“This is camel meat. You like it?” asked our giggly host, Munkh.
It was New Year’s Eve, and we were inside one of Mongolia’s famed gers. These UFO-shaped dwellings look a lot smaller in reality, but first impressions belie their capacity. Inside our ger, a central wooden hoop was held up by two square poles. Fanning down from the hoop were 76 (yes, I counted them) round support poles resting in a wall of what looked like trellis. In the centre was an iron woodburner whose chimney rose up through a hole in the fabric exterior. The whole structure was encased in felt, waterproof sheeting, and cotton.
The furnishings of the ger were arranged around the circumference; the kitchen; the bedroom; the workbench where mum made leather boots on a hand-cranked Singer; the elderly television squashing the widescreen broadcast into a square; the makeup cabinet where Munkh’s three sisters prepared themselves for weekend dates; the wardrobe filled with bedding and mattresses – everything was organised into one, round room. The toilet was an outside hole surrounded by a wooden shed, and there was no shower or bathing area. A dog resembling a bear was chained to a kennel near the gate. She would be there, through minus 30 degree winters and 25 degree summers, for the rest of her life, chewing on sheep skulls.
Munkh was sitting beside the woodburner, hacking camel meat into small pieces on a large chopping board. When it was practically minced, he made smooth dough from flour, water, and salt, rolled it flat, and chopped off little squares. He spooned the meat into the squares and skilfully folded them into dumplings. While we waited we were given suutei tsai tea and deep-fried sugared dough balls from a seemingly never-ending supply. Once the dumplings were made, Munkh stood up and announced he had to get water.
“I have to do two trips today, because it’s closed tomorrow,” he said. Then he simply walked out. In Mongolia, people tend not to say goodbye if they know they’ll see each other again soon. The same goes for ‘hello’. Often during our stay, the door of the ger would fling open to reveal a random person. They’d typically walk in without any sort of greeting, accept a tea, drink it while muttering a few words, then suddenly leave. Every time it would be a new face at the door, but Munkh would always claim them as some extended family member. We habitually said hello and goodbye, and the family always humoured their weird foreign guests by replying.
“We go through this much water every two days,” said Munkh on his return, showing us a 40-litre barrel. “It’s very cheap; only 1 tugrik (0.0004 USD) per litre. You can buy a tonne of water for only one dollar!” Going by those numbers, you could actually get almost 2.5 tonnes of water for one dollar. Munkh said the water was okay for drinking straight, but he and his family rarely did that.
“It tastes strange for me without salt,” he admitted. Munkh’s family, along with a good portion of the population, get all the water they need from drinking tea. Water is traditionally considered sacred and not used for straight consumption. One time when Caroline was returning from the outhouse she saw Munkh’s mother throwing spoonfuls of water over her shoulder onto the ger. A kind of blessing, we were informed.
The dumplings Munkh made were put into a soup of suutei tsai tea – a popular, traditional drink made of full cream milk and salt with a little bit of black tea added. It’s surprisingly addictive, although the salt can be surprising at first taste. Add some camel dumplings, and you’ve got yourself a meal.
Just before midnight we exited the ger and walked 5 metres to the next ger. This was the home of Munkh’s brother, sister-in-law, and niece. Also present were a shaky old man and a couple of other people who were vaguely related. The décor was similar to our ger, but this one had a fancier television and an actual bed (which everyone appeared to share). A hop-hop-heavy New Year’s party happening in the centre of Ulaanbaatar was being broadcast live, and at the stroke of midnight we all celebrated with a bottle of champagne and slices of sponge cake. Almost as quickly as we’d entered, we left and headed back to our own ger.
The area where we stayed is one of several ger districts in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital. These semi-shanty towns are expanding rapidly as families of herders leave the vast steppes to find opportunities in the city. They find or buy a patch of land, stick up a fence, and permanently erect their ger – a dwelling traditionally used for an ever-changing nomadic lifestyle. Apart from one main road running out of the slowly modernising city centre, the streets in our ger district were unpaved and rough. Rubbish littered the neighbourhoods and packs of dogs roamed the streets at night.
Stunning snowy peaks surrounded us, but they were hardly visible due to the terrible smog. Ulaanbaatar recorded, in December 2016, the worst air pollution in the world. This is primarily because almost all the gers burn coal for warmth. With the outside temperature sitting in the -20’s, the burners were almost always belching plumes of black smoke into the air. Vendors lined the main road selling stacks of kindling and big sacks of coal for 1,500 tugrik (about 60 cents). We heard that there had recently been protests about the air quality, so we asked Munkh about it.
“They are protesting for cheaper electricity,”
“So that everyone can switch to electric heating?”
“Well, I don’t think that’s possible. There would be blackouts.”
The protests coupled with the embarrassing distinction of having the world’s worst air quality must have been a wake-up call. Just before we departed Mongolia, the government announced that electricity would now be free in the evenings from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. This will hopefully encourage more ger dwellers to invest in electric heating (although possibly overload the grid).
“Mongolia’s economy was climbing for a while due to gold and coal mining, but now it’s dropping again,” said Munkh. “In 2009 the government gave a percentage of its revenue back to the people – but that just caused inflation. We need to invest in renewable energy, but we can’t if the government keeps giving all its money to the people.” According to this article, the 2009 payment distribution worked out to be about 92 USD per person.
Munkh’s ambitions were lofty; he was in his final year of a finance degree and had his sights set on a government position. For now, he was content to plan any number of future business ventures. “I want to start a food delivery service. People who have to stay at home all day, like pregnant women, can cook food for the business. Then people can call me to order meals, and I can tell the nearest cook to make something for them.”
“That wouldn’t work in New Zealand,” I said. “There are all sorts of food safety regulations. Any food for sale has to be prepared in an approved kitchen.”
“That’s not a problem here,” Munkh replied with his characteristic giggle.
On New Year’s Day the family gathered around to play huzur, a team-based card game. Unlike our failed attempt to play cards with Russians, this time we had an English speaker to tell us the rules. Huzur requires a good deal of planning, and knowing exactly which cards you team are holding allows you to strategise accordingly. Munkh was exceptionally good at the game, telling us which cards to play and when (despite not being able to see our hand), always giggling as he plotted his next move.
Our team was Munkh, Caroline, and I. The other team consisted of Munkh’s adorable, squat mother who always looked like her eyes were closed, the old man from next door, and another guy who was just sort of there. The teams in huzur sit alternately and discuss their plans before each game, and it was here that Munkh enjoyed an advantage; he was the only person at the table who could understand both languages. Ever sharp, Munkh’s mother soon learned what we meant when we said ‘Joker’, but she forgot to keep that knowledge to herself.
Another traditional game uses knucklebones. Only these ones aren’t made of plastic or metal, they are actually sheep bones that are cleaned and saved. Munkh poured out a huge bag of bones that were still slightly oily and had the faint aroma of mutton. “Ah,” I said, “I know this game,” and I proceeded to throw five bones in the air, flip my hand, catch what I could, and continue from there. Munkh looked at me with a puzzled expression. He’d never seen this weird, western knucklebone game before. Instead, he took a pile of bones and showed us the four sides.
“This is sheep. This is horse. This is camel. This is goat. Animals don’t attack other animals, only each other.”
He tossed a handful of bones. If two were the same animal, he would flick one at the other. If it hit, he would collect one and add it to his pile. If he missed or if there were no matching animals, it was the next person’s turn. The winner was the person who collected all the bones.
A second game of bones was called horse racing. We each chose a bone to represent a horse, and then shook a pile of bones. Each bone that landed as a horse represented one move forward for our chosen horse.
“Your horse is so small!” laughed Munkh. I later learned that it isn’t polite to comment on the size of a Mongolian’s horse. But the funny thing is, they are rather on the small side. Caroline and I giggled about a tiny Genghis Khan and his tiny horse trying to take over the world one Achilles’ heel at a time. Of course, we would never say this within earshot of a Mongolian lest we be smashed into dust.
Eating in the ger was an oily meat-fest, and our first lunch of the year was no exception. One of the sisters dropped a large stainless steel bowl in front of us filled with horse meat and knives. People took turns grabbing a knife, shearing the tough meat off the bone, and chewing it down. It was the first time either of us had eaten horse, and its thick yellow fat was a favourite for the gathered Mongolians. “Be quick or it will all be gone,” encouraged Munkh. Typically speaking, all our meals were free of herbs or spice, containing only salt to flavour whatever meaty delight was being cooked. One time we had lunch town at a restaurant and I ate a cheap meal of chickpea patties in a paprika sauce. On reporting back to Munkh, he hadn’t heard of chickpeas or paprika.
“Gangsta,” a man informed us. He had decided to follow Caroline and me after we got off the bus, and he pulled his shirt aside to reveal a home-made 2pac t-shirt. His face was scarred from acne and he walked with a limping strut. I decided to agree with him despite not knowing what he was talking about, and this seemed to please him. “Hip hop,” he declared, and pulled out his tatty rhyme book. It was filled with Cyrillic prose and poor drawings of figures in hoodies. I offered my appreciation. He pulled on some sunglasses. We parted ways.
The streets were filled with other such characters. We hadn’t been stared at much since rural China, but here in the ger district all eyes were upon us. One man got chatting to us while we were in line at a mini mart. His breath was enough to make me light-headed, and he was clutching a new 500 ml vodka bottle.
“English?” he demanded.
“Okay, thank you.”
Then the man put his bottle on the checkout with our noodles and fruit. The checkout operator looked from the bottle to us, asking with his eyes whether or not we were buying the vodka for this drunken man. I shook my head.
“Nyaaargh!” slurred the man.
“I’m not buying your vodka, dude,” I said to him. I doubt he understood the words, but he picked up his bottle in a huff. If he was mad, the anger was soon forgotten. We almost walked out without paying for our mandarins, but the drunken man grinned and pointed to a different counter where fruit was to be paid for. Then he stumbled up the stairs into the smoggy evening and we never saw him again.
Our time in Mongolia was extremely brief. The country offers huge tracts of stunning mountain ranges, plains of nomadic herders, and the scrubby Gobi, but in our 5 days we never the left the capital. Perhaps one day in the future we will return to Ulaanbaatar and escape to the west on our own terms, riding bicycles, motorbikes, or horses. Even camels can be bought if you have the tugrik to pay for one.