After a month of sometimes amazing and sometimes torturous experiences, I am in the lovely city (ok, lovely is exaggerated; it’s mostly sand here) city of Dalanzadgad, the capital city of the southernmost Mongolian state of Өмнөговь (South Gobi). They have one high-speed internet cafe (!!!!), fruits and veggies, and a coffee shop, so my happy and recharged stomach can update this blog and let everyone know that I am ok. I am in this little desert paradise for the next 10 days, so I can try and update with more information. First, my last month has been like this:
Zaya (my translator) and I headed out to Khanbogd a month ago to the supposed welcoming arms of our local program coordinator. After a 12 hour adventurous mini bus ride through a sand storm and across fields and sand dunes (no paved roads here), we arrived in Khanbogd (pop. 3,000), which is the center city bordering on one of the largest mining projects in the world (see this wikipedia article ). The day after arrival, we were deposited in the middle of the desert, 30 km from Khanbogd, in the care of a very amazing and loving nomadic family.
So over the next ten days, Zaya and I went from guests in this ‘ger’ (the Mongolian word for ‘yurt’) to their daughters. My home stay father started telling everyone that Zaya was his illegitimate child from his years as a soldier, and members of his family started showing up to check the veracity of his claims. Even now, a large portion of the nomads in the area and our home stay father’s family (his mother had 12 children, so they have a very large family) believe that Zaya is actually their daughter and thus help us in our research.
Obviously, I am partially doing research on nutrition, and the food issue has become a large one for me. As is customary (a custom I hate), our arrival warranted the honorific slaughtering of a sheep. And thus, I had to eat mutton for 10 days straight. And not only once a day, but I was offered sheep heart, liver, stomach, lung and kidney, three meals a day.
Traditionally, Mongolians have been nomadic and thus had to constantly do a lot of hard physical labor. Built around this system is their food, eating and nutrition habits, which provide massive amounts of protein and fat to survive the hard lifestyle. Also according to the nomadic tradition, nomads have to open their yurt to any guests that enter, offer tea and food (if available). Furthermore, refusing food is a refusal of the hospitality of a family, and an affront to their status and food habits (because what self-respecting nomad would refuse an offering of food).
However, after about the third day of having to constantly eat meat, I could not stand it and started refusing. I had brought oatmeal and berries with me to eat, and wanted to eat that every morning, instead of fried mutton and flour. I told them I would drink the milk from the camels everyday and eat the camel yogurt instead of mutton, which caused them to become incredibly worried. To them, I ate like a goat, not a human. Still to everyone I encounter, I eat like an animal and have acquired the nickname ‘baby camel’ from my eating and drink habits.
Even now in Dalanzagdag, we are staying with a young family in a yurt district, who gets really confused when I run into the ger, carrying tomatoes with a huge smile on my face. Mongolians are constantly offering me meat and milk tea, and I am getting a little sick of having to dump the milk tea when they are not looking, or secretly throw the meat out to the dog.
My first family was amazing, and after 10 days of herding baby goats, milking camels, drinking crap loads of vodka, and picking up dung for burning, we were again deposited in Khanbogd. And that is where the ‘fun’ began:
Khanbogd has been turned into a tiny town of people who are marvelously distrustful of foreigners. I have never been yelled at and told to leave and so massively distrusted in my life. But I also experienced an incredibly sad town suffering under unequal development and massive governmental corruption. But, I unfortunately can not write more about that in this blog.
Our second family was a single mom living with two kids in this town. She was quite poor and worked for the service sector at the mining company camp. She also lived in a compound with her 3 brothers, one of which tried to stalk my translator, and another who offered her a proposal of marriage. And our single mother disappeared a few times for the night leaving us with her kids, coming back the next morning with around 200 dollars in her pocket…
Originally, we thought entering Khanbogd after the nomadic lifestyle would be welcoming, but we quickly desired our old home stay family. Our single mom fed us camel meat, which is very low quality in the summer, and which made us both incredibly sick. Upon hearing that we were sick, our first nomadic family gathered all the milk and camel yogurt that they could and rode the 30 km in their old truck to bring it to us…
Anyway, we opted to leave the Khanbogd area early and return in a few months for follow-ups, with our own car and the ability to avoid Khanbogd and just stay with nomads.
So, now I am in Dalanzadgad and am researching a few of the health and beauty pyramid schemes that are everywhere in the Gobi. More on that and a goat and sheep ball-cutting ceremony next time I write.
Attached are pictures from my first amazing home stay family.