Photo by Michael A. Parks
To view images of the Mongolian landscape—and an unusual local meal—click here for a slide show.
Whitewashed, dusty, with horses in the shade and kids in the trees, Uliastai, Mongolia, was small for a provincial capital, and after five minutes of walking I'd left it behind. Ahead stretched a valley scattered with gers—traditional felt dwellings—and livestock. As I walked, a woman came alongside me and asked where I was going. "Otgontenger Mountain," I said. "And you?" "To get my yak." On a court outlined with river stones, a group of teenagers were playing basketball. Suddenly, a small boy in the distance began yelling at me. When I ran over to him, he pointed to a pack of dogs: they had killed, and were eating, a lamb. I picked up a rock and stood there for a moment, thinking about the rabies shots I hadn't gotten before moving to Mongolia.
I'm still not sure if the lamb belonged to the man I found a few hundred yards away. When I told him about it he only shrugged and asked if I'd had lunch. And so, after nine months in Mongolia, I found myself inside another ger, waiting to eat. On a cloth laid on the floor the man's wife broke up a block of tea and began making suutei tsai (milk tea), which we drank with bowls of nogootei shuul (vegetable soup).
I was so tired, dirty, and hot that the old woman's tsuivan tasted like something new and fantastic.
It wasn't the most exotic fare I'd had. Rather, it was the embodiment of everyday Mongolian cuisine—the sort of meal I'd grown so accustomed to that I would have previously taken it for granted. But by October, with the end of my time in the country in sight, I was trying to pay attention to the little things that initially made Mongolia seem so foreign: the ball-peen hammer the woman used to break the tea; how the "vegetable soup" consisted of a few vegetables and many huge, fat-rimmed chunks of mutton; the taste of unpasteurized, beyond-whole milk; and the man inviting a stranger into his home. It was, in short, the sort of meal I already missed.
The idea behind my trip to Uliastai was to do nothing but wander, enjoying ordinary life and ordinary food. I told people I was walking to Otgontenger Mountain, a peak so sacred it is illegal to climb, but Otgontenger only happened to be in the direction I was headed. For months, I had been dreaming of an aimless walk in the Mongolian countryside. The country seemed perfect for it. There aren't many fences, or animals likely to eat travelers, and though the scenery is wild you are rarely far from a herder's ger. So, with winter coming fast, I picked a spot on the map, and set out for one last adventure.
Photo Michael A. Parks
Uliastai means "with elms," and there were hundreds of the trees lining the river stretching east toward Otgontenger. The leaves were a brilliant yellow, and they fell non-stop; they flowed in the river, catching behind logs in great golden rafts. Now and again I would run into someone else: a man who waved with one hand while holding his dog with the other, a beautiful young woman on horseback herding goats through a stand of willows. The whole area could have been one expansive neighborhood. From across the river, a teenage boy on a horse yelled to me, asking if I needed a ride. Then there was a sound like a sail opening into the wind, and an eagle fell out of the sky onto a marmot 30 feet away.
That night I camped on a sandbar in the river, and, though not very hungry, decided to cook some of the food I'd brought. I had carried it all day, after all, and had spent a lot of time before my trip planning my menu. What was light and wouldn't spoil? What would be good to give to people I met? I had settled on Kraft Mac & Cheese, and Mongolian dried meat (borts), which the Mongol cavalry once used as traveling food while establishing history's largest empire. They went strangely well together, boiled over an open fire.
Walking quickly proved more difficult than I'd expected. Sometimes the river's banks rose high above it, and sometimes they disappeared, leaving me hugging rock walls above whitewater. In desperate moments, I wondered why I hadn't bought a horse. It didn't help that the many horsemen I met seemed baffled by the idea of walking in general. Early travelers said Mongols wouldn't walk anywhere farther than a hundred paces, and it may still be true today. I started asking herders if they had horses to sell. Many did, but no one had a saddle. Nevertheless, I liked that it was considered a reasonable question.
Asking about horses sometimes led to great meals. On my fourth day, the question took me to a ger where a woman was making tsuivan, a Mongolian noodle dish. Like nogootei shuul, tsuivan was something I had eaten many times, and I had tried the simple ingredients—flour, mutton, carrots, and potatoes—in dozens of other preparations. But I was so tired, dirty, and hot that the old woman's tsuivan tasted like something new and fantastic. Not for the first time, I considered that the strength of Mongolian cuisine may come not so much from the food itself as from the harshness of the country. Photos of Mongolia show the expansive, empty steppe. Looking back, however, the moments I remember are all cramped, out of the sun or out of the cold, in the tight confines of gers, with plenty of company and food on the table.
The next day I made it to the Otgontenger Strictly Protected Area. Camping by a lake, I watched dozens of cormorants standing silently on a rock, their drying wings outstretched and silhouetted by the setting sun. I decided I was ready to go home. Would I ever again be so far from home? It was as if I'd reached the end of a long tether, and it was about to snap back. The trek to Uliastai, the long bus ride to Ulaanbaatar, the onset of winter, the four plane rides until Texas: every step ahead was one I'd taken before.