[All photos courtesy of Reade L. and Kenny L. - thank you!]
A brief flashback to our second night: Kenny noticed an unusual-looking ovoo near our campsite. This ovoo consisted of a base of larger dark stones piled with small light-colored stones near a tipi-like stack of wood and a small circle of white stones.
We puzzled over it in the fading sunlight until we had a chance to ask the nearby family - it was a ritual complex set up for a shaman coming to perform a ceremony the next evening. In the last year I've seen more ovoo similar to this, with a clear raised base rather than a messy pile of rocks and offerings, and I'll be paying closer attention to this phenomenon from now on. Shamanism in Mongolia, like any system of practices and beliefs, is changing all the time; this may be a visible and somewhat-public manifestation of recent changes or innovations.
|The small circle in the foreground is the protected space in which the shaman will perform the ritual for the lus, the spirit of the river in this area|
Our third morning began with the dew from the previous night's rain over our campsite. It seems that the lus was perfectly happy to host us!
|Shaking off the morning dew|
Unfortunately the pictures really don't capture the exquisite beauty of this spot - the light, the rush of the wind through the trees in the canyon, the blue-green river, and the endless sky.
|Taking a few last minutes to soak in Nature's wonders along the Orkhon canyon|
But we had many miles to travel that day! Backtracking along the Upper Orkhon River delta, we made our way out to Khujirt where paved road began. Our lunch-time pit-stop included a quick walk through the massive Bronze-Age cemetery just east of the small town.
|Gabbing about graves: slab burial at the Bronze-Age cemetery outside of Khujirt|
Slab burials and khirigsuur are the two primary mortuary features of Bronze-Age Mongolia. Received wisdom is that slab burials represent a slightly-later culture originating in the eastern part of Mongolia, whereas the peoples who built the khirigsuur came earlier and share ethnic and cultural affiliations with western archaeological cultures, perhaps including various kurgan-building groups of the vast Eurasian steppe. The implicit (and sometimes explicit) argument is that the khirigsuur builders were cultural and ethnic descendants of the Karasuk (debatable) and thus European-ish (even more debatable), unlike the later slab-burial culture from the east (which are characterized as racially or ethnically Asian and perhaps the progenitors of the Khunnu/Xiongnu). The literature indicates a significant divide amongst those working on Bronze-Age Mongolia when it comes to khirigsuur: one camp views them as burial mounds (Russian and Mongolian archaeologists), while the other argues that the paucity of human remains and grave goods indicates that they are not exclusively burials or are ritual features with no mortuary function (American and Western European archaeologists).
However, as we see in the Khujirt cemetery, there is spatial and likely temporal overlap between the slab grave- and khirigsuur-building archaeological cultures of Bronze-Age Mongolia, especially in Central Mongolia. To the best of my knowledge, the working hypotheses requires a much tighter chronology than is currently available. This is also a very general typology of Bronze-Age mortuary/ritual features that represent the cultures of Mongolia at the time; there are archaeological features (particularly mounds) that do not fit this typology. It's important to remember that you can only really know what's in a mound, potential burial, or subterranean ritual feature if you excavate it. An experienced field archaeologist in Mongolia can make a good educated guess from the feature's appearance on the ground (the surface feature) but that assessment should be treated as a working hypothesis until the unit can be excavated. Without material culture, internal organization (i.e., tomb construction), and dating (ideally carbon-14), you simply don't have enough data to know precisely what you're dealing with.
|Alas, poor Yorick: talking about weathering and taphonomy using a modern horse skull in a Bronze Age cemetery outside of Khujirt|
Enough musings on archaeological interpretation for one post!
Our destination for the day was Kharkhorin soum center, the county seat at the site of the original Mongol imperial capital city Qara Qorum and home of one of Mongolia's largest Buddhist monasteries, Erdene Zuu. But we were also drawn to Kharkhorin for the danshig in celebration of Undur Gegeen Zanabazar (380th anniversary, but who's counting) to be celebrated in Erdene Zuu and again about 10km beyond the city limits.
But first, the museum:
|Reconstruction of a Mongol imperial-era kiln from Qara Qorum, the capital founded by Chinggis Khan's son and successor, Ugudei, in 1235|
|Sculptures from the shooron bumbugur tomb|
|Small cavalry soldiers from the shooron bumbugur tomb|
|Literal gold treasure from the shooron bumbugur tomb|
Unless you read Mongolian, you are not going to get much out of the Kharkhorum Museum's official webpage. However, the museum has posted a suitable epic short video on the finds and reconstructed materials from the shooron bumbugur tomb at the bottom of this page: http://www.kharakhorummuseum.mn/index.php/baingiin-uzesgelen
There's also a virtual museum feature here:
As the afternoon wore on, we headed over to Erdene Zuu monastery and the many souvenir shops, game stands, and food vendors lining the entrance and parking lot. I have been to Erdene Zuu many times and have never seen it even half as crowded as that afternoon; the danshig was clearly a tremendous draw. We wound our way through a number of shops, picking up some souvenirs and admiring artwork, before getting photos with a golden eagle:
|Kenny the burgedchin|
Unfortunately, our party invoked the ire of a very bossy egch, who vehemently objected to one of our party taking photos as the crowd gathered to observe the evening's performances. I was very surprised by the woman's extremely hostile and aggressive behavior AFTER we had apologized and offered to erase photos that accidentally included her party. This woman had likely had bad experiences with foreign photographers in the past (and might have been a tad embarrassed about her intoxicated public sleeping it off in the middle of the danshig naadam crowd). I've definitely seen some very bad behavior from such photographers in Mongolia: not asking permission for portraits, getting in people's way/face, treating human beings like part of the landscape, etc. So thanks, past jerks, for poisoning the well!
Despite the unpleasant run-in, it was a luminous evening in Erdene Zuu monastery:
|Ariuna is having fun evening at Erdene Zuu monastery|
|Hands-down the most crowded I have ever seen Erdene Zuu monastery.|
|Tsam dance performed inside the Erdene Zuu monastery as part of the danshig celebrating the 380th anniversary of Unduur Geegen Zanabazar|
In recent years I had heard a great deal about the tsam: the masks, the ritualized dance, the haunting music. But the tsam is very rarely performed. 2015 was an unusual year in that multiple tsam dances occurred at several locations in Mongolia, were made open to the general public, and publicized somewhat in advance (including, obviously, the Erdene Zuu tsam dance).
|Ty gets up close and personal with the tsam dancers as they exit the stage|
According to what I have been told, the tsam dance is one of the more obvious examples of the fusion of Buddhism with indigenous shamanic and animistic traditions that characterizes Mongolian Buddhism. The music played during the tsam dance is meant to drive away evil spirits (or spirits inhabiting the land before Buddhism gained supremacy, depending on who you ask), as are the masks that give the dance its name (tsam means 'mask' in Mongolian). The dancers are monks in elaborate ritual costumes who perform a synchronized dance along with the music played by an accompanying 'orchestra' of monks. The Erdene Zuu ceremony took place on a small stage but the tsam dance traditional occurs in concentric white circles marked out in an open space, which you can see in both 21st century and pre-Socialist-period photos from Mongolia.
|Vajrabhairava, I think?|
|Цагаан Өвгөн, or the Old White Man (of the Mountains)|
The performers left the stage as dusk deepened into nightfall with the setting of the summer sun. We ourselves had to hustle to get to a camping spot before actual darkness set in and we were left pitching tents with flashlights.
|Dusk in the impromptu parking lots around Erdene Zuu monastery|
Note: apologies for the long break between posts. Within the next week I plan to wrap up the rest of the 5 Days of July set and move on to other business. Then I'll only be two months behind, instead of three!