30.09.2019 - 23.10.2019 0 °C
It’s hard to think back on Mongolia, simply because so much happened there. The vegetation went from green to yellow, then brown before I left. It started out warm, good weather for shorts, but by the end it snowed and stayed below freezing during the day. I went from a city to a farm, then a town and a nomadic tribe. I worked, taught, wandered, cooked, and slept on top of a mountain, but one of my favorite things had to be the Mongolian wedding.
The friends I was staying with had a wedding while I was there, so part of my invitation was just that I was staying where the wedding would take place. It was fascinating. There were traditional foods, large slabs of meat cooked in a local restaurant before being set up for presentation on the day of the wedding. A person would stand up, give a short speech, then sing one of the many songs that everyone in the family seemed to know. There were a couple people whose only job was to take a single, large shot glass and pass it around the room, person to person, and refilling it after each drink. Like in China, I was not allowed to refuse, and the times I tried to only sip I was given the cup again and told to drain it.
The vodka here tastes like rubbing alcohol to me. Reminds me of a medicine cabinet, or working in the hospital. It will get you drunk, but it really doesn’t seem to be something we should be drinking. The food was amazing the first day, but the thing about the wedding is that it seems to last about a week. After the first day with the big ceremony in an elegant yurt built just for the occasion, people kept coming to the house, day after day, to sit and eat and drink. They talked, they laughed, and they gave presents.
The last couple days of the wedding we traveled north to Lake Khovshgul to visit more of the family. I don’t really know the exact reason since we were visiting the people who were already at the wedding, but it is custom. It snowed that day and night, covering the world in a white sheet of glittering diamonds with waves of golden grasses across it. Tourist season had ended so most of the places felt empty and isolated. We ate and sat around the warm fire while presents were passed around, then it was on to the next home, and the next family.
I think it was my favorite because it was the only thing I experienced there that felt truly Mongolian. The language is written mostly in what looks like Russian characters. The buildings often have the feel of Russia, the Soviet Union, or China. So many of the restaurants are Korean, American, British, or Indian. So many of the Mongolian places have changed to suit tourists or have been influenced by their neighbors that it is hard for me to see what is truly Mongolian.
The wedding felt like a wedding, but it was not Chinese, or Russian, American, or Mexican. The way people celebrated, they spoke, even the way they passed snuff bottles to each other to smell, even if you didn’t want to try it. Everyone wore beautiful, traditional Mongolian robes and laughed and sang with their families. Part of me wants to see the similarities between it and the other places I have been, but that would be dishonest. I haven’t seen anything like it, so simple, traditional, and beautiful.
Mongolia was beautiful, and still wild in a way I have never seen. Part of that I saw in the children there. They don’t seem to look to the adults for direction, like they have simply had to deal with all their games and arguments themselves. They speak with confidence, even though they have rarely spoken English before. They learn it in school, but they never really speak it, like in nearly every public school I have seen before.
On the other side, they are much more physical, and in many ways closer to violence than I am used to. Games like rock, scissor, paper end with someone getting flicked in the forehead, and tag always seems to be at the edge of someone being slapped too hard, or in the head. Shame seems unnatural to them, like after accidentally poking someone in the eye, apologizing just never occurs to them. At best, it is spoken as the child runs off to play again.
Wild. It is the best description for Mongolia I can think of. A place where problems are solved between the people involved because the higher authority simply isn’t always there. A place where you can camp wherever you like because there are so few fences. A place of courage, confidence, self-reliance. I am sorry that I had to leave, but as the days were still below freezing it is best that I begin to head south for the winter.