After ten hours of driving on the treacherous Gobi terrain, we spotted the first nomadic family campsite. The solar panel and the TV dish outside the yurt held promises of hot showers and SNL reruns. Mooggie and Bata-so exchanged pleasantries with the host who invited us inside his yurt for a drink. And while I amused myself with thoughts of chilled Riesling and icy G&Ts, the head of household poured us bowls of fresh camel's milk. I’ve never been squeamish; trying new food has always been an important part of each travel adventure, so I took small precautionary sips of the milk, and guess what? It wasn’t bad. Not bad at all. It tasted like cultured milk, which I quite like.
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.
Right before the sun disappeared behind the Altay Mountains, we found a nomadic family with a spare yurt for two weary travelers. The family was on the last day of a five-day long wedding celebration, which meant that our host had been drinking for straight four days. He smelled of vodka, but walked straight and since I don’t speak Mongolian, it was hard to tell whether he was slurring his words.
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.
First came the khoorog. Following Mongolian tradition, our host shared his best snuff with his guests. He took out his snuff bottle and passed it around to each of the guests, holding it in his right hand and extending it out to Mooggie as if to shake hands, left hand holding up the right elbow. Mooggie received the bottle in the same manner, opened it, took a whiff of the snuff inside, admired its aroma, removed the cap with a tiny spoon attached, scooping out a small amount of snuff, sprinkled it on the side of his hand then snuffed it into the nose. He put the cap back on and passed to Bata-so who repeated the ritual. Then, Bata-so passed it to me and I replicated their actions all the way until the inhaling bit. No siree. Not me.
Then came the milk. No biggie, I thought. I tried that earlier today and I liked it. WRONG! This was not camel’s milk. This was a different type of milk, milk for special celebrations: mare’s milk. But again, I’m all for trying new foods. I held the rather large bowl in my hands and the moment I smelled horse, I had second thoughts. "Can I share it with my husband?" I asked Mooggie. His eyes nearly popped out of their sockets. No, of course not. This was Airag, the Mongolian national drink, a very special gift from the host to us, not to be shared. As his guests, we were expected to drink his Airag and give him the silver bowl back only when empty.
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.
The party went on. Mooggie and Bata-so sang heart-felt songs about Mongolia and just before the host sang, his son brought out the good stuff: Distilled Airag, a.k.a Mongolian vodka, the Magnum Grey Goose of the nomads. And because it was the good stuff, and because we were special guests, and because we were celebrating a wedding, we had to drink this distilled Airag in a special silver bowl. And by special I mean gigantic.
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.
"When does the party end?" I asked Moogie after the third round of songs. He gave me one of his mischievous smirks. "When we drunk. When we tipsy, tipsy, shaky, shaky, the host very happy."
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.
I was raised in a Catholic family but I started to disagree with Catholic tenets in Middle school when father Ignacio mentioned in Religion class something about "professional pardoners," people who the Catholic church used to send during the late Middle Ages to collect alms in exchange for salvation from eternal damnation (after confession and subsequent absolution, that is).
How about the poor? and what was the point of the confession/penance combo if people were expected to pay cash for indulgences (partial remissions of temporal punishment) for sins which had already been forgiven?
I was 13, indignant and confused.
During the same year, father Ignacio also explained that the conception of Jesus was a miracle which involved no human father, no sexual intercourse, no male seed in any form, and which was made possible by the Holy Spirit--a concept that contradicted my idea of Jesus as a regular man with an extraordinary heart. And as if that weren't enough, father Ignacio also explained that natural birth was considered so abhorrent that the Catholic Church had decreed the immaculate conception of Mary.
Natural birth abhorrent?
Many more discoveries and points of contention took place throughout high school and by the time I was accepted into undergraduate school, I was no longer a Catholic.
It would be fair to say that I have walked a bumpy spiritual path in the last thirty years; it became dangerously narrow at some intersections, had scary cliffs, long stretches of nothing but rolling pastures, gentle hills and dull plateaus, and periods of curiosity, accompanied by pangs of thirst and hunger for the many flavors of religion.
Yet, churches remain sacred places for me, corners of infinite peace, vast spaces inhabited by silence and sorrow and hope and tears, of which I can never get enough. Moscow has plenty of them (more than 300 hundred), which is pitiful compared to the over 1000 churches that existed before 1917 when the Bolsheviks came to power and the revolution's ideology of state atheism ordered the destruction of places of worship and/or their reconditioning for political purposes. The Russians had to wait more than seventy years to exercise their right to freedom of religion which came under Gorbachev's glasnots policy to abandon the persecution of religious groups. The result is the revival of Russian spirituality and religious fervor which can be seen in brand new as well as in recently renovated Churches, one more spectacular than the next.
The Cathedral of Christ the Savior is like no other Christian church I have ever visited. The Russian Orthodox who come here are hard core. They remove their shoes before entering the church, women cover their heads with scarves, they kiss the relics and light candles at every icon (there are dozens of them), the cathedral is awash with the murmured prayers and the tears of those who come looking for a miracle, an answer, for absolution.
King Alexander authorized its construction in the 1800s when Napoleon Bonaparte withdrew his troops from Russia.Its walls were initially inlaid with precious stones and displayed over 1,000 square meters of exotic marble. The dome, which was covered by a hefty coat of gold, made this the tallest Orthodox Cathedral in the world. Then in the 1920s Stalin decided to convert the cathedral into a monument to socialism he named The Palace of the Soviets (an unsightly complex of buttresses and futuristic architecture). When the communist party ran out of money, it was decided that the 20 tons of gold covering the dome could be put to some good use and the cathedral was dismantled. As it turned out, the marble was used in the construction of metro stations, the gold for political purposes, and the Palace of the Soviets was never finished. The cathedral was turned into the world's largest open air swimming pool. A swimming pool.
It was mercifully rebuilt in the 1990s and a foot bridge over Moscow River was added in 2004.
And outside it all, I saw a bride in stilettos running toward the Cathedral with two miniskirted bridesmaids. Where else could I see that?
They’re easy to spot.
Foreigners wear miniskirts, short loose-fitting dresses and tight jeans, all complemented with a pair of stilettos. Turkmen women are unchangeable: they wear the same long velvety dresses and the heavy headgear that they do in winter even when the temperature touches 120F.
They are seen everywhere and if there is a stiletto-strutting world championship, the Turkmen women would win it hands down, with their Russian counterparts as their biggest contenders. Stuck your stiletto in the wrong place and need a quick fix? No problem. There is no shortage of stiletto-repair shops in Ashgabat.
It’s too cold in the winter for peddling. But summer is a different story. I took this picture of these two beggars asking for money simultaneously; one is wheelchair-bound and the other is carrying a toddler in her arms. In a country where the government subsidizes the basics: gas,
electricity, staple food, health care, housing, and where salaries are kept more or less even across the population (a street cleaner earns almost as much as a bank clerk, a whopping average of US$250/month) who would beg? Why? My guess is: foreigners. They are the only ones not covered under Turkmenistan’s paternalistic umbrella of benefits. The other question, of course is: why women? Why did I not find a single man begging? I can only speculate that we tend to be softer and more generous when the receiving hand is that of a woman, especially if the woman is handicapped or the mother of a blue-eye, angelical looking baby.
Weddings. During the day the temperature is scorchingly high, but mornings and evenings are lovely, so lovely that walking back and forth between the two enormous flames illuminating the statue of the ex-president’s father and
that of his mother’s—a whole mile—you can spot couples sitting in the dark, hugging, kissing and almost invariably an old man sitting by himself on the next bench—most likely their chaperone. This park is also a picture point for brides and grooms like this newlywed we ran into. She looks her best in a complicated wedding gown of frills and beads and corset bones, a tiara of made-believe diamonds, white stilettos of course, lacey vest and flashy wheels. A Toyota Corolla all decked up waiting for her down on the street. The car is dressed with all the desert amulets and talismans the culture has to offer; ancient traditions rooted in the belief that a set of camels reins and Akhalteke stud
whips would protect the couple and bless the bride with a bountiful family.