Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The revenge of the winking goat

After almost a month of visiting herding families and eating whatever I have been offered in cups, bowls, and plates of doubtful sanitation, it was inevitable that the risks of local eating would finally catch up with me.

The revenge of the winking goat

Butchering the goat. (Photo by Robert Peck)
Butchering the goat. (Photo by Robert Peck)

After almost a month of visiting herding families and eating whatever I have been offered in cups, bowls, and plates of doubtful sanitation, it was inevitable that the risks of local eating would finally catch up with me.

We were staying with a very generous herding family a few hours south of Renchinlhumbe. One morning they killed one of their three hundred goats to cook a “horhog” for us (as promised during our road encounter of several days ago).

The goat was butchered, river stones were heated in a fire and then combined with the animal’s body parts, blood and a little water, in a large aluminum milk can and put on a fire to cook from inside and out. Normally, this form of pressure cooking is remarkably efficient, but our can had a hard time sealing, and so the cooking time may not have been sufficient – or the temperature not high enough to do what it was supposed to do.

In any case, after a while the horhog was declared finished and we were served the juice from the can. It was strong in flavor, but undeniably tasty. The internal organs and other miscellaneous parts were also good, though somewhat tougher than usual, suggesting they may not have been fully cooked.

As the day wore on, I began to regret eating with such gusto. In one delirious moment, my imagination saw the goat’s glazed eye winking at me, as if to say that after having such an unpleasant morning, it was enjoying the last laugh.

Since the rest of the family and my fellow travelers all ate the horhog and remained healthy, it is quite possible that the revolution in my bowls has nothing to do with the winking goat. It could just as easily have been the home made yogurt, butter, or cheese I ate for breakfast, or even a dirty plate, cup, or knife.

The drinking and washing water here, as in many places, comes from a sluggish stream that is also used by hundreds of sheep, goats, horses, and yaks throughout the year. It is supposed to be boiled, but with wood in short supply and always needed for other things, that doesn’t always happen.

Whatever it is that has invaded my intestines kept me on the ground most of the day. Since my tent temperature was well north of 100 degrees when the sun is on it, I found it cooler to be in the shadow of our vehicle, a spot I shared with a day-old lamb that seemed to enjoy my company.

At one point I was woken by the sound of heavy breathing and the feel of a wet tongue on my neck. I thought it might be one of the two family dogs, which had sniffed at me earlier to see if I was dead, but when I rolled over I found a four hundred pound yak looking back.

We had hoped to start our return drive that afternoon, but as I was in no condition to travel, we decided  to wait another night. The setting was spectacularly beautiful, with an almost full moon hanging, Ansel Adams-like, above the Horidol Saridag mountains to our east.

I was up from time to time through the night, of course. The only reward for a bad night stomach is the opportunity it provides for stargazing and admiring the moon.

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About this blog
The age of exploration is not dead. Over the next six weeks, Robert Peck and colleagues from the Academy of Natural Sciences and the University of Pennsylvania will be traveling in Mongolia, reconnecting with herdsmen Peck met 17 years ago and checking for evidence of climate change. Peck will chronicle his travels in the land once ruled by Genghis Khan on a blog at

Robert McCracken Peck, senior fellow of the Academy of Natural Sciences
Peck is a writer, naturalist, and historian who has traveled extensively in North and South America, Africa, Asia and Europe. He has been honored by the Academy, the Explorers Club, and other organizations for his contributions to exploration and the interpretation of natural history. In 2007, the U.S. Department of State and the White House chose him to represent the United States at Mongolia’s 800th birthday celebration. Peck is the author of Land of the Eagle: A Natural History of North America (1990), Headhunters and Hummingbirds: An Expedition into Ecuador (1987), and other books and papers.

Clyde Goulden, Director of the Asia Center of the Academy of Natural Sciences
Goulden’s research in Asia began in 1994 when he and Academy colleagues were invited to initiate studies on a large lake in northern Mongolia, Lake Hovsgol. His work at the lake has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Global Environment Facility through the World Bank. He is associated with a research program to study the impacts of climate change on the lake’s watershed and the nomadic herders of Mongolia.

Tuya Goulden, researcher and international travel liaison
Tuya Goulden moved to the United States in 2006 from Mongolia and is a citizen of the U.S. In addition to college degrees from Mongolian universities, she has a master’s degree in tourism management from George Washington University. Goulden has been active in organizing expeditions in Mongolia for scientists in from the Academy and other universities. She is a research assistant for the Mongolian NSF-PIRE project on climate change impacts and serves as the translator for interviews with Mongolian nomadic herders.

Dakin Henderson, videographer
Henderson, a Boston filmmaker, has produced fiction and non-fiction short films, music videos and science-education documentaries. His films have won awards at Colorado College, the Shoot Out Boulder competition and the Ecological Society of America EcoFilm Festival. He currently works with the award-winning production team, Vital Pictures. Visit his website at

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