A shot from a car window on an April trip to Hovsgol province in northern Mongolia. Stay tuned for an upcoming post about the US Embassy-organized outreach trip to visit rural schools!
After a nighttime train ride with little sleep, my friends and I arrived at the Sainshand train station around 1 am. (A short stop along the Trans Siberian railroad, the arrival and departure times here aren’t always convenient.) With the help of our Mongolian friends, one of whom also works as a guide, we rendezvoused with our driver. The stout baseball-cap wearing Mongol drove us the roughly 30 kilometers from the capital “city” of Dornogovi province to Khamariin Khiid, a series of restored Buddhist monasteries in the vast desert of the East Gobi.
Exhausted from the noisy train ride filled with activity from exuberant children, drunk men, and amorous middle-aged couples in the public berths, we rested for two hours in a toasty ger, or yurt, with a roaring fire in the central stove. We awoke to our alarms just before daybreak and searched for our guide to take us to “wishing mountain” nearby, the must-see spot to see the sunrise. Due to our guide being nowhere in sight and refusing to answer phone calls, we marched out into the freezing windy desert and headed east towards to find our own view. And, slightly disappointed but still cheery, a view we found!
After catching some rays of sunlight, we walked back to the ger where we slept for a couple hours, breakfasted on snacks and coffee we brought, and embarked on our day tour with our slightly sheepish guide (who may have slept through his alarm and our calls!)
However, the tour was worth it! While our guide didn’t speak English, our friends translated for us, revealing he was very knowledgeable!
Perhaps the biggest attraction at Khamariin Khiid is a few kilometers down the smooth newly paved road: Shambhala, one of the world’s most-powerful energy centers. Discovered by monks centuries ago as a site favorable for advancing one’s meditation (and even reaching Enlightenment!) the rectangular park is bordered by stupas and crisscrossed by lines of triangular prayer flags.
After Shambhala, our guide took us to see the nearby meditation caves where monks and lamas were bricked inside for a total of 108 days while meditating. For the first 54, they received a small bowl of food through a single-brick opening. Every day they ground down the bowl three times until it completely crumbled and was useless. At that point, the small opening was sealed and the last 54 days were spent in complete darkness and isolation — without food! After that period, his fellow monks then tore down the wall. If he survived, he was granted a special spiritual status.
After exploring the caves it was time to return to the ger camp for lunch of buuz, steamed dumplings, with milky tea!
After visiting the monasteries and main stupa our group departed for wishing mountain (9 hours after our promised sunrise visit…)
After a very busy day at Kharamiin Khiid and the nearby attractions, we returned to the main city of Sainshand to the Danzanravjaa Museum, dedicated to the famous poet, playwright, and lama from Dornogovi province. With personal, religious, and literary artifacts, this museum is a treasure trove of culturally significant items.
We were lucky enough to overlap with a mutual friend of ours, Zahariz Khuzaimah, a well-known National Geographic photographer, documentary film-maker, and adventure touring cyclist.
Although we were totally spent after hardly any sleep and a cold windy day of sightseeing, our group greatly enjoyed chatting with Zahariz about his own adventures. He was planning to bike to the nearby Chinese border in the coming days. Check out one of his websites here. Quite the photographer!
After dinner our group took the overnight train AGAIN, this time back to Ulaanbaatar. After all the excitement, I slept like a log! While I would recommend staying in a ger overnight to other visitors, the trip was phenomenal!
I currently teach general and professional English at a vocational school in Ulaanbaatar to aspiring painters, secretaries, graphic designers, and tour guides. As I quickly learned, vocational English programs require a degree of specialization not found in most other secondary and tertiary educational contexts. Regardless of the type of program, vocational students need not only practical English vocabulary for their field but also a working knowledge of industry-specific skills, norms, trends, and best practices necessary for their profession.
These are lofty goals for educators in vocational institutions but ensuring they are met is vital to the future of Mongolia’s economic growth. Drawing from my personal experiences, this post will address universal difficulties facing technical English programs, survey issues in the field of vocational education as a whole, and offer suggestions for making Mongolia’s technical and vocational education system as strong as possible.
Teaching vocational English is a difficult but worthwhile undertaking. Students are often not familiar or comfortable with concepts, vocabulary, and background knowledge of their subject in their native language upon the start of their programs. This is only natural considering many pupils do not have extensive real-life experience within their fields prior to enrollment. However, this adds a challenge for educators.
Unlike general English programs that typically begin with elementary-level ideas and vocabulary, most of which students easily identify from comparable words in their native language, in technical programs students do not necessarily possess a strong basis for learning relevant English terms. Further, not all pupils entering technical schools have a thorough grasp of elementary English grammar, vocabulary, or pronunciation. Conversational English speaking ability can be very low and student motivation is at times a problem.
Nevertheless, it’s imperative for all students to understand the importance of mastering English relevant to their field. It doesn’t matter the profession in which a student is interested, in the modern global economy customers, clients, investors, managers, business owners, and colleagues in Mongolia are more likely than ever to speak English as a first or second language. Possessing the adequate skills to communicate with people in a workplace setting is invaluable. Further, in order to perform at a high level and continue to develop professionally, workers in all industries should consult up-to-date resources. Many of these materials are only available in English which leave non-speakers and non-readers behind.
Unfortunately, educational institutions all over the world are struggling to provide vocational students with practical skills to make them employable — and not just English skills. There are several reasons for this. First, too many higher education institutions, especially those I’ve visited in Asia, continue to use dry and outdated methods of English instruction. Reading, translation, and rote repetition of texts is not an effective strategy and leaves students bored and unmotivated.
Instead, methods should be made more dynamic and include activities aimed at increasing the production of spoken English related to the tasks pupils will be performing in a real life environment. Always popular among my students, games and competitions should be incorporated into the classroom on a daily basis to keep students’ attention and increase retention of knowledge. Also, field trips, hands-on seminars, and workshops should be used to supplement students’ English knowledge of their disciplines in a setting that replicates their real-life work environment. Today, I’m going to an art gallery with my art 101 students!
A second major problem with vocational institutions is that many schools lack sufficient communication with professional organizations, ministries, and companies within their fields. This is the case in Mongolia but it’s not unique in that regard! The result is, no matter how hard students work, they’re not being adequately prepared for a real workplace environment, leading to poor employment prospects. Many students have little faith they are gaining relevant or employable skills, which further demotivates them. Curricula must be designed in coordination with industry leaders to guarantee that the skills-focus, English vocabulary, and methodologies of instruction are up-to-date, relevant, and effective.
Globally, as well as within Mongolia, government ministries of education and labor should do more to foster business-education partnerships. Larger tax breaks should be given to businesses that engage in collaboration with vocational schools and existing deductions should be made more widely known. Ongoing partnerships should be better publicized by all parties to encourage further networking between industry and vocational schools.
Furthermore, student internships and apprenticeships should be required for graduates of all high-quality programs and institutions. I’m very pleased with my school’s summer internship program for hospitality students who gain real-world skills as hotel staff each year. Opportunities for practical experience should be facilitated by every vocational school. Emphasis should be placed on opportunities where pupils can practice both professional and English-language skills. It’s impossible for students to be employable upon graduation if they have no work experience or training.
Databases should be made of hired graduates from every department in a vocational or technical institution to assess the employability of students. Schools could then use this information to find opportunities for further internship placements and partnerships. Importantly, this employment information should also be required of every vocational school by the Ministry of Labor in order to better assess the needs of the labor market. With sufficient information, Mongolia’s Ministry of Labor could more effectively guide its vocational and technical education system to supply the correct number of graduates to meet the current demand for jobs in each economic sector. This could benefit not just students and vocational and technical schools but Mongolia’s entire economy!
Why have massive programs for auto workers when there are not enough factory jobs for all the trained graduates? Why have small or non-existent programs for construction and mining when there is still a large demand for workers in these sectors? Sadly, some companies are not currently able to meet their needs for skilled workers domestically and may instead hire better-trained but more expensive foreign employees. With statistics on student success the Ministry of Labor could then provide incentives for schools to expand programs in sectors of strong economic growth and cut programs that waste valuable tax dollars as well as students’ and instructors’ time. These changes are difficult but necessary to ensuring both the immediate and long-term success of Mongolia’s economy.
There‘s much to be done to improve vocational English and technical educational systems to the point where both graduates and businesses are reaching their full potential. Most of these issues are not specific to Mongolia but also found in many other countries, including the United States. However, there are many causes for hope! My students work very hard and many show a very high aptitude for learning English as well as learning vocational skills. If educational administrators, government representatives, and business leaders convene to discuss these critical issues, and consider policy changes, Mongolian vocational students will have an even brighter future!
*Note: This article was published by the UB Post on May 30th, 2014 as an “Opinion” piece.
A power plant smokestack, crows, and an ovoo, a traditional Mongolian shrine, made for an interesting shot on this weekend’s stormy hike.
I open the door and step into the sweaty gymnasium of the Rajiv Gandhi Polytechnic College of Arts and Production. The overwhelming odor of nail polish and hairspray is almost too much to bear. I wonder how long the dozens of participants and spectators have withstood the harsh fumes. Still, the action here is well worth the light-headedness.
The room is alive with colors and textures, a teeming mass of cosmetics students, hair design trainees, and nail artist apprentices rushing to finish their creations before the deadline. It feels like an episode of a fashion-based reality TV show. Tensions are high. The focus and intensity of the contestants is palpable. Rihanna, Swedish house Mafia, and rave music blast my ears. I imagine the models going to an epic after party following the contest, but I’m told there is none!
Glitter and dyed hair, cut by the stylists, litter the floor. Attendants with brooms and dustpans struggle to keep up with the debris showering the basketball court. Gracious and trusting volunteers in white smocks sit in rows of chairs as their classmates bring their creative experiments to life. Most are friends or classmates of the beauticians.
Long lines of tables ring the perimeter of the gymnasium, manicurists and hand models seated across from one another. The competitors painstakingly push back cuticles, paste on fake nails, and paint intricate designs in neon, black and white, silver, and gold. Models sport masks, tutus, dresses made of plastic trash bags, and even neon jumpsuits.
In a corner of the basketball court body paint is applied to two topless teenage students standing in nothing but booty shorts. On display for dozens of fellow classmates, teachers, and administrators I can’t believe the half nude spectacle! This would NEVER happen in the US!
As the time limits approach panicky stylists put the finishing touches on their designs. Models take off the smocks covering their outfits and volunteers hand out numbers. Judges slowly pace the aisles stopping to chat with one another and pointing, clipboards in hand.
Before the winners are declared the models practice their runway walk. In a long line they circle the rows of chairs as the crowds lining the walls snap photos with smart phones and murmur to one another. Groups of stylists stand back and compare their work with their classmates, anxiously awaiting the decisions. Models once again take their chairs and the judges hand out small slips of colored paper to the models of stylists who have placed in the top three.
A few minutes later the chosen models, dummies, and stylists are brought to the front of the gym. An announcer in a shimmery navy blue suit calls out the winners. The crowd cheers wildly, but not everyone is happy.
“Good job,” I congratulate a first-year hair stylist student from my English Club, passing her in the crowd as I try to get a better camera angle. I’d watched her work and was impressed. “No! Not good. No good,” she turns away, wiping tears from her eye. Oops!
At first I don’t realize how important this school event is but soon a co-teacher informs me that winning means advancing to the national competition and potentially gaining recognition among the top hair design studios and beauty salons in Mongolia. There are five students in the room who won the national competition last year for their respective events and traveled to Brazil. One student won two gold medals at the international competition for creative hair design in the men’s and women’s categories for her age group.
Good luck at nationals Rajiv Gandhi students!
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s icy capital, is the world’s second most-polluted city according to a recent Quartz study cited by TIME magazine. I’ve traveled a fair amount in Asia, which as a region faces many environmental issues due to its rapid industrialization and urbanization. However, before living in UB I could never have imagined air pollution so bad. When I pull back my curtains in the morning the city looks like a scene from a post-apocalyptic sci-fi or horror movie. Buildings two blocks away are nearly invisible, veiled in a gray haze. Soviet-era minibuses cruise down the street, disappearing into a blanket of smog after a block and a half. On some days I can’t count the number of children on the soccer field from my apartment building less than 100 yards away. How they’re braving the thick haze, not to mention the -15 C weather, I will never fully understand.
Air pollution is measured by the number of airborne particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter per cubic meter (PM10). At this size, the particles easily become trapped in human lung tissue leading to asthma and bronchitis and contributing to heart disease and other respiratory and cardio-vascular maladies. Recent studies have also found strong correlations between elevated PM10 and higher prevalence of cancer of the mouth, larynx, and lungs. The world’s average annual pollution count in major cities is 71 PM10 according to the 2013 Quartz study. [The World Health Organization’s recommended target level is less than 10 PM10 per cubic meter.] In Ulaanbaatar, the average annual level is 279 PM10, according to the same Quartz study.
Shockingly, in the winter air pollution levels are many times higher than the yearly average mainly due to the massive amounts of coal required for heating a city where the average high temperature is -10 C between November and late February. In recent years during December, January, and February, PM10 measurements have been reported between 750 and 1,500 PM10. One independent air quality observer recently reported levels exceeding 2,000 particles per cubic meter! At these levels, citizens are essentially breathing in inescapable smoke! A 2011 joint World Health Organization and Mongolian Ministry of Nature, Environment and Green Development study found that the levels of particulate matter in UB are more than 35 times higher than the WHO’s recommended standards.
The suffocating pollution is caused by a number of factors. First, coal-fired power plants located within the city’s borders spew out thick smoke without the EPA emissions standards in place in the United States or Europe. Second, transportation contributes an increasing share each year as the city’s roads, designed to accommodate 500,000 people, are burdened by nearly 1.2 million. Tens of thousands of new vehicles are on the road each year, adding to already intolerable traffic woes and smog. However, the leading cause of the poor air quality is energy consumption in the city’s peripheral ger districts, which are comprised of former nomads relying on coal burning stoves to stay warm and cook. It is estimated that these quasi-temporary squatter settlements grow by roughly 15,000 people each year. Most lack access to basic needs such as clean water, adequate sanitation, and, of course, electricity.
So what are the effects of these astronomical levels of air pollution on Ulaanbaatar’s residents? Accounts vary, but a 2012 article in the Mongolia Briefing reported that roughly 1600 deaths and an additional 8,500 hospital admissions are due to pollution-related causes. A 2011 study found that an estimated 1 in 10 citizens of UB die of pollution-related causes. It’s not hard to consider that this rate may be even higher when, during the winter months, breathing the outside air is equivalent to smoking 4 to 5 packs of cigarettes a day! The aforementioned joint WHO-Ministry of Nature study found:
…that pollution levels in some locations of Ulaanbaatar are so high that the study team is not aware of similar high monitored particulate matter (PM) values in any other city in the world. In order to bring concentrations in line with Mongolia’s air quality standards, emissions have to be reduced by more than 90 percent. (The Mongolia Briefing.)
I live in one of the areas referred to above – on the border of the ger district north of downtown UB. The overwhelming burden of the pollution falls on the poor inhabiting these boroughs mostly because the residents cannot afford any means other than coal, wood, or even trash to stay warm or cook. According to an October article in the UB Post “ger districts produce as much as 70 to 90 percent of the air pollution in the winter.” Due to the inversion created by the valley and extremely cold temperatures, which traps the hot, polluted air, the highest concentrations of particulate matter stay in these areas. While I am fortunate enough to be able to afford a pollution mask and an air purifier for my room, I walk past coughing, wheezing, and sputtering residents daily who are not able to afford such luxuries.
So, what has the government done to help fix the public health crisis? Many Mongolians are very frustrated with the level of governmental ineffectiveness. A couple weeks ago, looking outside through our classroom window a co-worker turned to me suddenly and said “our politicians are very bad!” [Earlier that day the pollution was such that my students had difficulty seeing the PowerPoint presentation on the screen due to the obscuring effect of the projector illuminating the floating particulate matter. As soon as I entered the classroom my mouth was filled with a chalky texture and smoky taste, my throat became scratchy, my chest burned dully, and my eyes started to water. This is not normal, thankfully.]As my co-teacher voiced, the city’s politicians and bureaucrats appear to be failing its residents. As quoted in the UB Post, Chief of the City Air Quality Office, Ch.Batsaikhan, said:
There is talk that Ulaanbaatar is the most polluted city… Mongolia is not leading the world with its dust… There are lots of factors that generate dust and particles, such as roadwork, construction and population density. But we have to take action against this. We have to develop green areas, and increase the number of small fountains. Most highly developed cities wash their roads and squares. That is why we are planning to wash roads next year. If we wash public roads and areas, dust must decrease.
Creating more fountains? Cleaning the streets!? How can this be a serious response to a question about emissions? This quote seems to undermine the credibility and competence of the city office spearheading the issue by exposing a complete misunderstanding or willingness to overlook the true causes of the pollution problem. More recently, the mayor met with representatives of Mitsubishi Motors and issued a statement encouraging the population to buy electric cars, at best a weak step towards reducing transportation-related emissions.
What else is being done? Since the passing of a 2011 Clean Air Act, the Ministry of Nature, Environment, and Green Development has allocated its 92 million tugrik budget to programs to subsidize cleaner burning coal briquettes, while admitting the suppliers wouldn’t be able to meet the entire city’s demand. It has also subsidized cleaner-burning stoves for those in the ger districts with limited effectiveness. [Many residents refuse to buy any new stoves due to their extremely limited incomes, favoring Soviet-era technology.]
Despite research findings of international experts, which he publicly questioned, the Minister of Nature, Environment, and Green Development declared a 20 percent reduction in CO2 emissions and nearly 30 percent drop in particulate matter since last year. Still, many residents wonder where the figures are coming from and where the money went. “The pollution here is as bad as ever, and most people think it’s even worse than last year,” one local reported.
On a Saturday morning several weeks ago, I met my co-teacher, Seggii, and our English tour-guide students at Parliament.
After forty minutes of waiting for all the teachers and students to gather, we made our first stop at the National Museum in the basement of the Parliament building. After going through security, we gazed upon many priceless artifacts — well, in between photo-shoots that is. It seems like for every special occasion or outing I attend, particularly with my students, around fifty percent of my time is spent posing for photos. Considering I speak very little, if any, Mongolian, this is quite fine with me and allows for genuine interaction without language being necessary. [My students’ English level is very low and most of them are very shy to speak with me beyond greetings and small talk.] However, sometimes I can’t help but feel a bit objectified or tokenized as “the white person,” or, conversely, sometimes feel that I’m treated like a celebrity. I try not to let the extra attention go to my head but the daily unwanted attention in the hallways in my school can be wearisome, especially because the students’ English is usually so low that I can’ actually engage in real conversations with them.
The gallery is very well maintained and has some fascinating items. Among them:
After departing the museum we walked out onto the front steps of Parliament right into a massive display of pomp and circumstance. Dozens of Mongolian soldiers marched up the steps in perfect synchronization (very un-Mongolian) as we scrambled down them. We were quickly ushered off the “stage” by security officers, but we still had an excellent view of the elaborate ceremony. Later I learned it was a practice run for Genghis Khan’s birthday (Chingghis Khan to Mongolians). It was nice to not have to compete with the crowds for these photos. There were maybe two dozen people on hand to witness the rehearsal.
A few photos from the impressive display:
After the marching and more photos, we took a bus across town. Thankfully, our first stop was for lunch at a small restaurant that sold two things, buuz and milk tea. What more does a Mongolian need?
The next stop was to Zaisan hill, a massive Soviet WWII monument erected well before the democratic revolution in 1990. Approaching the many steps leading to the monument, I helped three of my students practice their English by counting each one as we marched up them in unison. Six hundred and four steps later, we reached the top!
After throwing darts at balloon targets and winning small stuffed animal prizes, my students and I descended the stairs and posed with more Soviet sculptures. At my co-teacher’s encouragement, I picked the nose of a Soviet commander and even climbed a tank on display with a student.
Apparently this tank was used by the Soviets in 1945. Again at my teacher’s encouragement, I decided to go through with the staged re-enactment of Mongolian-Soviet friendship.
Two weekends ago I went to Steppe Riders, a family owned tourist camp about an hour outside of Ulaanbaatar. The group of ex-patriot riding enthusiasts I went with is appropriately named the “CC and C Riders” which obviously for Chaps, Chicks, and Chinggis (Khaan). We convened in the morning outside of the Grand Khaan Irish Pub and loaded up into two vans.
As usual, the ride to the countryside was filled with massive potholes, close-calls with oncoming vehicles as both drivers tried to avoid said potholes, and the occasional gravel flicking up onto the windshield from cars in front of us. It was a true pleasure to meet both a New Englander and a Spaniard on the ride, both from places I’ve called home! I’m glad I had a chance to chat with both about their life stories and experiences of Mongolia so far!
Steppe Riders is in a beautiful valley nestled far enough outside of the city to ensure that the air is fresh and the views of the sprawling vacant hills are spectacular. With over a hundred horses, it’s not a small operation. The agency relies on seasonal temporary labor from English-speaking foreigners, who come from all over the world to volunteer there for weeks at a time. We met folks from Australia, New Zealand, and Seattle who had been there helping to prepare meals, serve guests, clean gers, groom and tack horses, and help lead rides for guests. Foreign volunteers pay $150 a week for the costs of room and board and get access to the horses and trails after guest rides are finished for the day. They even get to help lead overnight rides too!
Unlike the previous riding operation I went to, Steppe Riders supplied helmets, chaps, and English-speaking guides. They didn’t even whip our horses and try to herd us! In fact, they even made an effort to make us feel welcome by offering us tea and asking about our riding experience beforehand. They even suggested dividing us into groups based on experience! How refreshing from our last ride!
I think as a general rule in Mongolia here, if you want a decent horse you need to explain profusely that you are an experienced rider. Otherwise, most Mongolian tour operators will give you a clunker that has some temperament issues and doesn’t like to gallop. I think that, probably for good reason, every place I’ve ridden the herders have been very cautious to let any foreigners ride their faster horses. (Although I admit so far I’ve lucked out. I think that just because of my hat and cowboy boots people take me a bit more seriously!) In general though, in comparison to the locals in the countryside who ride day in and day out starting at age three or four, all foreigners lack experience!
Leaving the camp, we reach the expansive rolling hills. At this point, the divide between the beginner and more experienced riders becomes evident. It also became obvious who had a horse that liked to run and who didn’t. My horse liked to run a lot! My friend Katie’s horse also like to let loose and we raced our horses across the plains at a full gallop for a few hundred yards at a time before forcing our horses to take a breather and trot or walk.
For some reason, even among our student coordinators — who did a fantastic job leading us around the city during our first month — Mongolian guides don’t necessarily like to lead from the front. When you have open space and horses that like to race this means that you lose sight of the leader after turning into a crease in the valley. Our guides had no problem with us really opening up some space between the other riders, but often had to motion the correct direction for us to run in. There are no trails here and the horses as a result were not programmed to run on autopilot for most of our ride. It was nice to actually have the opportunity to practice some horsemanship skills though! (It was also great to not have to put up with a five year old screaming at us and whipping our horses too, although I missed our last guide!)
One of my favorite points on the ride was our last run up a dirt road when the guide looked at me with a “you wanna gallop?” expression accentuated by an arch of her eyebrows and a wide grin. “Of course!” We raced past the cows that darted off the road ahead of us and passed the Mongolian herd dogs barking and chasing at our heels.
Overall, Steppe Riders was a great experience! Although the ride could have been a bit longer than the two hours we were out, the service was wonderful and the horse I was given had some serious spirit. The scenery was gorgeous and the meal of tsuivan,” homemade fried rice noodles and veggies, at the end of the day was delicious and filling.
One of my highlights of the day was the ride back, where I got the chance to talk with my new Spanish friend in “Castellano” for an hour or so about everything from her hometown of San Sebastian to travel in India to Buddhism! Oh how I miss speaking Spanish every day! I suppose I came to the wrong country for that… but I have plans now for weekly Mongolian lessons.
(Continued from Part 1…)
Still in a bit of a fog from my visit with the shaman, I decide to investigate what’s cooking for the celebratory meal! The first course is already well underway. Beef noodle soup!
An older relative tends the wood-burning stove the family has brought along. The rusted eight foot chimney, originally designed for venting smoke from gers while cooking indoors, has been erected in front of a row of western-style camping tents. Like most traditional Mongolian foods, there are no spices added to the dish. The one seasoning I notice being sprinkled generously into the pot is salt. It seems to be doing the trick. It smells delicious!
Goat. It’s what’s for lunch!
Suddenly, my attention is diverted to the main course. “Baaah!” Gleefully, our host father hauls a charcoal black goat over to the outdoor stove. Straddling its front quarters, he wields an ax in his right hand. He means business! His son joins him in restraining the struggling animal. As he prepares himself for the first step in the recipe, he smiles at me with a “this is how it’s done!” look. Deftly and with immense force, he brings down the butt of the ax onto the crown of the goat’s head. “Bleeah! Bleeeah! Ble-“ it cries before the second and third blow quickly silence it.
Now that the goat is limp and unconscious, the father motions to his son to help him flip it over to expose its belly. In a matter of seconds, it’s on its back. The father kneels down and uses the blade of the ax to make a large incision in the upper belly of the beast. Reaching his arm inside the still breathing animal, the herder grimaces with concentration as he searches for something. Thirty seconds later he pulls out its heart! Is this really happening? With its heart resting on top of its upturned belly, this goat is done for.
Moments later the father expands the original incision and empties the contents of the abdomen into several metal bowls. Several younger relatives look on with interest.
Meanwhile, his nephew fires up a soviet-era blowtorch to singe the hair off the carcass.
After the innards are divided into three basins, two older women take the one containing the rectum and lower bowels and squeeze out the fecal matter inside of them.
Now that the blowtorch is fired up, the hair is burned and scraped off with a large knife. I’m not the only one who gets the ordeal on film!
While the three men continue with the labor-intensive endeavor, my host mother takes the massive pot of beef noodle stew from the burner and doles out bowls to everyone else. We kneel and sit cross legged around the same tarp used for the ankle bones game earlier. White bread is passed out and I help myself to several pieces. Offered another bowl by my host mom, I can’t refuse!
Finishing the first course, I watch as the meat with singed skin still attached is butchered and thrown into a cooking pot. The highly prized internal organs are saved for later meals throughout our stay. (Goat brains for breakfast, anyone?)
As I snap photos of the final steps of the meal preparation, I’m beckoned into the main tent by the older relative who has been diligently manning the stove top. Seated on the ground are two other elders with an opened bottle of vodka between them. Two more full ones lay on the ground nearby. My friend and interpreter absent, I’m left to fend for myself.
The men in the tent inspect me carefully and begin to chat in Mongolian as they finish passing around a red thermos cup full of vodka to one another. They’re probably debating how much this white guy can drink… Before I can think too much more about it, the man in charge pours between four and five shots of Chinggis Khan into the cup. That is a LOT of alcohol!
With keen interest, the three Mongolians watch intently as I’m offered the cup. “What’s he gonna do?” they’re asking themselves. This could be a bad idea, but… “Bottoms up!” Without hesitation, I down the entire cup. Whew! Grimacing and wiping away the drops of vodka dribbling down my chin with my sleeve, I quickly hand it back. Thankfully we just ate and this is not on an empty stomach.
Immediately the men’s eyes open wide with surprise. Smiling and shaking my head, I see they also have the biggest grins I’ve seen on their faces so far. Even the killing of the goat didn’t have this effect. They start laughing and punching each other on the shoulders. “I told you he would drink it all!” “Wow, you were right!” I imagine they’re saying.
Having proven myself, the next few rounds they pour less than a shot for me. Thankfully, my friend comes to rescue me soon. “Peter, your face is bright red! How much have you drank?” “I dunno, less than them!” I laugh. He’s offered the cup shortly afterwards. A non-drinker, he touches his lips politely to the cup, but our hosts are not very pleased with his lack of enthusiasm. However, I’ve proven myself enough to have a full on conversation with the men, with my friend as translator.
After a twenty minute conversation about the differences between Christianity and Shamanism, we get up to check on the main dish cooking outside.
After several rounds of salty milk tea with my new friends back in the ger – which thankfully cuts the edge off the vodka quite nicely – the main course arrives. The boiled meat is fairly tender and has a lot of fat on it, the best part of any meal for most Mongolians. Voraciously hungry, I help myself to a goat rib and part of it’s hind left leg. My hosts watch my efforts to cut small pieces off, and insist that I make several cross-cuts to be able to more easily rip it off with my canine teeth. The strategy works and, although I feel I’m eating like a caveman, apparently I’m doing it right.
There’s something very satisfying about this whole process, something elemental. How many times in the U.S. have I really seen where my food comes from? Especially meat! Here I know that the goat lived a full and free life on the steppe and was killed as quickly and painlessly as possible.
After the feasting commences and several more rounds of ankle bones and a small wrestling tournament (which I’ll write more about later) ensue, it’s time to go!
After the camp has been taken down completely, the elders in the family pay their respect to the spirits of the mountain and of their ancestors.
Thanks for taking the time to read a bit more about my home stay! Still plenty more material to come from that short but busy visit!