Day 33: To ride on horseback across the Mongolian steppe is to be reminded of the cycle of life...and probably more often than you'd like. The dun-colored expanse may vanish in great magnificence on the distant horizon, but underfoot it is just dirt, tufts of overgrazed grass, and animal droppings blackened by the sun. Horses, cows, sheep, goats, and yaks leave their marks everywhere, and when there aren't droppings, there are bones (skulls, femurs, shoulder blades, vertebrae, a horn) all scattered about, sun bleached, and sunken into the dirt.
Byambaa and I start out towards a 16th-century Buddhist monastery and aren't more than half an hour out of camp when we make our first discovery. A dog has found a scrap of carpet and is tugging on it playfully. But wait, the dog is not playing, it is eating, and the carpet is a sheep, slumped on the ground and terribly still. In the air above us, a black vulture circles. Four more stand in wait on the ground, figuring there's no point in flying when it's just the dog they're waiting for.
The dog barks at us as we approach. Byambaa shouts something in Mongolian at it, and it lowers its head and clears the way, reassuming its tall stance twenty feet away, announcing to the world--mainly the vultures--that it is second in line. The sheep's body is fresh, but thin. The winter was hard on it, and the lean earth of spring finished it off. The dog has exposed its chest and licked clean several protruding ribs. The sheep probably died some time during the night.
That is how it is here. Death isn't politely tucked away in some unlit corner where no one has to see it. It's out in the open, lying on the ground. Yesterday, as we drove over a patch of dirt road connecting two stretches of paved highway, we saw a stray dog, then later a dead dog, and some time after that a dead camel, its face gone, but its hide still intact and clinging to what was left of its former body. And now, as we move on and the dog reclaims its prize, there is a Russian gasoline truck conked out down the road, its engine steaming.
Me traveling the Mongolian way
Every mile or so, there is a ger encampment. Families have been here since late autumn in spots sheltered from the howling north wind. As springtime gathers momentum, they'll pick up and move--the ger, the animals, the family, everything--and relocate to better pasture. Half the country lives this way. This is a country still full of nomads.
The gers come down in about half an hour. They have been going up and coming down for more than 2,500 years. It doesn't rain much in Mongolia, but when it does people spread sheets of plastic on their cotton roofs, to keep the water from penetrating the felt underneath. Years ago, they kept the rain out by spreading butter instead.
We plan on getting to the monastery for 11 a.m., when the monks begin the morning service by blowing into seashells. We arrive at 1 p.m. The trip on horseback has taken much longer than anticipated. We don't mind. The monastery itself dates back to 1586, and was modeled on the village next door that was destroyed by Ming-era Chinese soldiers. The temple is one of the few remnants of ancient Mongolia, and it is one of only two large monasteries surviving. Hundreds of others were demolished during the purges of Stalin.
You would not know these were monks if it weren't for the buzz cuts and robes. They joke around as they walk along, throwing stones at each other, laughing. At any other monastery, a monk would come out and tell these monks to pipe down. This is one of the many endearing qualities of Buddhism.
A wise monk
Byambaa and I find an older monk sitting by a fence next to the main temple. He appears deep in thought. At my request, Byambaa asks him a question: Why, I would like to know, is it okay for me--for Byambaa, for everyone else here in Mongolia, for that matter--to eat animals. I'm not rethinking my diet. But the carnage of morning has left me with an appetite for meaning.
The monk tells us that it is the law of life that the stronger eat the weak. But he says that when people kill animals, they should whisper a prayer to help it find a better place in the next life.
Back at the ger camp, dinner is still walking. Byambaa informs me that Batkhu, who lives in the ger next to the camp and helps take care of the place, is going to kill a sheep. Would I like to watch? I say yes, not because I have a desire to see blood and guts, but because I think I ought to. Meat, after all, does not grow on Styrofoam trays in supermarkets or in the display fridges of organic butcher shops. It comes from animals. I have eaten a lot of animals in my life--thousands of pounds, all told--but apart from killing a few fish out of lakes and rivers and four partridge that I shot in England once, I haven't been present for the dirty work. It's not entirely my fault. Slaughterhouses in North America aren't in the habit of letting people watch, especially journalists. But Mongolia is different. Here, the butchering is done by people like Batkhu because their families are hungry.
Mongolians have their own way of slaughtering sheep. They don't like spilling an animal's blood on the ground, so instead of cutting the animal's throat, they rip out the two main veins leading to its heart and let it bleed internally to death. They later scoop out the clotted blood out of the chest cavity and use it to make sausages.
Batkhu leads the sheep out of its pen. It's a female, and it didn't give birth to a lamb this year, so its time is up. The sheep isn't struggling. Batkhu lays it on its back on a canvas tarp. An air of medical seriousness descends. He takes a knife with an ornate handle and makes an incision in the sheep's gut. The sheep struggles a little but makes not a peep. Batkhu slips his hand in the opening, and his forearm disappears inside the animal. The sheep moves its limbs, but still no noise.
Batkhu rips out the artery
Puncturing the diaphragm with his fingers, Batkhu reaches up and finds the veins he is seeking, which run alongside the spine. He takes hold of the veins in his hand, unplugs them from the heart, then pulls his hand out. There is very little blood on his hand. The act takes no more than seven or eight seconds and now the sheep seems calm again. It fidgets a moment, then cocks its head back, as though it is remembering something that happened a long time ago. Its eyes close and its lips start to quiver as it loses consciousness. Remembering what the monk told me, I lean down and whisper to the sheep. I wish it a quick end to its suffering and happiness wherever it may be going. Batkhu takes his index finger and prods one of the sheep's glazed eyes, which are open again. There is no reaction. The sheep is dead.
Batkkhu wipes the blade of his knife on a rag and is ready to begin skinning. His wife emerges from the ger with a bowl of milk curd vodka, an drink made by distilling fermented yogurt. She hands it to me and I stand back and sip. A tuft of wool is picked up by the breeze and lands on the dog's nose. The dog doesn't notice and everyone laughs. Batkhu takes the sheep's right foreleg and begins separating hide from carcass with precise little nips of the blade. By now, the sheep has a very faraway look in its eyes.