It started with a fight. Two Mongolians jumped into a pen packed with farm animals and emerged dragging the back leg of a brown sheep. The sheep fought all the way up the hill but eventually lost the battle when its owner Damdin, slit its chest, slid his hand in and snapped the aorta.
The animal died silently.
With nerves still twitching, Damdin deftly skinned the sheep and started to butcher it, the warm pelt his chopping board, the fly-ridden steppe his kitchen. Within an hour the sheep would be in a pot.
Many hands made light work of preparing lunch that day. A small group helped Damdin, holding the carcass and taking away organs, bones and flesh. Another group cleaned the intestines and stuffed them with liver, lungs, onion, fat, salt, blood, and no doubt a few flies. The heart and the kidney, being prized sections of the animal, were kept separate and were thrown into the pot of boiling water alongside the homemade sausage. The head was saved for later. The rest of the meat went into the khorhog, carefully watched by the dog and three eagles who cut slow circles overhead in the deep blue sky.
A fire was lit. Round fist-sized river stones were placed on a bed of sticks and twigs with wood piled on top. A disposable blowtorch was ignited and after two and a half cans of butane, the fire was roaring.
Chunks of meat were placed in an army-issue pressure cooker along with onions, potatoes, cabbage, some water and a handful of salt. After a layer of food, the first of the hot stones were dropped in, releasing a cloud of steam and the scent of scorched meat.
Once filled, the pot was sealed tight and moved onto the fire. The men retreated to the ger, the traditional Mongolian felt tent, to drink and snack on deep-fried breads. The women joined them after they’d done the dishes. Half an hour and a bottle of vodka later, they all emerged for lunch.
The pot was dragged off the fire and everyone stood back as the lid was unscrewed and opened. Before the steam had a chance to disperse, a flurry of tongs took to the pot and in no time, the picnic rug was filled with plates of mutton, potatoes, onion and cabbage. Alongside them lay bowls of sliced cucumber, tins of brightly wrapped lollies and jars of pickles with soviet inspired labels. A second bottle of vodka appeared, then a third and a forth as toasts were made, food was consumed and broken conversations staggered into the evening.
The sun was setting and our driver was still passed out when we left. Luckily his son-in-law had stopped drinking after the second bottle of vodka and he managed to bring us home safely, the truck bouncing on the pot-holed dirt track that wound drunkenly over the open expanse in the general direction of home.
Everyone slept well that night.
Just before 10 the next morning the neighbour brought over his prized bottle of BerriAçai Absolut Vodka and plonked it on the table of the outdoor kitchen where we were nursing our hangovers. “Duty Free”, he proudly exclaimed as he pointed to the simple black and white sticker on the back of the bottle. A glass appeared. A cucumber was sliced. A sheep looked nervously towards us. And day two had officially begun.