Altai Buriad's Mother Ail Mongolia 1993

Visit to the Altai Mountains Mongolia 1993

I went on a number of excursions while Buriad and his family were organising my trip to Chandman district. One of them was a visit to relatives up the Altai Mountains. We travelled with most of his extended family in his brothers lorry. I was in the cab, most of the others were in the open topped back.

Onwards and upwards passing flocks of sheep and goats and fording small rivers. We had break at Pagam’s sisters Ger. Milk tea, cheese and curds, followed by Airag (fermented mare’s milk). This was hung in a leather sack in the south west section of the ger.

I was invited to stir the mixture with a wooden stirrer. It took a while to get the twisting action that enabled the mixture to bubble and help it continue the fermentation process. Airag has a mildly sour and tangy taste that is weakly alcoholic. The Mongolians love it and will take any opportunity to quaff down bowls full. I have even been told that there is a cleansing regime that consists of drinking only Airag for a whole week!!

Churning the fermented mare’s milk Airag.

Eventually after about 2 hours we reached Buriats mother’s Ail (a group of gers). Some of the family was preparing wool for making felt. The long iron rods slice through the wool and seem to soften the fleece. It was thirsty work.

Buriats mother was preparing “Shimmy Airag”. This was distilled fermented mares’ milk. On the dung fired stove a large bowl was put upon which a metal cylinder was placed. The bowl was filled with Mare’s milk and then a second bowl hung in the cylinder. A third bowl was placed on top and filled with cool water.
The milk was heated, evaporated and then condensed on the underside of the cool third bowl into the second bowl. The clear distilled liquid was fairly strong alcoholic milk vodka.
For the main course we had a treat. Khorkhog is a method of cooking meat with hot stones. A fire is lit outside the ger and smooth rocks usually found in a stream are placed in it until they are red hot. Meanwhile a goat is killed, skinned and butchered.
The meat is put into a milk churn along with the hot rocks and if you are lucky some wild onions and vegetables. The lid is put on to seal the ingredients and is left to pressure cook for a while, about 30 minutes from what I can remember. Once ready the piping hot meat and now steaming blackened rocks are put in a bowl. The meat is a delicious roasted flavour, probably the best meal you will get in the countryside.
We were all given one the piping hot rocks. I attempted to copy what the rest were doing, which was to pass the rock from the palm of one hand to the other slowly. However I was only able to do this by passing the rock very quickly between the palms of my hand. Eventually I could slow down this process and press the heat of the rock into my skin. The effect of this was to sweat my body. The Mongolians say that this is good for your health.
We all had a great time. I did some entertaining by singing my Anglii Khöömii, playing two tin whistles at the same time whilst circular breathing and playing my Jews-harp. Buriad and all his family sang many songs with great enthusiasm and gusto. While most of the family were cleaning up, Buriad, one of his nephews and
I climbed up to the top of the mountain nearby. It was not the highest, but there were large boulder size pieces of quartz and an amazing endless view of land and sky. The silence was palpable. I quietly played my Ney to offer some sounds to the spirit of the place.

It was beginning to get late and we had a long journey ahead so we packed our things, said our goodbyes. I gave Buriad’s mother a photo of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. This was accepted with great honour and respect and placed in the sacred North West section of the Ger.

I was then given some aruul (dried milk curd) and Russian boiled sweets as a going away present.

Buriad received a supply of fresh cream, loads of aruul and a sheep for eating later.
Trucking down the mountain hills we stopped in the twilight for an evening break at some gers. The population is so small that everyone knows everyone or is related to them in some way. We were welcome into a warm but ram-shackled Ger. The south side was bare earth, the north being covered in felt mats and some hides. Once again I was asked to perform, this time in the dim candle light. Out of the darkness came my gift for entertaining. To my horror and surprise it was a freshly hunted marmot!! I quickly passed it onto Buriad. My concern was that it may have had the Plague. As I had come on the first plane from UB after the quarantine, maybe the fleas that carried La Peste were still hanging around the creature. On second thoughts I realised that the herdspeople would have gone no where near a marmot with the Plague let alone hunt it. We left the Altai Mountains with a canvas of stars, so many that it was impossible to count them, to light our way back to Khovd, arriving late in the night, tired, a little drunk but happy.
I had bought the newly published first edition of the Lonely Planet Guide to Mongolian which had later caused much excitement among the few backpackers in UB. One of the attractions in Khovd was the caves in Mankhan district. They had rare Neolithic petroglypths painted on the ceilings. I somehow managed to convey that I wanted to go there to Buriad. 

On the way we passed by some standing stones. There were about three or four in a straight line looking like they were pointing to something in the distance. Normally they are associated with burial places.

Buriad stopped at a ger nearby to the caves to ask about exactly where they were. We walked into the ger. No one was about. To my surprise Buriad then happily helped himself to some tea that was in a thermos flask, a few pieces of bordzig (fried dough balls) with a very tasty new batch of cheese and some cold horse meat!

We then left the ger.I was very touched by the trust of the Mongolian herds people. Where in the UK could have that happened?

Eventually after asking a herdsman we reached the caves which we piled high in birds droppings, maybe about 7 metres high! I had a small torch with me but could barely see into the cave. Leaning in a little further I could just manage to see the vague outline of some very stylized deer.

Not the blockbuster tourist attraction of the Lonely Planet.