The title of this post, "Yamar uujuu youm be, Mongolyn tal nutag", is taken from a Mongolian folk song extolling the parallel virtues of the Mongolian countryside and the Mongolian people. The line roughly translates to "How spacious is the Mongolian homeland", but could also be translated as "How peaceful is the Mongolian homeland". Whether considering the wide rolling steppe, the endless sky, or the slow glittering rivers that cut through the countryside, this sentiment rings true.
The following images are in rough chronological order from last summer's time in the field.
|Mountains outside of Orkhon, Bulgan|
Orkhon soum (analogous to county) of Bulgan province is split by the river of the same name, one of the country's longest and widest rivers.
|Khunnui River, Arkhangai|
|Herds of sheep, goat, horses, and cattle in the Khunnui Valley, Arkhangai|
|Khunnui Valley with a view of Gol Mod 1 site (major Xiongnu/Khunnu elite cemetery site). Can you spot the khirigsuur in this photo? [Hint: look for geometric shapes in the distribution of rocks]|
|Stack of rocks in Suujiin Valley, Bulgan|
|Sunset north of Khungun Khan/Ikh Khan Uul monastery, Bulgan|
At the southern end of Suujiin Valley is the Khungun Tarna Protected Area, where mountain goats (yangir), big-horned sheep (argal'), and numerous raptors dwell amongst the cliffs and scrub vegetation of a towering red-rock mountain range. Khungun Tarna is notable for ecological and cultural significance, as it is the site of numerous sacred places and archaeological features.
|Khungun Tarna ovoo site, Bulgan|
I have been told that, while the offering may be to forces and beings on a spiritual plane, they are also tangible offerings to the animals. Furthermore, I have heard that when small animals and birds come to consume offerings left at an ovoo, it is considered both good luck and part of the sanctification of the site.
At Khungun Tarna, there were numerous small ground squirrels (zurum) playing their part at the ovoo.
Last but not least, there were a number of horse skulls gathered together at the eastern aspect of the ovoo site. On a number of occasions I have been told that these are the skulls of prized, beloved, or otherwise highly valued horses. Their owners or human companions collect the skull after the horse dies - these are not evidence of sacrifice, in my experience - and bring it reverently to an ovoo.
|Ruins of original Khungun Khan/Ikh Khan Uul monastery, Bulgan. These buildings were destroyed by Socialist forces during the 1937 purges.|
Despite all of my time in Mongolia, I have only heard a few Mongolians closest to me open up even a little bit about their family's experiences during the purges. My perception is that this dark chapter of 20th century history was successfully suppressed for decades and that those who remember mostly remembered that keeping quiet was the best defense against future purges.
I also sense that many people here are deeply uncomfortable about the subject of the purges. This could be for a number of reasons, many of which are not mutually-exclusive. For example, accordingly to what I have heard, certain ethnic groups in Mongolia were hit more severely than others during the purges. In such accounts, the Buryat people of northeastern Mongolia and people of the southeast (especially in Dariganga) were specifically targeted because of their disproportionate representation amongst the intelligentsia and politically-minded as well as their historical relationships with 'outsiders' (Russia and China, respectively).
I've also been told that since most Mongolian families at the time sent at least one son to become a monk, every family in Mongolia had at least one loved one taken from them when the monks were purged. Although there is a Memorial Museum of Victims of Political Persecution in Ulaanbaatar, the purges aren't directly shown as part of the 20th-century display in the National Museum of Mongolia and I've personally found it a little-known topic outside of academia when speaking to non-Mongolians. I can certainly see that it's a very difficult and sensitive topic for the Mongolian people.
|Upper temple at Khungun Khan/Ikh Khan Uul monastery, Bulgan. Several temples have been rebuilt at Khungun Khan since reconstruction began in 1992.|
|Sunset at Rashaan Khad site, Khentii|
Although we visited a few sites associated with Chinggis Khan during our time in Khentii, we didn't go to any of the more famous sites. However, we not only saw spectacularly beautiful countryside, we met amazingly friendly people and visited a broad spectrum of archaeological sites in terms of time period and site type.
|Ovoo near Khurkh River, Khentii|
|Pop quiz: Khentii or Mazama?|
|Wildflowers near Bayan River, Khentii. Never have I seen as many blue flowers in my entire life as I did Khentii. These colors are not Photoshopped; those flowers really are that blue!|
|Sunset along Khurkh River, Khentii|
|Stupa near Umnudelger, Khentii|
|UAZ/furgong on the road to Khujirt, Uvurkhangai|
|UAZ/furgong going off-road, Uvurkhangai|
|Orkhon River floodplain, Uvurkhangai|
|Orkhon waterfall at Ulaan tsutgalan, Uvurkhangai|
|Horns at the Natural Museum, Ulaan tsutgalan, Uvurkhangai|
|Ovoo at the Orkhon waterfall, Uvurkhangai|
|On the road to Mogoit Rashaan hotsprings, Uvurkhangai|
|Vehicles of choice in Bat-Ulzii, Uvurkhangai|
|Orkhon River, Arkhangai|
Our last night was spent telling unnerving rumors and ghost stories around a campfire. We got ourselves so spooked that we were convinced that lights amongst the trees meant something similar (they turned out to be the car of a family that camped upstream from us). You'd never guess that anyone could get scared at such a peaceful spot!
|Willows along a tributary of the Orkhon River, Arkhangai|
Close encounters of the Mongolian kind! The landscapes represented here are incomplete without the people and animals of the Mongolian countryside, whose activities and lives shape every context we visited. In 2014 I was fortunate enough to meet a number of amazing people in the khuduu (Mongolian countryside) as our little team traveled around conducting reconnaissance, and we had our fair share of encounters with domesticated and a few wild animals. I'll try to cram all of those eventful meetings and new friendships - or the highlights - into one post.
|Sunset in Suujiin Valley, Bulgan Province|