Travelers enter the world into which they journey, but tourists bring with them their own world and never clearly see the one they are in. –Thomas Cook
I have mud on my sandals, cat hair all over my clothes and they smell like cat piss. It’s been a miserable day all around. Rain has been falling for the last few days, today even with greater force than the preceding ones. The dog next door barked all night, the black dog protecting the people in the yurt next door. The neighbor dog and Oyun’s dog keep up a kind of litany and response cycle out of boredom since no one seems to care.
The dog came by way of Urantuul, Oyun’s daughter, who when she had her baby, Tushik, the dog moved in with Oyun for a few weeks so the first-time mom could get her bearings. That was two years ago and the dog still lives on Oyun’s balcony and can’t enter the flat because of the two nasty, hair-shedding cats. Everything I brought with me smells of cat piss. With all the cat hair clinging to my clothes, I must resemble a Yeti.
Oyun and Urantull
I have suggested in my other journals that Oyun and her daughter are often at odds: “We have some problems,” Oyun sighs. Yea, like Grant had a few spats with Lee. Their conflict is rooted in both their personalities as well as the cultural climate in which they grew up.
Oyun and her daughter are pro-Mongolia. Pro-democracy. The only life Oyun has known until the 90’s was as a “socialist girl,” to quote her phrase. Now Urantuul was born after the Russian pullout and after Mongolian independence. Oyun learned Russian and Mongolian in school and speaks Russian as well as a native Muscovite. She likes Russian movies, Russian pop music, and Russian ice cream, as do I. Now her daughter is all about the future. She is one of the lucky ones here in UlaanBaatar who has a job and so does her husband Hushla. They represent the newish Yuppie set, certainly upper middle class and drive a rather nice Nissin SUV.
To make a long story short, both women are very independent and not afraid to speak their mind. Oyun wants respect from her daughter. The daughter thinks her ways are better than her old-fashioned mother. Oyun wants peace in her family, so she has a difficult time playing a mother’s “tough love” trump card.
Yesterday Oyun met a girl friend who needed a shoulder to cry on—a breakup with the boyfriend, a domineering mother and a lot of depression. So Oyun and Munkhaul (Mung Zool) spent a few hours together and then Oyun went to see her daughter to give her some time away from the baby so she could do some work in her home office on commercial graphic designs. When Oyun got there, Urantuul told her mother to go home because “you are late and I don’t need a babysitter now.” When she got back to the flat, she just smiled and tried to put a game face on. But she has anger in her. I know it.
Oyun raised two babies during the first years after Mongolian independence. The stories she has told me of those years would bring tears to the hardest of hearts. It was a time of chaos, few rules, and a new government that had no compass and even if it had one, would not have known how to read it. And there was little or no work for a woman divorced from a man who drank all the time and had no time for her or his family. Only his horses. He was country; she was a city girl. Yes, it’s a cliché and tiresome, but it still contains a little hunk of truth distilled from the experience of a culture.
A Cultural Paradox
Oyun and her daughter’s relationship is an interesting and significant metaphor that is Mongolian in 2015.
Urantull looks steadily to the future and she and her husband carry many eggs in separate baskets and are excited by the infinite possibilities that may be ahead of them. On the other hand, Oyun has said on different occasions that she has no future. Oyun often talks about the “good old days” during “socialist times” when she did have a future. Times were good and she was happy and life had a point to it. Now all she sees is darkness. What future does a 54-year-old woman have in this new independent country at this point in its struggle for economic stability for its people?
She sees herself in a stagnant job, a teacher in an educational system that has so many cracks in its foundation that it could collapse at any moment. Her immediate superior who makes curriculum decisions is an accountant. He has no training as an educator, yet the school where she teaches is being piloted by The Hairy Ape from the belly of the ship rather than a skilled professional captain.
Her life will never get any better than it is now. Each month she has to put off paying some bills to cover unpaid bills from the last month. She often has to borrow money from her daughter, which often gives her daughter the opportunity to criticize her mother’s decisions about her apartment or how Oyun makes her daughter’s bed when she babysits. In the way, the roles of mother and daughter have reversed in this family and the 28-year-old daughter seems to have in some ways wrenched control of parts of her 54-year-old mother’s life.
Mother and daughter have very different perspectives and that is not all that uncommon in any culture, of course. But the gap between mother and daughter widens each year. Mongolia’s past surrounds us as we travel through this city. And in the countryside it is felt more strongly. Mongolia dwells on its past when it celebrates age old sports, the sainthood status of Ghengus Kahn, folk medicine, and an economy that depends heavily both on the herding of animals and tourism as the bulwark of its economy.
The Mongolian National Games
The other day we took off to explore the biggest celebration of the year, The Mongolian National Games. Now when you hear this you naturally think of boxing, basketball (yes, Mongolia has pro basketball), swimming, volleyball, etc. But no, you are not Mongolian. The great summer celebration is all about three ancient sports that are near and dear to the hearts of every Mongolian: traditional wrestling (a mini-sumo style), archery, and horse racing.
Like Oyun and her daughter, Mongolia is both about the past as well as the future. Half the population has jobs that pay the bills. I see many Land Rovers, Audi’s, and even yellow Hummers around the city The other half have either poor jobs and barely make it month to month, like Oyun, a highly educated teacher, or there are the thousands who are homeless, no job, no home, no nothing.
On our way to the site of the National Games we walked to the bus stop which was about 4 kilometers away (yes, I’m getting used to Celsius, liters, and meters. And on our way to catch a bus, I spotted a couple of hundred men huddled in little patches, like weeds, along the streets we walked, with a few women mixed in, sharing a bottle of vodka. In Mongolia vodka is the choice of both homeless as well as bank vice-presidents. When the Russians went back home, they left the Mongols, good sewers, ugly but efficient government buildings, and a strong hankering for vodka.
Yesterday we came home in the rain; and the road down Oyun’s lane was a mud pit that we navigated like a minefield. In all that muck and the downpour, we passed three men asleep or passed out on the ground next to one of those blue shipping containers you see on trains moving cheap jock straps and raspberry jam from Timbuktu to Jehoshaphat.
Passing the guys on their backs--drunk or homeless or both--is not a pretty sight. But homelessness is one of the bitter truths about Mongolia and, of course, many large cities around the world.
The Triad of Traditional Sports
While Mongolia moves further into the 21st Century, it also honors its past. The National Games brings in Mongolians from all over the country to witness the best wrestlers, archers, and horse racing in the land.
The horse in Mongolia is revered. The railroad cars we traveled in last week on a trip to another province in the west had the images of two horses racing neck and neck as the company’s logo.
Although ATV’s and motorcycles have replaced horses in the lives of many herders of goats, sheep, cattle, and camels, they will always be a part of Mongolian culture.
At the games we stopped by a stall where a young country guy was selling horse milk by the liter.
The Mongolians have such a high regard for the horse that they believe that its milk is much healthier than cow’s milk. Oyun, my faithful teacher about everything Mongolian, says that if you have anything wrong with your stomach, horse milk will cure her up lickity split. Do you think this would sell at HiVee? Dr. Phil’s organic elixir for the tummy, it’s yummy!
Horse racing at the Games is for prizes only. No betting goes on, not because it is illegal but it just wouldn’t be kosher or zugeer or dajgui (cool) as they say on the streets of UB.
We missed the horse racing because I had had a bad batch of horse milk yogurt and my tummy was picketing for getter working conditions, so we stayed home near the comfort station. But we did make it on Sunday, the day of the archery and wrestling contests.
Only tickets available on the day of the wrestling contests were being sold by scalpers for outrageous prices so we settled for archery and we spent the afternoon at the great market and carnival outside the arena.
The big guys train all year for the National Games, which means like 6 meals a day and a lot of workouts at the local gym. Like Sumo wrestling, the men are in a ring and the object is to either throw your opponent on the ground (no rubber mats allowed) or to score points during the time alloted for the match by pushing the other follow out of the ring. This is the way they have done things since back in the day of the Great Kahn. No need to change things if they work, riight?
Tucked away in a vast corner of the grounds was a group of Eagle Hunters who gave live demonstrations of their magnificent birds’ training and skills. These people used their birds to hunt small animals for food out on the steppes. This was not a hobby; it’s for real. Hobbies is not a word in the Mongolian dictionary. There is only life and death. “No hobby,” Oyun smiled the smile of an adult speaking to a child and at the naiveté of my American perceptions.
Also on the fringes were camel herders who brought in a pack of camels from the country to show off their animals to the crowds and give camel ride to the Mongolian city slickers. Make a few bucks and enjoy the games at the same time.
The iPhone Culture in Mongolia
I mentioned in my last journal that in both UlaanBaatar, the largest city in Mongolia, and a hundred kilometers away in a small burg the size of West Bend, the hallmark of style and optimum cool is either an iPhone or an Android, either pressed sincerely to your ear or conspicuously in front of you taking pictures of family and friends.
I recently began a new series of photographs of individuals taking “Phone” photos of other folks. During the five hours we strolled around the massive carnival outside the Games Arena, I saw thousands of phones at work. Counting my own camera, I saw no more than I could count on my fungus-ridden toes. Everyone is a digital photographer. Oyun has many family albums tucked away in her few shelves in her Spartan apartment and she has spend many hours showing me the old photographs of her parents and grandparents taken with old Russian camera like the Zorki, many B&W photographs 50-75 years old.
Of all those millions, maybe billions of photographs being taken over the past years by digital phones, what is the likelihood that these photographs will still be around in 50 years? Pictures of little Dorrit’s first birthday party or selfies of roommates at the dorm? Digital JPEG photographs degrade over time, especially on a medium like a CD or DVD, research shows that disks of this sort start becoming unreliable after 10 years. And when the photos are transferred from old phone to new one, the files are degraded even more. So will our children have family albums to share with their grandchildren? Or are family albums of photographs just an old-fashioned idea from an old-fashioned guy?
This is one of my favorite images. The photographer is the kids' aunt and the group is grandma, mom, and, of course, the kids. Grandma was particularly happy to be there and had spent a lot of time putting together and ensemble that Oyun described as quite "shit and stylish." Although she is a professional TESL teacher of many years and her English is excellent (though bookish), I have been trying to broaden her English lexicon some; but at times when she tries to use her newly acquired vocabulary she has train wrecks when "chic" comes out "shit." Well who hasn't done the same thing?
I included this image for two reasons: first I liked the women of the family looking their best in very traditional clothing I saw a lot in the the supermarket or cafes or even in the department stores. I also like the background of great activity of carnival time at the Games. And finally, I included this image for the education of my very old-school, conservative daughters who could never warm up to the idea that a man might want to have his own bag to carry his stuff in. Men got stuff too, so we need a handy conveyance. So a man bag. See even rough and tumble Mongolian men carry bags, and note how color coordinated he is.
Now this is one family, Mom and Pop, and their two kids with wives or husbands and 5 grandchildren. I took notes but in the rush of things I didn't get it straight who married who was who. Sorry, but to quote Chief Broomdon, narrator of Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, "Now a lot of this never happened, but it's true." My journals have never been full of facts or have been created as documentaries. My essays and pictures are my attempt to tell the truth of my experiences, my understandings, my truths as I see them. My photographic images entertwined with my writing and together they relate a story, maybe to many a boring one or irrelevant, but it's my story sent to those who I think may want to experience Mongolia through my eyes as a writer and the lens of my camera. One of the great ironies of literature is that the story teller much lie in order to tell the truith. Consider what I have omitted in this long but in many ways brief album of pictures and stories. I've selected what I wanted you to see. I've mixed up the photo images and presented them in a way that creates crude but simple narrative. I've only dug through the topsoil of my experiences and written just a a few of hundreds of events I've participated in while here.
What's truth anyway, but the structure or form we use to link together and made sense out of our experiences. This is my truth you are or are not seeing in my journals. The writing here is crude at times since I came he to experience Mongolia and not write journals for the folks back home.But what you get here is a first draft of some of my thoughts about what I've been up to while you all have been basking in the summer breezes in Florida, Iowa, Nebraska, and places I can't spell.
Ok, the kids are in various degrees of acceptance of this picture-taking event. Sister is holding little sister and junior is ok with the goofy guy next to him and Suzie to the left is just about busting her buttons since she loves this new dress they got her for the festival and the cool headband she got to wear like old fashioned girls of the past. The background is the Games seen from the perspective of a child. The Mongolian figure with the big head is (I've got this on good authority) a caricature (the kind of big-headed people you see at the Mardi Gras); and in this instance the character represents a kind of "Goofy" character, a country boy, a hick from the sticks. Oyun pointed out the single flap of hair hanging down in front (sort of the 14th Century version of a mullet) and is percepved as old-fashioned. This is a Mongolian version of a character on the old US TV show Hee-Haw. To me it is a little confusing about what the Mongolians think is cool about their past and what is the subject of their satire.
Culture and Style:
What Shall I Wear to the National Festival?
The bare-chested look in men has been around for centuries here in Mongolia. They say even the magnificent one, Ghengus Kahn, occasionally liked to strut around without a shirt to show off his belly to mooning groupies who shadowed the guys in the Horde from one battle to another. This is the only place on earth where I’m in style. It seems it’s cool for guys to walk around showing off—no, not their six-pack--but their belly. Woo-Hoo, for the first time in my life, I’m one of the cool guys!
To get an idea of what the well-dressed sword-slinger in the Horde wore back in the olden days, I met a young man who claimed he could trace his linage back many generations to the Great One himself, Great Grandpa (to the 21 power) Ghengus.
He also sold lottery tickets that he guaranteed were winners.
For big-time celebrations like the National Games, country folks and city dwellers alike dust off their best traditional clothing, the Deel (pronounced Dell), and proudly wear it to this huge national event. Men and women from the country often wear a kind of OshKosh B’Gosh Deel because it allows the herders to move easily astride a horse as well as on the ground when tending their animals. Oyun has an old picture of her grandfather Dundov, a herdsman standing with his family next to their yurt, Grandpa wearing his work-deel, usually worn with a very wide belt of leather or cloth.
I noticed that he had a huge pot belly and pointed that out to Oyun, but she just laughed and said that the Deel with a tight belt made for a place to keep things inside their cloak, sort of like a humongous pocket where they kept their lunch or even a newly born lamb who came too early in the spring when it was still freezing.
Reminded me of the nuns at St. Pat’s who, inside their long habit had secret compartments for all sorts of nunsuch, including our squirt guns, rubber bands, pea shooters, and Snickers bars, booty they had confiscated from us. And we suspected, during coffee hour after school at the convent, the good sisters divvied up their take from innocent Catholic boys and girls. The Servants of Mary, in a pig’s eye. More like Captain Kidd.
These guys were on old Paint a few days ago, down Gobi Desert way. They thought they'd hop on the bus and in 15 hours they'd pull into UlaanBaatar to see the sights, do a few shooters of Vodka, and maybe see what women look like these days. Oyun, the nosey one, talks with anyone and gets them to talk about themselves Well, these guys she said are bachelors and live in a yurt about 100 kilometers from any town, so getting an eye-full of her would keep these guys talking until they passed out.
Almost 80% of current city dwellers are either first or second-generation urbanites. Note: Mark Twain said: “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Ok, back on the horse: UlaanBaatar, back in the 80’s, was just an average size city. Most of the population, like Oyun’s grandparents out on the steppes were traditional herders, living in yurts, pulling up stakes when the sheep or goats needed better grass, and their horses hauled the tent-like yurt and its contents to a new address.
The couple are professional people in UB, but their grandparents were, like Oyun’s, traditional herders, nomads (a delightful old word, Greek, meaning those who search for pasture). They lived on the land, everyone’s land, with only a yurt and, if lucky, near some timber, for wood to keep the stove warm during the long arctic winters of central Mongolia.
After some coaxing from Oyun, I donned a fancy Deel, in the same league as a tux in Omaha, clothing appropriate for festive occasions, like the Mongolian Games.
For a moment the spirit of the Great Kahn, enveloped my soul--"Quick boys--Our weapons: then boots, saddle, to horse, and away"! That's himself behind me, with his arms outstretched, as if to say, "Phil, my boy, you look really silly in that getup. Take it off and put on your Wallmart shorts, black socks, and sandels and go get yourself one of those tasty treats: mutton on a stick.
“Are You Lonely, Phil?”
One of the few people to respond to my journals so far asked me a question: “Phil, out there in such a strange place, are you ever lonely?” Well there are two answers to that. Of course, I miss my family and friends. Yet I am both a professional writer and photographer and you never retire from what makes you a person; I cannot quit trying to be a creative, curious, person. Like my blue eyes and balding head, I can’t change my essential self.
When do you stop learning? I know people who stopped actively learning about this world after they finished school. I taught 18 year olds who were afraid of learning anything new. All they wanted was to have the small batch of information they had gathered during their short life, reinforced. "My head's full of stuff I like so don't confuse me with different stuff." An education is often disturbing. To get an education you must allow for the possibility that you may change your mind about how you see the world. And when does that education end?
In this city, for far from home, I'm in first grade again and there is so much to take in, to process for myself, for me it is by writing about this unique experience in these pages. My journal is not a gospel but a series of essays (French word originally, meaning a piece of writing that attempts to come to grips with a subject, to try out, to process the data of my experience, things that are not clear or maybe find a new way of looking at something common in an uncommon way).
My journals, my stories and photographs, constitute my essay on my months here in Mongolia. Of course, in a personal essay, the readers as well as the writer often learn more about the writer of the essay than they do about the topic of the essay itself. I think that is the case with this journal. It's personal but I also hope that even an anonymous reader may find this journal worth reading--it's not just a letter to the home folks.
Am I lonely here? No: and there has never been a day that I felt lonely because there is so much to learn about this country, its traditions, it similarities and differences from my culture. And it was the trip to the National Games where I saw so much that was so familiar, so genuine, so like home.
Images like this are what kept me from being lonesome here. This scene is not foreign or strange or weird but comforting. Mom hugging her kid, holding onto the hand of her younger daughter with the cap shadowing her face, and the older daughter lookin' good in her new matching outfit she got for the big day at the Games.
We strolled past food venders, scalpers touting tickets to the wrestling matches inside the arena, and the Mongolian version of the Runza, called a Khuushuur. Two pieces of flat dough about 5 inches round (that is 12.5 centimeters if inches make you nervous) and filled with, what else, but mutton crumbled up like hamburger. Meat and fry bread.
Side note: Mongolian cooking uses few spices. Now most of my meals have been regular mom and pop chow that Oyun learned from her mother, so maybe the fancy people use more spices but what I’ve eaten I’ve noted nothing that I’d label as a spice I’m used to. We did buy a few envelopes of black pepper, dill, and parsley but Oyun didn’t seem to be familiar with these and didn’t use them except for the dill, which she did like in her homemade soup. I’ve never seen a saltshaker since I’ve been in Mongolia.
One of my favorite images at the Games is of a mother and her daughter in full Deel headdress and fancy design robes getting their picture taken by a guy with a camera and printer.
The photographer had set up a rather interesting background for this photo OP, a number of traditional symbols, like the old battle shield to the left of the mother and daughter and a battle standard associated with Ghengus Kahn's leadership and pride, a portion of the national flag of Mongolia at the top and behind the two is a rather fancy sheepskin and felt portion of a wall of a yurt. What mom and daughter wouldn't be excited being photographed in front of all that?
After I made this photograph, I put my camera in my satchel and was ready to continue our walk around the carnival.
Oyun was still staring at the mother and her daughter as they sat silently for their photographs (two for 10,000 tugrets--like $5—sorry, don’t know how much that is metric). I could tell from the look on her face that Oyun was having a private moment, maybe seeing something I failed to see in the two people dressed in elegant Mongolian finery--a mother and daughter, at peace, happy to be together at the games.
Side Note: When you get a soft drink at a stall on the street or even in a café, you are mighty lucky if you get ice. I don’t understand this kind of thinking: it’s un-American to drink Coke without lots of ice. And if they do serve ice, they ration it out like it’s on the endangered list. If you want an insider-trading tip: Coke and Coke products have this country bottled up solid. The people here have never heard of Pepsi. It’s like a foreign word to them. I had no problem getting Coke Zero from the woman who runs the little shop next door to Oyun’s flat. "Pepsi?" I asked when new here: She held up a bag of dried prunes, "12,000 tugrets?"
Ok, Another Side Note:
While I’m on a roll here complaining, being the Ugly American which is easy for most of us, I have to let you know about a terrible brew here that they call milk tea that I first encountered at Urantuul’s apartment, Oyun’s daughter. As soon as I sat down on their couch, Urantull, quick as you can say “UlaanBaatar” handed me a very warm glass of milk tea. Oyun, Urantull, even little Tushik, her son, were urging me to “drink up; it’s good for you.”
Of course, being my mother’s son, I was taught to be polite to everyone, so I took a sip. Tea? Tea! Did she say “Tea?” Looked like milk to me, but what kind? I had not had the pleasure yet of experiencing the ultima Thule, the quintessential gustatory experience of a lifetime, otherwise called horse’s milk, so I was a bit queasy until, after I gave Oyun my “is this ok for a poor Iowa farm boy to drink” look; and she whispered, “cow’s milk.”
Ok, but Tea? Where was the tea? It looked like cow’s milk, tasted like cow’s milk, warm like cow’s milk wasn’t supposed to be when you drank it; so it was just warm milk. If there was tea in this drink the cow must have had a cupper before she was milked in the morning.
The Faces of New Mongolia
I want end my journal by including some images I’ve created of children that just made me smile, images of children who were surviving as a result of some kind of luck or magic (beliefs which are a big part of Mongolia’s cultural heritage). They were born into families who had jobs and by the looks of their clothing, good jobs, too. Yes, when I look at these images of these special children of UlaanBaatar, I do remember the ones I saw at night, traveling in packs at midnight, like the dogs of UB that no one wanted, creatures who had to find their own food and shelter and to avoid those who would harm them in one way or another.
Mongolians love their families. The country is so large and the population so small that in the 90's parents who had more than two kids were given larger salaries. I saw happy faces in happy children. Children were everywhere. Thousands of them running, dancing, eating ice cream, and drinking warm Cokes.
Vampiles, tigers, Snowhites, and the Angry Birds laughed, tugged their parents' hands to see what was next along the giant version of Mardi Gras. And it wasn't just the kids; Mongolians of all ages knew how to have fun. TV is a good place to discover much about modern Mongolian life.
Oyun and I watch a little TV in the evenings, sometime and it is surprising how many homegrown sit-coms we have seen where all aspects of life are satirized. Often we see sketches where country people, sort of like The Beverly Hillbillies, nouveau riche, country people are the butt of the humor. These days the herders, at least some of them, are savying up and learning how to market their product; and, as a result, making lots of money. So farmers who buy an Audi and use it for a chicken coop is the kind of satire you sometimes see on TV. Also a few shows even satirize the Russians or Russian military officers, though that is not always appreciatted by all age groups. Oyun sees no humor in such programs; Urentull, on the other hand, with no life-experiences during Russian occupation of Mongolia, relishes any kind of jabs and upper-cuts to the former interlopers. Again, for mother and daughter, it's not just a generation gap; its a huge compound fracture in thier essential cultural beliefs.
Goldman and his arch-rival, Silverman, had a steady business posing with adults as well as children. Both guys would take a seat and then, for five or ten minutes, sit motionless, as if a statue, and when a crowd gathered to see if the statue flickered an eye-lid or showed any tendency to breathe, they would laugh and the statue would laught too and would then proceed to pose with members of the audience for a few thousand tugrets.
I photographed the children of the future because I hope they will be strong enough, smart enough, caring and selfless enough to create a new Mongolia, a place where everyone is deemed important, everyone has a chance for a job. Unlike older more “developed” countries that profess to be democracies but are actually governments where power is in the hands of the few, I hope that this country can rise above greed and a desire to control people’s lives, to launch a new day for these ancient people. Where children are home in bed at night, tucked snuggly warm, not sleeping on the ground behind bushes in some park the Russians built 60 years ago to honor themselves. Enjoy the images of happy children but remember the thousands in UB and other parts of this nation where everyday is a terrible grim game of Hide and Seek.