Cow intestine appetizers and other cultural surprises

From editorial team: pretty funny story by an American student living in Mongolia. She might have mistaken sheep intestine as cow intestine. Usually sheep intestine is offered. It is a delicacy.

A crash course in Mongolian nomadic life is an eye-opener for American student

By Catherine Meyer (Duke Univ.) Student Correspondent Corps

MUNGUNMORIT, Mongolia — My host’s 3-year-old daughter grabs the cow intestine and shoves it into her mouth. She turns to me and smiles, offering an uneaten piece with her chubby fist.

It finally hits me: I’m in Mongolia.

After having spent barely more than a week in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, my study abroad program sends me out to live with a nomadic family in the countryside as a crash course in traditional Mongolian culture.

My host family lives in a circular felt tent called a ger and herds cattle, moving to a new location about four times a year in search of better grazing. While their homes lack running water, many nomadic families now have electricity and television.

Thanks to solar panels and satellite dishes installed around the countryside about 10 years ago, they don’t have to rely on candlelight come evening and can follow the latest news without traveling to the nearest city. Yet life is still difficult for these families, and, as I am discovering, it is especially tough for a foreigner like myself who has never lived in this sort of culture with its harsh physical demands.

People never knock on the door before entering a ger, and with neighbors constantly coming and going, I am puzzled to figure out how to get dressed without causing a local scandal. I already get stared at enough as neighbors pile into the ger to see the funny American girl who wants to pet the livestock and wears her winter coat indoors.

Every daily task in Mongolia is a challenge, and sometimes a frightening one. My first time on a horse becomes a panicky situation as the horse gets spooked by a guard dog and starts galloping toward the mountains. I hold on for dear life as I shout a few choice words that I’m glad my host father cannot understand.

The father of the host family gallops after me and grabs the reins of my horse, pulling it to a stop. The stunned expression on my face makes him chuckle, and I later discover that because of this fiasco, I am prohibited from holding the reins of my own horse for the rest of my stay.

Even going to the bathroom is a treacherous task. Toilets are little more than a pit in the ground with two parallel boards of wood to stand on as you squat over it. At night, the boards freeze over with ice and I pray that I don’t slip, as one misstep would land me face first into the poop pit.

As I settle in, I also learn that life moves a bit slower in the country. At times, the pace drives me crazy as I find myself at a loss for things to occupy my time. I would be happy to help my host parents with their daily chores, but because I am their guest, they refuse my offers.

My host’s little daughter entertains herself by running around the inside of the ger in circles, taking periodic breaks to open the door and squeal at the guard dog.
The guard dogs ward off wild animals as well as human intruders. The dogs are smart, and will let neighbors and family members that they are familiar with into the ger. After just one day with my family, the guard dog let me come in and out of the ger without a problem because it saw that I was being let in by family members.

Eventually I try to let go of what I can’t control and adjust to the nomad pace of life. We watch sumo wrestling and Russian soap operas on the ger’s little TV. I sip cup after cup of hot milk tea, and the three-year-old throws a temper tantrum that culminates in her throwing a dumpling across the tent.

Occasionally I pay a visit to our neighbor, Dash, the only person in the area who speaks a bit of English. Dash had lived in the Mongolian capital, Ulan Bator, her whole life until her husband decided he wanted a change of scenery. She was teaching Russian at one of the major universities, and had amassed three graduate degrees.

Stepping into Dash’s ger, it is evident that roughing it out on the steppe was definitely not her idea. Unlike the traditional wall hangings that cover the insides of most gers, Dash has chosen to line hers with sparkly gold fabric that competes with her rhinestone-studded hair accessories and silver leather jacket.
We spend time flipping through old photos as she reminisces about her life in the city. But Dash’s life is not typical of gender relations in Mongolia. Historically speaking, women in Mongolia have been much better off than women in surrounding countries. As in the U.S., more women than men are enrolled in university, more girls than boys are enrolled in school, and women can be found in just about all positions of power, etc. Just before dinner, the TV reception goes out because the cows outside have decided to nibble on the satellite dish.

I’m invited into a game of cards where the neighborhood men are theatrically slamming their winnings down on the table, fueled by the bottles of Chinggis Khan vodka being passed around the table.

It becomes obvious that I cannot figure out the rules of the game, and the man sitting next to me takes pity and begins pointing to the cards I should put down.

After the game, the host mother takes me for an evening walk through the woods as the sun slips below the mountains. The neighbors come into the ger for a visit without — finally! — gawking at me like I’m an exotic attraction. I’m beginning to feel like I’m now a part of the flux of their everyday life.

Yet back in the ger I am brought back to reality as I stare at the cow intestine dangling from the 3-year-old’s hand. My stomach churns. The girl, perhaps sensing my hesitation, decides to polish it off herself, and I breathe a sigh of relief. No matter how much I’ve warmed up to the nomadic lifestyle there are a few things I’ll never get used to.



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