Mongolia – MBA in action?

I spent 17 out of my 21 evenings in Mongolia in a traditional Ger – a rounder version of a teepee, generally with enough room for 4-6 beds and a wood or cow-dung stove in the center. I rode horses, camels, did some trekking, rock climbing and even one unintended swim… Despite some extremely memorable experiences including killing and eating a sheep, exploring sand dunes in the IMG_0101Gobi desert and spending time practicing my horrible Mongolian with local families over Airag (fermented vodka) and yak cheese, something that will stick with me longest will be the group dynamics of our 5 person group that left UB (Ulaanbaatar) in a 40 year old Russian jeep on an intended 14-day  tour of the country. One member of our group ended up being exposed as psychologically unstable, with severe control and attention issues. She was also the only female in the group. Big lessoned learned for me! Before we left UB, I already sensed the anxiety steaming from this individual, as she was pushing her  agenda and timelines despite the remainder of the group being fairly relaxed and flexible. In the future…. trust your instinct! I underestimated how intimate it would be spending two weeks with strangers mostly in a jeep or a ger. In my rush ‘to take advantage of time’, I compromised and decided to travel with this group to meet my selfish goals of a cheap, long trip.

The trip commenced, and after two days of butting heads with this individual, I decided the only way I would survive the trip was to allow her a large space, co-existing and taking the path of least resistance. Interestingly, while I did IMG_0234this, her tension with two other members of our group increased. Her behavior bordered on unbelievable (one night storming out with no food or clothing and getting lost until we got a call from the police in the morning), to just annoying, i.e., in an effort to do what she needed she would disregard everyone else’s property, including our hosts. Our first two nights consisted of upsetting hosts by moving a Buddha statue to the floor and burning a nylon bag on the stove so the place smelled like plastic for 2 days. Despite these strange and inconsiderate behaviors, the biggest issue came from her worldview. She portrayed herself as a eastern thinking, enlightened individual with deep insight into things like meditation and other-worldly phenomena. However, what I finally deduced after a week was that any conversation she entered (almost all of them due to her attention issues), became an argument rather than a conversation. This was due to her use of words such as “actually, I know, NO, let me tell you”, which immediately ruined the air of decent discussion. And we had some great ones going around meditation, religion, global politics, etc. If someone challenged her, she would become upset and escape. The rest of us spent countless hours deducing her background and how this apparently confident 32 year old could really just be a frightened child running away from problems at home, but we’ll leave that to the psychologist which I really hope she seeks in the near future.

IMG_3126I was constantly digging into the archives of MBA training, looking for group conflict strategies to help right the situation. Ultimately other than some decent facilitating, the only solution was to remove the individual from the group, and we were all thankful for giving ourselves a 10-day option where people could leave the trip. She pleaded ‘to stay with the group’, promising to ‘work on the issues’, but ultimately 3 of us decided we were not on holiday to provide therapy, but to have an easy time and asked her to leave. One of the guys did leave with her, leaving 3 of us to finish the tour. That is a story in itself.

The final three days were brilliant. Stefan from Switzerland and Jules from England and I at first celebrated our freedom, but then very much enjoyed conversations about life and love after getting comfortable with each other. Recently I blogged about how difficult it is to find meaningful relationships while traveling – but this was the first time I can say I felt like I had a couple of like-minded male friends to help me explore large issues in my life, and vice-versa. It felt like group—therapy at first, after all the tension we needed to debrief, talking about male/female dynamics, group interactions and situations, but we quickly moved beyond the tragedy, enjoying a few days hiking around the countryside near beautiful White Lake in central Mongolia.

A felt pressure to leave Mongolia a little earlier than I would have liked – winter was coming in fast (-23c one evening and several snow storms), plus I was trying to get to Nepal to do some trekking before winter set in there. Always running from the snow! BUT, I would like to come back some day, explore northern Mongolia and the reindeer people, the Kazaks of western Mongolia and possible journey into the “stans” – Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan from there.

IMG_3353It is true what they about Mongolians – they are extrememly hospitable, lived a very simple lifestyle in one of the worlds harshest climates. It wasn’t so much about sightseeing here. In fact, I was quite saddened to learn about the history of Tibetan Buddhism here. Despite the first Dali Lama coming from Mongolia, today Buddhism is a shell of its former self, destroyed by the Stalinists in the 1930’s and 1940s. Countless times I’d read in the guidebook about a monastery yielding thousands of monks and hundreds of buildings, followed by a sentence that Stalin had the monks sent to Siberian death camps and the buildings burnt to the ground. Today, you will find a handful of monks and a few buildings built in the 1990s after the fallcliffs of communism. Hardly any semblance of Buddhist culture remains in day to day life.  The trip was more about getting off the tourist trail, watching day to day Mongolia life and having A LOT of time to think and reflect. The true benefit of my time here can’t really be measured, but I have made some rather large personal decisions that I feel VERY clear about and look forward to sharing with everyone in the near future.

Slaying the Sheep

I killed an animal today. I grabbed a sheep, held it to the ground, slit open its neck and watched it bleed to death. I helped skin it, gut it and chop it into pieces. Several hours later I ate it.

Yes – I have been a vegetarian for four years. I am still a vegetarian. But I’ve always said that I would consider relinquishing this stance if I had a much closer relationship to the animal I am about to eat – closer meaning I kill it myself. Mongolia felt like the perfect place to experiment with this – the Mongolian people essentially rely on their livestock for survival. In this climate, nothing grows but carrots and potatoes, the people must live on a hearty diet of meat and animal products like cheese and milk. I knew that killing the sheep here would mean that nothing would go to waste, that whatever my group didn’t eat, the family would consume. I also made sure the sheep that I killed would have been the next in line, not one selected for my own selfish experiment.

This thought stemmed from reading Omnivore’s Dilemma, as the author seeks to create one of his meals by hunting a wild pig. I decided that I’ve complicatedly killed many animals in my 25+ years of meat eating and have never done the actual killing besides a fish or two in the mountains. I think this is something all meat-eaters should consider – if not the act of killing, at least watching the killing and processing of an animal. We should all consider the complicate actions that we support every day through action or non-action.

Here’s how it went – after agreeing to buy a sheep from the family where I am staying for about $35, I spent an hour walking amongst the sheep, watching them graze and observing them closely. Did I sense any intelligence, a soul? P1010645Any human characteristic that could indicate a fear of death and an aversion to suffering? I wasn’t sure. I woke early, took a long hike up the sand dunes and thought about what I was going to to. By the time I walked back to the ger, the family had selected the sheep and had it tied to a pole. The rest of the herd was out in the pasture.

I told the family I was ready. A boy brought the sheep to me and handed me a knife. I was hoping to get a little more instruction, and when I asked I learned that I was supposed to cut the neck in just the right spot, about an inch deep. Easy enough, except I was handed a knife that could barely cut bread and left alone with the sheep. This is the embarrassing part. My first attempt I didn’t even break the skin. I think I’ve watched too many movies and thought an effortless stroke would quickly bring the sheep to a painless death. Wrong. I waited with the sheep I just attempted to kill for 15 minutes as the boy went to find a sharper knife. Despite just having a knife run along its throat in a clear effort to kill it, the sheep seemed calm, clueless as to the events unfolding around it.

A barely sharper knife arrived, the sheep was flipped on its back, and I held its head to the ground with one hand as I slit its neck with the other. Due to my lack of experience and dull knife, I need to cut about 4 times before I was completely through the major arteries in the neck. The sheep’s nerves were still in play and it was quite disturbing to watch the legs twitch as it bled to death. I was trying to be as aware as possible of what I was doing, the life I was taking. But I did sense myself wanting to back away from the sheep, to avoid the squirting blood and run away from the carcass. I stayed, getting more blood on myself during the cleaning process, realizing suddenly I was a 10 hour drive away from the nearest shower. Within 20 minutes, the sheep was skinned, gutted and chopped into manageable bits for cooking. Once the skin was off, it frankly resembled a large plucked chicken. Finally my work was done and the carcass was left with the family.

My driver took the initiative, preparing a truly traditional Mongolian barbeque, cooking the sheep on a bed of hot rocks. As 10 of us sat around in a circle, our driver brought a large bowl of cooked sheep and hot rocks. As a tradition, we juggled the greasy rocks in our fingers to clean our hands and for good luck. Then we dove into the bowl. I delicately ate a few pieces of meat, my first in four years, chewing delicately so I wouldn’t be sick later. An interesting thing was as you worked on your bone, you threw the remainder back into the communal bowl. Nothing goes to waste. The family would eventually ensure that every single gram of the lamb was eaten or used to feed the dogs.

We ate half of the sheep and threw the rest in the trunk of our jeep to eat the next evening. I plan to have one more meal from the sheep – and will post my thoughts as a vegetarian chomping on lamb chops. I’m also thinking a lot about the act of killing, what it meant to do it myself and the implications of this on a broader scale in our world. I’d like to hear some comments – who else has had a similar experience?