The Call of the Wild
When the Siberian and Chinese tectonic plates pushed up against each other, Mongolia was formed: a great landlocked highland plateau − sandwiched between Russia and China. No wonder the fierce warriors of the 13th and 14th century Mongol Empire who were masters at the art of war are still the stuff of legend.
I was told that sections of the Great Wall of China were built to keep the Mongolians out. This toughness, combined with an equally powerful shamanic spirituality dating back to Chinggis Khan and the Mongol Hordes – intertwined later with Buddhism from Tibet – and a continued adherence to centuries-old customs and traditions, are a seductive combination.
Mongolians live in two worlds: that of the senses, the observable, the scientific; and on a metaphysical and spiritual level − the unseen world of spirits and magic.
Mongolians see themselves as a part of nature. They coexist with the land which is not only a means of survival, but the backbone of their existence. The meaning of land is passed down the generations through language, spiritual beliefs and culture. Shamanic rules emphasise keeping balanced with nature, and not defiling (or tearing) the earth: a modern-day environmentalist’s dream. The ancestors of today’s Mongolians referred to the sky as ‘father’ and the earth as ‘mother’. Chinggis Khan was conceived when a shaft of light from the sky entered his mother’s tent and impregnated her, so the story goes. This gave him the right to conquer the earth, since his father ruled the sky.
The word ‘shaman’ comes from the language of the forest-dwelling Evenki (or Tungus) reindeer herders in Siberia. Shamanism is the oldest belief system practiced in Mongolia, the shamans serving as spiritual guides and community leaders. It is practical and pragmatic, as well as mystic and imbued with a spiritual sensibility passed down through the millenia. Suppressed in the Soviet era, shamanism is making a big comeback.
There is local resistance to government plans for developing phosphate and uranium mining. The vast Darkhad valley, west of Lake Khuvsgul, is home to some of the most powerful shamans in Mongolia. When the Russians arrived wanting to start a mining operation, the Shamans told everyone they would be cursed, so the Mongolians fled and the Russians gave up as there was no one to work for them.
Rough-driving through great rolling valleys, up into silver birch and Siberian pine forests, past clearings of wild alpine flowers, and shamanic ovoos, (sacred cairn-like shrines) we eventually arrived in Muren at one end of a wide river valley, about 100 miles from Lake Khuvsgul. The largest fresh water lake in Mongolia, it is known as the ‘Younger sister of the Sister Lakes’ (Khuvsgul and Baikal). At 1,600m above sea level it is much higher than 25 million-year-old rift Lake Baikal, which lies 455m above sea level; and its waters feed Baikal.
Passing the occasional solitary log cabin or ger, (the nomadic herder’s portable, round tent covered with white felt − the word yurt is of Turkic origin and is used by Russians, not Mongolians), I was amused to see yaks running about with their tails up like playful dogs romping happily in the grass.
At last! We drove down a dirt road lined by dachas in compounds behind wooden fencing, the corrugated roofs painted in bright reds, blues and greens. I was keen to get to the public showers in town to cool off and wash away the sticky sweat (despite aircon!) of a 13-hour drive.
We received a royal welcome from Oyuna’s sister, Oyuntsetseg, her brother, Dorj, (the artist who designed the labelling and packaging for Chingghis Vodka) and her son, Ider Od, and various cousins. After the customary greeting ceremony involving an exchange of khadags (silk scarves, their blue colour representing the sky), snuff-bottles and gifts we headed off to clean up.
A Traveller’s rest
We sat down to a stupendous feast. The traditional nomadic herder’s diet is based on meat, dairy, nuts, dried fruit and wild onions. Buuz are small meat dumplings that are steamed. Khuushuur are large, flattened, meat-filled fried dumplings, like an American beefburger, or a Cornish pasty. Milk is sacred in Mongolia. Over the centuries, a range of yoghurt, cottage cheese, dried curds and fermented dairy products have been developed, using goat, yak and camel milk. Airag is fermented mare’s milk. Aaruul are dried curds, usually cut up into pieces. Aarts is thickened yoghurt. Urum, or ‘White Butter’, is clotted cream; khailmag (caramel pudding) is caramelized urum. Eezgii is a cheese-like snack. Boortsog is the Mongolian equivalent of bread; the dough is boiled in animal fat or yellow butter. Boovs are much larger, with imprinted designs on top, for ceremonial events.
The barren steppes and nomadic lifestyle are not ideal for cultivating vegetable gardens! However Russian-style beetroot, or potato, or carrot salad was sometimes served. In town I spotted onion patches. Occasionally a Chinese-style vegetable broth with peppers, spinach, broccoli and onions appeared.
#etiquettetips : − At a reception, a little bowl of vodka will make the rounds. It is not necessary to drink from it, but at least bring your lips to the bowl symbolically.
− If you are served a snack, try a little piece. To refuse is rude. Communicate with a positive statement and a big smile!
− When vodka is served, dip the ring finger of your right hand into the glass, lightly flick a drop to the sky (honouring the sky gods), then to the wind, then to the ground; put the same finger to your forehead, say thank you; and return the glass to the table. Do this even if you do not drink vodka. If passing the glass do not use your left ‘bad’ hand.
Danzandarjaa Khiid Monastery
Coffee is not a Mongolian drink, so I took a large packet of ground Colombian with me and a THERMOcafe travel mug. First thing in the morning, I asked for some boiled water, poured it over the coffee grounds which settled at the bottom, and enjoyed a good, hot, wake-up brew. Otherwise milk tea (suutei tsai) is the usual beverage.
We headed to the monastery which dates from 1990, to hear the lamas chanting. There were 60 temples and monasteries in Muren at the end of the 19th century; about 2500 monks lived in the most important one which was famous for its Tsam dances. In 1937 they were all destroyed by order of Stalinist Khorloogiin Choibalsan, and the lamas imprisoned or executed. Mass graves were discovered in 1991 in the nearby hills, (also discovered around Ulaanbaatar in 2003). One such killing is described in my hosts, Oyungerel Tsedevdamba’s & Jeffrey L. Falt’s novel, The Green-Eyed Lama: Love and Betrayal in Mongolia (Grasset & Fasquelle, Paris, 2017):
Six trucks stopped in a tight-knit semi-circle by a hillock no more than a hundred metres from where the lamas were crouching. Wild dogs scattered and crows flew up like black rain into the headlight beams. The glare made it difficult to see what was happening as Agvaan gingerly poked out his head, watching intently as small groups emerged from the back of each truck. They moved awkwardly and seemed to be in pairs. They were kicked and shoved into a line. Muffled voices were accompanied by the repetitive clanging sound of metal striking rock.
An authoritarian voice rang out, “Dig! You worthless yellow feudalists! Dig . . . by order of the Mongolian Peoples’ Revolutionary Government. Dig your graves . . . faster . . . move it!”
The condemned men obeyed. None cried out, or begged for mercy.
Agvaan slapped his hand over his mouth as he realized what the vile smell was. He retched, the acid taste of stomach bile filling his mouth, “How many souls have been taken? Tse lama, why?”
“Keep quiet. D’you want to end up like them? Quiet!” and the elder lama began to rock back and forth, eyes closed, praying.
The boy stared at the scene unfolding before him, wide-eyed. The men in lama robes were digging a pit with picks and shovels while the commandant and his men in greatcoats and heavy boots strode back and forth brandishing their rifles. The cold beams of white light illuminated the yellow garb of the condemned. He slumped on the stony ground, “They’re lamas!”
Tserennadmid opened his eyes, “Yes . . . our high-ranking brothers.”
“Tutor, I don’t . . . what . . . why are they being killed? Where are the police? The government must stop it!”
“Old imperialist vermin! That’s deep enough! Now climb in . . .” came the order in a voice as hard as gun metal.
A couple of voices started a rhythmic chanting. Soon every lama joined in, standing in a mass grave under the glare of secular hate for a god of peace.
Agvaan turned to his tutor, his face wrinkling as tears ran down his sallow cheeks, “But chanting has protective powers! How could anyone kill chanting lamas?”
“Where’s your God now when you need him?” jeered the commandant as a gunshot rang out. A second gunshot cracked. Then a volley. The dogs’ howls fused with the executioners’ laughter. A sound of earth splattering on top of bodies; some groaning not quite dead. Red tail-lights fading into the darkness as the killers head home to bed. An unearthly silence.
[© Oyungerel Tsedevdamba & Jeffrey L. Falt]
Muren’s new monastery has 40 monks. There are several stupas, and a large seated Buddha statue looking south. As we strolled, admiring the prayer wheels and a small side temple-cum-prayer-room, an elderly man struck up a conversation with Oyuna outside the main temple. It turned out he had been the local communist party’s main driver and an early democrat. (In the 1980s, the Democracy movement was illegal and therefore an underground movement, until 1990 and Mongolia’s velvet revolution.) They shared memories. Oyuna’s mother had written speeches for local communist party bigwigs. Watching the news coverage of the 1979 Carter-Brezhnev summit on TV, Oyuna asked her father what “human rights” meant, but he did not know. Later, she got hold of a copy of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: it changed the course of her life. In 1992, she became Chief of the Labour and Social Security Division of Huvsgul province; later moving to Ulaanbaatar and pursuing a successful political career.
The National Naadam Games
Making our way to the Black Market, we drove past the Wrestling Stadium and the memorial honouring three famous local wrestlers. Unfortunately, I had arrived the week after Naadam, held every year in July, celebrating the ‘three manly games’ of wrestling, archery and horse racing. Historians have identified rock drawings of two men wrestling in a cave in Del Khonjil Mountain in Olzziit soum as dating from 7000 to 11,000 years ago. Mongolian civilisation was one of the first to domesticate the horse; Chinggis Khan built his empire spanning Eurasia on horseback. Children (from the age of 6), as well as adults, take part in horse racing across the steppe. Bows and arrows were confiscated and outlawed during the purges of the 1930s, as they were considered to be ‘weapons of destruction’. All three games evolved out of Mongolian daily life; from wrestling livestock animals for food, to military warfare.
Outside Muren’s Black market, scraggy sheep and goats with bewitching yellow eyes waited in trucks to be sold. Inside, women displayed all kinds of herbs, berries, white mushrooms, wild rhubarb, dried fish from Lake Huvsgul which looked like kippers, dairy products, blackcurrants, blueberries, and mountains of sweets. I picked up some large jars of wild rhubarb preserve to take back to London − delicious for breakfast.
A Real-life Love Story
We went to meet Sendmaa’s sister, Mandaa, who was nearly 100 years old. Sendmaa – the heroine of Oyuna and Jeff’s novel The Green-Eyed Lama – was the most beautiful of all the local herder girls, her “oval face, with its narrow gleaming eyes, long thick eyelashes and willow-leaf-shaped eyebrows, was a dream come true.” Whereas her rival Chuulunji – also madly in love with artistic, handsome, green-eyed Lama Baasan – had a moon-shaped sallow face and was less alluring.
Mandaa showed us the pieces of the game Horol (like dominoes) carved by Baasan in 1947, after returning home from prison. He gave it to her as a wedding gift. (They feature the Red Star as opposed to a Mandala.) She described his loud and very distinct tenor voice; Baasan’s beautiful singing was legendary. He was called on to chant at important ceremonies at Dayan Deerkh Monastery, and was usually the deer in the Tsam Dance since he was so athletic. He also excelled at religious art.
An oral culture
Mongolian culture is predominantly oral not written since pastoral nomadic herder life entails travelling great distances, and so possessions are kept to the minimum. The National Library of Mongolia in Ulaanbaatar holds a large collection of Buddhist sutras.
Mongolians sing on horseback as they journey great distances; and they sing to their animals. ‘Long Songs,’ about love and the countryside, involve complicated long drawn out vocal sounds. As Lama Baasan was led away to prison on horseback under military escort, he sang ‘Shadow of the Brown Hill’. In this instance, to do so was an act of resistance.
“Stop that singing!” yelled Dorlig.
Baasan’s deep voice was more powerful than any weapon as he sang of the five equal wishes informed by faith and wisdom. He was joined by his father, his brother and the lamas. A soldier struck him across the mouth with his rifle butt, yet he sat up straighter and sang louder as if he were in a grand temple. The notes of the ancient long song praising God and Nature seemed to hover in the air; the syllables he extended were like angels on clouds, echoing down into the valley from Eg pass.
[© Oyungerel Tsedevdamba & Jeffrey L. Falt]
The deer stones of Uushigiin Uver
Our final visit of the day was 12 miles out of town. On the wide plain, 14 Bronze-age megaliths carved with symbols known as deer stones stand within an emplacement of sacrificial mounds or altars (keregsuur), possibly connected to shamanistic rituals. The name comes from their carved depictions of flying deer. Other images are of hunters with bows and arrows chasing elk, ibex or argali. Some have a timeless human face at the top, conjuring a Brancusi sculpture.
Monument of Alun Goa
After two nights in Murun, we headed north towards the border, stopping beyond the monument of Alun Goa for a picnic at the confluence of Arig and Khokhoo rivers which run through an Alpine forest carpeted by wild flowers. A direct ancestor of Chinggis Khan and famed for her beauty, Alun Goa features in the oldest surviving Mongolian-language literary work, The Secret History of the Mongols, which was (re)discovered in 1866 in Beijing by a Russian scholar and diplomat.
There are over 20 ethnic groups in Mongolia. I was told that Chandmani-Ondor soum is the home of the Uriankhai people. It is the only Christian district of Mongolia − neither shamanism nor Buddhism have a strong hold.
We were hosted by the local Governor and his entourage, some of whom were wearing traditional costume. They performed a special dance accompanied by singing and the two-stringed horse headed fiddle, the morin huur. Since the culture of Mongolia is tied to the land, the music invariably represents horse galloping rhythms; singing the natural sounds of wind, water, birds and animals; and dancing the realities of nomadic daily life and horsemanship.
The purpose of our northern tour was not only to visit the descendants of the characters in The Green-eyed Lama, and to give me realistic insights into life on the steppes. Oyuna was sounding out local leaders ahead of putting forward a motion in Parliament that autumn (2015) for a bill to improve and develop sanitation facilities countrywide. With the influx of people into towns and villages the use of outhouses, or just the wilderness, is becoming problematic, and a proper infrastructure is required.
The local democratic party chair hosted us in Tsagaan-Uur soum, and we dined with the Buryat Governor whose family originally arrived there from Russia in 1913. Buryats sided with the White Russians during the Russian Civil war and later rebelled against the communist rule and collectivization of their herds; they were crushed by the Red Army. The Stalinist repressions in Mongolia peaked between 1937-39 under Khorloogiin Choibalsan’s leadership. Buryat migration from Russia to the Mongolian People’s Republic was stopped in 1930 with the aim of destroying Mongolian patriotic forces.
After breakfast, Jeff and I were shown a traditional bread oven. Also various implements used for the leather tanning process; as well as those used for scraping, curing, softening, sewing leather to make boots, bags, or containers.
The road to Arkhan Valley
Next stop: Dayan Deerkh Monastery − the spiritual centre of the herder community central to Oyuna and Jeff’s novel, The Green-eyed Lama. As we headed on into the wilds towards the border − periodically taking shortcuts off the dirt track in between trees and at one point passing a row of 13 shamanic ovoos − I was told the forests were home to elk, deer, wild boar, gazelle, moose, fox, bear, wolf, mink, sable, lynx, the Siberian viper . . . but my untrained eye saw nothing. Wild animals are sensible – they avoid humans!
We emerged on to a bleak, rolling plateau. Eagles, hawks and other birds of prey flew high somewhere in the skies above us, all but invisible to the naked eye. There are over 400 species in Mongolia. Birds are sacred and must not be killed.
Courtesy is an essential prerequisite when friends or strangers meet on the road in the wilderness. Herders live many miles apart in different valleys, and can ride for days seeing no one. With no roads or signposts, Nature is their guide. Travellers from outside often get lost. Hospitality is an old custom on the steppes – visitors are invited in without question on arrival at a distant ger (tent).
As though out of nowhere, 4 men appeared on motorbikes: Damindorj, Dagva Dorj, Ganbat and Erdenebaatar a.k.a. Curtain (because when he stands in the doorway of a log cabin or ger, he is so tall he blocks out the light). Mongolians like to use nicknames and love a good joke. After the exchange of snuff bottles in the usual Mongolian greeting ceremony, we all journeyed on.
#etiquettetips : when offered the snuff bottle, receive it with your right hand, thumb pointing upward, while touching your right elbow with your left hand. Palm down, tip a little snuff onto the base of your thumb and sniff, then replace the stopper and return it in the same manner it was received. If you don’t want any snuff, accept it with your right hand as described above, just sniff the top of the bottle, then return. Avoid clasping the top of the bottle.
Dayan Deerkh Monastery
Lying on the border of Tsagaan-Uur and Erdenebulgan soums, Dayan Deerkh Monastery holds significant historical importance for Mongolia as a site of ancient religious practices. It overlooks the confluence of rivers Uur and Eg. Spectacular mountains rear up behind.
The last simultaneously religious and secular head of state, the Bogd Khan, or ‘Living God’, (of the Yellow Hat Buddhist sect), died in 1924. Outer Mongolia had retained its independence officially from the Manchus in 1911; and he was enthroned as constitutional monarch, with Damdiny Suhbaatar as Commander in Chief of the army. The third most important person in the Tibetan Buddhism hierarchy, below the Dalai and Panchen Lamas, the Bogd Khan was served by the adult lamas of the Dayan Deerkh Monastery.
Among traditional herders, each married couple occupied its own ger (tent), and sons usually received their share of the family herd at the time of their marriage. Boys from the age of 6 often served as apprentice lamas, and either returned to herding, or stayed on serving as Buddhist clergy – as did Lama Bassan.
From the 17th to 20th centuries, the Buddhist system provided both a spiritual and political structure to Mongolians; monopolising education and medical services, administering justice, and controlling most of the nation’s wealth. There were over 800 monasteries and temples and over 100,000 monks when Soviet-backed Mongolian Communists seized control of the country in 1922. They faced massive popular resistance, hence the power struggle and political purges of the 1930-40s.
The Buddhists were clever at incorporating ancient shamanic practices into their system. Dayan Deerkh cave above the monastery is an ancient spiritual site, sacred to shamanists and buddhists alike. The cave has about 120 metres of tunnels.
A stone shaman deity stands at the cave’s entrance. Local legend has it that during the time of Chinggis Khan, a princess fell in love with a powerful, handsome shaman: Dayan Deerkh. But she was betrothed to his brother, a Mongol khan. The lovers fled, heading for the security of the vast Siberian taiga and the Tsaatan, the reindeer people of the far north, well beyond the reach of the khan and his soldiers. The lovers were caught as they rested by the river. The princess was captured for return to her father. The soldiers slashed at the shaman with their sabres and pierced his body with their arrows, so he transformed himself into large rock to preserve his spirit within. He stands there to this day, until a time when the lovers’ souls, spiralling down through countless lifetimes, can be reunited.
During a shamanic gathering at Dayan Deerkh cave, Shaman Baatarhuu was chosen by the spirits and given the power. We would visit him later in Erdenebulgan. His grandfather, blind Shaman Od, plays an important role in The Green-eyed Lama.
On Top of the World
Leaving Dayan Deerkh Monastery, we drove past wild-flower meadows along the river bank, heading for Arkhan Valley where we would be hosted by Gantumuur in his two log cabins. He had hunted since the age of 16, and excelled at tracking gazelle and wild boar – prime game meat – in the forests. Lake Baikal was getting tantalisingly close as we would be 18 miles from the Russian Buryat Republic border.
Herders and their families move between their summer and winter/spring camps largely depending on the weather and available food. Dry, breezy areas near rivers are favoured for the summer, while sheltered valleys near hills or mountains are best for the winter. As we follow Sendmaa and her family in The Green-eyed Lama, we endure an exceptionally harsh winter with them on Buural Mountain, and summer in Arkhan Valley.
I was getting a taste of life on the steppes for real – not just from reading books – luckily at the best time of year when temperatures are nowhere near -40°C ! A serious freeze (-50°C) with prolonged heavy snowfalls can be fatal for herders as their livestock starve and die.
Our mobiles had no reception. I was running out of almonds, pecans and dried apricots to snack on. We were on a fabulous adventure on top of the world, cut off from everyone and everything. This was real travel in the untamed wilds, not pampered kitschy tourism. It was a dream come true.
© Georgia de Chamberet for The BookBlast Diary, 2016 c/o BookBlast Ltd, London. All rights reserved.
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