Monday, August 19, 2013

Updates from the recent past

Last Tuesday, August 13th, my Mongolian language professor organized a day-long party in the countryside just south of Ulaanbaatar.  After crawling out of Ulaanbaatar traffic, we rendez-voused around a stupa in the hills, giving us a chance to admire a view mercifully free of urban sprawl:

And, of course, to take a few blurry photos of a tsatsaa or Mongolian steppe grasshopper caught by Professor Atwood:
My camera clearly prefers people to insects

A short, pleasant drive through the rolling green hills of central Mongolia brought us to the summer home of one of our hosts, tucked up amongst the verdant folds and standing in a field of brilliant purple and pink wildflowers:

A countryside dacha, where we feasted like the great khans during a royal hunt
After a lunch of home-made soup, cold cuts, and other treats - to say nothing of vodka, beer, and wine - most of us headed over to Manzushir Khiid (temple).  The approach to Manzushir through a small river valley includes a number of unassuming archaeological features (slab burials or дөрвөлжин булш, Turk period man stones or хүн чулуу) and wandering herds.  The highlight was the pure-bred Mongolian mastiff (банхар or bankhar), a ferocious and splendid breed associated with Roman Molossians and other larger-than-life canines of the ancient world.
View of the ruins and rebuilt main temple from the valley floor and local museum
Manzushir first began as a hermitage in the 1700s and expanded over time into a settled religious community of hundreds, until it was destroyed by the Communists in 1937.  In the above picture, the rebuilt main temple has a yellow roof and all of the parallel lines on the surrounding hillside mark the remnants of the entire complex.  Perhaps more difficult to make out are the small grottos to the right of the yellow roof, which house painted stone inscriptions from the Mongolian Buddhist pantheon.

Our party approaches the museum, where we will be dazzled by a variety of Mongolian taxidermy
Carved stone block from the monastery complex

Admiring a gigantic cauldron used for communal cooking

Cauldron close-up: classical Mongolian script (монгол бичиг)

Cauldron close-up: ornate flower

After the museum, we made our way up the hill towards the center of the former monastery complex:

While the complex is a distressing monument to terrible events in relatively recent history, the ruins themselves could not fail to excite one's archaeological sensibilities:

Note the khadag (хадаг) or religious/ceremonial cloths

Terraces marking the levels and foundations of complex buildings

This entire dark green area appears to have been the complex's reservoir

On our drive back from Manzushir to the dacha, our car was tasked with picking up some local airag (айраг, fermented mare's milk) to go with our khorkhog (хорхог, a delicious form of Mongolian barbeque, explained in more detail below).  For the uninitiated, airag tastes like a sort of tangy milk beer.  While that description may not sound appealing, like beer it is a taste that grows on one with time.  Airag is an alcoholic beverage but the alcohol content is low enough to be given to Mongolian children.  One is more likely to feel the effects of airag in the intestinal tract long before one begins to feel the effects in the bloodstream! 

The fermentation is achieved through aeration of the mare's milk, which is collected in a barrel or deep leather sack and plunged several thousand times.  The local family producing and selling airag in this valley were game enough to let me and some of the other foreigners try plunging the airag.  The plunging is quite a workout, as the plunger has to reach the bottom of the container and must be conducted at a decent clip.  Unfortunately I don't have pictures but if someone else from our trip will share, I'll post them here!

VIP ride through the Mongolian countryside
Upon our return it was time for an al fresco dinner: 
The photographer becomes the photographed

What could be better than dining in the golden evening of the Mongolian countryside at the tail-end of summer?  This time of day is my personal favorite, as it when we're treated to what a photographer and former art professor of mine refers to as 'sweet light':

Sheep and goats shown to their best advantage

Although dinner was another sumptuous banquet, the crowning dish was none other than khorkhog!  Khorkhog is what I consider to be the ultimate summer Mongolian party food.  Take a freshly butchered sheep, add some potatoes, carrots, and maybe cabbage, then place all of the above into a metal canister with some water and river rocks heated in a fire.  Seal the canister for several hours so that all of the juices soak into each bit of food.  The result:
Dishing out the meat and veggies after the canister has been unsealed
Another reason khorkhog is 'party food' is that those hot river rocks get further heated and absorb the grease and oil of the cooked meat.  When removed along with the food, they are handled gingerly and touched to various parts of one's skin to improve circulation.  I need to toughen up the palms of my hands, as my river rocks spent most of the time in the air rather than in my hands.  While I've never met a dish of khorkhog that I didn't like, I can confidently say that this was the most delicious I've ever had the pleasure to eat.  But the day's pleasures were not only of the alimentary sort, for there was much lively conversation, both erudite and playful, to be had at any times:
And a few shots of vodka certainly don't hurt
The party ended as any good party should end, with a few rounds of Mongolian folksongs.  Happily this included my personal favorite, 'Юндэн Гоогоо' (Yunden Googoo), wherein I accompanied Tserenchunt bagsh most gladly:
Багш ба шавь (Master and pupil)
My deepest thanks to Tserenchunt bagsh, Uvs bagsh, and our other generous hosts for such a wonderful day!

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