Thursday, January 05, 2006

On Marmots

Shin onii mindh (happy new year, viewers)-
As the mercury plumbs deep new lows, and the lining of one's clothes turns from synthetics to animal fur, winter in Mongolia appears to be among us. On the 21st of December, Mongolians celebrate the beginning of '9 times 9'- the first 33 days represent the start of winter, the next 33 the coldest days, and the final 33 the beginning of the end of winter. While the maths may not add up, and it wasn't exactly above zero before the 21st neither, it is indicative of the fact that outside it's getting a bit froze. It's early 33 days, but thus far it has been within the realm of expectations: don't go outside in shorts expecting warmth and you won't get it- easy! We tip our dogskin boots in sympathy towards our peeps in Minnesota, who suffer the same thing but with less opportunities to eat belly warming meaties than we Mongolian residents have. Nick, fear not: we're saving you a slice of marmot.

Our story this week takes place in the late weeks of autumn, in the soum of Ikh Choloochiheruul, where I had gone with my trusty colleague in a less than trusty rented Russian jeep to inspect the gardening progress of the good people of the soum. This particular spot is two hours flight and five hours drive from Ulaanbaatar, a mere trifle by the standards of the day. By the way, a soum is a Mongolian administrative division roughly equivalent to a county. Each of the 300 soum centres in the country has a post office, a school, a telephone, a bank, a 'hospital', a police station, and a petrol station. Electricity, water, and internet are optional extras.

There can be fewer more futile tasks than assessing a garden plot AFTER the harvest has already been completed- unkind people might suggest it is in fact no different than scrabbling around in a dirt patch, but we food security coordinators are a sharp eyed bunch, and can see things in a pile of dust that the untrained eye would miss. Our mission was compounded somewhat by the fact for this visit we had decided to use the Improvisational Rapid Assessment tool, an old fallback of the humanitarian/development playlist. Basically, you forget to tell anybody you're coming. My colleague Hovdogh had taken care of that step for us, and our local contact had done her bit by shooting off to the capital for a week or two to visit her ailing pop. What, then, to do?

Into this breach stepped the local soum governor, the estimable Tsartsagaan. A lady in the prime of her life, she strode unannounced into our hotel room shortly after sun up. Mongolians, on the whole, don't share western mores about privacy. People in round houses know no corners, or something. Anyway, Tsartsagaan had decided that she herself would escort us to the garden plot, and we could leave forthwith. A woman in a position of administrative power wearing a camel hair twinset and a full head of makeup before nine in the morning is not to be questioned, viewers. Saddle up and ride out.

Driving the fifty kilometres to the project site, the less than trusty driver of our less than trusty jeep whacked in a cassette of the Greatest Mongolian Driving Hits..Ever! His vehicle fully conformed to the basic rules of having a crap car: the more crap the car, the more booming your system must be. So despite this being a car that would later have its front axle mount rupture from the chassis while we were driving, the graphic equalizer and woofer system was presently giving us an immersive aural experience, steppe style. This was then taken to the next level. Due to some mysterious cultural shared consciousness, every Mongolian knows the words to every Mongolian song ever written ever. And every Mongolian must sing, sing, sing. In fact, it is especially important to sing when driving in a car, Tsartsagaan informed me. My pathetic lack of knowledge of Mongolian repertoire was not an excuse, it was a disgrace.

And so with the volume up to eleven, and three throaty companions in good musical spirits, the kilometres flew by like so many miles. Mongolian driving music is a jaunty, exhilarating affair, with lots of cowboy movie strings of the herds galloping majestically across the steppe, uplifting female vocals, and lusty male solo singers, exalting to the great blue skies the greatness of...Their Mums. Yep. Unless specifically stated otherwise, all Mongolian music is a paean to Mater; how she's keeping everyone safe as they travel, how she's just wonderful at making the curds, and how she'll have a warm cup of tea ready for us when we get back. Sung with pep by the cast of Oklahoma, in Mongolian. When I was asked how many western songs are written about mothers, my answer provoked the kind of pitying head shaking usually reserved for stories of puppies left out in the rain.

As the mountain pass gave way to a giant plain, our happy singing car came upon a single dingy ger by the side of the road, incongruously stocked with a huge stack of uncut tree trunks. A quick scan of the horizon confirmed there wasn't a tree in sight, but all was soon revealed. This ger was the temporary shelter for a policeman and an environment officer, cunningly placed to intercept logging thieves and smugglers pinching wood from the forests up north and selling them in the treeless south. Now why treelifters couldn't drive around the only tent in fifteen square kilometers is not clear. Even less clear is why they would even stop for two dudes without so much as two horses between them. It's not many cops who can stop a truck single handed, wrestle the occupants to the ground and arrest them, remove the cargo from the flatbed, do the paperwork and still get a good night's sleep on the cold hard ground at a decent hour, but that seemed to be the m.o. This duo's duties were not limited to busting timberrunners, but in fact covered seizure of all contraband which might somehow be drawn to them. Illegal whatnot of all sorts was winkled out and impounded, as smugglers of all shapes and sizes found themselves drawn, magnetlike, to the only ger in 50 kilometres.

Contraband is like anything else, and is subject to the whims of fashion, trend and taste. In 2005, the number one most wanted illegal item in short supply was the marmot. A big groundhoggy thing that lives in holes, he is marmota sibirica (tarvag, viewers). If you read Russian and can't get enough marmot info, then is for you. For the rest of us, it is enough to know that the marmot is a big rat thing that lives in the ground, good for making stoles and other accessories from. Other fun facts about the marmot include that it has fleas that still carry bubonic plague- every year about five or six Mongolians get chomped or mugged by a marmot and get plague. Also, they are congenitally stupid. Like many steppe dwellers there are really, really bored, and spend months inside with nothing to do. So they are easily distracted and will be entertained by almost anything. Over the centuries, the rugged outdoorsmen of Mongolia have worked this out, and lure the marmot from his nest by such cunning predatory manouvres as honking the horn, yelling out "knock knock!", and singing bracing Mongolian hunting songs such as "I kill you good little beastie". Marmots come above ground to see who's throwing the party, hunter shoulders weapon, there is a one sided exchange of bullets, and terminally comatose marmots comes home to daddy.

But the most important thing about the marmot is that while he's an attractive fellow to make a hat from, and a pretty sporting hunt, he is fine, fine eating. Boiled, steamed, grilled or just plain old warmed on the car radiator, he's the rodent of the moment. There are various marmot organs which are considered especially good for one's health, so much so that they are called People Meat (hun mach, viewers). Certain Mongolians are so enamoured of the taste of marmot flesh that autumn just doesn't taste right without a marmoty burp in the gullet. Be that as it may, this year the government decided that a) plague was just really, really medieval and surely we could skip a year without someone coming over all buboed, b) so many marmot munchers had seriously depleted numbers of marmots left in burrows and c) just do what we say. So it was that this year, there was no legal marmot to be had in Mongolia, and lo there was much gnashing of teeth, free of marmoty sinew.

And yet, all hope was not lost for those who'd been looking forward to marmotburger all year. For instance, what of already dead marmot? What if, purely hypothetically, a cop in a ger in the middle of nowhere had intercepted some not alive marmots shot by naughty persons? What if those marmots were more than he could possibly consume I mean enter into evidence himself, even if there was a friend to help him out? What then? Wouldn't it just go bad? Wouldn't that be a crime too? Well wouldn't it? Our hostess in the twinset Tsartsagaan was thinking along the same lines. Plus, as governor, she is the boss of him and does represent the will of the people, so make with the meats, flatfoot.

The finer points of this Socratic dialogue was held in the conditional tense (or at least was translated to me that way), so after a lot of "IF I did have a marmot then I WOULD give it to you" type chortling, it was off to see the soil spot. The project site was a dusty affair, located as it was at the summer grazing spot, now vacated by all but one family. So no people, no turnips, and nothing to assess except the consistency of dust. A successful mission, I'd say.

On the way back, we stopped at the same cop ger we'd visited on the way out. By a strange confluence of nature and human appetites, in the hours we were away, not one but two marmots had now been found. One was already in a state of severe undress, in the process of being gutted on a cardboard box. The other? Not totally certain, but Tsartsagaan entered the ger and emerged with a mysterious bundle in her arms covered in cloth, which was then stashed in the back of the car. And back we went to the soum capital to take advantage of the many amenities on offer. Could it be that her parcel of cloth contained a marmot? Who can say with certainty, in today's confusing world? But suspicion points in that direction, viewers. This would not be the only suspicious marmot of an increasingly marmoty trip.

Later that evening, my colleague Hovdogh was greeted by some of her local pals, delighted to see her after such a long absence. To celebrate her return, they had thoughtfully brought her...a marmot. Nicely cooked with not too much salt, presented tastefully squashed into a plastic bag. Hovdogh could not have been happier, she being of the too much marmot is not enough school of gastronomy. Having bought herself a jumbo jar of Polish pickles to accompany her repast, she set to work. Now a word about eating marmot in 2005. You may have somehow found yourself in possession of such a thing, but it is still illegal, and the law is still the law, and you can't just sit on the front step and chow down in full view. One must be discreet. Given that our hosts were mostly government folk of some tier or another, it really wouldn't do to chew on the illicit meat right in their faces- even if they gave it to you. A etiqutte poser, to be sure. The simplest thing to do, really, is chomp it down in the car on one's own. No mess no fuss. Which is what she did. For three consecutive meals, Hovdogh would sit in the passenger seat before we'd go into a house (inevitably for a meal), get out the pickles and paring knife and gnaw away. The standard Mongolian fashion for meat eating is direct under any circumstances, but hunched over a bag of contraband in the car with occasional visible flicks of a greasy knife gave the whole process a certain junkie feel.

Even after three drive-in marmot specials, there was still leftovers, and that same plastic bag was kicking around the car with carcass in it. As we were driving the five hours back to the aimag capital, the driver pulled up on a dried up riverbed and came round to where the marmot bag was. Flipping open a secret panel in the back rear right side door, he stuffed the plastic bag into the leg of a spare pair of trousers and closed the panel again. Why is marmot always stashed inside clothes, anyway? This was apparently necessary because just ahead was another spot where cops and environment officers tended to lie in wait of smugglers, and he didn't want the marmot bag in plain sight. Entertained by the James Bond secret panel (although the similarities ended there), and amused by the fact that in all the great wide open space of Mongolia the cops have an unerring ability to pick their busts in just the right spots, we proceeded towards the suspected trap.

And with all the inevitability of a thing going to happen, there were the cops and environment guys, right on schedule. In fact, not only were they cops and environment guys, they were the SAME cops and environment guys we'd met the day before, accompanied by their superior officer from the capital. Realizing that these dudes has little ground to stand on on the whole 'have you got any illegal marmots in bags in secret panels' type questions seeing as how they were dealers, we were disrespectfully sniggery throughout our questioning. The superior officer saw nothing funny about anything, but other two authority figures shuffled their feet and averted their eyes, waiting for this whole episode to be over. I was later told that if the car was searched, the driver was going to say that the marmot concealing trousers belonged to me, thereby ratcheting up the whole affair to a full blown diplomatic crisis. In the event, all parties agreed it's a rum old world and no mistake, spat in the dust and drove off in search of more marmot related adventures.

The remainder of the trip passed without rodent related incident, although I will close this entry by simply mentioning that under pressure to sample the delights on offer, and on the understanding that you only live once, I was induced to sample a sliver of marmot. Screwing my courage to the sticking post, I did so. I can report without fear of contradiction that it tasted meaty, for the most part.

On which note we shall close- we are away in the UK for the next few weeks, so you'll have to get your jollies at another internet spot till early February, viewers.
Saihan saihuig husii (wish you all the best, viewers),

A alleged marmot under interrogation yesterday.