There are only about 2 million people in Mongolia and about 45 million farm animals. The people depend highly on the animals for their survival, so most of the land is used as pasture. Herds of sheep, horses, cows and camels can be seen grazing and roaming along the roads and far off into the distance.
Mongolia is a land of extremes, but the conditions couldn’t be more perfect for raising land animals: wide-open spaces, grassy fields and rolling hills for miles to see. The animals grow coats to protect themselves in the winter from the brutal winds and cold, but not all of them can take the scorching heat of the desert. In the Gobi, only camels can survive. Their bodies are perfectly adapted for the heat and sand.
Being the only animal in the Gobi Desert means, of course, that camels are milked and slaughtered like all animals raised for that purpose. In my naivety, it didn’t strike me that camels were used for anything other than riding until I actually got to the desert. As I mentioned in my last post, our host family fed us a slow cooked camel meat stew with potatoes and some kind of hand made noodle. It was delicious, rather like mutton, and very filling after our evening hike.
We were also offered a selection of treats such as camel cheese, sugar cubes and fried bread along with airag, a fermented wine of sorts, made from animals’ milk, usually mare. In the desert though, airag is made from milk provided by camels. Farmy, frothy and sour, airag is… an experience. I tried both camel’s airag and mare’s. Surprisingly, the camel version was MUCH better. It was at least vaguely wine-like and smooth, while the mare’s airag was utterly intolerable. I was unable to stomach more than two sips. Ugh.
For those of us used to temperate weather and wildlife, it is very special to be able to see such a unique animal in their element. Camels are desert wizards.