Mongolia — The Basics

On site, three meals a day were provided for us by the lovely Jagaa and Zola, the only two Mongolian women present on this project. (There are female Mongolian archaeologists on other projects)

Breakfast alternated between rice porridge and cream of wheat. Gomber was also always present— sort of like a funnel cake without the powdered sugar. Instant coffee and tea rounded it out.

Gomber frying. Fresh gomber with honey is fantastic! (photo by Ian Nelson)

Lunches and dinners were always a goat dish. Goat dumplings, goat soup, goat and fried noodles, goat and veggies, goat and macaroni salad…… you get the picture.

On two occasions we had mutton which was a welcome break— so tasty!

Veggies are not so easy to come by in the Gobi so they relied on things that were easy to store and supplemented it with whatever passing nomads were selling or what could be found in the nearest town on the weekends. (which wasn’t much) Usually we had potatoes, carrots, cabbage, red and green peppers, and pickles. I would have killed for a tomato.

I really didn’t mind the food, in fact some of the dishes were delicious! The problem was the tremendous portion size. I could never clear my plate and the cooks were quite unhappy with you if they saw you dump it. Many plans were devised to avoid their disdain. Asking for a smaller portion had no effect whatsoever, if you were brave enough to try.

A goat was brought in almost daily, purchased from one of the nomad families nearby. Ishee, one of the archaeologists who was from our region, had the task of dispatching it. Traditionally, Mongolians slaughter an animal by cutting a small slit in its chest, reaching in, and stopping its heart with his hand. I’m not kidding you. Ishee, impressively, did this for the camp. Most of the goat was used, although the Mongolians eat a lot of parts the Westerners weren’t too keen on. The cooks cooked meals based on Western tastes and made separate dishes with the intestines, etc, that just the Mongolians ate. Worked for me.

For snacks, I quickly learned it was essential to have a hoard of candy and sodas in your tent. Not just for you, but also to bring out and share and/or bribe people with. Trips to town and tourist camps were an opportunity to replenish. If you had vodka, your popularity would increase for sure.

Vodka. I thought I knew things about Mongolia before I came, but I didn’t know about the prominence of vodka in their culture. Any occasion could potentially call for vodka. When one of the vans broke down a bottle of vodka was pulled out and a blinker used as a glass while they waited for help. All of our “parties” involved copious amounts of vodka. When I told one of the guys that back home I drink, but not vodka, he incredulously asked “but then, what do you drink?” Hahaha.

Luckily, the way they distribute it allows you to take a decent break between drinks. One person pours into a cup (I loved the antique cups that we saw at Ishee’s ger– more on that later), he then passes that cup to you with his right hand. You accept with your right hand and shoot it or sip it, your choice (at least, they didn’t harass us if we couldn’t shoot it). You then hand it back and he does the same with everyone in the group. Then it all starts again– the larger the group, the longer the break. If you don’t want to drink, dip your pinky in and flick it three times (to the earth, the wind, and the sky?) and then return the cup. I really enjoyed this, it made drinking seem more intimate and social.

Well… vodka leads to dancing, which will be the theme of my next post! Stay tuned!

Jagaa, Ishee, and Zola