By Kelsey Larson
When I walked out of my nomadic Mongolian host family’s felt ger tent to see a goat tethered by its horns to the solar panel outside, I was not particularly surprised. Nor was I that surprised when my host father, “Dugar” Dugarsurgen, untied the goat and hit it squarely between the horns with a hammer. Or when he cut a slit in the goat’s belly to allow him to reach in and “dislocate its heart,” a process that killed the animal within about 30 seconds.
Actually, I mused several minutes later as I held the deceased goat’s forelegs while Dugar cut into it, what surprised me the most was that I was okay with it.
That particular goat was one of the more than 40 million head of livestock that live in Mongolia, a country with a human population of less than 3 million. Mongolia’s culture has revolved around herding for as long as it can be traced, an adaptation to the steppe’s harsh conditions. Although precipitation is low and the winter is long, Mongolia’s most scarce resource is actually soil. Only the hardiest of grasses can survive on the sandy Mongolian ground; wheat and potatoes risk exhausting the soil. Herds, unlike crops, can move easily and often to avoid overusing the land. Environmentalists laud the traditional herding lifestyle as able to coexist with high levels of biodiversity.
Dugar and his wife, Oyuna, are a typical example of the Mongolian nomadic herder. They herd 600 animals, mostly goats and sheep with a handful of cattle and horses. The community particularly respects Dugar’s skill with horses, even in an area prized for its mounts. He possesses over 30 medals that he has accumulated since he was 5, most of which he keeps in a box under the family shrine table. Dugar spends much of his time herding and milking the cows consumes Oyuna’s mornings, but their days still have long, lazy hours that stretch between chores like the steppe stretches between gers, hours they fill by reading books, watching reruns of the annual summer horse races over the satellite TV, or calling their children who are university students in Ulaanbaatar. At night, Dugar rides his horse to bring the cattle, sheep, and goats near the ger. When staying with them, I fell asleep to the sounds of animals walking about and ripping at grass.
Unsurprisingly, the Mongolian diet is heavily meat based. Mongolians’ favorite foods include tsuivan, meat fried with cut-up dough strips; buuz, steamed pockets of meat wrapped in dough; and huushuur, deep-fried pockets of meat wrapped in dough. However, dough only appeared on the menu after the former Communist government forged trade links with Russia in the 1940s. The truly traditional lunch, what we called “meat bucket,” cuts out the flour middleman and consists entirely of boiled meat. Served in a bucket. Though the meal struck we American students as monotonous, the city-dwelling Mongolians in our group described the meals as rich, fresh, and pure—food as it was meant to be.
Unfortunately, this meat-rich nomadic lifestyle is becoming more difficult to sustain. Mongolia’s nomadic population increased from 3 million to more than 10 million in the wake of privatization in the 1990s. When the collective herds were distributed, people who had lost jobs at formerly Soviet-supported manufacturing decided to accept a share of the herds and become herders themselves. These new herders increased the total sizes of the herds substantially, resulting in overgrazing in many areas. Combined with desertification caused by the 3°C increase in Mongolian average temperature over the last decade, many herders are struggling to keep their herds healthy and produce little beyond the subsistence level. Ulaanbaatar, the massive capital, is mostly fed by factory farms near the city and crops imported from neighboring countries. Dugar and Oyuna, who have been herding for their whole lives and raise enough animals to pay their children’s tuition and send them a few slaughtered sheep a year, remain well-off. However, their county has been forced to ban herders from other provinces coming to their land to graze, a sign of the higher pressure the pasturelands have felt in recent years. Herders now routinely graze their animals on lands that were once set aside for emergency pasture to be used in unusually harsh winters.
Nonetheless, for now, Dugar and his kin continue the herding traditions of raising animals, of caring for their herds, and of eating them. Four hours after the goat “saw the sky”, my host family invited Dugar’s brother, a neighboring family, and my teacher to a traditional feast of geddes. Though geddes is directly translated as “stomach,” the dish in its entirety also includes an animal’s intact heart, liver, lungs, and blood-filled intestine, boiled and then served on a platter. Dugar began the meal by carving one chunk from the stomach and tossing it into the fire, an offering to the hearth. I then took the knife, carved a bit of the heart out, and smeared a bit of salt on before popping it in my mouth. Goat heart is chewy, peppered with small pockets of metal-tasting blood, and tastes decidedly unlike chicken. But in the 21st century Mongolian ger, eaten between the dried-dung fired stove and the satellite TV, it is still something that belongs.
Kelsey Larson is a junior in Silliman College. Contact her at Kelsey.firstname.lastname@example.org.