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Ellen Shapiro

Mongolia. Seriously.

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

"You're going where? And what exactly is it that you'll be doing there?"

"Is that inner or outer you're going to?"

"Do they have Mongolian barbecue there?"

"Will you sleep in a yurt?"

This was the standard litany directed at me regarding my impending departure for Mongolia, and when you plan a trip to Mongolia your departure impends for a long time -- you don't get there by subway. I didn't have any pat answers to these frequently asked questions, and still don't. I had been interested in the country since I was a young child, the people always seemed exotic and the land so far away, I knew it was the seat of the largest empire the world has ever seen (past or present), the people have lived through the worst of the rise and fall of communism and endured endless hardship and hostile neighbors, and the nomadic lifestyle and the idea of living in a ger (don't use the word yurt; it's the Russian term and is now in extreme disfavor) fascinated me.

"Oh, I've always been interested in Mongolia; it seems like a really cool place," is the best I could muster.

If there are levels of off-the-beaten-path destinations ranked on a scale of 1-10, Mongolia is surely a 10, or a 9 if you anchor the scale with the moon. On account of a refreshing, and also somewhat terrifying at times, lack of tourism infrastructure, my visit to Mongolia was a comedy of errors -- a very long comedy, kind of like the length of all 171 episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond shown all at once, five times over. There were lots of high points, and there were so many low points I lost count sometime on the first or second day -- so much went wrong so often, it became an issue of keeping track of the greatest hits rather than letting any given incident become too bothersome. Storytelling value was often the light at the end of the tunnel.

Cue Lawrence of Arabia music, please.

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Well, maybe it's not quite the desert in the Ansel Adams photos or the David Lean movies. It's a real desert. Mongolia is not only culturally rich, but the landscape and scenery are truly like nothing I had ever seen before. It certainly doesn't feel like planet Earth: it's a seemingly untouched and never-ending series of vast open spaces with nothing around for miles -- that's nothing as in no people, no buildings, no trees, just occasional patches of desert grass. The sky seems so close to the horizon that it always feels within reach. The sand dunes in the Gobi Desert are a mighty challenge -- none of us reached the top. The roads, if you can call them that, are barely discernible dirt paths running through the expanses -- the only paved roads we traveled were in Ulaan Baatar, the capital city, and along the route to one of the most visited tourist attractions, the Erdene Zu monastery about 200 kilometers outside of the city. In most cases you can follow the tracks of the jeeps that have come before or just as easily pick your own.

We were greeted at the airport by our guide, which was the last thing to go completely right for the next couple of weeks. Actually, there had already been mechanical trouble on one leg of the plane flight (no fault of the Mongolians -- this was in Japan) and our guide turned out not to be a guide. She was a translator by training (actually, she was an English teacher at the local middle school but it's Mongolia -- let's not get too technical), not a guide, and though she spoke English she didn't know all that much about our planned destinations.

Nor did she know what those destinations were supposed to be. Our first tipoff was that there was an old (really old, like the kind of old you see in Cuba old) Nissan (or was it a Datsun) sedan waiting for us -- hardly the piece of equipment necessary for a week in the Gobi dessert. By the time we arrived at the restaurant where we were to have our orientation meeting thirty minutes later -- the restaurant was bizarrely named "California" -- it became clear to us that somewhere along the way we had fallen through the cracks and our guide was operating from an early draft of our itinerary (one we had rejected and not the actual itinerary we had approved). And this was the serious guide company -- the one personally recommended to us by a National Geographic journalist who had been to Mongolia many times over the past 3 years and had surely covered every inch of ground we were to cover -- and then some.

Our translator/guide, on the one hand, had us scheduled to spend 5 days in the aforementioned Erdene Zu monastery and its environs, something that might take an eager tourist one afternoon at most -- unless you have a very specific interest in this particular Buddhist site, spending 5 days there would be like going to Washington, DC, for a week and spending 5 days at the Lincoln Memorial.

We, on the other hand, had us scheduled for a week in the Gobi Desert, traveling by jeep.

My dear friend and traveling companion -- my friend J, with whom I have in the past spent 2-1/2 weeks in a shared tent in Nepal enduring days of pouring rain and blood-sucking leeches -- was already starting to cough like a whooping crane (does SARS incubate so quickly, we wondered?) and in her eagerness to embrace the country she got us trapped into eating Mongolian food for lunch at the hotel, I mean restaurant, California.

Innocently J asked our guide and short-lived driver: "Oh, what are you having for lunch?" We learned very quickly that for 99% of Mongolians the answer to that question will always be mutton. In an instant, all my dreams of culinary diversity (not to mention my hopes that we would encounter unusual Mongolian interpretations of pizzas, pastas, and hamburgers) were cast aside as I was shamed into ordering one of the four Mongolian dishes on the menu.

J chose the horhog: fried mutton dumplings -- approximately three times the size of standard Chinese dumplings -- with chunks of mutton, mutton fat, mutton gristle, mutton skin, and maybe a little mutton fur, sealed inside. And, I noticed, she was having difficulty swallowing -- I took that to be a very bad sign. I, on the other hand, ordered the very authentic lamb cooked in a red wine reduction. Well, I actually never saw even so much as a trace of this kind of cuisine out in the countryside, but it was written right there in black and white on the menu, "Mongolian Food," so I ate every bite (except for that which I shared with J).

Over the course of lunch we told our translator/guide about the itinerary we were supposed to have. She chatted with the driver in Mongolian and then turned back to us. Clearly we'd have to get another car and driver if we were going to go to the Gobi. And she'd have to call the company's owner's wife and confer with her (the owner was away, guiding a larger group) about these changes. Plus we would have to change our departure date for the western part of Mongolia and that entailed changing plane tickets during the high tourist season. Throughout lunch we gently pressed our agenda and our translator/guide slowly realized the plan had to be scrapped and that we intended to pursue the itinerary we had agreed to with the owner of the company. This all sounds like pretty basic consumerism to those of us who live in the parts of the world where eGullet members tend to dwell, but rest assured by the standards of Mongolian commerce we were radicals.

Ulaan Baatar (which, if you're in the know, you call "UB") is a city -- complete with some very lovely mid-century Soviet labor-camp-style architecture -- but people still ride horses right alongside the cars. A Mongolian may very well ride a horse to the minilab for one-hour photo processing.

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We went to the bus station after lunch. That's where all the jeeps and drivers hang out, waiting to be hired by the likes of us. After much discussion and gesticulation (J and I remained in the Nissan) a driver and his Russian jeep were hired. Our bags were transferred from the Nissan to the jeep, we bade farewell to our old driver (little did we know how dearly we'd miss him), and we set off with our new driver and vehicle. After making countless stops in preparation for our newly configured trip (we needed warm blankets in case we had to sleep out, we had to buy food and water and snacks for the same reason, and we had to get some Togrog -- Mongolian money), we got on the road. And what a road it was. There were so many potholes that we thought, surely, the dirt roads would have to be better. Oh, we were so very wrong.

We arrived at our ger camp at about 10:00 that night (not that it made any difference what time it was, given that we had just flown halfway around the world) and before we knew it we were sharing a ger with our guide and driver. Um, what?

The week in the Gobi gave us a taste of Mongolian culture but because we were traveling the closest thing Mongolia has to a well worn tourist road the locals weren't always overly eager to invite us into their gers. Bear in mind that tourism in Mongolia only began when the iron curtain fell so it's still a very new industry, and it hasn't grown much at that. It no doubt helped that we were a small group, and on the occasions when we stopped at the roadside ger "canteens" we paid for our food anyway so we were always welcome there.

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Because we stayed in ger camps (essentially a collection of traditional gers set up for travelers, with beds and a stove in the center of each, a bathroom, and a ger dining room) our breakfast was typically bread, butter, jam, one egg (usually fried), and tea. Some of the other groups, who had more organized tours, had a much more extensive breakfast spread including sliced mutton, sliced yellow cheese (in Mongolia they identify and differentiate cheeses by color and age), tea, coffee, and some pastry type things -- none of which, excluding the tea and bread, are actual Mongolian breakfast foods.

Lunch was always some form of mutton. Whether it was "vegetable soup" (with mutton and hunks of mutton fat and assorted other sheep bits and pieces) or horhog (with the same, uh, inclusions) or mutton stew (which also regularly included the sheep's fur as well and sometimes included some of the grass and dirt upon which the sheep were grazing before they became boiled mutton) -- one thing you could bet the family herd on: mutton was always on the menu.

Despite my desire for immersion in the local culinary culture, I became pretty savvy about eating around the mutton. The soup part of the soup was usually good, so when presented with no other option I ate the broth and the noodles and tried to fish out any slivers of vegetables and choice pieces of actual mutton meat, leaving behind "the parts," which I'm happy to report, someone certainly ate after our departure . In "restaurants" (which were often closed, so it would take some running around the gers to find someone to open up shop for us) we were often able to get eggs and a cabbage salad of sorts. J ate lots of French-fries and rice. Another thing we learned in the course of our early Mongolian culinary educations was that any and all vegetables seemed to be mixed with mayonnaise, which to me, when I'm craving fresh veggies, altogether ruins the experience.

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Did I mention that no one has refrigeration? They're nomads. They live in the middle of Mongolia, which has earned its status as a metaphor for "nowhere." Of course they lack electricity. They mostly store their meat on the roof of the ger.

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The Erdene Zu monastery was a highlight, and I can hardly convey what an unusual treat it is to be able to take photographs inside a major Buddhist site. I've been to so many, and in all but a few cases I have only the memories. But this time I was able to get some photographs as well.

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Here I am modeling some of the latest Mongolian fashions.

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My favorite food items in the Gobi were the airag (fermented mare's milk), the milk tea with the floating yogurt "skin" added in lieu of cream, the white cheese (more on that later), and, hands down, the very good yogurt (notwithstanding the hair and fur that was always an integral part of each of these delicacies). Everyone was milking the herds (primarily sheep, goats, camels, and horses) to make dairy products to eat day-to-day and to store for winter. It was difficult to find the yogurt in the Gobi, because that's more of a Kazakh food, but I knew I would have more of it in the western part of the country (the second week of the trip), which is primarily inhabited by Kazakhs.

Here's some butter being stored in a sheep's stomach.

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Moving right along . . . a sampling of the dairy-oriented lifestyle of the Gobi:

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At the end of the first week we had amassed plenty of memories. It was a week of 10-12 hour days spent driving around the Gobi Desert in a jeep on crazy bumpy paths. I often hit my head on the roof on account of the velocity at which our driver progressed and the quality of the terrain we were traversing. We had no set itinerary. Our guide had never been to the Gobi Desert and knew less about it than we knew from reading the guidebook we got at Barnes & Noble in New York. Our driver turned out to be relatively psychotic -- we were told later by our guide that he had been persistent about asking her to have sex with him from day one, even though they were perfect strangers, both married. We had made a pilgrimage to an "ice cavern" where the ice had already melted. Apparently the ice lasts until July; we were there the third week of August and while there were indeed still some bits of ice, it certainly didn't seem worth the many hundreds of kilometers and four or more additional hours that we spent in the jeep getting to this famous destination. I think the driver just wanted a break -- it was his idea that we go there. J, meanwhile, had progressed to what sounded like bronchitis and perhaps even pneumonia so all of this was less than amusing at the time. But our only options were to laugh or cry -- and we chose laughter as often as possible.

I can't decide which was better: the trip to the ice cavern with no ice, or the trip to the place where we were told by our driver via our translator/guide that we could see dinosaur bones but which upon further questioning (after we drove there and walked around in the desert trying to determine which thing could possibly be the dinosaur bones that were left behind -- and for that matter, why exactly didn't they take them if they found them?) turned out to be a place where some dinosaur bones had been found long ago. But most likely the best bit of tourism had to be the time when, despite all of our protestations and urgings, our driver decided to drive through what appeared to be a lake (it was the rainy season but we had been fortunate to miss most of it) because he said he wanted to follow the "road" rather than go around where there was none. Surprise! We got stuck. And there was no one around. We were not just figuratively in the Gobi Desert. We were ACTUALLY IN THE GOBI FUCKING DESERT. It's not like we could dial up AAA (or MAA) on the cell phone and ask for someone to come pull us out and maybe bring us a few TripTiks. In fact, even if we could have, they sure as hell wouldn't have been so stupid as to drive in there to fish us out because they would have gotten stuck too. I guess that incident would have to claim the crown as the hi/low of the week in the Gobi. And, on top of it all, that night we slept at a gas station, on the floor -- after we ran out of gas, that is.

I don't say this very often (I doubt anybody does), but we were pretty eager to return to Ulaan Baatar. By that time it seemed like an oasis in the middle of the dessert. A Soviet-style, bleak oasis, but when you need an oasis you take whatever oasis you can get.

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

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An excellent account by an excellent Ellen.

Wonderful photographs.

Now:

any and all vegetables seemed to be mixed with mayonnaise

Whaaaa?

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Ellen: You sure put the Adventure in "Adventures in Eating!" This is a wonderful piece.

I'm wondering if the veg/mayo combo is a kind of post-Soviet Salade Russe?

Edited to add: I hope you bought the hat!


Edited by maggiethecat (log)

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Wow. When the book comes out, can we get autographed copies?

And whom do you want to play you in the movie? I'm thinking either Julianne Moore or Tilda Swinton.


Edited by Suzanne F (log)

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Julianne Moore or Tilda Swinton.

Either would be excellent.

Who do we cast as Steven?

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Ellen what an amazing experience. Your pictures really bring the post to life. It seems to be an amazing place -- lost in time somewhere. Inspite of some of the misadventures ( :biggrin: ) you had, it seems like it must have been a fascinating trip. I am definately looking forward to reading more. This is the real way to travel. I feel sometimes that my hubby and I travel way to organized and too touristy -- this is really the only way to experience a different country.. Excellent piece.

The dumplings that you have shown in the picture -- what are they-- they remind me of an Indian/Nepali dish called MOMOS..

I was fascinated with the picture of the butter in the sheep's stomach. Now there is a shot you dont see everyday!

Also not to be to personal, but what did you do for showers and bathrooms?

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The dumplings that you have shown in the picture -- what are they-- they remind me of an Indian/Nepali dish called MOMOS.

I'm going to give you one guess what was in them!

And yes, they're a bit momo-like in appearance (you know our bulldog is named Momo, right?), but then again they're similar to a lot of different types of rustic dumplings you'd find all over Asia.

what did you do for showers and bathrooms?

In a lot of cases, the answer to that is, "What showers? What bathrooms?" For much of the latter part of the trip, I used the same bathroom the cattle used, aka the great outdoors. It's not like there's any lack of space!

But in the Ger camps and the city, bathrooms were pretty normal -- a mix of Western and Eastern toilets -- and showers were plentiful (though usually lukewarm and sometimes cold).

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Oh my god! This is the best piece I've read on eGullet in some time!! Yeah, Peter Mayle can have Provence, Frances Mayes has Tuscany, and you have Mongolia. Fantastic writing and photos. Can't wait to see more, Ellen. And I'm glad you're home safe and sound. Makes Nepal seem like a walk in Central Park, eh?

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Kick-ass hat, El! :biggrin:

Great piece. I predict Mongolia will be the next big vacation spot!

Visit Mongolia 2003 site!!! (warning: REALLY slow site)

Some great quotes...

The Cabinet of ministers has officially announced at its regular session the 2003 as "Visit Mongolia Year" and has approved the staff of the National Committee on the organization for this year.
The Government proclaimed the Year of 2003 as the Year of "Welcome To Mongolia". In connection with this, it has started to issue a new designed visa to foreigners who intend to travel Mongolia.

So it's BOTH "Visit Mongolia year" AND "Welcome to Mongolia Year"? Wow! I feel doubly welcome! :laugh:

The airliner "BOEING 737" has been rented specially for the Visit Mongolia Year.

"The" one? "The" 737? The only one? :wink:

So, does EVERYONE in Mongolia have those broken blood vessels in their cheeks from the cold (at least I'm assuming that's the reason)? It looks like even you were developing them...

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I can't wait until we get the avatars database back, because you *know* what we're going to do with that hat photo.

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The Government proclaimed the Year of 2003 as the Year of "Welcome To Mongolia". In connection with this, it has started to issue a new designed visa to foreigners who intend to travel Mongolia.

Jon, this exact verbiage was reiterated in the MIAT (Mongolian Airline) in-flight magazine! I'm planning to provide some very informative excerpts in the second part of this account.

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any and all vegetables seemed to be mixed with mayonnaise

Whaaaa?

Hm?

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any and all vegetables seemed to be mixed with mayonnaise

Whaaaa?

Hm?

Who knows? It's all oral history and everybody has a different story, usually made up on the spot, about how things got to be the way they are. There's no Mongolian Larousse Gastronomique or even Bobby Flay so there's nobody to ask. There's some food professor at the university in UB, but what I read by him (I'll give some quotes in part-the-second) is about as informative as the Visit Mongolia 2003 site that Jon linked to. Maybe they just like mayonnaise?

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Amazing post!!!

I've always been in love with Mongolia, for some reason. It is unquestionably one of the top 5 countries on my list of places to visit. I love wide open spaces, I love fields! And I love diets almost entirely based on meat and dairy!

Beautiful and inspirational! Thank you!

-Ross

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Maybe they just like mayonnaise?

Sure.

But it's completely, deeply, and weirdly out of their historical background.

And yet consonant with the Japanese/Taiwanese etc current fascination (last 30 years or so) with the stuff.

Bottled, I presume. Hellman's? Yeo's? Monlap's?

This is fascinating stuff.

( :wink: )

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Maybe it's Tartar sauce. :laugh::laugh::laugh:

(sorry, I couldn't resist, really, I couldn't help myself)

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Please behave.

They get the majority of their imports from Russia and Germany. The ubiquitous mayo is some Russian garbage out of a tube. But we are definitely at the very far end of my expertise. I can also say, though, that there are a lot of Korean and Taiwanese connections with Mongolia. There are restaurants in UB with names like Seoul and the whole "Mongolian barbecue" trend came via Taiwan I think. I'll try to get this Mongolian food professor's e-mail address so we can ask him some of these questions!

[Edit: because I remembered about the tube]

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Maybe it's Tartar sauce.  :laugh:  :laugh:  :laugh:

:laugh::laugh::laugh:

But seriously, that piece by Ellen is the best report I've ever read on eGullet. I can't wait for the next installment.

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Here I am modeling some of the latest Mongolian fashions.

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Ellen, may I say it is just charming how that Keeshond has curled up on your haid!

Incredible photos! Incredible copy! It's National Geographic, right here on eGullet! I am thankful to know that the much-bandied-about "yurt" is wordana non grata.

And surely, surely, the mayonnaise-based, mayonnaise-laced, salads, as Maggie said, have to be Russian cultural lag ... I'd bet cash money.

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Very interesting, thank you.

There are big plans to introduce large amounts of cattle to the Mongolian grasslands (well at least to the bit that it is part of China), so you cow-free shots may become a rarity in the next twenty years or so.

The Sheep's stomach looks like a inside out rumen form a fairly young animal. Did you notice if they used one of the other (four) types of sheep stomach to store different types of dairy produce? Rennet is produced in the true-stomach of young animals and it would be interesting to know if they make their cheese by storing milk in this stomach.

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And surely, surely, the mayonnaise-based, mayonnaise-laced, salads, as Maggie said, have to be Russian cultural lag ... I'd bet cash money.

If you can verify the mayonnaise as being part of the Russian cuisine (I haven't been there and last I checked going to Little Odessa didn't quite qualify for getting my passport stamped), I absolutely agree that this is where the mayo comes from. It certainly didn't come from the Chinese and it had to have come from one border or the other (or, apparently, from California).

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