This morning, for once, we’re not covered in grime and mosquito bites. We slept in a low-budget hotel. The bathroom lacked a light, but at least the shower water was hot.
For lunch, we head to the local bazaar. It’s a dust-covered quagmire. Signs are scarce, and wandering in circles is inevitable. This leads to serendipitous discoveries.
“It’s an outdoor pool hall!” Andrew says, motioning to a few dozen shaded pool tables. They’re covered in a fine patina of dust, but the players don’t mind: Most are wearing medical masks. We ask one guy about our best lunch option. He ushers us into a tiny joint outfitted with wooden tables, pink walls, and a picture of cartoon horses. Day laborers are devouring buuz (dumplings), tsuivan (fried noodles with mutton), and shuulte khool (soup with noodles and mutton), and that’s our order too.
The steamed, mutton-stuffed buuz are a departure from Uzbekistan’s dumplings. They’re more compact, like purses, and biting into them releases an ooze of oil.
“They’re like soup dumplings,” Mims says. This makes sense; after all, we’re moving in the direction of China.
The soup is thin, with oil circles floating on top. It contains tender potatoes, fatty mutton, and thin, chewy noodles. It’s decent, but nothing to dream about. Today’s winning dish is the noodly, greasy tsuivan. It’s interspersed with carrots, mutton, onions, and potatoes. The concoction’s pure starchy heaven, like a rustic lo mein. We splash in chile sauce.
“Noodles are the perfect food,” Mims says.
Even better? The eats cost us only $2.
That night we camp near a river. After we set up camp, we trundle a mile down the road to a restaurant.
“I can’t believe it!” Mims says as we enter the dim eatery, where beds serve as seating: A group of Koreans we met at the Mongolian border are sitting at the main table. We join them.
“Vodka!” says their leader, a man wearing an Adidas shirt.
A bottle of room-temperature Mongolian booze is delivered. We take turns drinking the gut-warming spirit from a blue cup. This increases our moods and appetites. Soup and buuz—the restaurant’s two dishes—are ordered with our waitress’s aid. The rosy-cheeked owners’ daughter is 15 and speaks semifluent English.
“Tea, too?” she asks.
It sounds divine, and soon we are slurping bowls of sour, salty, milky tea—delicious, actually. I drink two servings in rapid succession. In the kitchen, with its ceiling covered in Cheez-It boxes, our waitress’s mom whips up our victuals. The soup is immensely satisfying: Crowded with homemade noodles, carrots, pickles, and an unidentifiable meat, it’s a perfect restorative following a long day’s trek.
Before we leave, the owner and his friends come inside. They’re excited to see us, and express this by challenging us to arm-wrestle. Mims loses to a guy smoking a cigarette. Through a series of elaborate pantomimes, we determine that he’s a hunter for the restaurant. What he kills, the restaurant serves. He grabs my arm and brings us next door. He retreats to the backyard, then returns shouting. “Ahhhh!” he says, shaking what appears to be a groundhog or a marmot at our heads. Was that the meat we ate for dinner? The language barrier is a blessing.