travel diary: buryat

Mongolia has some surprisingly diverse people and landscapes, from the Gobi in the south to the taiga in the north, from the Kazakh eagle hunters in the west to the Buryat farmers in the north east.

I haven’t been west yet, but I’ve been north, and south, and east.  And while the Gobi remains my favorite part of Mongolia, the Buryat people of northeastern Mongolia might be the most charming.

Buryatia is a country in its own right, spun off from the Soviet Union after the collapse.  The majority of the Buryat people live around Baikal and are distinctly russified, even with their Siberian features (former PM of Ukraine is Buryat).  Those who live in Mongolia have mixed in a bit, and are more Mongolian in appearance.  Their language is also very similar to Mongolian, though the accent is distinguishable.

In Mongolia the Buryat community is located in the aimag of Khentii, which also happens to be the birthplace of Chinggis Khan. Khentii is absolutely beautiful, just on the edge of the taiga, with coniferous forests, rivers, and long stretches of mountains (part of the Khentii mountain range). The people are genuinely friendly…. and they make great food.

After a long drive through the eastern steppe, we headed into Khentii aimag during a harrowing drive in the middle of the night.  It was raining and the ground was exceptionally but our driver handled the road with relative ease.  Arriving in Batshireet at 4 am, we crashed out and slept in, before taking a 25 km bumpy ride to, once again, the middle of nowhere – or more precisely, the Onon River valley.

Unlike the rest of Mongolia, the Buryats live in wooden cabins instead of gers.  This makes for a more permanent settlement, meaning most families have both a winter and a summer camp (usually only a few dozen kilometers apart). We stayed with a family at their summer camp, but being as it is fall, the families were making hay and readying the winter camps as well.

They say Temujin was born in the Onon River valley area, and also from this area, he launched the early stages of his empire-building.  Not much has been found of his early life in this area, but The Secret History of the Mongols gives some details about his life in this area.

We spent some time hiking around, playing with the dogs, checking out the livestock.  The Buryat women milk the cows twice a day, often bringing in 100 liters a day.  Of course, that much milk is too much for consumption, so 40 or so liters gets turned into milk cream – basically, the fat skimmed off the milk and rested for 12 hours to become a spreadable cream.  The remainder of the milk is turned into food for the farm animals.  Of the 40 liters, only some 4 liters of milk cream is made, but that is often more than enough.  Milk cream that rests for more than a few days becomes butter.

The Buryats don’t make nearly as many dairy products as most Mongolian herders, but what they do make is delicious.  And they are also known for their bread, which as a slightly sourdough quality to it, with a light airyness that makes you want to eat half the loaf before you even realize you’ve done so.

We spent the second day in the Onon valley riding horses, circling around to the river, watching hay being made, and then stopping at a family’s house for an afternoon snack.  This time, the herder’s wife gave us arkhi, which is a distilled spirit made from boiling already fermented milk.  The taste is akin to rubbing alcohol, but the alcohol content is somewhere around saki or wine.

After racing home on our horses to avoid the coming rainstorm, we lit the fire in our cabin stove and settled in for a night of moshig, a Mongolian card game that is relatively easy to learn and play.  The neighbors, hearing of foreigners in the area, came by in the hopes of picking up a few bucks.  Unfortunately for them, our driver was the best player for miles, and he walked off with several grand.


3 Responses to “travel diary: buryat”

  1. 1 Annie September 11, 2009 at 1:10 pm

    OH MY GOD! Tuutski and uruum! YUM.

  2. 2 Tara October 20, 2009 at 11:05 pm

    Found your blog. I’m trying to incorporate Finno-Ugric Studies into my Master’s program in Glasgow. I’m writing a paper on Stalin’s Nationalities policies towards Finno-Ugric and Siberian people, and am using the Buryat as one of my examples.

    How did you get into Mongolia and the Buryat? Are you studying the language? If so, are you at IU?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: