The Potato Of Doom: Dining in Mongolia
by Dan Bennett
Well it's lunchtime and I'm NOT going to do any work over lunchtime, so I thought I'd
write up a little story about an experience I had in Mongolia in the Summer of 1992. This
could be quite long, depending on how wordy I get 8-) .
I was on a short visit (3 weeks) with a couple of missionary-type people, one of whom
left after our first week. That left me and an American girl called Wendy (from Florida,
Kathy). We were staying in a flat very kindly vacated for us by some Mongolian friends of
mine in Ulaanbaatar.
We had expressed an interest in visiting somewhere in the countryside, but flying to
remote parts was not a good idea because flights were erratic due to fuel shortages. So
our host arranged for us to stay for a couple of nights with a semi-permanently based
family about 10 or 15 km outside Ulaanbaatar.
So we were driven to this family's ger, which was actually only about 50 metres from
the main road that runs East out of U-B. It's in the Tuul Valley, so it's the main
communications channel (the railway runs along the other side of the valley at that
point). The tent was set up for us right next to the River Tuul (which is neither deep nor
wide there), and we were introduced to our hosts in the country: Byamba and his wife
(can't remember her name) and their 18-year old son. So we spent quite a lot of time that
morning sitting in the ger, which was rather cold because its skirts were hitched up for
ventilation and it wasn't really warm weather. We had mongolian milky tea (which I
*always* love drinking - we make it at home sometimes), and bread with clotted cream and
sugar (very nice).
Then at about 2pm we retired to our tent. The sun was shining, the wind had dropped,
and it was a gorgeously warm day. We hitched the tent flaps open so we could look out over
the valley, and it was lovely. A calf had plonked itself in the shade of our tent, so from
where I was lying, the wall of the tent bulged inwards and panted 8-). And so I dozed off.
Suddenly, a mere 15 minutes later, a furious hailstorm started. We zipped up the tent
pretty quickly, and sat there in some alarm. Being a Russian tent (read "poorly
made"), it was *not* waterproof, and so the entire internal volume of the tent was
filled with a fine drizzle! And when we looked out of the ventilation flap, we could see a
puddle (which little heaps of ice in it) getting bigger and bigger and starting to extend
under the tent!
So we abandoned it and ran up to the ger (about 30 metres away), where we sat and had
more tea and bread/clotted cream/sugar. We had some quite good conversations in Mongolian,
making heavy use of my English-> Mongolian and Mongolian->English dictionaries. A
question would occur to Byamba, and without saying anything, he would find a keyword in
the M->E dictionary and point to it, from which I would read the English word(s) and
figure out what he was asking. Quite fun, really.
Meanwhile, Byamba's wife (I've remembered her name: Baasanjav) was preparing the
evening meal (to be ready at about 5pm). Our hearts sank as we watched her putting things
into a large vat of water on the stove. There were ..erm... *bits* of sheep, such as
heads, feet, internal organs, that kind of thing. I tell you, a lot of alarmed muttering
ensued between Wendy and myself, while keeping up happy smiles! Then some potatoes went
into the vat, and one or two other vegetables, so I expressed the sincere hope to Wendy
that Baasanjav was simply making soup (Mongol sho"l is usually very nice), and that
the *bits* were being used for stock.
So then we retreated to our tent for an hour's sleep (no hope of walking or riding over
the hills in that downpour (it had turned from hail to rain). And at about 5pm we returned
to Byamba's ger.
So we sat and watched Baasanjav prepare the food. She took a fork and extracted the
*bits*, dripping, one by one from the vat, and placed them in a steel bowl. Fine, I
thought; that's the stock taken out. But then she lifted a potato out [italics on] and put
it in the same bowl as the *bits*! [italics off]. Heart sank like a stone: the *bits* were
for eating. I regarded that potato as the Potato of Doom for the message it carried...
And so we set about eating. I couldn't touch the stuff. Byamba took a sheep's head
(with the sheep's chin-skin hanging from the front of its lower jaw) and carved off peices
of cheek, nose, etc and handed them to us. Wendy was great! She managed to eat everything
that was given to her. But I nibbled at an unidentified internal organ for a moment and
abandoned it. I kept saying "Ochlaarai! Idekh chadakhgui!" ("Sorry, I can't
eat [it]!"). Baasanjav handed me a potato, but I really didn't have any appetite
Now, I thought that I was coping quite well with this cultural experience, when it
occurred to me about 15 minutes later that my stomach was going to complain. I sat very
still until I figured out which end of my alimentary canal was going to need attention,
and decided (to my relief) that it was the toilet I needed. Although we were (sort of) in
the country, I figured there must be a communal toilet somewhere as it was a
semi-permanent settlement of several gers. So I asked Byamba "Biie dzasakh gadzar
khaan bain weh?" ("Where is the body- mending place?"). He took me out of
the ger and pointed to a small canvas structure at some distance, but warned me not to
walk directly towards it or I'd get attacked by the dog in the ger that lay on that path.
So I tottered out of the ger down the slope towards the river, across several yards of
very wet and slippery sheep manure (the rain had stopped by now) (the herd sleeps around
the ger at night), and then turned along the river. I had to negotiate a path between a
patch of marshy ground and a small rubbish tip. And I was in such a state by this time
that I was seriously doubting that I would make the biie dzasakh gadzar in time; my legs
turned to water and I broke into a sweat. But somehow, I covered the ground and got to it.
It turned out to be just a square hole with a wooden plank either side of it, and a low
canvas fence around three sides. In fact it was so low that you only got any protection
from it when you were crouched down, and even then it only came up to your waist. Not
forgetting that it was only 30 metres from the main road, which is as close to a freeway
as you'll get in Mongolia! But I didn't care - it was the most welcome place in the world
for me at that moment 8-) .
After sitting and chatting in the ger for a bit longer, Wendy and I decided to go for a
walk along the river. The sun had come out again and it was promising to be a pleasant
evening. So we walked for about an hour and a half, with me recovering from my little
trauma of the afternoon.
We had decided that on our return we would have some more tea and then go to bed. But
in our absence, the family had been catching fish for us in the river. This is all the
more amazing when you consider that Mongols don't eat fish, *ever*. On our return from our
walk we were presented with these lovely small fish (don't know what they were), and we
were told that if we knew what to do with them we could have them; the Mongols had no idea
of how to prepare them. Actually, nor did I, but Wendy's dad is a keen angler so she had
seen what to do. So we prepared them and fried them in butter with a bit of salt, and they
were *really* good. I offered a piece to Byamba, and he ate it and appeared to enjoy it. I
offered another piece to Baasanjav, but she just laughed and said "Ochlaarai! Idekh
End of story.
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