My Town!

January 10, 2009

After a first entry filled with carefully vague allusions to my whereabouts, I discovered that I am, in fact, allowed to disclose my location–provided I don’t give the exact situation of my house in relation to other landmarks in the town. So, I decided to do an entire entry on my city!

I said before that I’m living in a province in the middle of Mongolia. To be more specific, the name of my province, or aimag, is Uvurkhangai. “Uvurkhangai” means “Southern Khangai,” and refers to the province’s situation in the southern portion of the Khangai Mountain Range. These mountains take on a lower, more sloping nature as they stretch south, and my town rests in one such tamer section of the range in northern-central Uvurkhangai.

our low-lying Khangai

our low-lying Khangai

view of the hills to the north

view of the hills to the north

ancient rock carvings on the big mountain
ancient rock carvings on the big mountain. no archaeological studies have been done on this site, but homologous rock images in other parts of Mongolia have been dated at roughly 40,000 years old.
carving of a mammoth and gazelles

carving of a woolly mammoth and gazelles--the depiction of woolly mammoths in rock carvings would suggest that they are at least 10,000 years old. A previous Arvaikheer volunteer who studied cultural anthropology noted that the whiter the carvings are, the older they are.

Arvaikheer, behind a pole covered in sacred blue cloth, or 'Hadag'

My town, behind a pole covered in sacred blue cloth, or 'Hadag'

The name of my city is “Arvaikheer,” which is a shortened pronunciation of the name of a famous

horse, Arvagarkheer– the fastest horse in an important race of over 1,000 horses sometime in the late 18th century. Arvaikheer is, indeed, deserving of a horse-themed name by virtue of its many surrounding herdsmen, large wild-horse herds, and the distinction of having the nation’s 2nd best fermented horse milk, or airag. Recently, local authorities decided to build on this equestrian reputation by constructing a large complex of stupas, or buddhist shrines, in the center of Arvaikheer valley. These 108 stupas, collectively called “Morin Tolgoe” or “Horse’s Head,” surround a painted statue of Arvagarkheer, and they boast a strong horse aesthetic. I was fascinated to see this blend of buddhist devotion and municipal pride; each stupa has two sides carved with two of the “eight auspicious signs of buddhism” (a pair of golden fish, a victory banner, a white umbrella, a conch shell of melody, a sacred vase, a dharma wheel, an endless knot, or a white lotus of honesty) in gold leaf friezes, and two sides carved with horses in various poses.

statue of Arvagarkheer, at Morin Tolgoe

statue of Arvagarkheer, at Morin Tolgoe

the stupa complex, pre-completion

the stupa complex, pre-completion

an example of the horse emblems on the stupas

an example of the horse emblems on the stupas

It wasn’t until my second trip to the stupa complex that I heard a fascinating bit of folklore that further drove the concept of the horse aesthetic home. Facing the semi-circle of columns that encases the statue of Arvagarkheer is a famous mountain called “Aav Khaerkhan.” Aav Khaerkhan, or “Father Mountain,” is the site where a Robin Hood-esque story took place in Mongolian oral tradition. In the story, a do-gooder bandit who stole sheep and gots from the rich and redistributed them to the poor was being chased through Arvaikheer valley by a local police force on horseback. When he reached a wide and violent river at the center of the valley, he realized he could go no farther. The police were approaching fast, but try as he might to ford the river, the bandit’s horse was too afraid of the rapids to cross. Desperate to escape, the bandit invoked the name of the big brown mountain swelling out of the land across the river : “Aav Khaerkhan, take me to safety!” And just like that, his horse rose into the air and flew him across the water to the top of the mountain, and he escaped the authorities to continue stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.

that black bump in the distance is Aav Khaerkhan

that black bump in the distance is Aav Khaerkhan

So, I know that was a lot about horses, but I felt the need to make a few establishing shots before going on with my explanation of the town itself.

The lifeblood of every town in Mongolia is the market, or zakh. For my first few months here, I spent nearly every day walking in and out of kiosks and stores in the market and talking with vendors and customers. Places where things are sold are definitely the best spots to hone your language skills in any country, and they provide a very visual framework on which to begin building an understanding of the culture on a consumer level. Arvaikheer’s market centers on the sale of home goods, clothing, motorcycle and auto-repair materials and services, food, and ger supplies.

view of the main road in the market

view of the main road in the market

a rainy/snowy view of the market in august

a rainy/snowy view of the market in august

For the first week after I was placed at site, Arvaikheer was experiencing scheduled power outtages between the hours of 6 am and 6 pm. This was when I did the bulk of my market exploration (and the bulk of my ill-informed housewares shopping). I remember perusing the dark stores during the day and not having the common sense to pay extra attention to the things I was buying…With no electricity and no lights on the inside of the shops, it was impossible to check the reliability of electrical appliances before buying them, and I stupidly ended up purchasing a tripod hotplate with a faulty leg. My food went half-burnt for a month before I discovered other cooking options.

Aside from the market, people spend a lot of time in Ayuush Square in the center of town. This is where the aimag government headquarters are, and across the street is the communications center (post office + internet cafe) and the town’s most respected night club, “New Leader” (no Mongolian name).

Ayuush Square and the Government Building

Ayuush Square and the Government Building

Arvaikheer is the fastest-growing aimag center in terms of development, and it is expected to surpass Darkhan as a commercial center in the next two to three decades. There is even talk of moving Mongolia’s national capital city back to Kkarkorin–the ancient capital and aforementioned senior class fieldtip site, which is also in Uvurkhangai– and this would further enhance the politico-economic importance of Arvaikheer. In the mean time, I enjoy the quiet, dusty nature of this little desert town, and I will continue to post on it proudly =).

If you would like to see more pictures of rock carvings, or more pictures in general, feel free to email me at pmongolia@gmail.com.

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2 Responses to “My Town!”

  1. asb353 said

    Hey! Great post on what our town name means… if you want to learn more about Arvaikheer, check out a post I wrote a while back: http://peacecorpsmongolia.wordpress.com/2008/09/17/arvaikheer-ovorkhangai-%E2%80%93-my-home-for-two-years/

  2. asb353 said

    Lovely photos, Mr. Patrick.
    Amber’s mom

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