MONGOLIA - It was the first day of school. A bright sun was shinning down on the entire student body that was waiting in the front of the school for the "First Day of School" celebration to begin.
I walked up the front steps, a little nervous. I'd been asked to give a short speech to all of the students and I'd decided to do part of it in Mongolian (the language of choice in Mongolia), and to say the least, my Mongolian was bad. I walked through the front door of the school to escape the sun and the inquisitive eyes of everyone in attendance (as a tall white man living in a small Asian town, inquisitive eyes -aka staring - is a common occurrence). Before I could get two steps in the door I was greeted by one of the younger teachers at my school named Adeya. He introduced himself and before I could get my name out he grabbed me by the arm and led me to a small room in the back of the school. As I walked through the door I was greeted by a little old Mongolian man standing next to two, 10-gallon barrels holding a ladle. At this point I had been living in Mongolia for three months and I was aware of what was probably in these barrels…airag. Airag is fermented horse milk. A liquid that looks like milk but tastes closer to lemonade. It has a tart taste and sometimes a slight fizzle, like pop, when in your mouth. I had had airag at this point in my journey, but every time I drank it the same image of a horse being milked popped up in my head (an image that ruined the taste every time). This time a question was running through my head, "How many horses do you have to milk to get 20 gallons of horse milk?" The man holding the ladle dipped me a glass and handed it to me (with his right hand, always give and receive with the right hand in Mongolia), and with a slightly bemused smile on his face watched as I downed the alcoholic milk. (I should mention here that the alcohol content of airag is very low and it is seen as more of a celebratory wine. This information is mandatory for the next part of the story.) After my 9 o'clock in the morning shot of airag, I was whisked back to the front of the school where students put on traditional Mongolian performances and I gave my speech, which proved to me how much work my Mongolian needed.
My school has around 400 students ranging from 1st through 9th grade (after they finish here they move to the state capital to finish the 10th through 12th grades). All 400 students stood in front of the school in their Sunday best - some in suits and ties, some in dresses, and some in school uniforms. The new first grade students stood in a row in front of everybody because they would be the first to enter the school for the year. After the performances were finished, the first grade students entered, but not before a giant bowl of airag was presented to them and each took a drink. Although this seemed a little out of place at the time, I later learned of airag's role in Mongolian society. So for all of you students who may be reading this, I do not condone drinking at school unless of course you're willing to milk a horse. Later in the day, to continue the celebration, the school held a mini Nadaam. Nadaam is a nation-wide celebration held in July to recognize the three manly sports of wrestling, horse racing and archery. Although archery was excluded from the days festivities (and rightfully so, I know I wouldn't trust a 14 year-old with a bow and arrow). The first competition was horse racing. The children rode their horses about eight miles out of town and once they reached their mark, turned around and raced for the finish. Now horse racing didn't seem that exciting to me since the ending is the only thing spectators get to see, but the director of the school took me out in a land cruiser and we raced along with the horses, and it was an thrilling experience. We drove just ahead of the horses with a Mongolian flag flying from our vehicle and I watched as the two lead jockeys fought for the front position. The lead horse was continuously cutting off the second-place horse and it finally pulled away at the finish line, which was crowded with parents and teachers. The second and final event of the day was Mongolian national wrestling which consists of two men locking arms and trying to pull each other to the ground. This took place outside behind the school where all of the students and teachers formed a circle which acted as the ring. It turned out to be a very civilized school-yard brawl. After the wrestling I was beat. The sun had been ruthlessly beating down on me for the better part of four hours and I was ready to retire back to my ger and relax with a book for the rest of the night.
I had forgotten one small detail though. There was still 20 gallons of airag to be drunk. So, to make a long story short, the teachers and I drank it.