January, 2009. Darkhan, Mongolia. While working as a teacher trainer, I had plenty of English teachers I worked closely with. For Darkhan’s school 15 teachers though, it was more like a family. Khangai Bagsh would say a playful prayer to the portrait of Lenin hanging in the Foreign Language Teacher’s room as he locked the door and forced everyone in the vicinity to take their obligatory three sips of vodka. Tseree, a gym teacher and national wrestling Elephant (meaning he made it to the 6th round of single elimination Mongolian wrestling) would toss me around like a rag doll after school as he helped me prepare for Naadam. Pujee would press up against me like a squeaky mouse in the computer lab, hungry to gobble up any IT morsels of knowledge I might drop. One day Otgoo, one of my English teacher counterparts let me know about the ‘good news’ that it was time for me to get my weekly dose of Mongolian culture: prepare and gnaw on a sheep head.
After school on the day of ‘the heading’, we walked to the organ room in Darkhan’s black market. The meat room, with its dozens of carcasses of sheep and goat hanging from meat hooks, the horse and camel meat corner, the bloody floor, with the vomity stench of Mongolian’s ubiquitous dried cheese curd aruul is one thing. The organ room, a bit deeper into the market, is quite another.
The hundreds of discarded goat heads (Mongolians don’t eat goat head, it’s considered taboo) at the entrance of the organ room evoke a few of Chinggis’ less-wholesome pastimes. We take a deep breath, cover our mouths and procure the heads. We walk near Otgoo and her family’s apartment, unlock the massive Russian padlock of an empty storage locker, take some shelter form the wind-blown snow that’s starting to whip, and light up the blowtorch.
Otgoo, her husband and I take turns enveloping the head in blowtorch flames, scrapping the char off with a butcher knife and rubbing our freezing hands together as fast as we can to thaw them. Dusk approaches and the flame from the blowtorch casts our monstrous shadows on the wall. The howling wind knocks the metal door open and shut and the whole scene is eerie, yet beautifully organic.
Once hairless, we boil that bad boy for an hour and a half and then goto town. The tongue and cheek are tasty. The brain isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I never had the balls to pop a peeper. At the time I was fairly certain I would never miss Mongolia’s love affair with everything mutton. I’ve come to realize though that it has such close ties with its culture I do miss it. But my taste buds don’t.