Posts Tagged With: Culture

Summer Travel in Central Mongolia

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter leaving this beautiful camp, our base during Naadam, we headed southwest for six days along the “Heartland Circuit.”
10557045_10152622390980746_8288162626551885544_oOne of our first stops was near the Khogno Khaan Natural Reserve, where we hiked up a sacred mountain, respectfully, and saw ruins of the Uvgun Monastery. Mongolia’s monasteries were violently destroyed by the Soviets in the 1930s and many have not been fully restored.
IMG_1390Some parts of Uvgun have been rebuilt, however, and the granddaughter (celibacy was not fully implemented, apparently) now tends the site.
IMG_1401There was time before dinner to get in a quick camel ride, which was great because now I can check that off my list and not do it again.
IMG_1411But we were on the edge of the Gobi desert as the sun was going down, so the light was amazing.
Our next camp was in the Orkhon Valley, next to the river.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe river is lovely, but kayaking in the river was magical, because: horses.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAKayaking with me has been likened to “Driving Miss Daisy,” but I was too excited to paddle much — we were often closer than these pictures show, because by the time the very patient husband had the camera set, they’d moved away from us. Summer is a great time for the horses and other livestock as they roam free for months, getting fat and glossy from the grass and fresh air.
We travelled in this very sturdy Soviet-era van, a UAZ, which are still plentiful in Mongolia and beloved for their ease of repair. Drivers work freelance for tour companies (we went with the fabulous Goyo Travel) and own their vehicles; the UAZ is completely mechanical, meaning it has no internal computer systems, so the driver can fix it with basic tools out in the middle of nowhere. They have high clearance and can go anywhere.
1907862_10152622394385746_1176235303637523967_oI mention this because on the next leg we came to a very dodgy looking bridge with a small but persuasive warning sign advising caution.
IMG_1421My feeling about these situations is that we all make our own decisions: we four travellers and the guide made the decision to get out of the van and walk, while the driver made the decision to drive over. We all held our breath, but it was fine and on we went, arriving at the trailhead for a hike to Tovkhon Monastery.
IMG_1434On the way back we got to see a herder family milking their horses to make airag, the alcoholic drink made from fermented horse milk. (An acquired taste, I think.)
IMG_1436Since we’d crossed in the morning, that bridge had been closed to vehicles. We walked, and the driver went downstream to drive across a shallow bit.
IMG_1459Our next stop was the Erdene Zuu Monastery, which is on the site of the ancient capital of Karakorum.
IMG_1472While Buddhist temples and monasteries have, obviously, much in common wherever they are, the wide-open emptiness of Mongolia makes these particularly stunning. Favorite race horses are honored after they die by becoming part of an ovoo cairn.
IMG_1478We ended our trip with a night at Ogii Lake. The weather had turned cold and cloudy, but we saw plenty of hardy Mongolians swimming. I was happy to get close to the lake just by having fish for dinner.
(Note: The photos of the camels crossing the road and the UAZ van were taken by our friend with the good camera.)

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The Down Side of Naadam

As is clear by now, I really love the Mongolian horses, and one of the most fun parts of a small-town Naadam was having horses all around us. People just seemed to bring ’em along from wherever they came from and were riding all over town. Horses were tied up by the food tents like a row of parked cars, and The Husband kept goading me into making an offer for this one or that.


Child jockeys.

Horse racing is one of the three Naadam sports, celebrating the tough glory/glorious toughness of traditional Mongolia, and the horse racing now includes a ton of prestige and a whole lot of money. Not only is the prize money high, but people invest and spend huge sums on training and pampering their best horses. It’s no longer the pure, romantic gallop over the steppes, but it’s understandable. The problem is who’s riding those pampered race horses.

Child jockeys.

As young as five years old, little boys ride full-out for 30 or 60 kilometers/18.6 or 37 miles bareback. It’s horrifying. This boy below actually seems old for the sport — the idea is to minimize the weight on the horse in order to maximize speed.

10484217_10152622388285746_5290746835543897710_oHere’s another boy post-race:
I kept looking for some positive side to this, asking our guide what the jockeys gain by racing, and there’s not much for the boys. Apparently, all the prize money and prestige goes to the horses, so what families value is having a winning horse, not a winning jockey.
To me, this definitely meets the standard of “harmful traditional practices” (though I am aware the term is usually applied to female genital mutilation, child marriage and dowry-related violence) because it’s so shockingly dangerous. The UB Post published a paid message from some of the international NGOs here that talked about how they understand this to be a deeply-held tradition and want to be sensitive to that tradition, but, really, perhaps it’s time to reconsider? Mongolia signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child back in 1990, so there are grounds to argue that child jockeys violate an international treaty that Mongolia agreed to uphold. I’m not sure, though, what it will take to stop this. The rights framework is there, and certainly it would be easy enough to set minimum weight standards for jockeys to meet.

We actually saw very little of the race itself. There’s an old belief that following the dust of four-year-old racehorses is lucky (see what I mean about all status accruing to the horse? I guess it’s good that the best luck ISN’T associated with four-year-old jockeys.) and over time too many people were on the course. In their Land Cruisers. So, we watched from a hill above, then went to the finish when the little clouds had passed by.
IMG_1357Hard to see, in more ways than one.

(NB: The two middle photos were taken by our visiting friend with the good camera.)

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Naadam, Small Town Mongolia

We got the very good advice to spend Naadam, Mongolia’s biggest holiday, in one of the smaller towns rather than in Ulaanbaatar. Naadam celebrates Mongolia’s three “manly sports:” horse racing, wrestling and archery. People come together for a few days, wear their best clothes and enjoy the competitions. It was so much fun.
The night before the official opening, the town had a concert that we were able to attend. It seemed like the entire population was there, all dressed up and greeting each other, while the acts ranged from groups of dancers, teenagers playing instruments, the high school marching band and some interesting fusions of traditional and modern music. Some of the performers had done too much karaoke and overestimated their talent, but some were excellent. And who doesn’t love a group of ten year olds playing recorders?
The opening ceremony was a mix of Mongolian history and folklore and local celebration, many of which featured horses.
IMG_1304The governor rode in on a horse, too:

1655664_10152622384730746_9138688145067128035_oThere were also dances and then a parade. The marching band:
IMG_1322Some of the town leaders:
IMG_1326Wrestlers of all ages:
IMG_1331Wrestling competition underway:
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMuch as I appreciate the skill of archery, and the fact that women also compete, it’s not all that interesting to watch.
10494516_10152622387530746_1330336689149265954_oThe clothes were gorgeous.
(Photos of governor and archers were taken by our visiting friend.)

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“We are HAPPY from Mongolia”

Very fun video set to Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” that will cheer you right up. AND you can see scenes from all over Ulaanbaatar.

I love this.

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A Mongolian Graduation


It began the way these things so often do, with me in a state of complete confusion about what we were about to do. The day before, I found out that one of our young colleagues was graduating and that we were going to the event at 11:00. I had also been told that we were to dress up, although that was complicated by the weather since it was snowing again.

11:00 came and went, and I was told we’d leave at 12:00. Ok.

At 12:30 we left the office, and I internally shushed my anxieties about being on time, finding seats, arriving in the middle of a ceremony…all that. Our first stop was across the street into what turned out to be a jewelry shop (Many places have double doorways to keep out the weather, which also make it hard to see in. This, plus the Mongolian signage, make it hard for foreigners to know what kind of business is done inside.) to look for a present. No luck. One of the coworkers left, as she’d been sick. I followed passively, waiting outside as another coworker went into another shop.IMG_1109

At 1:00 three of us got in a taxi and ended up in a nondescript neighborhood where there was a party going on in front of one of the buildings. Out we got — this was the university graduation. A crowd of people, festive bunting, amplified speaking underway, and a vendor selling bouquets and sparkling wine at the entry. There was a big circle of people listening to the proceedings, which included poetry reading, speeches and a Mongolian graduation song that all the people around me joined in singing. The graduates, a mix of social work and literature students, stayed throughout, and their families and friends came by to congratulate them. While the event felt very celebratory, of course, a lot of what was translated for me had to do with the melancholy of leaving classmates and teachers.

After the degrees are awarded, the graduates and close family members go out for lunch. And finally I understood why dressing for the weather was an issue and that there was no particular rush for us to get there: the whole thing is outside, and well-wishers are free to show up, take photos, chat and leave when they want.


(And I realized that I’d again miscalculated about what to wear, as the graduates were very dressed up, and the guests wore pretty much anything. I had on one of my better work outfits, which was A) not like what other people had on, and B) invisible anyway under the coat I didn’t take off.)

Here are some of the graduates. It’s hard to see, but these women take their stilettos seriously, even in daytime. Five- and six-inch heels were typical.

And here’s “our” graduate, such a cutie:IMG_1111

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