We are now about 20 kilometers from the University of Pennsylvania PIRE research camp and fifty kilometers from the Russian border in a river valley that, like Dalbai, runs perpendicular to Lake Hovsgol and the north-south road connecting Hatgal to Khank.
About 540 people – 48 families – live and graze their livestock here. It's too many for the long-term sustainability of the grazing. Some of the families are still nomadic. Some are permanently settled in log houses, moving only their animals from summer to winter pastures.
We have pitched our tents next to a large log building in which local herders meet periodically to discuss herding matters. Judging from the number of empty vodka bottles outside, they must have some pretty lively meetings.
Our hosts, the family of four whose ger is closest to the “bog” meeting building, are a kind and extremely competent 35-year-old named Enkhdalai, who is the “bog” leader; his wife, Otgonjargal, and their two sons, ages 15 and 11.
This morning, after Otgonjargal and Bayandorj, the 11-year-old, have done the milking, Enkhdalai and his older son, Gantulga, go to a nearby family to secure a goat with which to properly entertain us. In an earlier time, they might have done this on horseback, but Enkhdalai is a modern fellow and successful enough to own a motorcycle. So out they go and back they come with the bleating animal held crosswise in Gantulga’s lap.
In a country like Mongolia where water and liquids of any kind are scarce, and where any source of nutrition is valued, it is important that nothing be wasted. And so, when animals are killed for eating, everything is consumed, including the blood.
I watch as Enkhdalai stuns the animal with a hammer blow to the head and then dispatches it by thrusting his arm through a small incision in its belly and breaking the arteries that lead from its heart. He the removes its pelt with a sharp knife, using the skin as an clean surface for the butchering that follows. In this he retains every organ and every drop of blood, all of which will be consumed in a large meal called a “horhog” – Mongolia’s favorite dish.
After they have been carefully washed by Otgonjargal, the entrails are boiled in a wok that sits on a wood-burning stove in the center of their ger. A few hours later they are offered to us and to the rest of the family with knives and hands as our only utensils. The goat meat, which lasts longer than the offal, is hung on the inside wall of the ger. It will be served at later meal sometime within the next few days. In this dry climate, it can survive quite well without refrigeration.