And what about the bed and the shower? After drinking two bowls of camel's milk, Mooggie translated that we couldn't stay at this campsite. We would have to get back on the car and look for another campsite. The family didn't have an extra yurt for guests and as it turned out, nor did they have a shower.
As we drove off, Mooggie pointed at a zinc can good 20 yards away from the yurt.
"Very good Mongolian toilet," he said.
We shared cups of black coffee with the host who sat cross-legged on the gravel and carried on a lively conversation with Bata-so and Mooggie. While they talked, I took note of the host’s amazing face: sunburned and leathery-looking, eyes that disappeared under a set of heavy eyelids, an uneven mustache, two big parentheses of saggy skin framing his mouth and a vast forehead full of deep wrinkles like stab marks. He was in his early forties but looked older. His face epitomized the alien beauty of his nomadic culture. Mooggie translated parts of the conversation. Our host’s son was the groom and since that was the last day of the celebration, we were invited to partake in the party. It would be rude to turn him down, Mooggie, said, very rude.
A few hours later, we walked into the wedding yurt. There was the host, dressed in his best Mongolian attire, cleaned up and ready to celebrate. I expected more guests, but I quickly realized that it was only the four of us, the host, the groom and the bride, although the bride was busy in one corner of the yurt and kept herself out of sight.
I held my breath and drank the whole thing.
Airag is an alcoholic drink made by fermenting raw unpasteurized mare's milk over the course of days. The bacteria formed during the fermentation process acidifies the milk, and the yeasts turn it first, into a carbonated drink and second, into an alcoholic concoction.
It would be a lie to say that it had a lovely flavor, or that I liked it, or that I wanted to buy some and take it home with me. Let’s just say that it was salty milk, with a hint of bleach, a touch of vinegar, a note of moldy cheese, and an aftertaste to die for. Literally.
Having been raised in South America, I have biased and stubborn taste buds, and whatever my opinion on Airag is, distilled or not, holds no water whatsoever. But, I’ll say this: Airag is an acquired taste. One that I did not acquire that night. Not even after several bowls of it.
No sooner had we finished our last bowl of airag than the host pulled out a bottle of real vodka. "No way Jose," I whispered to my husband. "Yes way," he replied, sounding very tipsy and very shaky. Sure enough, before I knew it, I had a bowl of real vodka in my hands. Warm, neat vodka, which to be honest, tasted like heaven after an overdose of airag.
The host and Beauty and the Beast sang some more. We had a few more rounds of fresh mare's milk, airag, and neat vodka, in that order, then they sang some more. I hope we made the host happy because we felt spectacularly shaky.
Before we left, the host's wife came into the yurt with yet another special treat: Homemade candy-like morsels called aruul. They looked delicious and saccharine, the perfect dessert. Just what the doctor had ordered to cleanse my mouth and mare-detox my pasty tongue. I plopped one in my mouth with gusto, but hard as I tried, I couldn't moisten the thing. The candy was hard, caulky and sour in a mouth-contorting kind of way. Aruul is curdled milk, dehydrated and thoroughly dried in the sun. Yet, it tasted familiar, like something that I was intimately acquainted with.
"You like?" Mooggie asked.
"It's very interesting," I said. "What is it?"
"Curd," he said. "Curdled mare's milk."
...and then, it all made sense.