The mining industry is driving Mongolia’s growth, but it often seems that the economy is actually sheep-based. Some 40 percent of the population is employed in raising livestock; mutton and sheep’s milk are staples at nearly every meal; and sheep outnumber people five to one. Sheep even provide the raw materials -- anklebones -- for some of Mongolia’s most popular games.
In autumn, some unlucky sheep, already fattened up for the approaching winter, are shepherded to Mongolia’s cities for purchase by either meat processing companies or individual buyers. Returning to Ulan Bator from a trip north, we stumbled on a roadside market just outside the city limits, where one family had just bought a sheep for 50,000 togrog, or about $35.
Their next stop, of course, was the makeshift slaughterhouse across the street -- that is, a sheet of cardboard on the ground -- where a professional would kill, skin, and wrap up the neatly sectioned sheep, organs included, for a fee of about $3.
That process was marked by a few distinctive Mongolian elements.
First, the slaughterer offered a brief Buddhist prayer asking forgiveness for killing the animal. Then he cut a small opening in the sheep's stomach, reached inside, and squeezed closed an artery in the sheep’s chest cavity until the sheep died, a process that took less than a minute and involved almost no struggle. The Mongolians claim the method is quicker and less painful than cutting the jugular, the practice common in Muslim countries.
Finally, the buyer poured the butcher a cup of vodka for a ritually purifying drink -- just one example of Mongolia’s appropriation of the cultural influences from its northern neighbor, Russia.
Watch a few moments of the sheep killing here -- if you’ve got a strong stomach.
-- Margot Buff