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The Mongolian Bloom

September 7, 2011

For the past week or so I have been driving around the Mongolian steppes diving into the Mongolian real. It’s been an amazing journey and I can really say that this has been one of the most transformative experiences of my life.


Oh, infinite blue sky, verdant yurt-peppered countryside, eagles in the sky, and you animals munching on the ground, show them your Mongolian dance.

Dirt-covered farmers, show them what it is like to be real.

These are Mongolian yurts, known here as gers. Driving through the countryside, there are no hotels, there are no wal-marts or strip malls obscuring the sky, and there really aren’t that many people to be found (in fact, Mongolia is the most least-densely populated country on the planet.) What there is is grass (well, in the north anyway), and lots of it. Driving through the steppes, you’ll find little specks of life now and then through the sight of a family’s ger and their livestock (sheep, goats, and cows mostly) grazing around by the hundred. The Mongolians are a nomadic people that pack their homes up and move every three months or so so that their animals will have a fresh supply of grass to munch on. There really isn’t much agriculture as growing plants is a long-term investment that really just can’t be invested in when you’re packing up and moving every few months, and this is reflected in the Mongolian cuisine, which consists primarily of meat and milk products. The food here really sticks to your bones and always leaves you feeling well-fed, but if you are either lactose intolerant or a vegetarian visiting the country, you are basically fucked.

here’s an example of what you might see at lunch here. I believe this was a plate of fatty lamb and horse meat.

This is my friend and comrade who drove me around in his jeep for the last week. His name is Udensern (sp?). He doesn’t speak much English, and when we set out into the countryside, I flipped through the Mongolian phrasebook that I had brought with me to wiggle past our language barrier and found that “Mr. Chairman!” was one of the words translated under the name/titles section, and for the rest of the trip, this became his name (khundet daragaa in Mongolian) and a running joke that had us laughing the whole time we were together. I feel very fortunate to have spent the time I did with the chairman; he taught me how to be a man, the Mongolian way.

I think most people who travel around with hired drivers just sort of use their drivers as a means to an end and treat them like hired-servants. The chairman needed to make a living and I gave him some of my money so he could do so, but he was not a purchased service, he was my friend. Traveling around Mongolia with him I kept feeling like I was living inside of a Hayao Miyazaki film. The Chairman will be missed.

This is what the inside of a ger looks like. They are actually quite spacious. You can fit up to 4 beds inside them, though 2 is the norm, where the rest of the space is used for a shrine if the family is Buddhist (~80% of the country is) and other homely Mongolian touches, like sinks, dining room tables with chairs, and the surprisingly ubiquitous TV sets!

Here’s a picture of a TV set inside of a family’s ger. Most of the time the electronics in the gers (TVs, cell-phone chargers, CB-radios, lamps, etc.) are powered by car batteries.

When you’re traveling around the countryside you’ll undoubtedly be sleeping in a ger. Most of the time you’ll be staying at a ger camp, which is basically the Mongolian equivalent of a travelers inn, where dinner and breakfast are included and you have a whole ger to yourself where you can sit in its warmth and think about the things that you have seen in your life before drifting off into sleep.

Here is the furnace that you will find in every ger you enter. The furnace really is the heart of the ger, as it is the source of heat for both your body and the food that you will prepare on its surface.


With every meal of the day and all of the spaces in between you will find yourself drinking cup upon cup of “milk tea,” which is really just hot milk (unless you decide to steep a teabag in it, which isn’t a bad idea). The taste of the milk here is a world away from the milk you will buy from a supermarket in the US, which, after all the processing that it goes through, ends up tasting like white water.

milk tea

Top of ger where the smoke from the furnace exits the top through a metal tube. All the wood in this photo is basically the entire skeletal structure of a Mongolian ger.

Buddhist shrine at the head of a ger

solar panel providing power to a ger!

The gers can be disassembled or reassembled in less than an hour. Coming from the western world, I have been brought up with an idea in my head that man has a sort of permanent rooting on this planet. Yes, one day I will die and the cities that I have lived in will change over time, but there is still the existence of human civilization, regardless of its constant flux, that shows our species to be, well, here. In Mongolia, this isn’t really the case. UB aside, the whole country could literally just pack up and leave if they wanted to, and that’s sort of what they have been doing for thousands of years. This non-attachment to the environment as well as the sheer vastness and extremeness of the environment that the Mongolians inhabit definitely plays a strong role in shaping the way that they see the world. It’s easy to see why Buddhism caught on in these lands.

There is a certain robustness to the Mongolian people that I really haven’t seen anywhere else in the world.

Just a sliver of one man’s livestock. The chairman liked to roll down his window and make yak noises at them.

This tasty beverage, airag, is a Mongolian favorite. Airag is fermented horse milk and has about a 3% alcohol content to it. Call me strange, but I love the stuff. If you’ve ever had kefir, it actually tastes a bit similar, though more sweet and less potent. Herdsmen fill leather sacks with the stuff inside of their gers and will gladly fill up an old liter bottle of soda or two for you for a few bucks.

A tasty Mongolian snack that you will find anywhere near a coniferous forest–pine nuts! The chairman and I would crunch our way through hundreds of these little seeds while we were on the road. They taste a bit like pine trees smell.

You can by pine nuts by the bagfull from people selling them on top of cardboard boxes in Ulaanbaatar, or you can buy (or forage) a few of them and eat them the fun way. Driving up towards Russia there are a lot of pine forests and you can climb up the trees and start kicking branches until you have enough pine cones to last you days!

Bactrian camels are a lot quicker than the one-humped camels you’ll find in the middle east and sort of bounce around tweaking like crackheads. They’re really soft and they make strange high-pitched sqealy noises.

This is what as known as a deer stone (bugan chuluu). They’re usually found in groups here and there in the middle of nowhere in the steppes. It is believed that they were constructed around 1000 BCE and nobody there is no real consensus as to what the stones were erected for, though most people say that they are religious and were symbolically significant in funerary rights. It’s believed by some that the deer displayed on the stone (might not be able to see from the photo) sort of carried the spirit away off to the afterlife. Its really powerful being around them.

This is a rope made from khadaks, a sort of holy scarf that is placed in places to make them pure and holy (or to designate them as pure and holy). You’ll find them waving in the air tied to tree branches in forests and draped around shamanic shrines found all over the country. They are a part of nature here and they fit quite well.

a shamanic shrine. deeply spiritual and unsettling in a way.

khadaks hanging from a VERY holy shrine on top of a mountain.

A lot of my travels throughout the country involved visiting Buddhist monasteries around the countryside. My heart felt at home.

The Buddhism here comes from Tibet, and this is reflected both in the artwork and in the teachings.

Buddhism is a religion that just goes well with the vastness of the blue sky.

Most of the monasteries were wiped out by the Soviets in the early part of the last century, but since the move away from communism in 1990 the monasteries are really starting to thrive again.

Common symbol in Buddhist art symbolizing the Buddha’s first sermon at Deer Park

a large prayer wheel on the ascent up to a stuppa

Part of the mountain monastery built by the very well-respected Buddhist artist Zanazabar

Although there are Buddhist nuns in many countries around the world, there’s still a good deal of persecution against women in many Buddhist traditions, particularly in places where men like to make pilgrimages to holy mountains. The Japanese “blood bowl sutra” is an interesting misogynistic read and offers a bit of insight into the issue.

The Buddhist thangka and silk work here is incredibly detailed.

old turtle statue, middle of nowhere.

Enormous monument to Chinngis Khan at Tsonjin Boldog (also middle of nowhere), where he found his famous golden whip.

Horse riding and archery have been a way of Mongolian life for a very long time. It is interesting to think of how current theories state that it was the Mongolians who walked across the land bridge at the Bering Strait and populated North America. The cultures definitely seem to match in many ways (horse riding, archery, closeness to nature, shamanism, similarities between tipis and gers, etc.) and in being here I feel like I am living within a culture that I had previously thought to exist as a sort of ghost in the wind.

I nearly died taking this photo.

The Mongolians love wrestling and are currently wreaking havoc in the Sumo rings around Japan.

As I said earlier, a lot of food here is made from solidified milk products. These foods usually take the form of crunchy snacks that have the shelf life of a year or two. They are referred to collectively as “white foods”. These sticks in my hand are a common treat, nutritious and sweet.

Mongolia has recently become a center for politics in this part of the globe, as it is on the whole on good terms with all of the countries around it. Part of this has to do with Mongolia’s recent discovery that nearly the entire country is sitting on top of mineral reserves. The Mongolians are digging up their dirt fast, and as they do they are raking in the cash. People seem to be very positive towards the selling of the minerals and the financial rewards that they bring in (Mongolia currently has the fastest climbing GDP in the world by a longshot), but some, especially outsiders to the country who have seen and studied the destructive powers of fast modernization throughout history, are apprehensive. I met a girl whose sister worked at one of the mines and I was actually given the opportunity to tour one of the facilities.

Mining for copper that has been going on since the 70’s.

The inside of a coal refinery

Coal sludge. The smell was intoxicating and as it slowly infused into my lungs I kept thinking to myself that this cannot be good for the environment. After touring the facilities, the people who showed me around kept asking me how great I thought the plant was. I was apprehensive to call it great, but I told them instead that it was impressive, and it was.

If you want to watch a really good film (one of my favorites) that shows an interesting glimpse of many elements of Mongolian life, you should watch the movie Khadak (2006). The skeletal structure of the film is based around an apprehension towards the country’s move towards modernization and the beauty of the rural. It was made by a group of Europeans, however, and does not necessarily portray the current situation in Mongolia as the Mongolians themselves view it, but I think this is part of the point. It may be a little difficult to find, but it’s well worth the search. It’s intense.

If you aren’t sleeping at a ger camp, chances are you’ll be sleeping in the home of some Mongolians! The people here are incredibly hospitable and the Western mentality of privatized land and properties really does not exist here. Show up at someone’s ger door and chances are you’ll find yourself inside drinking milk tea and being a part of the family.

This little guy is probably going to be the world’s next sumo champion. He would twirl around and jump on the ground practicing being cute and fearless. This photo is of him hiding from a butterfly that flew into the ger.

Mom dressed him all up for the cold weather outside

One of the less-graphic photos of the butchering of a lamb. I do not like how far removed we are from the reality of an animal’s death to provide our food we are in the West. I always thought that being closer to this reality would heighten my appreciation for animal meat, but to the contrary, it has moved me closer to vegetarianism. Taking a life is a very serious thing.

Pictured here is the Mongolian Takhi horse. They are very rare and are acually the only wild horse in the world (all other horse species have been produced though a strict process of human-controlled natural selection to produce the domestic breeds that we have today). In the 1970’s the Takhi actually went completely extinct in the wild on the planet. A few of the horses existed in European zoos, and during the past 20 years the Takhi have slowly begun to be reintroduced and repopulated into their Mongolian homeland. I believe there are about 120 in Mongolia today.

Tomorrow I’m setting off to the Gobi. As you can tell, my writings on this project might not be very frequent, but when there are updates, they’ll be nice big and fat.


From → Mongolia

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