Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Close Encounters of the Mongolian Kind

Natural beauty abounds in Mongolia.  Even the least-talented photographer with a disposable camera (i.e., me in 2005) can come home with stunning imagery of a countryside that seems to exist on some other plane.  The ease by which the camera transforms the Mongolian landscape into aesthetically-pleasing pieces and portions can lead one to imagine that it is a static, albeit lovely, thing.

The landscape is in fact in constant motion, constant flux.  Perhaps it would be better to speak of Mongolian landscapes, the plural denoting multiplicity, overlap, and interdigitation of the lives and spaces that create one another.  These landscapes are in a state of becoming as a result of ongoing interactions between living things, the environment, and the past that create and occur in the landscape.  Thus, while the last post focused on imagery of natural beauty, it could not entirely banish the active, living participants that we encountered throughout landscapes in the Mongolian countryside.  This is quite appropriate: the summer of 2014 was one of numerous encounters with people, animals, and the landscape throughout Central Mongolia.

Clouds, yaks, and a parked motorcycle in Uvurkhangai:
a moment of stillness amidst the ever-changing landscape.

Before I leap directly into another set of photographs from the talented Ellen Platts, I should note that there are many wonderful encounters from 2014 of which little or no photographic record exists.  Some of the most memorable people, parties, and places include:

-Irina and her family in Bulgan.  Irina, Dolgii's elder sister, is the matriach of an extended family of herders living in Saikhan soum (county), the area in Mongolia that famously produces the most delicious airag, or fermented mare's milk, in Mongolia (although this title is hotly contested by residents from a few other locations).  Personally I would say that Irina's family brews the best stuff around and it can be quite potent.  Airag usually has a low alcohol content, but this can be altered by the length of fermentation, the fodder the mares have been eating, and the season.
     Irina and her family are truly delightful.  Although Irina is a grandmother of middle school-aged children, she is a delight: an avid dancer, a real jokester, a deft hand at drinking games, a vociferous expert on many subjects.  Her grandchildren showed us to the family's secret wild strawberry patch on a nearby forested mountain, where we picked and ate berries in the dappled shade of small pine trees.  Dolgii personally escorted us to a complex of Turk-period man stones (khun chuluu) and a rock art panel near her own ger.  We had a traditional Mongolian barbeque party with the whole family (khorkhog).

-The party animals of Ulaanchuluut.  Purveyors of motorcycles, impromptu steppe karaoke-dance parties, and marmot meat, these guys appeared out of nowhere at our makeshift basecamp with more fun than anyone could have expected.

-Bayaraa and his family in Bulgan.  Our first night out of Ulaanbaatar on our second field excursion, a wild storm hit.  Out on the open steppe, our tents were battered by torrential rain and high winds for what felt like ages.  The next morning, we paid a brief visit to a neighboring Mongolian family, who asked why we hadn't joined them in their ger during the storm!  That was how we met Bayaraa, his wife, and their many children in Bayannuur soum.  
     At the end of that excursion, we took Bayaraa up on his offer and slept on the floor in the family's ger.  Squished into a row like sardines, we passed a cozy night with late-night frog visitors, early morning random herder tea-time, and a bed full of small children leaning over us to waiting eagerly for us to wake up and play.

-Davaajaa and his family in Khentii.  Davaajaa is the gregarious, jovial father of a lovely family living along the Bayan River near the Baldan Bereeven monastery.  One of the summer students described Davaajaa as a stand-up comedian who didn't need a stage, an apt description for a many constantly joshing in a booming voice and laughing in the best humor possible.  His wife Munkh-Erden welcomed us into their ger for milky tea (suutei tsai) and prepared a barbeque feast for us all to share.  Their children, Tunga and Naranbat, are very competitive basketball players and even have a hoop behind the family's ger.  Davaajaa's little nephew, who couldn't have been more than four years old, joined us unexpectedly when we went bushwhacking through the undergrowth and muddy stream north of the main Bayan River in search of more archaeological sites.  Leaving his nephew in our care was actually a huge gesture of trust on Davaajaa's part, and the little guy did pretty well during survey.  Future archaeologist in training!

-Yuri and Tselma in Khentii.  In the north of Khentii Province along the Eg River, Yuri and Tselma live in a log cabin on the outskirts of the town of Batshireet.  The in-laws of one of our drivers, Boldoo, they kindly welcomed us into their home and homeland.  Yuri is something of a local expert, from the best fishing spots to archaeological sites, and took us to overnight in his idyllic (albeit very mosquito-y) private camp ground in the pine forest on a bluff over the river.       Tselma makes the hands-down best dish I've ever had in Mongolia: home-made tsotsgii with wild blueberries spread on home-made bread.  Tselma's tsotsgii is most analogous to clotted cream, although in other parts of Mongolia I've seen it turn out more like sour cream, and our team literally gorged on liters of the stuff.  Khentii is famous for its bread and unusual compared to the rest of Mongolia in being a traditional bread-baking area.  In fact, Khentii is known as the bread basket of Mongolia and we passed more large-scale agriculture in Khentii than anywhere else on our journeys.

-Galdan akh (term of respect for an elder man, literally "big brother") in Uvurkhangai.  Galdan is the caretaker and manager of the hotsprings resort at Mogoit Rashaan outside of Bat-Ulzii county seat.  Tucked high up in the mountains and surrounded by dark forest, Mogoit Rashaan is one of the legendary sites visited by Zanabazar (one of the most significant historical figures of late medieval Mongolia, Zanabazar in this case can be thought of as a sort of the Mongolian Buddhist St. Patrick/Johnny Appleseed character), who purportedly magicked the local snakes into the rocks at the hotsprings, thus the place's name, "snake springs".  Galdan recounted this and other stories about Mogoit Rashaan, including the healing properties of each separate spring, as he led us on a personalized tour of the site.  He kindly let our exhausted group stay overnight in an empty lot, which turned into a cow pasture in the morning, free of charge after we bathed in the springs and found ourselves completely tuckered out.

Certainly our encounters were not limited to human beings.  From the cuddly stray puppy in Kharkhorin to the super-sized camel in Elsen Tasarkhai, the furgong-invading mosquitoes at Rashaan Khad to the horses we rode outside of Gachuurt, our reconnaissance and the landscapes would be incomplete without them.

But what photographs do exist are charming reminders of hospitality, comradery, belly laughs, spirited games, and the occasional brush with death.  

Dolgii (second from left) poses with our group above a rock art panel.  Baaska (far right) is in the 'genial' phase of his 'genial-belligerent-manic-murderous' cycle.

Sam and Baaska take a local herder's motorcycle out for an evening spin in Arkhangai
Mare and foal in Suujiin Valley, Bulgan
Davaajaa's nephew picks wildflowers while the rest of us bushwhack through backcountry near Bayan River in Khentii
Our driver, Ganaa, observes at a major ovoo site near Khurkh River, Khentii.  Ganaa will walk clock-wise around the ovoo three times, tossing a small stone onto the pile at the end of each revolution, and make a wish (or repeat a blessing).

Turk-period site with the dogs from a nearby family, Khentii

An encroaching herd of sheep and goat during survey, Uvurkhangai

For goats, eating trumps fear every time

A truly magnificent goat beard
Despite being the loudest and brashest herd animals in Mongolia, goats can be quite friendly.  Note the blue paint on the horns that its owner uses in lieu of notching ears or branding
This sweet girl joined us as we explored the Bronze Age cemetery at Khujirt, Uvurkhangai
Our hosts in Bat-Ulzii, Uvurkhangai: future professional baseball stars
Of all the families we visited during the summer of 2014, I only have photos from our time with the extended family of yak herders whose zuslan (summer encampment) is located outside of the town of Bat-Ulzii near the Upper Orkhon River.

Several of our host's grandchildren pose outside of their grandmother's ger
Our hosts let us all stay overnight in a ger after sharing their home-made airag and nermel (moonshine made from milk) and swapping stories after dark.

But the next morning was the highlight of the visit:

Ariuna at bat; she faces off against the best pitcher in Bat-Ulzii, Altansukh (red shirt)
One of the summer students, Evan, brought along several softballs to give to the children of nomadic families during our visits as part of appropriate gift-exchange between host and guest in Mongolia.  The softball was a huge hit in Bat-Ulzii, despite the fact that no one in the family had ever played.  We taught some basics about pitching and hitting, then scouted around for a bat (a long wooden pole) to play a few rounds.

My turn!
The girls, boys, and young guys of the family all took turns pitching, hitting, and playing a few rounds of catch.

Despite learning to play with a wooden pole, these guys gave baseball their best shot
By the end of the morning, the softball was gutted.  It was worth it; lots of fun and good spirits abounded.  Give these kids a few years and Mongolia may be able to field a competitive team!

Future shut-out pitcher for the Mongolian national team and her big brother, Uvurkhangai

Saddled horse waiting for its rider in Bat-Ulzii county seat, Uvurkhangai
One thrilling little adventure of which I have photographic evidence was the spur-of-the-moment team decision to cross the Orkhon River on foot just upstream of the waterfall.  Several students were brave and quick enough to leap across the rocks that dotted the deep, rushing water.  Others headed further upstream to cross at a calmer spot.  I had the best of both worlds:

The students crossed the Orkhon River as nimbly and quickly as goats.  I, on the other hand, am more of a cautious, slow-moving yak-type.
This was one of several attempts to cross via the slippery, unevenly distributed rocks in the river.  After this proved unsuccessful, I moved upstream to take the plunge, rather literally.  Full disclosure: I ended up taking off my boots, rolling up my pants, and wading across the river with a stick for balance.  It was deeper than expected; good thing I'm pretty tall.  Height, sturdy legs, and quick-drying pants - I know my strengths!

Horse near Orkhon waterfall, Ulaan tsutgalan, Uvurkhangai

Cow with a collar relaxing on a country road
The last of our journey through the Mongolian countryside took us to significant medieval sites now populated by animals instead of khans:

-the Mongol imperial capital at Kharkhorin (Qara Qorum), where we also saw Erdene Zuu monastery and the shoat express:

The Shoat Express, Kharkhorin, Uvurkhangai

-the Uyghur imperial ruins at Khar Balgas (Ordu Balik), with some impressive raptors also paying a visit:

An eagle perches on the ruins of a stupa at Khar Balgas, Arkhangai

-the Khitan-period fortress Khar Bukhyn Balgas, which was also the noon-time stomping grounds of a herd of local horses:

Getting up close and personal with Khar Bukhyn Balgas, Bulgan

A horse herd attempts to squeeze into the sliver of mid-day shade cast by the walls of Khar Bukhyn Balgas, Bulgan

There's a tremendous amount more that I could say about the summer of 2014, but it's time to wrap up this little series of posts and move forward.  Before I let last summer pass into posterity, I want to thank everyone who was involved in making it such a fantastic experience: all of the students who made for such an excellent team, our field assistant Ariuna for being such a go-getter, and our good drivers (Ganaa, Boldoo, and Tsogoo) for safely shepherding us along bump roads and unknown tracks.

Coming to a blog near you: more catch-up on 2014 and the first months of 2015!

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