culture, customs, hospitality, meat, Mongolia, nomads, traditions, vegetarianism
I’ve been a vegetarian since 2009 and have rarely felt any need to eat meat since then. My reasons for choosing a meatless diet were many and varied, ranging from a waning interest in the taste of meat in general to the environmental and health concerns of raising and eating animals from huge, industrial farms. (Truth be told, my aversion started even earlier – after I read Alive, the book about airplane crash victims in the Andes who ate human flesh to survive. But I digress, unappealingly.)
I have not been a zealot about my stance, however, and many people outside of my family and closest friends are not aware I’m a vegetarian, even when I share meals with them. I’m reluctant to ask dinner hosts for special foods and have always quietly found plenty of things to fill my plate in almost every setting. When I’ve traveled, I’ve sustained myself perfectly well, even on arduous treks in locales where meat is prized, like Nepal, where I hiked for weeks in the high Himalayas, fueled mainly by carbs and eggs (and the occasional protein bar!).
So why am I even considering eating meat in Mongolia next month? For one, the traditional Mongolian nomadic diet is highly meat- and dairy-centric, with vegetables and fruits very hard to come by in the grasslands that cover much of the country I’ll be crossing. They are not easy to grow in the strong winds and harsh climates (both summer and winter) out on the steppe, and the nomadic population is on the move from season to season and could not tend them anyway.
Animals, on the other hand, move along with nomadic families and provide a consistent source of meat and dairy products to their owners. I’ve read that I can’t even count on eggs here, as I have in other meat-oriented cultures; Mongolian herders do not keep chickens because they are considered dirty (not to mention difficult to herd!). Beyond logistics, Mongolians also believe that meat is critical for the spirit as well as the body; in fact, they are often disdainful of vegetables, considering them food fit only for animals.
This disapprobation would not be enough to persuade me, but one other factor might: the strong sense of hospitality that Mongolians dearly value. In the nomadic grasslands, travelers are always welcome in any ger, the round tents that herdsmen and their families live in. The custom is to walk into any tent, even a stranger’s, and there are many greeting rituals that include vodka, snuff boxes, tea, and food. Much of my upcoming trip will be spent in the grasslands, staying in ger camps and meeting the local people. I’ve been told to bring along some small gifts, and I know from previous travels that refusing what is offered to me may be considered rude or offensive.
Will I need to eat a few bites of meat to be polite? Will I find enough to eat during my days on the steppe without resorting to meat? I don’t think I have a philosophical problem with it; many of my objections to meat are moot in Mongolia, where animals are treasured and raised responsibly. The bigger question is whether it will be at all appealing, or even bearable, to eat some of the animal products I may be served?
Have you ever had to, wanted to, or refused to put aside your preferences or beliefs when traveling?