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Things in Mongolia to Avoid Like the Plague

Well, the Actual Plague, For One

As the title implies, you will probably want to actually avoid the plague in Mongolia. While Mongolia has definitely not reached this level…

…the fact of the matter is that the plague is present in the country.  Much of Mongolia is still open pasture and grazing land, largely uninhabitable by the small population and marmots, or groundhogs as we know them in America, are relatively common in the countryside.   While most of us in the US wouldn’t be caught dead eating a groundhog (we have too much good stuff like prairie oysters), in Mongolia, although it is illegal, hunting does still occur.  Although Mongolian hunting methods supposedly prevent an infected Marmot from being shot and eaten, I’m still not taking my chances.

After killing your prized, illegal rodent, next comes the preparation.  Usually marmots are hunted and killed from afar but traps are also used to capture live marmots.  If caught it a trap the savage beast is usually bonked on the head with a stone, sort of a David and Goliath in reverse.  After that all the guts are pulled out, of course, to make way for the hot stones, sort of a kalua pig in reverse.  So while the bad boy is cooking from within someone is usually blow torching all of its valuable hair.  Or, if you enjoy your meat boiled to death, you can plop that sucker into a boiling cauldron for a mouth-watering treat.

Crazy Little Thing Called Buuz

While buuz are not going to kill you like the plague, you might wish you were dead after eating eight or ten of them.  Buuz are traditional steamed dumplings eaten year-round in Mongolia but are especially popular around Tsagaan Sar, the lunar new year.  The small, round piece of dough is usually filled with minced mutton and an equal amount, if not more, of mutton fat.  The dough is then pinched and steamed for about 20 minutes.  If you’ve never experienced the smell of steamed mutton there is little comparison I can make.  For some unknown reason very little seasoning outside of salt and maybe some pepper is used.  And vegetables?  Fugidaboudit!  Although in Mongolia you can find more and more places that serve vegetable buuz or buuz that are more palatable to the Western tongue, hardcore traditional buuz are pure mutton and fat all the way.

The Wikipedia entry on buuz makes me laugh because they list other, and I’m sure much better, Asian variations on the Mongolian buuz.

But the coup de grace is when you finally get to bite into one of these scrumptious little bundles of joy.  I would recommend having a burn unit stand by as most likely you’ll be getting a face full of scalding grease when you sink your teeth into one.  The Mongolians have perfected a sucking technique, but unless you want a mouth-full of mutton grease, I would not recommend this maneuver.  Of course this means it’s probably going to end up running down your arm or all over the front of your shirt, but that’s a small price to pay.

Watch Out for that Hoooolllleeee…

Winter’s coming.  In order to prepare for those -40C winters what do you do?…pop off all the manhole covers and watch the hilarious hijinks begin.  I personally have never seen someone actually fall down an open manhole, but of course you see people tempt fate all of the time walking over them like there’s no chance they might trip and fall.  In some sort of sadistic way you may want to see someone actually fall down one, but not really.

I do know of a former Peace Corps volunteer who actually fell down one, although I didn’t actually witness it.  This comes straight from the horse’s mouth, so I gotta believe it’s an accurate portrayal.  He was walking along the streets of UB yapping away, as he is wont to do, and all of a sudden “the world just got bigger.”  Luckily he had the presence of mind to put his arms out and catch himself before he was eating corn on the cob with no teeth.  It would have been priceless to have a video of it, but alas, this was in the days before ubiquitous mobile phones in the hands of every Tom, Dick and Harry.

Vodka:  The Ambrosia of Mongolia

Oh, we have the Soviet Union to thank for this one.  The ever-present bottle of vodka even manages to find itself in Buddhist ceremonies here in Mongolia…I’ve never been exactly sure how that one happened.

Most, if not all, of the Mongolian-made vodka is made from grain.  Even the high-end stuff is not particularly high-end, if you are a connoisseur of vodka.  Pick a party, any party, and there will be at least one bottle on the table, usually several.  And once a bottle has been opened, that is it, nobody is leaving until it has been finished.  It generally works like this:  everyone has their glasses filled up and you all neck it at the same time and on and on until he bottle has been finished.  If you’re lucking enough you may be in a group with only one cup, which gets passed around and refilled after it has been drained.  If you’re last in line I would definitely make sure it has been drained…you don’t want any of the backwash dregs.  If you really cannot handle the vodka simply touch the glass to your lips and that should be enough.


For reasons that have never been fully explained to me Mongolians will not drink out of the bottle.  One might think it would be for reasons of civility or sanitation, but I beg to differ, especially considering what I have seen and/or actually used as a cup.  I have seen vodka drunk out of a lipstick lid and have heard of the ashtray of a Russian jeep being used, although I’d like to think someone just made that one up…I mean, an ashtray.

UAZ:  The Cadillac of the Steppe

Two types of these are common in Mongolia, a jeep and a van.  While were probably the most common vehicles in Mongolia one, in the city at least the Land Cruiser  and Hummer (ugh) have become more common.

Don’t get me wrong, these are great vehicles and can go virtually anywhere in Mongolia.  They are mostly mechanical and have very little in the way of electronics, so they are great for the cold weather.  If the engine won’t turn over on the battery they come equipped with a crank to manually start the engine.  And if they get stuck in a river or bogged down in the mud the crank can be used to move them along centimeters at a time until they can be started again.  Case in point…

UAZ Forgon

But like many things utilitarian, the UAZ 469 jeep (see the above-mentioned ashtray) and Forgon van are not the most rider-friendly vehicles on the road.  They pretty much will get you anywhere you want to go, but your insides will definitely be shaken and not stirred.  If you have the slightest hint of a weak stomach, steer very clear from these cars.  If you are hung over from the above-mentioned vodka, either come prepared with an airsickness bag or wait until the next day.

This list is obviously just for fun.  Most people who visit the country cannot help encounter at least a few of the entries on this list, and most actively seek them out…well, probably not the open manholes.  So the next time you visit Mongolia good luck avoiding, or enjoying, as the case may be, these things.  And for those of you who have had the pleasure of actually traveling or living here I would love to hear your particular stories on fun in Mongolia.

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