Terelj National Park, May 2016. It was a hard, cold winter.
Terelj National Park, May 2016. It was a hard, cold winter.
Packed with sheep, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, sizzling hot fist-sized rocks and water, the piping hot contents of this milk can are tender and ready to be served. Let the khorkhog begin!
It’s a a tradition keenly anticipated at the International School of Ulaanbaatar (ISU). With our first week of school behind us, it’s time for faculty, staff and administrators to relax in the style of traditional Mongolia – with a khorkhog. In days past, the animal’s stomach would have served as the cooking pot. These days, it’s more common for khorkhog to be slow roasted with hot rocks, meat and vegetables placed in an old-fashioned milk can. Prepared thus, the meat comes out tender and flavorful, though as the photo suggests, containers are to be opened with caution.
A shovel handle is used to apply pressure to the milk can to slowly let off steam while ISU’s driver turned chef Baatar pulls a roasted potato from another can.
With a faculty, staff and student body representing over 30 nationalities, ISU is truly an international school. But the school’s roots are planted firmly in Mongolia. The site selected for this year’s khorkhog is on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar on the shoulders of Bogd Khan Mountain, a place Mongolians point to with pride as the world’s oldest national park. An easy bike ride from our Ulaanbaatar apartment, we’ve come across signs of deer and wild boar on hikes and rides through the hills, and have encountered fox, sable, marmots and Eurasian red squirrels. We’ve also focused our binoculars on dozens of species of birds including demoiselle cranes, hoopoes, falcons, eagles, hawks, kites and numerous song birds.
Circling high overhead, an imperial eagle checked out our feast.
Song is a rich tradition in Mongolia, and once stomachs were full a guitar and drum came out.
Everyone knew the words to the Beatles’ classics!
Meanwhile, a group found a perfect pitch speckled with wildflowers for a game.
Rounds of tug-of-war were amiable enough…
… but wrestling, one of the Mongolia’s national sports, always has a serious edge to it.
Recent rains have turned the fields and forest lush shades of green, and wildflowers – not to mention abundant wild herbs such as mint, sage and caraway – are everywhere.
Situated at over 1,300 meters (4,300 feet) above sea level and not terribly far south of Siberia, fall comes quickly on the heels of summer in Ulaanbaatar. Already nights are growing cool. In a few weeks time the larch trees where we recently held our khorkhog feast will turn gold with autumn.
A healthy family of common mergansers (Mergus merganser) indicates an abundance of small fish in the Tuul River on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
Mergansers are large diving ducks that subsist primarily on fish, although the young also fill up on aquatic insects such a the larva of mayflies and stoneflies. They make their nests in cavities in trees, sometimes a good distance from water. Less frequently, mergansers nest in holes in cliffs or high banks. They can be found on open water throughout the Northern Hemisphere, and are a good indicator of clean water and healthy populations of small fish.
If you look closely, you can make out the serrations on her bill – the perfect adaptation for holding onto fish. In contrast to the females, the drakes’ heads are dark green, their flanks are white and their backs are black. Although common mergansers are usually encountered on freshwater lakes and rivers, they are frequently seen in coastal bays and estuaries as well.
A baleful eye tells us we’ve approached close enough. Undisturbed this family went about their business, dipping their heads underwater in search of food as they paddled along the river’s current breaks.
Sushi?… In Mongolia?! Heck yeah! Slightly crunchy in the best possible way, herring roe paired with mackerel is a sumptuous favorite at the Hana Japanese restaurant in Ulaanbaatar.
Jack’s birthday. What to get a man with a serious fish addition in a country where canned Alaskan salmon is pretty much the only palatable fish to be found? We’d heard a couple of good reports from a relative newcomer to Ulaanbaatar’s rapidly growing restaurant scene. Hana was said to have the best sushi – in fact the best fish of any description – in town.
Crisp, light and slightly malty, when it comes to pairing a beverage with sushi, it’s tough to beat a traditional Japanese rice lager such as these frosty glasses of Sapporo. Hana also features a decent wine list as well as locally-brewed beers.
On a whim, we’d stopped in for lunch at Hana the previous day during a walk of the city. I thought we were just getting in out of the mid-day heat for a bite to eat. I know now that Jack was vetting the place for a possible birthday meal. We each ordered a set menu. My chirashi-zushi, an assortment of beautifully-sliced salmon, tuna, sea bass, prawn and mackerel on top of a bowl of sushi rice surprised with its fresh and delicate flavors. Jack went with a nigiri-zushi set (which should have tipped me off that he was up to something). Like my bowl of chirashi-zushi, Jack’s meal was beautifully presented and fresh. Our bowls of miso soup, too, were spot on. We’d tried the sushi at a couple of other Ulaanbaatar restaurants, and had found it to be OK. But our lunch experience at Hana was authentically good.
As bright and fresh as maguro in Japan, this tuna flank was amazing.
Anytime we visit a good restaurant, we start by asking available waitstaff, chefs, managers and owners what they recommend. On the night we visited Hana, the consensus was that the tuna, recently flown in from Hana’s Japanese supplier, was superb. We began our meal with a plate of maguro sashimi and were not disappointed. The translucent-ruby slices were served with a traditional salad of shiso leaf and julienne daikon, radish and squash. It was absolutely delicious.
Perfectly ripe, creamy avocado, crisp garden salad, seared tuna flank and a house-made sesame dressing came together beautifully. In the background, our chef is shaping the nigiri-zushi that would follow.
The next item that was recommended to us was an appetizer salad featuring a balance of impeccably ripe, thinly sliced avocado and lightly seared tuna. Searing the tuna gave it a sweetness which was deliciously complimented by a quick dip in soy sauce. The chef’s sesame sauce gave the avocado and garden salad a savory-sweet dimension. In California, restaurant goers take avocado as good as this for granted. Here in UB, this kind of quality is evidence of the effort and attention to detail that separates Hana from other establishments.
A delicious, authentic assortment of steamed vegetables, pickled seaweed and other appetizers appeared next.
Among the appetizers, our favorite was this konbu tsukudani. This savory bite is made of kelp cut thin, cooked in soy sauce and mirin, and served with sesame seeds. Jack felt like he was back in Japan.
With enough food for two or three people, the sushi assortment platter is a good place to start if you’re visiting Hana.
When it came to choosing our main entrée, we opted for the assorted nigiri-zushi for two.
The plate featured the obligatory cooked shrimp, tamago (egg), and a sushi roll that didn’t excite us. The tamago was quite good – but not something we typically would order á la carte. The remainder of our plate took us to Japan.
Although the hamachi lacked the butteriness we expect, it was impeccably fresh and beautifully presented with wasabi-cured flying fish roe.
The sea bass, sliced translucently thin (you can see the wasabi beneath it) and dressed with a dollop of flying fish roe, was excellent. Given that the fish is fresh, what really makes and breaks sushi is the quality of the rice. Delicately flavored sea bass is unforgiving. At Hana, the sushi rice is excellent. Former Alaskans, we appreciate the difference between good, really good and excellent salmon. Fresh and melt-in-your-mouth buttery soft, the salmon sushi at Hana is perhaps the best fish available in Ulaanbaatar.
We were on the verge of leaving when the chef brought out a treat appreciated by true aficionados of Japanese cuisine and by few others. Natto. Sticky, gooey, fermented soy beans. In most restaurants, natto is served on rice, perhaps accompanied by a raw quail egg. On Jack’s birthday, the chef served it on a bed of tuna sashimi. I let him have the bowl to himself. The perfect end to the perfect birthday dinner.
Ulaanbaatar is not a foodie mecca. But restaurants like Hana are working to change that.
Stalked a group of stag red deer
up a draw to the top of a rise
where the sun broke fiery and cold
lighting feather grass and ice needles
suspended in the negative something air.
Along the ridge, winter-hard antlers
lit with sunlight
scattered into the dawn.
– Hustai National Park, Mongolia, 2014
Magpie and takhi (Przewalski’s horse) – old friends reacquainted in a scene that has played out for many thousands of years but that was sadly interrupted in those decades during which the takhi were extinct in the wild.
In 1967, somewhere on the arid steppe of Mongolia’s Western Gobi Dessert, the last small herd of wild takhi was seen. Two years later, only one horse remained. And then Equus przewalskii vanished completely from the wild. Although closely related to modern domestic horses, takhi were never tamed. This differentiates their status as “truly wild” from the ferrel mustangs of America which are descendants of domestic horses.
In their natural environment, wolves were their main predators, and the dry, harsh, cold conditions of the steppe would invariably claim victims each winter. But the main cause of the demise of the takhi was probably due to its being hunted for meat.
Takhi form small family groups comprised of a lead stallion, two or three mares, and their offspring. These family groups loosely intermingle with other families as well as with bachelor stallions which often travel in pairs or groups of three. Stocky and with zebra-like manes, takhi are comparatively small, standing only about 48 – 56 inches tall at the shoulders. They have 66 chromosomes, two more than any other species of horse.
By 1970, the only living specimens existed in a few zoos and private ranches. Extinct in the wild, it seemed only a matter of time till their official extinction from the planet would be announced.
Then something truly remarkable occurred. In a cooperative venture between the Zoological Society of London and Mongolian biologists, the horses were reintroduced to Mongolia’s Khustai (Hustai) National Park where they’ve been thriving even since.
On a morning bright with ice needles in the air and a fresh dusting of snow on the ground, takhi and female red deer (Cervus elaphus) share a piece of rugged terrain in Mongolia’s Khustai National Park.
In full winter coats, these wild takhi are as beautiful as they are tough.
We counted ourselves as lucky to have spent a few days in Khustai during some of the coldest stretches of winter. The deeply rutted dirt roads were quiet, wildlife was abundant, and the horses seemed only mildly curious regarding our presence.
Takhi can readily be viewed in summertime as well. We can’t say which season is more beautiful. There are wild horses in this world still. That is beautiful.
We caught this Alaskan grizzly bear chillin’ on the edge of a forest on a cool, overcast morning in mid-summer. With nails like that, who wouldn’t lie around admiring them? (Six more photos.)
The previous day, I (yours truly, Jack Donachy) managed to drop and break “the big lens.” But this sleepy guy barely paid us any attention as we photographed him from the safety of our Chevy, so the 70-200 mm with a 1.4 teleconverter got us close enough. Hard to say how many cars had driven by this big, blonde-brown hulk without noticing that morning. We stayed with him – and he with us – for about half an hour.
He’d doze off for a bit, wake up, think about whether or not to get up (or maybe he was trying to remember where he’d left his car keys last night), give a little sigh and then drop off to sleep again.
And then he’d wake and take a look around.
Eventually a scent on the air caught his attention…
And he ambled off. Almost looks like he’s posed in a diorama. The overcast morning light really made the colors pop.