The stated purpose of this trip was to observe the solar eclipse and we flew to the Altai Mountains, to a private ger camp located on the “perfect” path. They’d brought a group of Mongolians (and their families) out there to build the camp and we later learned they’d actually been living in the gers we occupied for two days.
Not being an “eclipse junkie” (more about that later!), my favorite part of that time was seeing a local Naadam festival, which coincidentally happened the day we arrived in the area. The Naadam is a very old event, which features the three traditional Mongolian sports of wrestling, archery, and horse-racing. It’s known as the festival of “manly arts.”
It was GREAT fun to sit on the ground among a bunch of locals and watch the young men wrestling! The contestants wear an odd-looking outfit of trunks and a sort of shirt with arms and shoulders and nothing around the torso. The winner puts on one of those hats with the spike on top and does an odd, almost BIRD-like dance! I’m happy to say at least one girl was among the riders! (“Manly arts,” indeed!) It’s all like a county fair—with local vendors selling food (boiled chunks of lamb were popular,) souvenirs and trinkets for the kids.
Speaking of the kids—they’re not a bit too polite to restrain themselves when they see a VERY WHITE woman with blue eyes and curly reddish hair sitting next to them! It was fun to see the adults peering at some of us when they thought nobody was looking, too. I’m positive some of those people were very unaccustomed to seeing Westerners. I always felt safe and accepted and nods & grins always got a positive response. Admiring babies and cooing to them in English is usually acceptable too … people like it when you compliment their kids and Mongolians really DO make cute babies, so that was easy.
Back at the camp, the “eclipse junkies” were setting up their viewers, telescopes, and cameras. Did you know about these people? I certainly didn’t! There are groups of people who will travel halfway around the world to experience something that only lasts a few minutes! They talk animatedly of “totality” and “coronas” and other things I’d never imagined! Two of the men were especially charming—friends of many years who always travel together to solar eclipses. One was on his THIRTEENTH eclipse! He has a very fine telescope, which was a big hit with us all, and they taught me a lot.
The actual eclipse began at around four p.m … the two astronomy professors in our group had set up viewers which reflected the sun’s image, so you could watch the shadow eat its way across the orb without blasting your retinas. The Mongolian camp staff (and their kids) were wandering around among us, looking into the telescopes and viewers and sharing our special dark glasses. We were all concerned about their eyes!
After about an hour, the sun suddenly went black and it was safe to look at it! I was struck by the idea that, if you were a person without knowledge of what or why it was happening, you’d be terrified, since it looked as if the sun had died! Stars were visible and shadows fell on the ground. The “junkies” were cheering, honking jeep horns and ringing bells (no, I don’t know why) and you’d’ve expected people to yell “HAPPY NEWWWW YEAR!” Some of them sat motionless on chairs, faces turned to the sun, struck silent with awe!
Then the image began to lighten and the whole thing went into reverse as the moon’s shadow passed the face of the sun. Now I’ve seen one … don’t think I need to see another, though. Obviously (and luckily,) I didn’t get “hooked” by the experience. People who were there are already planning their trip for the NEXT one … Shanghai … one year away.
You know I was interested in the local wildlife, of course, but I came away disappointed. We saw some ibex (an unusual event, it seems) and a few deer, some blue cranes, kites and (very distantly) some raptors. I’m thinking the raptors must roost in the rocky mountains and fly long distances out over the flats to find their food. Small rabbits and rodents scurry around and you can see burrows. There are very small lizards which resemble large grasshoppers in size and, speaking of scurrying—they’re MASTERS! I found a marvelously metallic, rainbow-hued beetle and managed to feed at least two voracious mosquitos. (Yes, I’m now a Mongolian blood donor.)
We saw dead wolves, proudly displayed on the front of cars. (Herdsmen lose animals to wolves and consider them “the enemy.” I guess you can’t blame them, but it hurts my heart to think about the absolute GLEE with which they’re shooting the wolves.) We’re told more animals survive in “protected areas” to the west and south, but the situation doesn’t look good. A local English-speaking newspaper reported while we were there that the Mongolian government had agreed to sell somewhere between 20 and 50 percent of an endangered eagle population to some Saudis, who admire and want the birds. The article intimated that the Mongolians had overstated the birds’ numbers so they could sell more of them for profit.
You wouldn’t enjoy seeing the way dogs are treated. That’s all I’ll say about the subject. Using animals as survival tools gives people a different perspective on them, of course. It’s a cultural difference, that’s all.
Mongolians were the first to use iron stirrups (did you know that? I didn’t) and they still use a wooden saddle with a very narrow angle to it—almost a V-shape, seen from the side. (Ouch!) I saw several young men herding animals while standing in the stirrups. Considering that saddle, I understand why!
As tough as it would be, I’d think riding a horse is safer than being a pedestrian in U.B! People walk and drive whenever/wherever they like! There ARE some traffic signals, but they seem largely ignored—or maybe they’re just a “suggestion?” I had to laugh, thinking of our (relatively) orderly system—we’d be picked off like clay pigeons! We all looked for a Mongolian to follow when crossing the street—insurance, so to speak! You’re not only dodging potholes … you’re dodging vehicles. They use both left AND right-handed steering in their cars, since they import them from several countries. I can’t TELL you how scary it is to be crossing a street and see an apparently driverless car HURTLING toward you!
When the Soviets pulled out of Mongolia in the early 1990s, they left empty hospitals, factories and schools behind. Imagine losing seventy-plus years of social system within the blink of a (figurative) eye? The infrastructure of U.B. shows what happened—weeds everywhere, potholes in streets and sidewalks, empty buildings, etc. One of our group said he feels sad for the Mongolian kids who give up the country and come to “the big city,” because they think THIS is what a city looks like!
It’s interesting … on one hand, you have a LOT of buildings put up in the Soviet style—concrete block, stark, unpainted, UGLY. But there are a few extremely modern ones (I don’t know who’s funding them but they’re the sort of thing we’d see in Las Vegas. Do you know what I mean when I refer to that famous building in Dubai—the hotel which looks like the sail on a ship? There’s one of them there, under construction.) For me, it’s symbolizing life in Mongolia … throwing off the Soviet past and trying to move into the modern, capitalist era—all within less than twenty years. Difficult thing to do and it shows.
When you visit, you’ll want to see the Museum of Mongolian History, of course. The hall of ethnic costumes was WONDERFUL! Not to mention that the shaman looked almost identical to one of our plains Indians’ clothing…very interesting concept that the shaman garb stayed unchanged even after a stroll across the Bering Strait.
Unfortunately, the building has no air-conditioning whatsoever and fainting was a genuine possibility. Many of us went outside to “cool” off but I made it to the part about Soviet days before slipping away. I felt sorry for our guide … obviously well-educated and wanting to give us an in-depth experience, helplessly watching her group disappear.
The language is bruising for an English-speaking throat—some from the very back of the mouth and some from the front. So it sounds Asian but also Eastern-European, which makes sense, I suppose, since this culture was literally everywhere over history. I learned that the written language was once based on Aramaic forms! Go figure! The Soviets did their best to reform that and signs now look like Russian, with those odd “backward” Cyrilic letters.
They’re telling us that women, who’ve usually practiced more “get by” skills and art forms, are surpassing the men, who’ve traditionally done the herding; agricultural jobs which aren’t very profitable these days. I met several young women who lamented the difficulty of finding men as educated as themselves. I understand what they mean … men attracted to “modern” women aren’t always easy to find in more “traditional” countries.
The three major sources of revenue are minerals, animal husbandry (including revenues from hunting), and tourism. They’re learning how to deal with us—building hotels, watching to see what we want to eat and see, etc. Because they’ve always been hospitable people, smiles seem to come naturally to their faces and I believe there’s real potential for a limited tourist attraction. (If only they could do something about those roads …)
Russians, Chinese and several other nations are very interested in developing mineral extraction in Mongolia. Luckily, there seems to be a growing environmental interest that might protect them from greedy developers who would destroy everything in their path. Do I sound cynical? Or realistic?
Some random memories I’ll keep for awhile include having a couple of (very delicious) Golden Gobi beers in U.B.’s “Great Khan Irish Pub” which seems to be a sort of “yuppie” gathering place for the after-work crowd. We could’ve been almost anywhere in the world, surrounded by happy, chattering friends.
Another is the lovely people at the Ulaan Baator Hotel (“Five stars.” Um, hmmm!) I came downstairs at around 2 a.m. to use the free internet access in the lobby, only to discover the staff SLEEPS there! They all LEAPED to their feet, bleary eyed. I made the universal sign for sleep (hands folded under my cheek) and said “SHHHH.” They grinned at me and laid back down. Poor souls.
I hadn’t realized that cashmere is a valued export from Mongolia….did you know it takes up to FOUR YEARS for one goat to grow enough fine wool to make one cardigan sweater? Now we know why cashmere is so expensive. We didn’t buy any. I hadn’t expected to find such a wide variety of arts and crafts. It says something about the people, doesn’t it?
My companion and I wisely arrived a day early and SOMEHOW found our way to the State Department Store…where we did some shopping. (One always does what one can to support the local economy. GRIN!) The government is trying to encourage traditional arts as a way for women to make extra money, so there are lots of small items made of felt, etc. AND … they do some fine water-colors and oil paintings. Guess the nomads had time to reproduce what they saw/see, out on the steppes. It reminded me a lot of the Dutch, who painted “all that sky.” They have lots of sky in Mongolia, too.
Because of airline schedules, it took thirty hours to get home. Korean Air uses 747s from LAX and JFK and they have individual movie systems for coach passengers, which is a good thing. They also have WONDERFUL Korean hot sauce in little tubes, which they’ll cheerfully give to you, since they’re delighted to know you like it! (Small mind … small pleasures.)
Finally, I was struck by this thought when we visited Karakorum, ancient capitol of the Khans. Nothing is left … stones from the city walls were incorporated in a Buddhist temple complex, but virtually nothing is left of the former seat of power and glory. And yet, Genghis’ name is still widely known. Ancient Egyptians believed that as long as your name exists, you live. Interesting that a boy from those empty steppes still lives throughout much of the world, isn’t it?
(Part 1) | Part 2