A Travellerspoint blog

October 2019

A Wedding in Murun

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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.


Posted by Porticaeli 02:43 Archived in Mongolia Tagged travel english photography mongolia american murun Comments (0)

Reindeer and Expectations

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Halfway across Mongolia I found myself in Murun, which feels like an old New England town in a lot of ways. There are few paved roads, as well as no running water or sewer, but there are colorful wood houses and streetlights down every dirt road. In another life I could have been posted in a place like this, if I had been invited to Peace Corps Mongolia instead of China. I like it, but two years would have been a very long time to be here.

There are plenty of people, and the mountains are close, but that’s about it. Even the road from Ulaanbaatar to here was mostly dirt, and at least once the bus driver just left the tread marks carved into the steppe and just drove through the scrub and bushes. There has been a running joke for a while about Posh Corps China, where every comfort can be found, but I never really noticed before coming here.

The bathroom has been closed because the pipes have begun to freeze, so we drained it like we would the summer homes in New York when I worked there. Nothing really seems to dry, but it also doesn’t quite freeze. It’s definitely fall here, and everything I saw went from green to yellow to brown in about a week and a half. It feels like California, but far colder and we use wood fired stoves to keep everything warm.

I was only in Murun for a couple days before heading to the far north, eight hours through muddy back roads to a village in Khovsgul. It was beautiful, and for me had that New England feel to it, especially on the last day when an icy mist covered the village. The amazing thing about Mongolia is that it feels safe enough that seeing a shadow walk through the mist with an axe wasn’t really scary.

The next day I took a car and a horse to the reindeer tribe in Khovsgul Aimag through what was closer to being marsh than anything else. It snowed, then melted, and the horse was stepping to its knees into the mud at times. I’m too big for the reindeer, and on that land I’m too big for the horse too. The flat lands were okay, but on the downhill it stumbled and I was thrown off. The good thing is that it was a soft landing, easier than most I have taken in Kungfu.

It was a beautiful valley, far away from everything. The food was simple but good, bread and meat or rice and meat, but that seems to be the standard for Mongolia. Their milk tea is weak and a little salty, but perfect for the weather we had. Cold days, colder nights, and a bit of snow and rain. I wish I could say I discovered something there, but it was just a place where people live. No more magic than anywhere else I have been, but stark and beautiful as the winter began. At night after dark the husband and wife I was staying with read to each other and the animals wandered around outside.

The animals were more fascinating to me. Reindeer grunt. The small ones sound like pugs, snorting around the ground looking for food and licking my hands for the salt on my skin. The big ones sound like someone fighting to start a gas powered chainsaw. They move more like dogs too, snuffling the ground, moving like a dog hunting. I had always imagined them more like cows, but that part of me comes from a different world. So many of the animals in the US are domesticated or living off our scraps, so seeing animals this close to being wild is fascinating. It was the same with the goats and sheep for me, sprinting across the steppe whenever a car came close. The sheep still look like orbs with skinny legs, but they run like dogs. It’s almost comical, but I also realize that everything I have seen has been so deeply influenced by the developed world, that I don’t really know what the world could be without us.

Mongolia is wild, and somehow deeply uncomplicated. Things are functional, practical, and without a lot of fuss. That is what I noticed about the Reindeer tribe, that they were so similar to the people living in the cities. People setting up a yurt in their yard, and that is just where someone lives now. Cooking everything over the same stove that keeps the house warm at night. Simple wood highlighted by vivid colors. People without fear, even when it comes to speaking a new language. The children here can get shy, but most of the time they just speak as much or as little as they can.

In a lot of ways, I wish I had spent the two years here, living in a place that really feels wild, but I know that part of that is just because it is so different from what I have known. There are so many things here that feel familiar, but somehow I think that familiarity is hiding what is truly Mongolian. Like so many of the buildings here that look Russian, Chinese, or western, with yurts scattered throughout the towns and cities. It would be easy to think that true Mongolian architecture was non-existent, but truly it is just hidden.

But I think the one thing I wonder about the most is how to really understand a culture as it is, but with such a short time to really understand it. To see the superstition, the language, the history, and the behavior and try to put together a cohesive idea of what a place is seems impossible. Like so many things, I don’t think I can really explain the place so much as I can explain who I become when I am a part of this place. I want to see the world, but in so many ways the world is just a mirror.


Posted by Porticaeli 09:44 Archived in Mongolia Tagged nature travel english photography mongolia american reindeer Comments (0)

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