a bit farther -- and still farther. He plunked down on the ground, no longer extending his gloved arm. He twirled the sheep's lungs around in a circle in front of him and called to the eagle again and again. The eagle may have glanced in Eagle Hunter's direction.

    Eagle Hunter moved forward yet again, this time crawling towards the eagle. He called wildly and swung the appetizing sheep's lungs around and around. The eagle remained motionless.


    By the end, Eagle Hunter was practically within arm's length of the eagle. Still, no activity.


    Eagle Hunter admitted defeat. He walked the remaining inches to the eagle perched on the rock and lifted it onto his gloved arm. He fed the eagle some of the prized sheep's lungs. The eagle was happy.

    Eagle Hunter brought the eagle over to us so we could all admire it and watch the eagle, in swift movements, tear the sheep's lungs apart with its beak and talons before devouring them.

    During the post-game analysis that followed, I was informed that, "Eagles don't fly in summer because they're too fat." Um, okay. So, there was to be no hunting by Eagle Hunter and eagle, there was also to be no training (no successful training, at least) of eagle with Eagle Hunter; and, it seemed, there would be no flying of the eagle with or without Eagle Hunter. Good thing they don't actually depend on this eagle-hunting process for sustenance -- it's for sport only, so you don't actually starve to death when your eagle won't hunt. I took a bunch of pictures, and that was that. Eagle Hunter returned to the remote field where he keeps his eagle tethered to a rock.

    To read all the parts of this series please click: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, Part VII, Part VIII











    To read all the parts of this series please click: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, Part VII, Part VIII

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