Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Goat Horhog

Sunday 19th August
Having spent so much time being rattled around in vans but having had such a wonderful time in Kharkhorin and the neighbourhood, we decided to postpone our return to UB for one more day's rattle. Enkhbold drove us by Russian jeep to Ugiin Nuur - Lake Ugiin which, although 90-odd km off, had a good road all the way.

We stopped firstly at the ger of Enkhbold's father, Peljee, a herder who lives a short way out of Kharkhorin. I was very excited when, after entering, Peljee and one of his other sons got out their snuff bottles, so that I was able to get out my own and exchange bottles in the traditional manner with my host. Each person holds their bottle (with the top slightly opened) resting between the four fingers of their right hand, this is then passed into the palm of the other, as their bottle is received in your palm. As with offering anything in Mongolia, the left hand also supports the right arm, as giving is always done two-handedly. You take a pinch of their tobacco or just sniff at the open lid if you prefer (which I opted for, not wishing to blow my cool by sneezing) and then the bottle is handed back, again with the top partly open. Well, it was a proud moment for me, anyhow, only marred by having taken my bottle out of a plastic bag rather than an embroidered pouch.

We were treated to milk tea, of course, and also a big pan of clotted cream to spread on bread, which was very good indeed. We then said our 'daraa ulzii's with the promise to return for goat horhog that evening.

En route for the lake we also stopped to visit a site where I neglected to take any notice of the fairly wordy signs erected by a joint Turkish-Mongolian project - as a result I am not sure if what we visited was the site of the Bugut stone - sort of the 'Rosetta Stone' of the Turkic-Mongol period, or if it wa just a replica, or indeed something else. It doesn't look much like the photos on this informative webpage, so is either a replica or a very sorry job of reconstruction. The area does look like a burial site, although is presently a building site, with a wall in construction around it to make for a visitor centre/pilgrimage site. If this is the site of the Bugut stone, a very important historical artifact, then it's frankly a mess, but it may well be that it's something else.

Ugiin Nuur is big and broad, and we arrived in perfect summer weather for a swim, which I did alone as most Mongolians don't. The water is very pure, and is filled with fish. It seems to be a popular spot on tour itineries, probably owing to the good road from Kharkhorin and the novelty of open water in Mongolia. After the journey from UB to Kharkhorin I'm distinctly less inclined to head out to Lake Hovsgul next week, as it would be torture to endure days of jolting bus travel for only a few days visit.

Refreshed by a swim, we now headed back to Peljee's ger. We stopped on the way to visit cousins of Enkhbold, who of course served us milk tea and let me ride one of their horses. This was my first experience of a real Mongolian saddle, not as uncomfortable as I'd feared, although ten minutes in it hardly leaves me fit to make any judgement. The stirrups were left high as usual, which made them very high for me, and I would not have been comfortable at a canter to say the least.

We were greeted very warmly on our return to Peljee's with another Mongolian cream tea, served with hard scones this time - jam would have completed the experience. Peljee was also very happy to serve me a glass of real Mongolian 'vodka' - a wine-strength clear drink made from cows milk boiled with yoghurt. It looks and tastes pretty much like water, but has a reputation for leaving your head clear whilst getting your legs drunk: everything is fine until you stand up. It's a shame really that Mongolians acquired a taste for the stronger stuff, I think a lot less damage would have been done to society here if people had stuck to the milk vodka.

Various sons, daughters, husbands, wives and grandchildren were also visiting, and everyone helped with preparation for the evening feast. Even me - I walked out and helped to herd up the flock of sheep and goats and drive them from where they were grazing on the open plain half a kilometre away back towards the ger. Once we'd got the flock back they were allowed to wander off again - except for one unfortunate healthy fellow, who was very deftly separated from his fellows. Peljee wrestled the goat firmly onto plastic sheeting on the ground by the ger, turned the animal over and pinned down its rear legs with a leg of his own while his son Enkhbold held its head and forelegs. It let out one long, unnervingly human groan of despair, but that was all. Once restrained Peljee took out his knife and made a short neat cut in the goat's belly. I was curious because I had expected the animal to be despatched with a hammer blow or something, as all I knew about animal slaughter in Mongolia was that they don't cut the throat - traditionally they don't spill the animal's blood. Indeed, no blood was spilled here, Peljee thrust his hand into the goat's insides, and with a look of concentration felt around, I guess until he found the goat's heart and stopped the flow of blood. Throughout this the goat became increasingly relaxed, but it was some minutes before it died. The heart or something was removed and left exposed on the beast's belly, and it no longer needed restraining for its final moments.

I can well understand people who become vegetarians after watching the proceedings in a slaughterhouse, but I wonder if anyone could be persuaded the other way on witnessing this approach? Mongolians are pretty much the polar opposites of vegans, the diet being almost entirely milk and dairy, but the traditional way of life here has such an affinity with the livestock, which live such a free life until they're needed in the pot. As I have previously remarked, Mongolians are repulsed by the notion of eating lamb or any baby animal.

Anyhow, such thoughts turning in my mind, I took up the invitation to borrow Peljee's horse and ride out onto the plain, which being my first time alone on a horse I enjoyed a lot, even though the plain was too big and night too close to do anything more than go out and come back. I did get to make my way, or rather make the horse make its way, over a ditch twice, which felt like an achievement.

Back at the ger night began to fall, and from nowhere a strong wind blew up. Two of Peljee's grandsons were outside butchering the goat and had to transfer their operations indoors. Before too long there were nearly twenty people in the ger, a small 'four wall' ger, but with plenty of room for the party, which became very close and convivial. Peljee remained sat on the floor and was the very paternal focus of the evening, telling humorous tales and explaining for me via my wife various Mongolian traditions.

The storm quickly developed, rain lashed down and thunder and lightning played. Through the open door of the ger this was very dramatic - and using the open toilet facilities some way from the ger this was very dramatic indeed. Inside the butchering was eventually finished, and the horhog was prepared. Stones had been placed in the stove fire which had been stoked up high, these were now taken out and, red-hot, placed with tongs in a tall pressure cooker. In the bottom were a few pints of water, so steam quickly rose, and more stones and the whole of the goat flesh were added. Meanwhile the intestines were being filled with blood for sausages to be enjoyed on some future occasion. Once the pot was full it was placed on top of the stove, to cook for about an hour. Meantime, Peljee entertained us with a story of how a cooker had once exploded when he was making horhog, but that the burns on his leg had been healed by applying dog's blood, on the advice of an old woman. I would have prefered to hear this story sat further away from the stove, or at least wearing trousers rather than shorts.

We each took a turn singing a song, for which the reward was a shot of vodka. As always, and particularly in the warm and crowded ger, the Mongolian singing was deeply moving.

At last the food was ready. A few burnt bits of meat were at the top, but the rest seemed perfectly cooked. It was piled high on a big metal tray, and the greasy hot stones placed aside to be picked up and thrown from hand to hand, and held under armpits and against the brow for as long as we were able, for the well-regarded health benefits of this treatment. It is invigorating, and also a good way to acquire eau de goat.

The soup was served after the stones had cooled beyond efficacy, and was absolutely delicious - very rich and with a slight burnt taste that didn't detract from the flavour. The wife and I also got to eat most of the half dozen or so potatoes that'd been included with the goat, before taking the meat itself. It was very good, didn't quite drop off the bone the way the beef horhog I'd eaten way back in the winter did, but was very fine nonetheless, and even I managed to find the fat tasty.

A few more vodka toasts were drunk, and I promised to return one winter, when Peljee has promised me we will hunt wolf. We left under the most incredible night sky I have ever seen - clear overhead, with the milky way showing a thick, billowing band across a studded vault of stars, and yet on three quarters of the horizon lightning still flashing every few seconds from dark, distant clouds.

More photos at Flickr