This extensive work accurately reflects life in Mongolia and for its inhabitants, in the world of the 21st century. Awesome images are interspersed with enthralling narrative reports, Mongolian legends and descriptions of Mongolian places of interest. This unique book concept is topped off with over 30 interviews with a wide range of Mongolians, including one with the Olympic bronze medal winner at shooting, Munkhbayar Dorjsuren, who is a member of the German Olympic Team. It is considered as the standard work on Mongolia.
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Mongolia – Faces of a Nation
Dashaa – The Shaman
German Lessons in Ulaanbaatar
Choijin Lam Sum Temple Museum
The legend: ”White Tara“
The legend: “River Tuul“
Takhis or Przewalski’s Horses
Baigaljav – The Horse Head Fiddle Maker
The legend: “Khukhuu Namjil“
The Mongolian Family
Tsaagan Arkhi (Vodka of the Mongolian steppes)
The Camel Festival in Bulgan Sum
Nergui – The Gold Hunter
The legend: “The three Beauties“
Meetings in the South Gobi
Tooroi Bandi – The Mongolian Robin Hood
The good men of Tooroi Bandi: “The Oath“
Zunduidavag – The Old Burjate
The legend: “Amarbayasgalant“
With the Tsaatan
The legend: “Silver tree“
Naadam – The Three Games of Men
The legend: “Tsagaan Nuur“
1,700 Kilometres by Post Bus
Aishok – The Little Schoolgirl
Murat – The Furnace Builder
The legend: “Seven Suns“
Kairatkhan – The Eagle Hunter
The Nines of Winter in Mongolia
The Kazakhstani Family
During the numerous trips that I have made to Mongolia, I have been bombarded by a wealth of new and unfamiliar impressions. The natural world, so rich in contrasts, brings many surprises with its distinctive characteristics, all of which make this Central Asian country so unique.
But it was the open-hearted and hospitable character that the people showed towards me as a foreigner, which awakened my greatest affection and fondness. I was deeply moved and affected by being able to participate in their lives, to experience their genuine satisfaction at their modest and frugal existence and to share their happiness and their concerns, both large and small. Over time, passing acquaintances have grown to become firm and lasting friendships and my Mongolian friends were happy for me to join them at family celebrations and to become a part of their personal activities.
I have experienced a country undergoing change. The focus is no longer on being the homeland of the great Mongolian Chinggis Khaan but on the current situation within its society and the fate of the individuals that make up that society. The people are facing a period of rapid development and are having to handle and come to terms with the conflict between the modern and the traditional, with the mix of poverty and wealth and with the situation of shortages and excess. And all of this results in attitudes and behaviour that can be contradictory and inconsistent.
I am delighted to be able to let you share in the encounters and experiences that I have had. This book, “Mongolia – Faces of a Nation”, reflects the events and the feeling of closeness to the people that I was privileged to experience on my trips through this fascinating country.
The initiation ceremony of Dashaa the Shaman has not yet started when I reach the weekend house north of Ulaanbaatar. Children are playing around the parked cars. A man on a horse moves through the assembled guests. I look around, searching for a familiar face. Then I hear my name being called out. Dashaa’s friends and relatives are waiting for me in the shade of the house. Battulga, who I am also meeting here, says somewhat ambiguously, that the evocation of the spirits will only be successful once I am present. I doubt that to be the case, but his serious expression makes me unsure. I notice a few pensive looks. For some, the upcoming ceremony seems to be a bit disconcerting and they question what the unusual family gathering portends. To welcome us, we are all given a small silver chalice as we arrive, Agenately filled with milk and vodka. To start with, the chalice has to be offered up to heaven accompanied by expansive gestures and then the contents have to be downed in one. At the same time, you are meant to whisper your most secret wishes.
Eight years earlier, Dashaa had visited a Shaman society in the capital, in order to give support to a friend of his. His friend’s mother was seriously ill and it was uncertain how long she still had to live. When Dashaa started questioning the Shamans, they became infuriated and dismissed him angrily. Scared and intimated, he asked them why they were reacting like that. They told him that they saw in him a connection with heaven. His ancestors had also been Shaman. He should be able to know himself what the fate of his friend’s mother would be. Confused and alienated by the experience, the two friends went home.
Dashaa started to suffer from fainting fits accompanied by allergic skin reactions, which he had never had before the meeting. He visited four Mongolian Shamans, who all pronounced the same judgement: “You have been selected! You must become a Shaman! The fainting fits should be seen as a sign from heaven. If you don’t take this path, something bad will happen to you in the future.” After a long period of reflection and consideration, Dashaa decided to become a Shaman. In his normal life, he is a gallery owner and an artist, a quiet, reserved man who enjoys life surrounded by the security of his family. It is not easy to take on board the trappings of Shamanism as an older person, so, Dashaa secured the services of an older, very experienced lady teacher who was able to give him advice and support in all aspects of the faith.
Now the old Shaman lady is attired for the ceremony. As her assistants move around her making the preparations, I see the colours of the garment flashing. The light of the midday sun captures every detail. The sky is a cloudless, transparent blue. We are led into the garden and positioned in a large circle. The circle stands empty, its centre still concealed. Scarcely any of the spectators appear to know what awaits us. And Battulga’s comment keeps going round in my head. I ask myself how I should behave. As Dashaa’s friend, I am one of the invited guests and am allowed to photograph the ceremony as it unfolds. That is a mark of trust and I don’t want to make any mistakes. Fortunately, I have my camera to hand and as soon as I start to take some pictures, I feel more secure. But I am aware of the effect it will have on others and I have to respect that.
Next to me, I hear Dashaa’s father talking. He is looking towards the man standing next to him and both are talking about the cost of the weekend house that is still in the early stages of construction. An ear-splitting drumming interrupts the conversation and as if she has sprung up out of the ground, the Shaman lady is standing behind me. Shocked by her sudden appearance, I move to one side. Accompanied by rhythmic drumbeats, further gestures and gyrations of her upper body, the Shaman teacher dances into the circle made by the spectators. Everyone is looking at the whirling figure. The hollow, pulsating beats, the sounds and the movements, the drumming and the dancing all merge into one. It cannot be long until she achieves a state of trance. She falls heavily to the ground. She has sensed the nearness of the spirit. Now her young assistants bring forward some selected persons who may use this opportunity to question her about their fate. I see a mix of anxiety, hope and joy in their faces and their reactions and the sheer horror as she pushes one of them away violently. The spirit that has invaded her, has cast this person out.
The whole thing lasts about half an hour. Once she has awoken from her trance, it is Dashaa’s turn. He plays the same rhythm on his Jew’s harp over and over again until he too falls into a trance. It is still not certain whether Dashaa is suited at all to being a medium. Doggedly continuing to play on a small Jew’s harp, he summons up the spirit. It is noticeable that he interjects the same beat time after time. He appears to be weighed down by respect and awe. It can never be predicted which spirit will come to the Shamans. It can be one of several spirits who, with their different characters, can cause distress to even an experienced Shaman. I sense a very wild and angry spirit is showing itself through Dashaa. The sight of my friend as he dances like a dervish, clad in his costume covered with small tinkling bells, sends shivers up and down my spine.
Dashaa sits at a table that has been prepared for him and starts eating and drinking. The food disappears in no time. More buuz, Mongolian dumplings filled with meat, have to be fetched in order to satisfy the hunger of the Shaman student. Or the hunger of the spirit, who consumes vodka like water and devours unbelievable amounts of food. Unsavoury lip-smacking and grunting come from his direction. I have to keep remembering that behind the black fringes of the mask is my good friend, who I met and got to know during the winter as a clever and gifted businessman, dressed in a pin-striped suit.
After the feeding frenzy is over, the bizarre creature abruptly tips the table over. He adopts a threatening posture and begins to dance around the dumbfounded guests, pulsating violently to the Shaman drum, which shatters under the heavy blows. The spirit calls one of Dashaa’s relatives to him and concealing nothing, lays bare the shocked and frightened man’s future. Ashen-faced he listens as his fate is revealed. The spirit then throws Dashaa to his knees and gesticulates towards the bearskin that is hanging over a chair in the garden, in preparation for the ceremony. Immediately, an assistant brings the bearskin to him. Nobody wants to antagonise the spirit that now seems to be out of control. It checks the bearskin to see whether it is acceptable, together with the boots that Dashaa will wear later as a Shaman. Contemptuously, the objects are hurled back at the feet of the young assistant.
Gradually, the bells start to fall silent and the drumbeats die away. The Shaman student becomes quieter and awakes from his trance. His companions help him out of the robes. I also go up to my friend. Surrounded by his friends and relatives, he sits on a chair in the garden, exhausted. Does he know how much he has eaten and drunk? He says no. Dashaa has no recollection of what has just happened.
More sessions are needed to be able to function as a Shaman. This however was one of the most important of all the sessions as here the spirits drew close to Dashaa and showed their trust and confidence in him.
The spirit has taken possession of him.
Dashaa during the Shaman ceremony.
A strange feeling creeps over me. Somewhat nervously, I stand in front of the group of unknown language students, made up of young people between 18 and 24 who are taking a course at a Mongolian college or who are working and want to learn German from me at an evening class. The main reason why they take on this extra workload is their strong desire to study in a German-speaking country in Europe. I had already made some preparations for this challenge before I left Germany and had copied a few worksheets. Apart from a plastic sheet screwed to the wall instead of a chalk board, the room doesn’t offer me any other teaching aids.
Several thousand kilometres from home, I will be teaching here as a “native speaker”. Bathed in the glaring light of the fluorescent tubes, I start the lesson for the twenty students. My concept and approach is first to ask a few questions where we will discuss the answers in German before reading a German text together. As I write the question “What is typically German for you?” on the plastic board, I get a unanimous response: “diligence and punctuality”. These “German characteristics” are already established in the consciousness of the Mongolian students or perhaps they have already experienced them?
I am so surprised by the thirst for knowledge shown by the young people and the excellent level of knowledge they already have about Germany, I am scarcely able to express my admiration adequately. I learn that most of their parents studied in the former East Germany and that today some of them have well-paid jobs in Ulaanbaatar. I am grateful to this fact for the large interest in my seminar. The curiosity shown in the German teacher and his teaching methods is enormous. During the first sessions, the small room threatens to burst at the seams. As the head of the private school confirms to me, there has never been so many students attending German lessons!
The desire for punctuality is particularly relevant. The only problem is that it is very difficult to achieve this here. The indescribable traffic chaos in the capital usually makes it impossible to keep to agreed appointments. The Mongolian metropolis doesn’t have any functioning public transportation network in the shape of underground trains or trams. Instead of this, the streets are gridlocked by vast numbers of cars because the bus routes are just as overloaded as the privately operated microbuses.
I live near the Dragon terminus in the west of the city. Overland and post buses set off on their journeys to the far-flung, remote parts of the country from this station. If there is not much traffic, I can get to Sukhbaatar Square where the school is located in ten to twelve minutes on one of the municipal buses. However, on a late winter afternoon, I need sixty to ninety minutes. The traffic problem is a logistical challenge facing the city. Population levels are rising and the amount of traffic is increasing correspondingly. A large bridge-building project will take years to complete. An underground train system is technically very difficult to achieve as the city is criss-crossed by a network of subterranean district heating pipes.
So I also have a problem with punctuality. But the fact that we are all faced with the same issues provides a common bond for me and the students and we start to get to know each other.
The owner of the school invites me for a meal at a top-flight restaurant. We sit at a table for two in the almost empty dining area. She tells me that only half the expected number of students has enrolled for the Chinese course this semester. Even English is not particularly attractive as a foreign language for the young people attending this school. I try to explain the interest in the course I am offering by saying that in the light of the global economic situation, German is a language with a future, even though I know that in practical terms, this is not really the case. The Mongolians have a strong resentment against the Chinese, particularly because of the difficult relationship that has existed between the two countries in the past. Currently it is the cheap, low-quality “Made in China” products that are flooding the markets in Ulaanbaatar, which are causing the Mongolians to adopt a rather sceptical approach to their southern neighbours.
One semester at the private school with two lessons a day, five days a week, costs 600 US$. This is a lot of money that not even the parents with better paid jobs can easily scrape together. For that reason, the students’ expectations of receiving a successful education are very high and they do everything in their power to achieve their dreams. After graduating in Germany, Austria or Switzerland they will return to Mongolia in order to drive the economic progress of their country forwards. “Homeland is homeland”, is the answer to my question as to where they would want to live later on. I hear this time and again during my many conversations with a very wide range of people across Mongolia.
How responsibly they approach the utilisation of the immense natural resources that Mongolia has, will have a significant, global impact. The build-up of commerce and industry, the protection of the natural environment and the improvement of living standards are also core topics that are already being critically assessed and discussed in schools and colleges. In my opinion, these young Mongolians are the highly motivated generation that the country will need in the future, as it emerges into the globalised world.
The traffic in Ulaanbaatar is getting heavier every year.
Ulaanbaatar is the capital of Mongolia and almost half of the country’s population of 3 million lives there. At 1,570,000 km2, Mongolia is over four times the size of Germany. In winter, temperatures in the “coldest capital city in the world” get down to below -40°C.
There are obvious signs of change in the country, particularly in respect of the economic situation. Up until current times, sheep, goats, cattle, horses and camels, once Mongolia’s five principal resources, have provided the cornerstone of the population’s existence. For millennia, they have been able to live well from the products of these animals; products such as wool, meat and milk. More recently, the mining of natural resources has been intensified. Coal, copper, gold and rare earth elements represent an enormous potential for the future of the country, which is facing both a cultural and an ideological metamorphosis.
The cityscape of Ulaanbaatar is dominated increasingly by large off-road vehicles. In earlier days, the mode of transport of choice was a fast Nomad horse. Today it is more usually American gas-guzzlers and other western status symbols.
Ulaanbaatar – Sukhbaatar Square in the centre of the capital.
This Buddhist monastery was established between 1904 and 1908 and at that time, it was the residence of the state Oracle. The holder of this office was Luvsankhaidav, a younger brother of the Bogd Gegeen, the first living Buddhist leader Zanabazar, who introduced Lamaism to the Mongolian people in the 17th century.
If important decisions had to be made for the state, the Oracle was called upon to pronounce on the right decision for the future. The site consists of five temples, which fortunately escaped mostly undamaged and unscathed from the anti-Lamaism campaign during the country’s socialist era. Tradition says that Choibalsan, the socialist dictator in power at the time, personally removed the site from the list of cultural heritage sites that were to be destroyed.
Most of the items on show have been collected together from different sites throughout the country. They give an interesting and richly varied overview of the historic and cultural development of Mongolia, right up to the 1930s. The museum also contains the rooms where the Oracle was sent into a trance, in order to be able to make the desired pronouncements and predictions. Again, tradition says that secret, Tantric rituals were also held here.
Throughout the temple, you will find images and statues of the green Tara of Zanabazar. She was the favourite deity of the master and is venerated at almost every family altar set up in Mongolian jurtes. One of the things most worth seeing is a bronze stupa, which was made in India in the 10th century and was brought single-handedly to Mongolia by Zanabazar. The well preserved Tsam masks are amongst the museum’s treasures. These fearsome objects originate from 18th century Tibet and were brought from there to Mongolia where, as a result, even more magnificent and impressive masks have been developed. Particularly impressive is the representation of the deity Jamsran that is decorated with about 7,000 pieces of coral.
Choijin Lam Sum Temple Museum in Ulaanbaatar.
Temple Museum Choijin Lam Sum in Ulaanbaatar.
Temple Museum Choijin Lam Sum in Ulaanbaatar.
The Gandan monastery or Gandantegchinlen Khiid was established in 1838. Between 1911 and 1913, a palace was built in honour of the then eighth and last Bogd Javzandamba, with the Megjid Janaraiseg statue. The reason for the construction was the fact that Javzandamba had lost his sight. Megjid Janaraiseg means “God who watches over all living things and who looks in all directions”. At 30 metres high, it was the tallest construction in the settlement at the time. Javzandamba lived in this temple until his death. It contained a gilded statue of Buddha, 26 metres high.
Gandan is the most important and the largest Buddhist monastery in Mongolia and is located in the capital Ulaanbaatar. It represents the Buddhist focus for the country. During the anti-Lamaism campaign in 1937, all the larger temples in the monastery were razed to the ground and the gilded statue was also removed to be made into munitions. Nobody knew exactly where the statue was taken to. It was probably taken to the then Soviet Union. Practically all the monks in the monastery were murdered at this time. In 1944, parts of the monastery were reopened. It was only used as a place of worship rather than as a monastery in the true sense of the word. During the Communist era, the years from 1944 to 1990, there was no other place of Buddhist worship in Mongolia other than Gandan. In this time, the state administration had a certain influence on the monks and vice-versa. The highest priority was given to the control of those who professed the Buddhist faith.
In 1996, the newly rebuilt Megjid Janaraiseg statue, made out of 19 tons of gilded bronze and taking 6 years to build, was returned to its original location in the Megjid Janaraiseg Temple, in a solemn ceremony. Today, within the enclaves of the monastery there are six temples with the names Dashchoinpel, Gungaachoilin, Idgaachoinjinlin, Jud, Megjid Janaraiseg and Dechengalba, a university, a library, a school for the creation of statues of Buddha and a general elementary school. The students in the so-called vocational school learn about the making of statues of Buddha and the painting of the Buddhist tapestries, tankas. Pupils at the elementary school are taught the same subjects as in all other elementary schools. Anyone can choose to go there. The library contains over 48,000 books, including 101 volumes of the Golden Ganjuur, the Buddhist catechisms. The courses offered by the university, which was established in 1970, include Buddhist Philosophy, Astrology and TMM (Traditional Mongolian Medicine). Currently, a staff of 14 lecturers are available to teach the 210 students.
One artefact remaining from the original Gandan is worth a mention. It is an old wooden beam that survived the wave of destruction that swept through the country in 1937. Mongolian Buddhists still revere this time-witness from the past, today. It is located not far away from the current Megjid Janaraiseg Temple, somewhat removed from the centre of activity.
Das größte Kloster in Ulaanbaatar – Gandantegchinlen Khiid mit der goldenen Janaraiseg-Statue.
When Buddha saw the hard life that the people were living, he started to weep. And the 21 tears he shed turned into the 21 female Taras. The Taras are good spirits for all mankind and they symbolise humanity. Twenty of the Taras sit in an open cross-legged position, so that they can stand up quickly if someone needs their help. Only the White Tara sits in the so-called lotus or closed cross-legged position, as she has eyes in the soles of her feet and in the palms of her hands so that she can observe and protect the people.
Many years ago, there lived an elderly married couple who had just one son. When the father died suddenly, the son set off into the world to study. “Go my son and study while I am still alive,” said his mother. “I will wait for you and when you return, please bring a White Tara with you,” she continued. The young man went to Tibet, and through his studies achieved enlightenment. He lived a contented life and completely forgot about his mother. On his return in autumn, he didn’t know where to look for his mother as she might already have moved into winter quarters. He also didn’t know what she would look like after the long years of his absence. He was worried that he wouldn’t recognise her again. Suddenly, he belatedly remembered his mother’s parting request to him and wondered what he should do. As he didn’t have a White Tara, he picked up a white stone from the ground and wrapped it in a khadag, a blue Mongolian prayer cloth. When he found his mother, she asked him whether he had studied a lot in Tibet and whether he had fulfilled her request. The son replied by telling her that he had studied a great deal abroad and that indeed, he had brought her a White Tara. He asked his mother however not to unwrap it and always to keep it covered by the khadag. For three years, his mother prayed to the white stone in the hope that it was a White Tara. When she reached eighty, she felt that her time had come to die. She begged her son to be allowed to see the White Tara. There was no way out for the young man and he unwrapped the white stone. To his great surprise and relief however, the stone had actually turned into a White Tara, thanks to the firm and devout belief that the mother had had in her son.
The King of Heaven had three extremely beautiful daughters. The oldest of the three was called Kherlen, the middle one was called Onon and the youngest was called Tuul. After the three sisters had grown up and reached adulthood, the king married off his oldest daughter to the Pacific. The middle daughter was married to a foreign sea. The youngest daughter however, remained single and stayed at home with her father. The two elder daughters never paid any attention to their aging father and also never returned to their homeland once they were married. This displeased their father greatly and he said to the two of them that he never wanted to see them again because they were married so far away from home. For that reason, they were forbidden from ever returning home again. Since this time, the rivers Kherlen gol and Onon gol flow out of the country while the river Tuul gol remains in Mongolia.
The Sky Resort is a skiing paradise outside the gates of the city that attracts a lot of visitors in the winter.
Here at the Khar zakh (Black Market), the residents of Ulaanbaatar buy there daily provisions.
Przewalski was a Russian explorer of Central Asia. In 1878, he visited Mongolia. During his visit, he found bones and skin from a strange horse. After his return, he had his find investigated in St. Petersburg, where it was ascertained that the items must originate from a wild, primordial horse. In 1881, this breed was officially given the name Przewalski’s Horse.
The last example of the animal living freely in Mongolia was observed back in 1969. In 1992, following breeding programmes run by various European zoos, the horses were released back into the wild in Mongolia. One of the game reserves where they can be seen today is the Khustain Nuruu National Park close to Ulaanbaatar.
The takhis or Przewalski horses can be seen not far from Ulaanbaatar in the Khustain Nuruu National Park.
The master craftsman welcomes us with open arms. In front of us, stands one of the best and most well-known horse head fiddle makers in Mongolia. I look down the narrow passage to his workshop. Baigaljav invites us to follow him as he first takes us into his office. There, we are safe from the noises of the work going on; hammering, drilling, polishing and the whine of an electric saw. Baigaljav grew up in Odmaa’s hometown. He speaks like Odmaa without any appreciable dialect, as all the residents from the South Gobi. As we start to talk, he tells us very kindly that we can take us much time as we want.
He says that it was an unusual experience he had as a child that lead him to his calling. It was predestined for him, which is why he can talk of a calling or a vocation. I can just imagine him as a small child, listening to a musician as he played a Morin Khuur. In the vastness and the loneliness of the desert, the sounds of the instrument must have seemed to him to have been a gift sent from heaven.
Baigaljav trained as an instrument maker in a company run by the socialist state, the only organisation in Mongolia where horse head fiddles were made. In 1989, after the peaceful revolution, he had the chance to set up his own company, Egshiglen Magnai - Musical Instrumental Co. Ltd. It took him two years to make all the preparations but then the founding of the company proceeded as planned, with the active support of his wife. To start with, they made instruments to order for one dealer. Nine years down the line, business is going very well, well enough indeed to open his own shop in Ulaanbaatar. He is now 52 and has a staff of 40 employees.
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