Last February, I spent a day with some herders just 2 hours outside of Ulaanbaatar. I was accompanying a friend of mine and her aunt as they went to buy two fresh sheep for the upcoming Tsagaan Sar celebration.
We arrived at the first family’s ger (home) around 10:00 am. They served us milk tea and some freshly made buuz. Then the husband and wife and their young son hopped in my friend’s small Toyota and we headed off to another herder family’s home about 10 km away. We were lucky to be on a paved road for about half of the way, but relied on the little hatchback to do her best as we off-roaded it over the snowy terrain to the second ger.
Amgalan's son runs to Amgalan and Batbayar as they examine a sheep
Upon arrival, we were again greeted and served milk tea, a standard sign of Mongolian hospitality. With the horses gone off to get water, we had to drive the Toyota through the snow to where the sheep were grazing – another several kilometers away.
I’ve never seen the herding process before, and I didn’t really know what to expect. Perhaps it might be different if the men were on horseback, but I was surprised at just how time intensive and exhausting it was to round up so many sheep. I was also surprised to see the method of catching the sheep: basically spotting the one you want, running into the herd, and tackling it. It’s quite entertaining to observe.
Over the course of the next hour, the two herders caught four or five sheep. They would compare their legs and tails to judge which one would be the best for eating at such a high holiday. They were very concerned with finding the two best sheep, which, to be honest, all looked the same to me.
After they chose the two winners, they tied them up, and lobbed them into the trunk of my friend’s hatchback, and we returned to the ger.
Watch a Video of the Herding Process:
The next 4 hours were spent killing, skinning, and cleaning the sheep – not for the faint of heart.
Batbayar skins one of the sheep
The traditional Mongolian method for killing sheep might be surprising. They cut the sheep’s belly lengthwise, stick their hand into the chest cavity and stop the heart by pinching the aorta. It takes no more than 5 minutes and the sheep don’t make a sound.
A woman sorts through the organs of a sheep as she cleans them
After, the two herders each skinned one sheep – ripping the skin from the fat and muscle. The pair made the skinning process look rather easy – using the fat to grease their hands and separating the skin from the muscle. The young boy climbed all over his father as he was exerting himself, but he didn’t seem to mind much. After about 15 minutes, the sheep were fully skinned. They would sell the pelts and feet later.
Once the sheep were skinned, the women took over. They spent the next several hours methodically cleaning the innards inside the ger. Each wife was in charge of one sheep’s o
rgans. First they cleaned the small and large intestines, squeezing out feces and running water through them until they were clear. Then they mixed blood with onion and garlic, which they poured into the intestines. This would later be cooked to make a tasty sausage-like treat.
After all the organs and intestines were properly cleaned, they stuffed them into the sheep’s stomach. They stretchy tissue served as an extremely efficient sack.
Coming from the United States, where the commercial slaughtering process is less than ideal, it was refreshing to observe how intimate the herders are with their livestock. Not part of the animal was wasted – nothing is taken for granted.
Batbayar tells me about his life as a herder in Central Mongolia
After all was said and done, I sat down with Batbayar, the older and more experienced of the two herders. He was extremely proud of his profession, saying that there was nothing difficult about it at all. ‘With the fresh air in the countryside, herding is a really nice lifestyle,’ he told me.
Batbayar comes from a long line of herders out west in Zavkhan Province. He moved to this region just outside of Ulaanbaatar with his family and 400 goats and sheep just 5 years ago.
Batbayar told me that his family was quite busy recently, selling and preparing sheep for out-of-town customers almost everyday ahead of Tsagaan Sar.
He said his daily life is simple: wake up, take the herds out to pasture, look after them as they graze, and bring them home in the evening. There are additional chores like tending to the cows and cleaning out the pens. But, for the most part it’s the same everyday. “We never change our work, we just have one job,” he explained.
Mongolian children often learn to ride horses when they are as young as 3 or 4 years old
The two herders spent over an hour picking, catching and scrutinizing the sheep
Zaya holds down a sheep while the herders search for a second one
Batbayar examines one of his sheep
Amgalan leaves the ger to slaughter the sheep
Amgalan kills a sheep the traditional Mongolian way - by pinching the aorta
Amgalan's son climbs on him as he skins a sheep
The herders will sell the ankle bones of the sheep for pieces in a popular game similar to jacks or dice.
After the sheep are skinned, the women clean the innards inside the ger
Woman clean sheep intestines together
Blood is mixed with onion and later boiled inside the intestine
Zaya pours blood mixed with onion into an intestine
Women sit near the door to their ger cleaning sheep innards
Once all of the intestines have been cleaned, they are stuffed into the stomach, which also operates as a sack
Three days later the cooked sheep was featured on a table along with other food for Tsagaan Sar