Black lake is a salt water lake that is situated complete with sand and dunes in the middle of the mountains. On the lakeside stands a ger with two horses tethered to a pole, a solar panel balanced on a bleached skull and a large hawk watching from a nearby rock. We arrive after a swim, taste some of the best ‘Burzug’ (Mongolian doughnuts) we’ve had all trip, and begin watching three grown men and one teenager try to cook one animal.
The animal is a marmot- a large rodent, something like a groundhog, which lives in the Mongolian hillsides. The meat is considered a delicacy and Mongolians still hunt and eat it although it is a known carrier of the Bubonic plague, and there are a few cases of the disease each year. Hunting marmot is in a legal grey area, and our marmot was sneakily handed to us in the previous town, and quickly stowed in the back of the van. At the ger we unpack it for the first time to find that it has already been gutted.
Our Mongolian hosts deftly remove the remaining bones and meat, and cut it into small pieces. While they string a wire through the skin at its neck they heat rocks in a fire, and then proceed to re-stuff the skin with the meat and bones, hot rocks, and onion. As the rocks cook the marmot from the inside, the skin inflates like a balloon, steam irrupts from the neck-hole, and the carcass whistles like a teapot. They struggle to avoid burning themselves, and finally have filled the skin, which sits in a bowl, ready for the second part of cooking. This step is fun, and photogenic- the host pulls out a blow torch, and proceeds to burn off all of the fur remaining on the poor marmot’s body.
Once the marmot is completely cooked, charcoaled to a deep dark black, the liquid is drained and the meat is portioned out between the group, which, due to word spreading about our catch, has grown to a party of ten people. The rocks are rolled about in our palms to help circulation (I think), before we get the meat and then the tasty fatty skin from the legs. Unfortunately, the understanding that this is a delicacy is lost on both Luke and me, and we are content to let the others tuck in, while we throw our half-gnawed pieces to the dogs. It probably didn’t help that my piece was clearly a section of broken vertebrae.
While we eat, one of the Mongolian men begins to strike up conversation. He serves the three girls in our group the ‘nicest’ bits, and asks us about where we are from, what we do. Our translator giggles as she then tells us he’s asking for some ‘alone time’ and telling us about his attempts to find a wife. As he continues, she helps him translate a long list of virtues, his talents and his possessions. We attempt to offer him different members of our group (who seem terribly uninterested), and joke with him about the ring he wears, accusing him of abandoning his wife. As the night draws on I decide to finish my journal writing. He asks to write me a poem, and while I’m slightly concerned at the laughter of the rest of the group, I allow him to. All of the Mongolians crowd around him, reading over his shoulder and offering suggestions, discussing word choice (I presume). Although we ask for a translation when he’s finished, our guide argues that it is too difficult for her to translate, so I don’t actually know what this poem says. I do, however, know that in the last five lines he has given me his name and address- just in case I ever want to come back.