By Bob B., 16-time traveler from Braintree, MA
On the last full day of our pre-trip extension to Mongolia before joining up with the Imperial China, Tibet & the Yangtze River main tour, our group of nine adventurers had a memorable “learning and discovery” experience. Leaving our round felt-tented “gers” at the Gobi Desert Khogno Khaan Hoyor Zagal Camp in the morning, we embarked upon a long ride back to the country’s capital of Ulaanbaatar and the big city comforts of a modern hotel. Unlike our time in the desert steppes driving over rutted barely passable dirt trails, the trip back involved a van ride on a rare commodity in Mongolia: a paved highway.
With no designated sightseeing stops on the morning’s agenda, most of us sought an opportunity to catch a few more winks of sleep. Fortunately, our ever observant Trip Experience Leader, Batmunkh Bolormaa (better known by his nickname of “Bujuu” because of his distinguishing curly hair), kept watch for us. Our drowsiness was interrupted when he called for the driver to pull over to the side of the road. Bujuu had spotted a seasonal campsite of a nomadic family that maintained a herd of horses out on an open plain.
We were invited into the family’s ger where Bujuu questioned them about their daily life. Among the activities they mentioned was the milking of their mares to produce airag, a traditional popular fermented beverage in Mongolia. Once drawn from the horse, the unpasteurized liquid is placed in a leather sack hanging inside the ger where it is stirred with a wooden utensil over the course of a couple of days. Interestingly, the process not only ferments the milk but also destroys its lactose, rendering it acceptable to lactose-intolerant people.
A bowl of the drink was poured for us to sample if we wished. While each of us observed the contents and smelled its somewhat sour aroma, only one member of our group was bold enough to take a sip—and without encountering any later unfortunate aftereffects!
Our new friends invited us outside to view a roundup and a milking. The Mongolian horse is indigenous to the region and is an ancient breed that can be traced back to the days of Chinggis Khaan (Genghis Kahn). Their historic importance is illustrated by the fact that they are featured on the back of the 100 Tögrög banknote, which possesses the purchasing power of a piece of chewing gum. Small in stature, the steed is strong, agile, and durable, reflecting its ability to thrive in the region’s harsh environment. The horses exhibit a bit of wildness when attempts are made to gather them to a roped enclosure. Once there, however, they quickly become docile. We observed both traditional and modern methods of herding the horses. The conventional approach involved a rider on horseback carrying a long pole-lasso called an uurga, chasing the targeted animal until the loop could be secured around its neck. The alternative technique also on display saw the rider replace his horse with a motorcycle to perform a roundup.
In order to milk a mare, a foal is brought to the female to nurse and start the milk flow. It is removed shortly thereafter, with one of the family members taking its place, kneeling with a large pail to proceed with the milking. The process is repeated among the lactating mares and the bucket is then brought into the ger to commence its fermentation. In order to attract customers, the family had placed by the roadside an advertising sign written in distinctive Mongolian Cyrillic script together with photos that pictured the fermentation bag.
While not an activity originally on my “bucket list,” this experience has been added to my checklist of unforgettable O.A.T. adventure travel encounters!