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Over the years, I’ve found myself in some strange situations abroad. I’ve had my hand inside the mouth of a wild leopard in the African bush; fallen off a moving train outside Mumbai; and been chased by corrupt police in Myanmar.

I’ve even lava-surfed down a live volcano in Nicaragua and been shot at by drug dealers in downtown Denver. But I don’t think anything could have prepared me for the sheer terror of being challenged to down a full glass of fermented sour camel milk vodka by a wrinkly, octogenarian goat herder on the semi-arid wild steppes north of the Gobi Desert. 

I arrive in Mongolia after a whirlwind trip from Moscow on the TransMongolian Express train. Taking six days straight to cross the 7621km from Russia to China, I’d booked a second-class ticket (kupe) and found myself in a lower bunk sleeping couchette in a four-bed cabin. My fellow passengers were two Russian soldiers on leave, both of whom spoke little English, and a salesman from Novosibirsk, south-west Siberia. We began by communicating with hand signals, but within hours, they were sharing meat-and-potato pies and toasting to my good health with vodka. 

Drinking the crystal-clear alcohol may be synonymous with Russia, but the Russians have nothing on their southerly neighbours. The Mongols consume vast quantities of the beverage and even the production of Mongolian vodka is a more elaborate affair. Commonly, their milky-white coloured drink is filtered through a cloth and decanted into a large open leather sack, known as a khukhuur. Like its close cousin airag, made from sour mare’s milk, it is an ever-present national drink. Sharing a cracked teacup full of this potent spirit is a quintessential Mongolian experience: it is hard to stomach but impossible to forget. The taste is akin to month-old milk mixed with vomit and stomach acid.




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