Scent of the Steppes
written by Isabelle de Braux
The first outstanding scent I encountered came with a breeze through the opened windows of my car. A strong herbal aroma, yet delicate, it smelt like I was deep in nature. “It’s wormwood,” my friend answered, “it’s what people use to make vermouth and absinthe”. I got off the car and walked into the fields to get a lungful of all that wormwood around me. This particular scent, a fragrant blend of pine, sage and mint, guided our journey as we explored Mongolia on horseback and foot.
Walks from the dining ger to our own ones feel a lot longer at night when it is dark and cold, but it was always comforting to know that a toasty place to retire to was waiting for us. The camp’s staff would never fail to welcome us back to our gers with warm wood-burning fires. The smell alone was enough to lull me into sleep, as it lingered like a watchful guardian before vanishing slowly as the fire burned out.
A traditional Mongolian dinner was prepared to bid us farewell. “Wear clothes you don’t care about”, they warned, “because the smell will linger long into the morning and beyond”. The pungent smell hit us like a slap in the face as we got close to the dining ger—not as gentle and comforting as burning wood, nor as fresh and fragrant as wormwood—it was the smell of a boodog, a whole goat being grilled on an open fire and getting cooked in its own skin. As a pungent mix of spice, meat and ash, the meal was in theory, delicious, but in practice, needed some getting used to.
But this is why we travel in the first place, for the experience and the memories—to get whiffs of nature growing beneath your feet, for the familiar comfort of a roasting fire, and even the unfamiliar within culinary traditions of a long enduring culture. I travel so I can take these scents home with me.