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Saturday, May 8, 2021

Exploring Mongolia at Home

I know I'm behind on my last few staycations, but that means you're getting a double dose back-to-back. A few weeks ago we traveled to Mongolia, which has always been a destination on my travel list. I know it's weird pick, especially for someone who doesn't really love outdoorsy activities, but for me, the outdoor part of Mongolia is the whole point. 

A few weeks ago we traveled to Mongolia, which has always been on my travel list. Places like Mongolia aren't glamorous, but unique on their own.

I'll be following up with a wish list, but for now, let's talk about our first actual outdoor (like in the yard, not just the covered porch) staycation of 2021. I apologize in advance for the wavy backgrounds, as it was super windy when we decided to do this and there was no way to take a perfectly flat photo.

I went a bit crazy when I saw some new melamine serving ware at Target and bought most of it, including a great tablecloth that looked similar to one on my list for Mongolia. Since much of the country outside of the cities is very plain-like. I wanted to bring some of that, and included a bit basket of wildflowers as a centerpiece, but also included a camel (as those are pretty prevalent) and a cow skull to represent the large yaks and similar animals found there. 

I had two backgrounds customized, because Mongolia isn't a big sought-after destination for such things. The bad things about that is that they only come in a limited range of sizes (the biggest being 7'x5') and they take a long time to receive. The plus side, though, is that I can use any photo I upload. So, I chose an iconic photo of Mongolian falconers for one and then one with the traditional yurt and animals found where the country's nomads live.

Now, there is a distinct lack of Mongolian restaurants that aren't buffets like Changs Mongolian Grill or Asian hot pot places, and I wasn't going to spend all my time in the kitchen, so I looked at Asian restaurants that had items I was interested in eating and were close enough to authentic dishes, and also where I wouldn't have to go to multiple restaurants. I ended up, believe it or not, ordering and picking up from P.F. Changs and was pleasantly surprised by the price and the food.

Almost all Mongolian food is meat, cheese, bread and lard-based. It gets quite cold there and the added layer of fat is helpful to keep warm. Stew seems like that would fit in that mold, so I opted for a family meal which started with wonton soup, then got chicken fried rice and Mongolian beef (this also came with lettuce wraps, but we saved those for lunch the next day). Mongolia has their own thicker, spicier dumplings, but I couldn't find any anywhere, so I ordered shrimp dumplings with chili sauce.

For dessert, I actually made a traditional cheesecake-like dessert called pashka that is rooted in Russian and Polish culture. It's made with dried fruit, cottage cheese, cream cheese and honey. Since I sort of went off script by combining two recipes and not using a regular mold, I wasn't sure it was going to be edible (spoiler: it was and it was delicious!). As a backup, I ordered bao doughnuts as a dessert that is as close as possible to boortsog, dough fried in animal fat. 

The only drinks I could find that were strictly Mongolian were vodka-based and fermented horse milk, neither of which sounded all that appealing, so I decided that tea was a universal beverage. I steeped an Earl Grey, added ice, sugar and crushed blueberries, and we found it really refreshing with our meal.

I found a new favorite music genre while we were eating. I put on Tuvan throat singing, which is also known as khoomei and the Mongolian band The HU came up. Not only do they have awesome music videos, but the music is really upbeat and makes you want to dance. I'm in the process of finding other bands like them that I enjoy. 

We sat and ate and talked about what we thought was the most appealing parts of Mongolia were. We learned some interesting facts about the country and its people. We learned that the capital, Ulaanbaatar, is actually the most polluted capital city in the world, and most of the nomads are younger people under 30. I can see why this would be preferable to living where the air actually makes you sick to breathe. Also, there are more horses than people in Mongolia, so you're more likely to get to hang out with animals if you aren't living in the city, and I'm into that. 

Their takhi horse is the only wild horses still in existence. Thought to be extinct in the 60s, some captive takhis were carefully bred and reintroduced to the wild in the 90s. Though they were kept in captivity, they are the only horses that have never been domesticated. They look different than regular horses and are still on the endangered species list.

Maybe this staycation doesn't seem as exciting as some of my others, because it's not a normal or very desirable destination, but that doesn't make it less interesting and there's a lot you can learn and activities you can do with your family. Here are some of the things I used to bring Mongolia to life in our house:

I like learning about less well-known destinations, because it's like you're discovering something special. Not that places like Paris and Munich aren't special, but they are also popular and hard to have a super unique visit. Places like Mongolia aren't glamorous, but there's a different sort of charm to it and I can't wait to visit for real someday.

What's the weird, but wonderful, travel destination you have on your wish list?

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