The things you have to do to please your travel hosts

I know what's coming. I've seen the big pot of off-white liquid taking pride of place in the centre of the ger. I've seen the ladle about to be dipped in. I've seen the drinking vessel, a dauntingly large bowl, ready to be filled.

Soon, it will be time to drink airag​, the Mongolian delicacy of fermented mare's milk. This batch would have been days in the making. A horse would have been milked, the liquid tipped into a leather bag and allowed to slowly ferment in the open air, stirred every now and then to hasten the process.

To Mongolians like the people I'm spending this day with, airag isn't even reserved for celebrations. It's a staple. So as I sit here in a traditional ger, or yurt, far from civilisation, far from home, perched on a small stool surrounded by smiling, welcoming Mongolians, I know it will very soon be time for airag.

Sure enough, the old woman opposite me reaches for the ladle, spoons a large portion of liquid into the bowl, and offers it in my direction.

It would be easy to romanticise this moment. You could see this offering as a connection between our two worlds; you could picture our pairs of hands, one gnarled and chipped, the other pasty and soft, reaching out across a cultural divide. That is, until the first sip.

There's nothing romantic about airag. It's very sour, and slightly effervescent, and it has little black spots in it that I can't identify. It's not very nice on the first taste, then properly bad on the second taste, and pretty much undrinkable by the time I raise the bowl to my lips a third time. And I've still got three-quarters of it to go.

Fortunately, I'm rescued by cries from outside. All morning we've been waiting for action, for the ceremonies to begin. This is a special day for this family, a day on which their three-year-old son's hair will be cut for the first time. It's a big moment that's being made even bigger today by the branding of the family's horses, and a feast to follow.

Nothing has been able to begin, however, until the head of the family has arrived, and now he's finally rolled up in a shining 4WD, appearing as if from nowhere in the middle of the Mongolian wilderness. I step out of the felt ger, catching the crisp wind that whips across the steppe almost 24 hours a day, and spot the men of the family crowded around the horses, ready to lasso the ponies and begin the branding.   

Mongolia is a country rich with living tradition. The airag I've just drunk is tradition. The first cutting of a child's hair is tradition. The branding of horses is tradition, and the feast is tradition. Even this nomadic lifestyle is a tradition that lives strong here on the steppe. Nothing about this is put on for tourists. This family didn't even know I was coming to visit until my guide called about an hour ago. 

Advertisement

Regardless, I've been invited to watch their ceremony, to spend the night in a traditional home, to watch as real life unfolds. 

The kids laugh at me with my big camera as the men of the family begin catching the ponies, lassoing them, tackling them to the ground, tying a rope around them and getting them ready for branding. This is done with an iron that's been sitting in a horse-dung fire for the last hour or so. The ponies yelp and the air smells of singed flesh. 

With that task done, we all retire to one of the gers for the hair-cutting. In Mongolia, children grow their hair until the age of three, at which point there's a family gathering and each person takes his or her turn to clip a few of the locks and hand the child money as a token of good will. 

There's a huge feast laid out to mark today's event. There are hard biscuits served with the curdled milk. There's horhog​, a Mongolian stew of mutton and potatoes cooked with hot rocks thrown into the pot. And there's the drink that's even more highly cherished in Mongolia than airag: vodka. 

A metal bowl of that harsh spirit is passed around the family, each person taking a deep gulp. I have a small sip. It's better than fermented horse milk.

Next, the young child begins walking around the circle, handing each person a large pair of scissors, looking nervous as his long mane of hair becomes progressively shorter, and his handful of money larger.

Eventually the deed is done, and everyone gets into the serious business of feasting. Mutton is eaten. Biscuits are crunched. And you know the airag can't be far off.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

beyondtravel.com.au

GETTING THERE

Air China flies from Sydney to Ulan Bator in Mongolia, via Beijing. Go to airchina.com.au or call 1800 860 999.

STAYING THERE 

Beyond Travel offers the Mongolian ger experience as part of a private tour from Ulan Bator to Hustai National Park, for $395 a person twin share. The trip includes wildlife spotting, an overnight stay in a traditional ger, a visit to a nomadic family, all meals and transfers. See website above for more details.   

Ben Groundwater travelled as a guest of Beyond Travel.

Comments