Sunday, June 28, 2015

On copper

In a time of major mining operations and their huge impact on the country's economic situation and political climate, it is unsurprising that metals mean a lot to modern Mongolia.

Copper, despite being less flashy than gold and less notorious than uranium, historically makes up a significant component of Mongolia's mining operations.  The Erdenet Mining Company began extracting copper in the 1970s in Orkhon Province.  The second largest city in Mongolia - Erdenet - was founded by the company as a result of the large-scale copper-mining industry.

The Oyu Tolgoi (OT) mine in Umnugovi Province, perhaps the defining economic undertaking of the 21st century in Mongolia, primarily produces copper.  In 2015, it is impossible to overstate the significance of Oyu Tolgoi to Mongolian society.  Since 2001, the rocky relationship between the various Mongolian governments and international mining groups that share stakes in the mine has influenced the national economy, Mongolia's international reputation as a free and law-abiding society (I am alluding to the recent case of foreign mining executives held in Mongolia in a tax-evasion case.  Three men were forbidden from leaving Mongolia for several years, awaiting a trial where eventually they would be convicted and sentenced to 5 years in Mongolian prison.  However, shortly after the trial all three were pardoned by President Elbegdorj, following sharp criticism from the international business and human rights communities), the environment, and domestic development as a function of international investment and involvement.

Aside from the macro-scale significance of copper as a commodity, this metal is very much a part of Mongolian daily life.  Copper (zes) is ubiquitous in traditional households and jewelry.  The two most commons forms are the bowl (ayag) and the bracelet (buguivch).

As I mentioned in the Tsagaan Sar 2014 post, Badamkhatan egch, who hosted me on Shinii gurvan udur 2014, presented me with this gorgeous copper bowl:
A copper bowl, or zesnii ayag 

Copper bowls are common items in Mongolian homes.  I've seen them both in the capital and in the countryside.

Winter 2014: like a copper mirror

In addition to giving me the copper bowl, Badamkhatan egch filled it with ezgii, a home-made cooked dairy product that's quite delicious.

In addition to being beautiful, copper is considered to have healing and diagnostic properties.  The best way to receive the health benefits of a copper bowl is to fill it with water each night before bed and drink the water first thing the following morning.  This is a common practice in Mongolia today, although some wealthier people use a silver bowl instead or in addition to a copper bowl.  Silver is thought to be even better for these purposes than copper, as silver has a long tradition in Mongolian history and folklore as a poison detector used by kings and royalty.  Very ornate cups have semi-precious stones, such as turquoise and coral, inset into their sides along with engravings.

Copper bracelet, or zesnii buguivch
Mongolians also wear copper to capitalize on both its aesthetic and diagnostic properties.  In Ulaanbaatar and the Mongolian countryside, I regularly see people of all ages and walks of life wearing a copper bracelet.  Most often the bracelet will be a simple band, although bracelets do come in a variety of designs and forms.  Mine is a lovely engraved piece given to me during Tsagaan Sar 2014 by Tsermaa bagsh, my Mongolian language teacher (bagsh means "teacher" or "professor").

Winter 2014: after only a few days, my skin had already turned green in a response to the copper
Copper is believed to pull the toxins out of the body through your skin.  Based on the properties of copper, these bracelets serve as a kind of 'illness detector': if you're unwell, your skin will turn green where the metal rests.  Many times I have had people comment on my general health based on the faint blue-green stain around my left wrist.

Now, 18 months after I received the copper bowl and the copper bracelet, see whether either has changed through usage or the passage of time:

Summer 2015: 18 months of constant wear

Because I wear the bracelet constantly, taking it off only to bathe, the copper gets naturally polished against my skin.  The biggest difference I notice is that the indented portions of the copper that make up the little floral pattern have darkened, making the pattern more visible.  Today the blue-green stain left by the copper is fairly faint, both in the picture and in real life.  Some days it is hardly present; other days it's a giant blue-green smear running down my forearm.

Now for the copper bowl:

18 months later: notably less shiny
Although originally I used my copper bowl to drink water each morning in the few months following Tsagaan Sar 2014, I gave up the practice after I stopped regularly seeing a bariach (traditional healer).  These days I use it to store jewelry and hair ties on my dressing table.

Inside the bowl: a little bit of oxidation
Copper is not difficult to clean: a salt-and-vinegar scrub will bring the shine back in a few minutes.  However, I'm rather enjoying the aged aesthetic that time has wrought; I might not get around to polishing up the bowl for ages.

In a traditional ger in the Mongolian countryside, one might see a number of other vessels made of copper.  Copper vessels are prized and used throughout culinary traditions to achieve different aims, including maintaining a constant temperature throughout a heated surface.  Certainly most Mongolians do not cook or prepare meals in copper vessels today, but you're quite likely to see a zesnii ayag if you spend time in a Mongolian household.

In future I'd like to do a post on precious and semi-precious stones in Mongolian folk medicine and traditional healing.  Although copper is arguably the most interesting mineral due to its significance to the current globalized economy and traditional social practices, the many uses and meanings of stones and minerals in Mongolian material culture are fascinating.

On a more personal note, I never thought I'd become so fond of copper.  In America, copper is mostly pennies, electrical wiring, and crusty blue statues in the park.  I specifically recall declaring that copper jewelry was garish and clunky when I was a teenager.  Now I find the metal's warm glow so appealing that I don't feel myself without my little copper bracelet on my wrist.  Here's to copper - the true Mongolian metal!

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