A few days after meeting the fisherman, Dondug and I made it to the Nomrog Strictly Protected Area at Mongolia's easternmost tip, where we found a military base home to a few soldiers. It was a spectacularly beautiful place, a day's drive from the nearest town. When we met the soldiers, I asked what they'd done during winter.
The commanding officer shrugged. "We dug tunnels through the snow and walked back and forth."
Still, they were a cheerful bunch, and thrilled to have visitors. Inside a squat, white-washed building we talked while one of the soldiers prepared a borts (dehydrated meat) soup.
Mongols have been making borts at least since the days when Genghis Khaan's warriors relied on it and the milk of their horses to conquer most of the known world. Nowadays, the soldiers told me, countryside Mongols use borts mostly to bridge the gap between the meat of winter and the milk of summer. Making it is an art; when done properly, the drying process can condense the meat of a cow to the point that it fits inside the same cow's stomach.
I chewed my borts thoughtfully, ruminating. It wasn't glamorous, but I did have to admire its simplicity. For nomadic people, borts must have once seemed incredible--the perfect accompaniment for horse and compound bow. Light, nourishing, and made of sunshine and meat, it seemed to me the epitome of steppe food, the food of movement.
As spring wore on, the grassland began to change. The year's first flower--purple and popular among goats--bloomed. Marmots woke up. Eagles noticed. Herders set to castrating baby animals, then held what must be the world's largest calf fry.
With the calving season came the year's first milk products. For breakfast, we now ate oram (clotted cream) spread on bread and sprinkled with sugar. For snacks, nomads offered us tarag (yogurt). And one evening we stumbled across a dessert so wonderful it may remain to the end my favorite Mongolian food.
Lost one evening, we'd decided to stop for the night at a ger. After soup, the matriarch of the family brought out what appeared to be a plate of cream cheese. Dondug looked excited, but would only tell me it was called orag.
I took a bite. Fatty, sweet, cool, creamy. Above all, the taste of milk rich beyond belief. It was the lord of milk. I couldn't imagine how they'd made something so good.
The trick, it turns out, has nothing to do with the recipe (steam milk with sugar, allow to cool) but with the milk itself, which herders procure from animals that have just given birth. Orag is so rare that when I told a Mongolian friend in Ulaanbaatar about it, she thought I was mispronouncing another word. When she realized what I meant, a look of nostalgia for her countryside childhood swept across her face.
"Oh! You had orag! I must tell my mother."
In late spring, Dondug and I headed south into the region where Toroi-Bandi, Mongolia's nineteenth-century Robin Hood, used to hide after stealing horses. Mongols also know Toroi-Bandi as Shillin Sain Er, The Good Man of the Emptiness, with The Emptiness referring to the stretch of land we crossed. It's a good name; during a day of driving we saw one person: a horseman galloping the other way.