Daniel Patrick O’Connell does not blend in with the Ulaan Baatar crowd. A preppy, robust, white-haired Cottage alumnus, he wore a pink bow tie to work today because it’s Friday, and he sticks out almost comically as he walks past the locals on the Peace Avenue sidewalk downtown. Of course, I no doubt stick out as well. My mother and I have come to visit Mr. O’Connell and his wife Charlotte as part of a long-planned journey to drop in on family friends who live in more exotic places, and as the remote desert capital of Mongolia, Ulaan Baatar is undeniably exotic. Mr. O’Connell is the Treasury attaché to the American Embassy here, and spends his days working with officials in a Mongolian government office trying to incubate a bond market. We walk together to the O’Connells’ car, a right-hand drive Toyota—in Mongolia, as in the U.S., one drives on the right side of the road, but right-hand drive cars are quite popular here because dealers can import them from Japan at a low cost. The result, as we experience during our expectedly perilous drive to the expat grocery store, is scary traffic. We drive to the expat grocery store because today, we are to buy and try airag, the popular Mongolian drink consisting of fermented mare’s or camel’s milk.
The airag is a creamy paste inside the green glass bottle on the dairy shelf. It sits there uneventfully, next to eggs and yogurt. Nothing about the innocuous, plain label indicates even remotely the bizarre, bitter fizziness contained within. We bring our bottles back to the O’Connell’s apartment and the cultural experiment begins. Not quite understanding the bubbly nature of the drink, I shake the bottle of mare’s milk before opening. As soon as I open the cap a tiny bit, the substance erupts. Thankfully, I had the foresight to open the bottle over the sink. Ready to imbibe, I lift the now-sticky bottle to eye level. It looks creamy. Smells…neutral. How bad could it be? As I discovered, it was terrible. Disappointingly, the mare’s milk had the runny, gloppy consistency and bitter taste that one would expect of carbonated cream that had been left unrefrigerated for too long. I then tried the camel’s milk, hoping the beverage could redeem itself, but I found even the camel’s milk, while more palatable, difficult to keep down. All in all, I wouldn’t describe it as a tasty or refreshing drink.
But Mongolians adore it, more than one might believe. Any American who understands the somehow-not-disgusting appeal of the McRib or the fried Oreo or spray cheese can appreciate this jarring culinary sensibility: airag is weird, but Mongolians grow up with it. It’s the national beverage, consumed in vast quantities during the summer months—the best time to milk the animals, before they need the fat for the harsh, forty-below Mongolian winters. Airag is an especially big hit at Naadam, the national festival in which multitudes gather in Ulaan Baatar, get drunk off of fermented milk, and compete in the “Three Manly Sports,” wrestling, riding, and archery—an exciting annual tradition and a pretty apparent holdover from the Mongol warrior days. According to Mr. O’Connell, “Here, have some airag!” is a common beginning to many official meetings. The taste has actually grown on him over the past couple of years, and he’s now less afraid of diplomatic functions where waiters carry around trays of airag like champagne. As I take another curious sip, I try to decipher the Cyrillic label wrapped around the green bottle, and I wonder who thought of putting fermented mare’s milk in a twist-off.
Airag is not meant to be bottled. Traditionally, Mongolians share the beverage from a bowl—and in fact often they still do. The bowls, like the beverage, are a central part of Mongolian cultural life. In the museums of Ulaan Baatar, we inspected case after case of gorgeous airag bowls dating all the way back to the age of Chinggis Kahn, the early 13th century. Various historical figures had each bowl made for a special occasion: a wedding, an alliance. They were like the commissioned swords and jewelry—the Mongolian museums actually had their fair share of these items as well—that one might expect to see on display in a museum in Europe. These airag bowls were party pieces, tools of personal gatherings that had particular significance among people who did not live in one concentrated area for any long period of time. The bowls symbolized the crucial welcoming-and-sharing aspect of the nation’s culture—a civilization that seemed to revolve around the dramatic juxtaposition of wilderness and respite.
I am inclined to explain this juxtaposition by examining the physical conditions in which the culture developed. In the old days, a Mongolian might have shared a comforting bowl of airag with a guest who had just braved weeks of brutal and lonely travel across the Gobi. Because one could make it from the milk of the animals one traveled with, fermented mare or camel’s milk was the only alcohol easily available on the Steppes. So, sharing it was a sign of true friendship—and when you’re constantly in the wilderness, friendship may be the only thing that keeps you alive. In fact, this concept of hosts relieving exposure to the wilderness seemed to dominate more than merely the norms for party drinks and typical wedding gifts. During a performance of Mongolian song and dance that we attended in the old Soviet-built National Drama Theater, throat-singers telling poignant, dark tales of untamable stallions alternated with bright friendship dances. Mongolians have long admired both the staggering vastness of their landscape and the tight-knittedness—airag-bowl style—of their collective family.
By contrast, there is nothing intrinsically collective or tight-knit about a bottle. An airag bowl is shared, passed around, consumed at once. The bottle is cold, sealed off and separate, available at your convenience. The way one consumes food can explain a tremendous amount about one’s culture, and the modern airag presentation speaks volumes about the way that foreigners and some Mongolians have, in recent years, attempted to Westernize and regularize the country. They want to bottle things. Modern-day Mongolia bottles the airag in a glass container that might as well contain a Heineken and utterly ignores the true unifying purpose of the drink.
A walk around downtown reveals that the people of modern-day Mongolia are trying to bottle a lot more than fermented mare’s milk. Modern-day Mongolia bottles performance, confining it to cheesy, kitsch dance shows. Modern-day Mongolia bottles people downtown, in shiny blue-glass buildings, artificially planted on an alien and incompatible landscape of wild dust and sprawling, sparse Birchwood. A touristy magazine proclaims that the best grill restaurant in Ulaan Baatar is “BD’s Mongolian Barbeque.” Indeed, the chain has been a success among locals and expatriates alike, even though, as a Mongolian friend of Mr. O’Connell explained, “It doesn’t serve any actual Mongolian food.” Basically, if you’re in the theme park shell of a capital—and at a bustling 1.2 million people, almost half of Mongolia lives there—it has become nearly impossible for you to find nary a crumb of untainted Steppes living.
This bottling began when the Soviets took over in the 1920s. After defending the nation from a Chinese invasion, they immediately starting killing off Buddhist monks and tearing down precious cultural landmarks—the kind of classic liberate-you-from-yourselves maneuver for which Communists are known. The Soviets took the time to destroy several temples and throw up some shoddy Russian-style administrative buildings, but never really attempted to industrialize the national economy or educate the locals. They built paved roads, but never bothered to give the locals cars or teach them how to drive. They built modern hospitals, but generally never bothered to teach the locals the practices of modern medicine. They did change the Mongolian written alphabet from long form script to Cyrillic, which Mongolians still use today. As a result of this grand half-change, when the Soviets “just packed up and left in 1991,” as Mr. O’Connell puts it, they left the country in a tortuously transitional state.
That the state is transitional—that the transformation into a ‘bottled’ nation is incomplete—becomes apparent if you travel a bit outside Ulaan Baatar. A massive yurt shantytown skirts the city. Within about a mile of the glassy, Gucci-clad city center, Mongolians are still living in thick fabric tents, with little or no electricity and with only their small yards for garbage dumps —although thankfully most at least have access to clean water. Empty bottles of vodka, a drink which in post-Soviet Mongolia rivals airag for popularity, litter the Steppes near the city, scattered by the wind like tragic tumbleweeds. The roads outside the city are generally in disrepair, so people have taken to simply driving next to them, creating ruddy dirt paths all across the landscape. When viewed from a plane, the highways look more like muddy riverbeds than the straight grey lines I’m used to seeing in America. And once we got about twenty miles outside Ulaan Baatar, these riverbeds faded into thin streams among the utterly wild. Finally there was no longer garbage strewn about. The trees on the hillsides began to thin. The Gobi started to flatten. I saw roaming herds of horses and met a man who still uses a camel for transportation. This was no glass-bottled Mongolia; this was rustic life shared from an airag bowl.
I think it was on this more adventurous part of my trip that I realized the value of my experience with airag. For me, the deliciousness of bitter fermented mare’s milk is, and will always be, as mysterious and wonderful as the sight of horses and camels pacing on the vast canvas of desert, craggy wooded hills, and dusty sky. Or the wild wrestling-brawls of Naadam. Or the contemplative drone of the throat-singer. The enduring consumption of airag means that my world—the world of concrete and steel and the Styrofoam BD’s Mongolian Barbeque to-go container—will fortunately never be everything. Airag means that, even in this era in which everything is becoming clean and packaged, there will always be unfamiliar places to explore, nuanced cultures to interact with, indefinable beauty to witness, and new tastes to try. Airag may be harshly sour, but to drink it is divine.