PART VII: MONGOLIA
The art of satisfying Gods…
. . . or listening in to the silence
2006. It is the right year to arrive in Mongolia. 800 years ago, in 1206, the great Dzhingis Khan founded the state of Mongolia, and soon the fellows from the steppes had gathered the largest empire the world had ever seen.
Eventually it fell into decline because: Although the Mongols were good at conquering – they could shoot from their horses, sleep as they rode, they had no provisions that the enemy could destroy (they fed on bread and horseblood, if they were exhausted) – they were poor administrators. The Mongols who were nomads, had no skills of social organizing. Usually they managed best in the places were the locals were governing for them.
The Mongols caused so much damage in certain places were they came, that some countries never really recovered, and fell into centuries of regression. They were however catalysts for other cultures, like after they killed the ruler of Baghdad (they rolled him in a carpet and let horses trod on him. This way no blood was spilled. Mongolian tradition), the Mameluks took over, and the culture bloomed like ever before. In the wake of their plundering and victories through Asia, they also opened up for the long trading routes, and thus modern inventions from Asia (maybe most of all form the very well developed China), reached Europe, which raised the level of civilization. During the Pax Mongolica (13th and 14th cent.) the commerce and communication between east and west reached new heights.
It is a typical misconception to think that Khan & friends were nothing but a devilish, murderous, blood-drinking lot. I mean, okay – it is not good humor to boil someone alive in a black iron cauldron. Neither is it a typical friendly gesture to pour liquid silver down the throat and in the eyes and ears of a living human being. Even if he is a Persian governor. Even if he happened to have a Mongolian messenger killed. But in fact, the Golden Horde often preferred negotiations and peace to killings and slaughtering.
You just don’t question the grandeur of Dzhengis Khan with Mongolians. They are terribly proud of him, and it reflects in naming of streets, dogs, hotels, vodka, sons, beer and anything else that can have a name.
But grand men are still alive. I was lucky to spot one of them on the way to my hostel right after the arrival. To the tunes of the Mongolian Version of “Hotel California” (which was also one out of two songs we had during the whole trip to Mt. Everest base camp last year. The other one was half of an Ace of Base-hit. After a week with these two songs only, it made me wonder whether Satan is a DJ when business is quiet), I saw Monsieur Dalai Lama! The local guys in the front seat did not react at all. They just thought it was annoying that the traffic had been temporarily clogged up.
Later, the woman from my compartment, Bulej, told me that Dalai Lama pops in every second year or so, and since people are not very serious about religion (thanks to the Russians who gave the monasteries the same treatment like churches in Russia: total destruction), monks and lamas are the only ones getting euphoric.
When Dalai Lama comes to town the Chinese frown upon the Mongolians, and they close their borders. Not that they have a sweet relation anyway (and it got worse last year when a Chinese doctor cut a 9 year old Mongolian girl open and stole her inner organs – in open daylight on a market). But it certainly does not help.
Shops are all filled with Korean and Russian goods only. Already in Korea I noticed the tight relations between the countries. In the south, on Jeju-island, there is a dialect in which a lot of the words and phrases of Mongolian origin is preserved. Many people there, seemed to be proud of the common Mongolian genealogy. There is a huge Mongolian community of workers in Korea too.
So despite the fact that China is next door, there are hardly any Chinese products to find. You see no Chinese people in the streets, and even Russians keep away, even though Ulanbaatar is constructed by them, and it looks like any Siberian industrial town.
The traffic is one big jam, and the architecture is a far cry from being unforgettable. Ulanbataar will never be the new Byzantine.
There are many tourists, but most of them are adventurous Europeans going to and from Siberia, or Israelis saving their pennies.
Travelling with assholes
If you want to go anywhere in Mongolia, you can either go by horse or camel, or by Russian van. There is a third option: some sort of public transport. But it is only for the most dedicated masochists.
I found five people to share a car with, and a great, great driver. We did a big loop, going from the heart of Mongolia, up to the north, and back to UB again. The van was very comfortable. But the chemistry of people was a disaster. Two of the guys in the car were treating the rest of us like slaves, telling us what to eat, when to eat, how to eat, when to wake up (very early), when to sleep (very early), when to ride horses (very early), when to stop (hardly ever. One day we drove seven hours with no toilet or lunch breaks. And only after I started to cry (it was very humiliating), we were granted a tiny rest). They even commanded us out of the tent to watch the full-moon (“The moon is full, and those who wish to have a look, should go out now!”).
Further; they were eating our food, pissing at the backside of our ger, walking on our clothes and blankets with dirty shoes, plus – they were the stingiest people I have ever met. I swear; every second time they spoke, it was about money. And they always complained. They haggled with every single Mongolian, acting incredibly suspiciously and aggressively. Camping was for free, they just had to pay less than 1 – one – dollar for the camping-ground (because 2,5 dollars for sleeping inside, incl. two hot meals, tea and fire was too much for them). But they even made a fuss about that. I was so embarrassed.
But looking back, the good impressions are overshadowing their behavior. In a way, the friendly and helpful Mongolians, also kind of balanced the situation. Everywhere we came, we were met with unlimited hospitality, openness and accept.
We visited the old capital, Khar Khorin (Kara Korum), and spend a few days at the White Lake (Tsaagan Nuur), as well as in the north by Khopsgol lake. During the daytime we were riding horses or trekking, meeting locals or just sitting in the ger, enjoying the heat from the stoves. Mongolia is suffering from serious deforestation. No wonder when you see how much wood the people use there. And no wonder they do exactly that, as it gets down to minus 50. At some point it was minus 10 during our trip. I felt miserable. The Mongolians thought I was weird and funny.
The Przewalski wonder of the world
One of the factors contributing to Dshengis Khans success, was the tiny, but incredibly strong horse: The Przewalski horse. Mongolia has just as many horses as cattle. People keep them along with sheep, goats, cows, yaks and camels. They use them as means of transportation as well as a source of food and milk. The mares milk, is very tasty and popular, because the level of polysaturated fat is very high, it is also considered healthier than cow milk.
At one point, the wild horses were almost extinct, but thanks to a national project, the steppes are roamed by these beauties again.
Because there were some generations who lost the knowledge of herding (much due to urbanization, and communism), the newer generation have to learn it all over again. This – in combination with some harsh winters, lead to some disasters, first in 1999-2000, then later on in 2001-2002: Zud – a word that means any disaster that prevents the livestock from getting enough food. The number of animals fell from 33 millions to 24 millions.
So it’s an interesting fact that Mongolians have more space – and horses per capita than any other people in world – but all these animals need food. And it does not matter how much space you have if it is all frozen. As much as Mongolia is a real beauty, there is no point in pretending that life is easy here. They suffer from bad economy, bad health, a lot of children do not go to school, and spreading of the desert along with deforestation and overgrazing is a serious threat to future generations.
Mmmm – a nice cuppa tea…
Following the life in a ger, means you have the possibility to try more dairy products than you could possibly imagine existed on Planet Earth. Some of them are very tasty, like the unsalted fresh cream, almost thick as butter. Others are less tasty. Like the semi-dried cheese, which resembles the parts we tend to cut off and throw in the dustbin here. And some is not tasty at all. Dried milks curd (aarul) which looks like stone, is hard as stone and tastes – like stone, is maybe the reason why the children in the countryside are well known for having very hard and very white teeth. I don’t know if I would give my children stones for a snack, but maybe it is probably far better than chocolate and Coca-cola anyway.
The second thing you have to be prepared for, is mutton. At all times of the day. If you think that old Earl Grey is a little bit uninspiring, you can even have pieces of dried muttonfat in your buttertea. Oh yes! By the way the buttertea is lighter than the Tibetan version, for those who worry about their BMI.
This curly devil is omnipotent in Mongolia: they roam the steppes, they peep into your ger as you sit and contemplate, the meat is hanging from the roof to dry. Thanks to the sheep, Mongolians survive. Thanks to the sheep, foreigners nearly die.
Actually I shouldn’t be joking about this. I read that up to 48 percent of the children in UB suffer from Barlow’s disease, because of lack of vitamin c.
In Mongolia people may not be devoted Buddhists. But they sure have a lot of rituals connected to shamanism and animism. The belief in the presence of divine powers in every creation can lead to a respect for nature, environment and animals, that quite a few of so-called more developed religions and ideological systems could learn quite a few things from.
The opening of the Ger is always pointing to the south, and the water is regarded as holy. In fact it was regarded holy to the extent that taking a bath, or washing yourself with water, was punished with death in earlier times. Although we had the pleasure of having only one shower during two weeks, (and a swim in two polar-lakes), we felt quite clean. I am not sure how the locals solve the problem of hygiene during the harsh wintertime.
Another ritual I really liked, was the offering a little bit of food or liquids when you drink. If you have, let’s say, a glass of vodka. You first dip your right ring-finger into the glass (the left hand is regarded as dirty), then you flick it into the air four times – to honor the sky Gods and the four directions. Finally you stroke your forehead (possibly in the reverse order, I experienced both versions).
Once we (a French psychologist and me) had some drinks with some locals along the river that runs in the southern part of UB. The turn came to my French frère. The Mongolians eagerly showed him what to do. However, due to unarticulated body language, there was a slight misunderstanding, so the French guy simply put the whole of his finger down the glass, and then stuck it in his own mouth.
Drink-driving on one-horse power vehicle
Some of my favorite drink was maybe airagh – the fermented mares’ milk. Not to be confused with arkh – which is just regular vodka – which has its’ own charm.
One fine day I found some men having a little vodka-break in the grass, near the shiny White Lake (Tsaagan Nuur), and I felt quite interested in sharing some time with them in the sun. And some firewater. Racing home afterwards, feeling very euphoric, with two bags to hold, a huge camera and two jackets – on a Przewalski horse, made a long-lasting impression on me.
Hardcore drinking is another part of the Russian legacy. The famous/ infamous Asian anti-alco gene does NOT apply to Mongolians. As it does not apply to Chinese. Or Koreans. Or Japanese. I suspect many Mongolians to be able outdrink any English football supporter, or Russian, Polish or Scandinavian student on a Friday evening.
The backside of the medal is of course not so funny. I saw people who had just simply crashed in the middle of the street in the middle of the day, sleeping in playing-dead-positions.
Luckily young people follow the trend in Russia where vodka is out and beer is chic. Yet the Mongolians knew how to enjoy wine before the Russians. When they first came to Persia, it is said that they very much favored the sweet, red Persian wine.
But I shall be fair. For those into real food-orgies; do not despair. Ulanbataar can offer the finest cuisines, all from Italian to Czech, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Ukrainian and so on. You will not starve in Mongolia! And a restaurant may also be the place to start the expedition out into the diverse and fancy UB clubscene!
Poverty makes people . . . noble?!
Life on the countryside is a true contrast to the lively bars and the fashionable girls in UB. Rural life is no pink dream. The second girl, a sociologist, in our van managed to say: “Simple people (she meant Mongolians living in gers) are happy people, because they do not have the need or ability to be philosophical, or think about problems, like us.” The statement provoked me a lot. It is so colonial. So patronizing.
What is this idea about people having some mystical, positive qualities, because they are poor people? Does poverty make people noble? Is that it? In my opinion this is to underestimate people. We got into a quite bad discussion, but finally I realized there was no point, as she stood up for circumcision of women, claiming it is a good, healthy and interesting tradition that we should not criticize. She made me sick. How is it possible to defend a tradition that means molestation of someone, as a part of a gender-related suppression- mechanism? To me that is a little too understanding. She just thought that every national tradition and habit had no negative sides, and should remain the same forever, just because it was a national tradition and habit. But the most annoying was the way she just expressed that people living in gers is a homogenous group, with no horizon beyond that.
Let me tell a story. Once out on the countryside, I was talking with one of the farmers, a young man with dirty hands and a serious face. He had been working in Japan. Who could have guessed? He had a Master in Japanese, and he spoke English with ease, and with almost no accent. He was autodidact. For three years he had been running around doing his 16 hours per day computer-engineering work in Tokyo. As he pulled off his cowboy-hat, he said he had had some fun time in Tokyo. But after all: home was home, and he was happy helping his brother and his family building their ger-camps.
30 dollars a month . . .
Of course, the picture is not black and white. I am quite sure the closeness to the elements and the nature can add certain dimensions to life, that any stockbroker or real estate agent who is working 16-12-365 will never experience.
But people I met and spoke with, were not all happy. In fact, very many people have left Mongolia. The population within the country is roughly 2.5 millions. 870.000 are living in Ulanbaatar. The waves of emigration are huge. I heard that a few millions have left already, but I can not find the exact number. However, there is no doubt that people are eager to leave, in search for jobs. Average wage for a skilled worker, is around 100-150 dollars per month. For unskilled workers, it can be as low as 30 dollars. The small elite is rich, and to a certain extent corrupted. When you add up unemployment, poor public health care, homeless children living in the sewage pipes and so on… who can blame those who left?
But in 1990, when the country turned into a democracy, others chose to migrate internally: they left the towns and cooperatives and went back to herding again. Not without risk, as already mentioned above. A lot of the traditional knowledge had simply faded and only slowly did some of them readapt to the nomadic way of life
May I offer you a Mongolian orgy?”
Generally, I can say that Mongolian men are very shy. In fact the shyest men I have ever met. Although they are very macho, proud of their riding-upside-down-while-drunk-and-the-horse-propels-off-in-full-gallopp-skills, and the traditional wrestling (Mongolians have also the two best sumo-wrestlers in the world), and a few other very masculine show off talents, they giggle, blush or start to stotter if you approach them with a simple: “Hi there!”
But. There are exceptions. In the city of UB, things seem to be slightly different.
For those of you who dream of the ultimate ethnic-sexual experience, Mongolia is the correct place to be. Casual sex is very prevalent in Ulan Bator. And so are STDs as well. Although less than 500 people (due to CIA’s facts page on Mongolia) are registered as AIDS-victims, syphilis and other nasty diseases are widespread. But many people do not seem to care. And many people do not also seem to mind the wedding-ring (which most often happened to be in the jeans-pocket of the guys I met).
So one afternoon I found myself on a private ger-ground with three guys: the national champion of Judo, a Mongolian movie-star, and the couch of the national basketball-team. I had run into the Judo-guy a little earlier as I was waving down a black taxi.
They invited me to the countryside, and of course we stuffed the whole backseat with drinks and food. On the way there, they admitted that they all had wives and kids back home.
The trip was lovely. We sat close to a river, the movie-star played the guitar, the coach told anecdotes in broken Russian, and the judo-champion tried to follow the conversation. We all tried to hide the movie-star, as his sister in law suddenly appeared in another merry company. As the sun sank lower on the sky, and the bottles got emptier, the songs got louder. Finally one guy, the actor said: – Ah, I would really like to stay overnight here.
I said: – Well, so would I, but unfortunately I have some plans for tomorrow morning. He: – Oh, what a pity, because . . . otherwise we could have an orgy here.
Hm. I told him that orgies aren’t really my thing. In fact I haven’t even been to one. And I don’t think Mongolia will be my first experience. Later on, we just packed up our stuff and they took me back to the city, like regular gentlemen. What can I say? Peculiar!
The warped version of Arabic
Towards the end of my stay, I met up with Bulej again, the girl, with whom I shared the compartment from Beijing. She and her friend Oyunaa, took me for a great lunch, giving me some of the best moments on my whole trip. It was like meeting real old friends. The lunch turned into a dinner, and then to a pub-visit in the Dzhengis-brewery.
They tried teaching me how to make words sound correctly. Impossible. Mongolian is very guttural. Some sounds are impossible to produce unless you practiced for a while. You simply haven’t got the right physical qualifications. I strongly suspect Mongolian to be like that.
They use the Cyrillic alphabet, but they also have their own traditional one. It looks like Arabic turned 45 degrees. It is borrowed from Uyghur, who took it from – well – Arameic, hence the similarities. I suppose.
Anyway, I have forgotten to mention the kamikaze-drivers in Mongolia. They are the most scary and creatures in Asia. They all seem to aim to kill you if you try to cross the streets. They never, ever slow down. So, Bulej told me this joke:
There is a young man in UB, taking his elders for a ride in his new car. The father is in the front seat, his mother in the back. Already after a few minutes, she panics, and begs him to stop the car. She has had enough, and wants to get out. The son says: “Mum, calm down, no need to panic, God is with us!” As soon as she is out, the wild ride continues. Soon the father says to the young hero: “Please, will you slow down, or I else I would like to leave the car as well.” The son replies:” Dad, why worry? Sit back and relax, God is with us!” But a few hundreds meters down the road, the father taps his son’s shoulder again, and he says meekly: “ Son, also God wants to get out!”
Finally I cancelled my flight from Beijing. I don’t like flying anyway. Sleeping to Moscow seemed great. Cheap too, in comparison, only 100 dollars in a second class sleeping wagon!
I had no desires to go home. Personally I felt very home in Mongolian, with Asian-looking people, but in many ways, having a more European/ Russian behavior than Asian.
In this landlocked, wide and monotonous country, I also found one of the quietest places on earth, the same silence that exists only in between the dunes of Sahara – the kind of silence that speaks to you about eternity.
Do you know what silence is? Absolute silence?
Try to sit down and listen out into the air. I promise you; there will always be some sort of sound.
Mongolia made me realize how truly sick I am of the stress back home with papers and documents and the burden of everyday life, the thousands of things and objects pinning you down. It put a lot of things in perspective: reminding me about the importance of focusing, and being in balance. Mongolia definitely changed me.
Mongolia is not for everyone. To be honest: I have had better food (by far!), I have enjoyed better weather and more complex and challenging landscapes elsewhere. And yet – no other countries have left such a deep impression on me.
For the time being, there are 82 registered foreigners living in Mongolia. I truly, truly would not mind being number 83!