We were staying in a nomad camp in the middle of the steppe. There were about 10 bottles of vodka in the back of the van at at all times, and at each new camp we would produce two – one as a gift for our hosts (we also paid them money, of course, for the food and board), and one to share with them on the spot. Appreciation of vodka and mutual hospitality are deeply embedded into the culture of Mongolia, and it provided an easy way to bond with the generous families we met on our journey.
On this night, the wives and children had gone to the capital for a week, so it was just the local men in the camp, plus our backpacker crew. The men seemed glad of the novel company, and we all sipped our straight vodka out of bowls. However, our hosts had to excuse themselves relatively early.
“I’m sorry,” one of them said via our translator, “but we have to get up early to hunt wolves.”
We went to bed as well, and I woke up the next morning with the sun, slipping out of the ger for a dawn cigarette. One of the men was standing near our van, looking very chipper for the early hour, and also looking pretty pleased with himself. He saw me, smiled, and gestured for me to come over. And there it was – a dead wolf.
It lay unceremoniously on a matted carpet of thick straw grass, out in the open in the clear early morning light. Congealed blood had collected around its closed jaws, permanently frozen into a half-snarl. Besides this, though, it was in remarkably good shape for an animal that had just been hunted down. Its brown fur was elegant and clean. Its muscles were graceful, though obviously lax. It seemed too beautiful an animal to be thrown, drained of life, onto the steppe, reduced by death into becoming just one object of interest in the surrounding camp – the gers, the motorbike, the van and the recently extinguished wolf.
It probably goes without saying that I’d been exposed to a lot more death – and the general realities of human domination over animals – in Central Asia than I had in my sanitised life in Australia. I saw a herd of reindeers castrated: they were tied up at their ankles and forced onto the ground, staring upwards while a group of Mongolian boys held them down and busily flicked a knife around their insides. Bones, skulls and horns litter the streets of even the larger Mongolian towns, sometimes with bloodied clumps of skin and fur still attached.
In Hotien, I climbed out of the bus (which had become entangled in overhanging power lines) to the sight of a recently slaughtered sheep chopped up into easily transportable pieces in a motorcycle tray, its severed head staring almost comically at the unfolding scene. Meat here is found swinging in huge slabs that still clearly resemble the animals they once made up; you can buy live turtles in the seafood section of supermarkets and fresh intestines at roadside stalls.
I prefer this. It seems more decent to at least acknowledge the fact that so much of the way we live our lives is built upon the slaughter and use of animals; living things that think and feel and give birth. There’s no point getting squeamish about it, and it seems more honest to look the reality of the situation in the eye. I realise there is more exposure to the unpleasant parts of an animal product-based lifestyle here out of necessity, not as part of some noble intention, but a side effect of this is coming face to face with the blood and guts that is usually out of sight and out of mind. I think that’s a good thing. Watching the way animals are treated in the developing world can be confronting, but let’s be real – they are treated a lot better on the whole than those churned through factory farms in the West, hidden away where we don’t have to think about them.
The exquisitely beautiful sight of the hunted wolf left me feeling shaken and sad, but in a constructive way. Wolves here aren’t endangered; they are a threat to the herds, the families probably need the money (the carcasses are sold to buyers in China), and the nomads certainly know better than I do what is or isn’t good for their own natural environment. However, the sight of the blood bubbling out of the animal’s jaws is still an image that will haunt me for a long time yet.