As I prepare to write this entry, I’m trying to think of ways to include an explanation of my post-party-tipsy state into a disclaimer about the quality of the post. No need now, I suppose. Just get ready for the coolest entry ever…because this one’s about the coolest holiday in Mongolia: Tsagaan Sar.

Tsagaan Sar means “White Month,” or alternatively, “White Moon.” Considering the fact that it is marked by the first new moon (i.e. black sky) of the lunar calendar, however, it is usually translated as the former (or erroneously as the latter). And though this entry is an attempt to portray Tsagaan Sar from the perspective of my own experiences, I should probably say a few things about the holiday in general beforehand.

It is an intensely family-oriented holiday, and for this reason I must admit that I was a little nervous to celebrate it here in Mongolia for the first time. During the first three days of Tsagaan Sar, families dress up in traditional Mongolian clothing (hereafter referred to as ‘deel’ ) and visit each others’ homes, where they are met with gifts, refreshments, and the traditional holiday staple that is buuz–steamed goat meat dumplings. Guests are also expected to bring gifts of money, sweets, or small practical items when they visit homes. A whole series of behavioral protocols, which will be visited in a later section, are also observed during this holiday. The most important thing to take away from this introduction, though, is the fact that Tsagaan Sar is–by far–the most important and widely (read: wildly) celebrated holiday in Mongolian culture.

Families are expected to spend up to 3 months’ salary in preparing for Tsagaan Sar. This money is put to use towards buying the materials necessary for the hand-production of up to 2,000 dumplings, dozens of traditional lard-fried sweet bread products, candy, and (of course) vodka. Cold weather in the weeks leading up to Tsagaan Sar offers Mongolians the perfect opportunity to produce these items and freeze them outside, but increases in average temperatures have made this difficult in recent years.

So, to move onto my own experience, the first celebrated portion of Tsagaan Sar is actually Tsagaan Sar Eve–or Bituun. Foreign residents of Mongolia are  cautioned that this has the potential to be the most painful of the celebration days, as it tends to inspire parties limited to nuclear families. I was fortunate enough, however, to experience Bituun with my best friend Uugana and her family; she is my main counterpart, and our relationship is one that routinely bridges the inconsistencies between American and Mongolian cultural trends. She was happy to share this auspicious day with me–a foreigner external to her personal and familial adherence to tradition–and I was very grateful. Bituun does not feature any of the customary motions or greetings of the rest of this complex holiday; on Bituun, families simply eat together and finish preparations for the actual celebrations, which occur the following day.

Uugana’s son Yusoo played video games and enthusiastically showed me his Playstation car-racing simulator prowess while Uugana’s husband Saikhnaa put the finishing touches on the Urz centerpiece–a decorative skinned goat-hindquarters placed on an ornate wooden tray in the center of a low table in the living room. Saikhnaa and his young brother-in-law, Uka, used an antique Mongolian steak knife to remove and snack on portions of the slab of meat.

Saikhnaa and Uka slice away at the urz

Saikhnaa and Uka slice away at the urz

Another family's urz display with side dishes

Another family's urz display with side dishes

I came to this Bituun celebration with the assumption that gifts were requisite for participation, but I was wrong. That I was included in this very laid-back celebration of the opening of Tsagaan Sar was a true honor and a testament to my friendships with Uugana and her family.

Interestingly, the word ‘bituun’ is actually a verbal noun of a term that means “to eat until completely full”, or “to eat until unable to eat any more.” Bituun certainly lives up to its name; I was served buuz, carrot salad, and milk tea until I was ready to explode.

buuz

buuz

As I said before, I felt extremely lucky to be invited to Bituun at Uugana’s house. It was perfectly within her culture-dictated rights to spend Bituun with only the members of her immediate family, and she still chose to include me. My anxieties surrounding the hardships of a family-less Tsagaan Sar, however, were realized on the second day–the designated extended family day.

I was slated to host 11 of my counterparts at some point during the holiday at my apartment. I was told to prepare pizza, vodka, and candy for all 11 of them–“but no gifts, because of the global recession,” according to my manager–but the event was canceled at the last minute when half of my coworkers traveled to the countryside to visit relatives. I was left friendless, essentially, for the bulk of this most social of holidays…or so I thought.

I had believed that my dearth of home-invitations stemmed from a previously unnoticed lack of community-integration, and as a volunteer, I can tell you that this is the worst feeling someone can have. That it fell on a joyous holiday made it that much more unbearable. Soon enough, however, I realized that the first official day of Tsagaan Sar was for relatives, and that ANY invitations as a foreigner were to be much appreciated. I ended up going to the home of Baagi and Byamba–a former Mongolian Denver resident-cum-Arvaikheer Merci Corps employee, and a head monk (lam) at a beautiful monastery in town, respectively. This husband-and-wife team is considered to be among the most affluent in the town, and their spiritual and logistic contributions to the community are widely celebrated. I felt so honored to have been invited to their Tsagaan Sar party with my American friends.

Baagi (purple shirt) and Byamba in their apartment

Baagi (purple shirt) and Byamba in their apartment. Byamba owns his own monastery and stupa, and his father is the founder of one of the city's most prominent construction businesses. He is a Red Monk, which means he is allowed to marry and have children. Red Monks tend to focus on community projects, while Yellow Monks are required to engage in introspective prayer and the private (celibate) achievement of enlightenment.

This was my first Tsagaan Sar visit outside of Uugana’s family. In these visits, which begin after Bituun, guests are required to hold blue bolts of traditional fabric called ‘hadag’ in their outstretched, upturned hands. If the guest is older than the host, he or she must hold the hadag thusly above the arms of the host, who also holds a hadag in the same fashion. If the guest is younger, his or her arms must be held beneath those of the host. The younger of the pair is expected to lean in for the elder to place a Mongolian kiss (which may be a strong, brief sniff through the nose) on each of his or her cheeks. During this greeting, both parties say the phrase, “Amar Baina uu,” “Amar Sain uu,” or a combination of the two. This translates roughly to “Are you resting well?” and its use is strictly limited to greetings during Tsagaan Sar. Every person in the household must be greeted accordingly, and then everyone may fold their hadag and place them in their deel pockets before offering small gifts to the eldest member of the household and sitting down in the main living room for refreshments.

The aforementioned urz platter remains the centerpiece of the table for the duration of Tsagaan Sar, and next to it is a stack of lard-fried bread bricks called heveenbov. They are arranged in a circle in one, three, five, seven, or nine layers, depending on the age and/or rank of the host. These ornate bread bricks are often topped with candy and sweetened white dairy products to symbolize the purity of the White Month. Young couples typically stick to 3-layered heveenbov stacks, while the elderly display larger arrangements. The heevenbov structure contains, without exception, an odd number of layers. This is due to the fact that the bottom layer represents happiness, the next layer sorrow, the next happiness, and so forth. To show an even-number-layered heveenbov is to suggest that sadness permeates life, and it is never done.

heveenbov

Heveenbov. This model may appear to have six layers, but the top disc is merely a cover for the otherwise topless arrangement and is meant to support candy and sweetened dairy products.

During Tsagaan Sar, the heevenbov serves a solely decorative purpose. Separate glass trays of candy, as well as plates containing sausages and cucumbers, are passed around the room clockwise for guests to consume. Shots of expensive liquors, bowls of fermented horse milk (airag), and glasses of homemade Russian beer (brashk) also move around the room, and recipients are expected to either drink the entire offering or to touch it to their lips before returning the container directly to the host. Depending on the household, the passing of liquor can be a gendered endeavor, with red wine offered to women and vodka to men.

One of the more interesting customs is the exchange of snuff between guests. Men often carry ornate glass or agate bottles of powdered tobacco in embroidered silk pouches on Tsagaan Sar, and it is customary to swap bottles during household visits. One man will remove the bottle from his pouch and hold it out in his right hand (with his left arm bent under his right elbow–the default respectful passing gesture of Mongolia), and the recipient will simultaneously accept the snuff bottle with his right hand while sliding his own bottle into the other man’s. Each will then remove a small amount of snuff from the bottle using the spoon attached to the inside of the lid and deposit it on the skin between his index finger and thumb, inhale it deeply into each nostril, close the bottle, sniff the lid, and return it to its original owner the same way it was passed.

As with any major Mongolian social event, toasting and singing tend to be a large part of Tsagaan Sar home-visits. Toasting, of course, serves as a spoken reminder of interpersonal appreciation and friendly affirmation for guests and hosts alike, and it often sets the tone for drunken merriment. Sometimes, though, the hosts–who usually remain comparatively sober on Tsagaan Sar and opt to get their guests drunk–decide to do the singing (especially when they have the added confidence of affluence and marital happiness, à la Baagi and Byamba!)

Guests normally visit individual homes for 1-2 hours before leaving. In my limited experience, the hosts’ presentation of gifts for the guests is typically an unspoken signal for their departure. The gifts I have received, incidentally, have so far been way beyond my own financial means–be they foreign sweets, expensive personal hygiene products, phone unit cards, or crisp (and lifesaving) bills.

Before I go into a soc/anth rant about the collectivist- wealth-redistribution benefits of such a holiday, here’s a play-by-play of my first Tsagaan Sar so far:

After visiting Baagi’s and Byamba’s place, I went home and lamented the fact that I did not have more houses to visit. My other American friends all seemed to be involved in parties at their respective coworkers’ homes, but everyone from my entire work realm seemed to have gone away for the holiday. As mentioned earlier, I was beginning to feel as if my loneliness was a reflection of poor cultural integration skills–but then I remembered that a mere expression of my interest in Mongolian  cultural processes has always landed me exactly where I wanted to be socially. So I sent “Happy Tsagaan Sar” text messages out to almost everyone I knew in town, and sure enough, I started getting invitations. The following two days turned out to be filled with enriching cultural and interpersonal experiences.

Yesterday, I visited the home of my coworker’s sister, whom I had never met. I arrived before my other friends, so the vodka poured for me before anyone else had to touch it. I was alone with a couch full of complete strangers, whom I thought were staying, but they ended up leaving after we had all carried out the customary hadag greeting protocol. I ended up having a lengthy discussion with my coworker’s brother-in-law while stuffing myself with buuz, vodka, brandy, whiskey, Irish cream liqueur, airag, brashk, milk tea, and salad. Eventually my other friends arrived, and we had a very jolly gift exchange and conversation period.

My coworker's sister's family and friends

My coworker's sister's family and friends

After visitng my coworker’s sister’s home, I returned to Uuganas house for an official Tsagaan Sar party with my American friends. She had even prepared vegetarian food options–something that is very scarce here in Mongolia–for one of my sitemates, who is abstaining from meat during Lent. I was told that this party would phase out into a jaunt across the street to my director’s home–the home of Uugana’s father-in-law–but it never happened.  I returned home slightly tipsy and got into my pajamas just in time to receive a text message from a tenuous acquaintance that read “REPLY ME–MY HUSBAND WILL COME TO PICK YOU UP. WHERE DO YOU LIVE?”

I sensed that I might be in for a rare opportunity to get to know an entire whole kinship group to which I had never been exposed. At such a late hour–midnight, actually–I felt like it was even more of a social adventure. So I rushed back into my traditional clothes and ran out the door to meet the text-sender’s husband in a landcruiser. We drove to an apartment complex near my campus and ascended eight flights of stairs to the apartment of Duya–a Japanese language teacher at the magnet elementary school where I help coordinate a computer-based educational resource program. Once again, vodka, buuz, salad, airag, milk tea, and conversation with new friends.

It got very late, and I had the impression that it was time for me to leave. Duya and her husband told me that, despite my apartment’s close proximity to their complex, I would have to accept a ride home in their vehicle. I explained that I am more than accustomed to walking alone at night, especially from such insignificant distances, but they insisted. So I followed them down the stairs to the parking lot, where a white van filled with happy women and children pulled up. We got in and, thinking I was going straight home, I set my body at an uncomfortable angle on the edge of the seat by the frozen sliding door.

We drove through the darkness of Arvaikheer for over an hour–into nameless alleys and down steep dirt bluffs, through dry riverbeds to hidden houses, all the while dropping laughing girls off at points throughout the town. I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone would know this labyrinth of homes and dusty streets so well, and my tispy brain was working overtime in suppressing what the night’s vodka had turned into a very urgent bladder. I found out then that Duya was not taking me home; she was bringing me to her father’s house, where there was supposedly a car waiting to escort me back to the area that was originally within eyeshot of where I was before.

So, my decision to use a faint social connection to meet some new people led me to a whole household of people I had never even seen before. Her father’s house rested on a hill above the city in a dark corner on the far northwest side, and it was filled with people. There was more meat, more vodka, more tea, and by then I was barely able to walk from a combination of drink and sensory overload. Still, though, I made some new friends and received some very interesting gifts; Duya’s mother handed me a bar of chocolate and a half-used orb of yellow anti-bacterial liquid soap on our way out.

I remember walking out of the house into the man’s yard and looking out over the city. The lights of the gers and houses and apartments were far enough away for the Milky Way to be the brightest light in my field of vision, and the holiday had rendered the entire town silent. It was really an amazing site, and a truly incredible feeling; I felt like I had really done the right thing as Duya and her husband guided me into her father’s car and drove me home.

Today I dragged myself out of bed and went to a giant hadag-greeting at my school at 9 am with faculty and staff. It lasted until 10 am, at which time everyone shot out the door to their respective social obligations. I then joined my friend Brian at the ger of a mutual student, Zaya, on the northwest end of town for an afternoon Tsagaan Sar visit. She lives with her mother in a gorgeously decorated and very warm ger, and she had infused all of the buuz she made with chili powder. Spice, for those of you who  have not heard, is simply not done here. So I was very happy.

When we first entered her home, she instructed us to go and pay our respects to her altar–a sort of lars familiarum containing photos of her deceased grandparents and incense–and to spin her brass Tibetan prayer wheel three times. We then sat down and ate about forty buuz with salad, goat meat, brashk, airag, vodka, and milk tea.

Zaya's ger

Zaya's ger

Zaya (foreground) and another student, Chimgee (background)

Zaya (foreground) and another student, Chimgee (background)

Zaya and Chimgee

Zaya and Chimgee

Zaya's mom and Chimgee. Her mom is sitting next to the stove, which is supporting a jignur--a tray designed for steaming buuz.

Zaya's mom and Chimgee. Her mom is sitting next to the stove, which is supporting a jignur--a tray designed for steaming buuz.

We left after Zaya gave us money and candy and headed to another household for a repeat of the same meal, sans spice, and about twenty times more vodka than I was prepared for. The walk home this evening is blurry in mind as I write this, but I have these charming photos to prove it happened:

dsc066021

dsc06605

Anyway, as promised, a quick rant on the cultural and collectivist benefits of Tsagaan Sar.

If it’s not obvious already, I’m fascinated by collectivism, and it’s getting to the point where anything that even remotely suggests roots in, or promulgation of, collectivist behavior practically screams out at me.  I have to turn it over in my mind and think about it and record it. Tsagaan Sar is no different. In fact, I would say that this holiday is one of the most glaring examples of Mongolian collectivist culture possible; the exchange of gifts, the obscenely high amounts of money spent on preparing food and sweets and alcohol on guests, not to mention home preparation–all of this month-long effort is churned into an enormous financial, social, culinary mutuality! Everyone–regardless of socioeconomic status–hosts, and everyone visits. Almost in the same way that Halloween candy is snatched up in stores and hoarded until kids come around and receive it at our doorsteps, individual Mongolians’ tireless efforts and exhausted salaries culminate to contribute to a vast redistribution of community wealth and resources, and it happens every single year. Most communities observe the official first three days of Tsagaan Sar, but many people consider it to be a February 1st- January 31st holiday; a family who hosts and visits everyone they know in Arvaikheer during Feburary and decides to summer in the countryside seven months later might go through the entire Tsagaan Sar greeting-and-eating process when they finally get to see their relatives in the summertime. Like so much else, this depends on the community, on the family, on the individual at hand.

I’ve said it before, but I’ve most definitely experienced problems in the community integration process since I arrived here last August. I thought my coworkers’ sudden flight to the countryside would leave me lonely and bored during this incredible holiday, and the thought of missing out got to me more and more every minute I had to wait. When those invitations started coming, though, I’m not sure I can liken the sentiment to anything I’ve felt since I’ve been here. The only thing that surpassed this feeling of being included in positivity was the actual process of participating in the holiday, and I’m already looking forward to next year!

Mandokhae, Chimgee, Zaya, and I outside of Zaya's house

Mandokhae, Chimgee, Zaya, and I outside of Zaya's house

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PARTY TIME

February 12, 2009

I would be remiss in my attempts to give any semblance of an accurate portrayal of Mongolian culture if I neglected the enormous party element any longer. So, without further adieu, I give you the epic party post.

haha...

haha...that's not water...

I think one would have to live in Mongolia for a few months, as I have, to begin to understand the scope of partying and celebration that goes on here. As with any nation harboring a prevailing collectivist societal wind, Mongolia boasts a mainstream culture that is extremely social in nature. As I may have mentioned in previous posts, Mongolians’ self-concept is derived almost entirely from their relationships with their personal surroundings–family, kinship groups, friends, work, etc–and not on subjective qualities, actions, or any of the aspects inherent to the trends in individualist cultures (like that of America). In Europe and the West, a combination of plague and industrial revolutions over the centuries contributed in altering social constructs in a direction that favored individualism for survival and comfort over collectivism. In Mongolia, however, the maintenance of one’s position as a part of one’s group is still the deciding factor in one’s survival–be it survival in the workplace, in the family network, or quite literally, survival in the face of extremely harsh weather conditions.

To tie this back into partying, then, socializing is not just a good time; on the contrary, partying serves to fortify and reaffirm a sense of belonging and solidarity among members of a group. And though no Mongolian would ever contrive an enormous party just to let people know they are included, and though said reaffirmation is never a driving force in the social decision making process involved in planning and executing a party, the results are still the same–partying continues to strengthen relationships and provide windows of opportunity in the modern Mongolian context.

To illustrate these concepts, I’ll have to limit my explanations to just a few of the holidays that I’ve experienced since my arrival in Mongolia (which are many–there is usually at least one that is widely recognized and celebrated per month!), namely weddings and New Year celebrations. But before I do so, let me make it perfectly clear that the social importance and crucial adherence to tradition in some of these celebrations do not, in any way, preclude excessive behaviors or wild, wild…stuff…Sometimes at school parties I can’t tell whether I’m at work or on a disco MTV Spring Break Girls Gone Wild Pirate Ship of Naughtiness. That should be a bit more elucidated in the following explanations.

Weddings

Weddings are definitely among my favorite celebrations in Mongolia, and this might be due to the fact that one of the first big social events I ever attended was the wedding of a gym teacher whom I had never met from a school located in Kharkhorin, north of my town. I was invited as the guest of another volunteer living in the town, and I was a bit nervous as a complete stranger. I quickly realized upon arriving, though, that this wasn’t a problem; once again, evidence of a collectivist culture–I was friends with one of the guests, and was therefore deemed an acceptable presence at the wedding. This may seem strange from a western perspective, but the reason for that lies in the contrasts between conventional American weddings and Mongolian ones. Because you see, Mongolian weddings are just huge parties.

A Mongolian couple is considered married the instant they move in together (and sometimes sooner, depending on the couple; relationships rarely last longer than 3 months without the issue of imminent marriage, or splitting, being decided.) It is perfectly acceptable, therefore, for children to come into the mix before any official, legal marriage takes place. With this being the trend in Mongolian relationships, the formality of the actual ceremony of marriage is often disregarded (at the last wedding I attended, the groom and I were the only people who dressed up, and everyone else was in tanktops), and there is a lot more room for fun and carousing.

My first wedding began as most Mongolian weddings do–dozens of people sitting on whatever surfaces they can find in a large circle in the living room and exchanging awkward pleasantries and introductions. A large spread of fruit, candy, a sheep rump, meat, sausage, sliced cucumbers, juices, beer, and vodka was set in the center of the room, and no one seemed to be touching it. A few guests were timidly sneaking bits of the display into their hands and eating them surreptitiously after a few minutes, so I took that as a sign to do so as well. So did everyone else, and eventually the trays of food were passed around clockwise until everyone was eating. Then the youngest male family member of the bride took a seat next to a large wooden drum filled with fermented horse milk, or airag, and spooned portions of it into a series of bowls with an ornately-carved ladle. He would then pass the bowls to whomever he decided should drink, and they would return it to him for refills to be passed on to other guests when they were finished. Traditionally, each bowl of airag should be drunk to completion, but if the recipient does not want to finish it, he or she can touch it to his or her lips and attempt to return it. The distributor usually refuses to take it back at first, but he is bound to accept the unfinished bowl after three attempts. He then adds more airag to it and passes it to someone else. It gets all over the floor in the process, as tradition dictates that even untouched bowls still require more airag to be added upon being returned to the distributor even when they are already full.

According to tradition, each guest is required to drink three bowls of airag, three bowls of Mongol aerekh–the clear, high-content fermented byproduct of traditional Mongolian cow dairy items–and three bowls of straight vodka, and not necessarily in that order. As a result, every single guest at a Mongolian wedding gets completely plastered. It’s actually kind of beautiful–the laughter increases by the minute, refusals to drink get more absurd and are met with more hilarious denial from the alcohol distributor, faces get redder, songs erupt, food gets everywhere, and the atmosphere takes on a tremendously jovial feeling to it. Eventually, this is tempered by periods of quiet during emotional standing toasts, first by the parents of the new couple and then by the other guests. After the toast has been said, the speaker is expected to sing a song–any song–and all of the guests join in the singing after the first few words. The speakers go in order according to where they stand in a counter-clockwise fashion until everyone–including the foreigner–has spoken and sung. The whole thing gets more and more like karaoke and less like homage as the drinks pour.

I once sang “The Star Spangled Banner” out of drunkenness at a wedding, and by the third line the guests were telling me to sit down. A rendition of some Bjork song–I don’t remember which–had me just as unpopular at another wedding not too long thereafter.

During all of this, except for the toasting period, the bride is expected to resupply empty trays and plates with food and candy and continue food preparation. The groom sits at the north end of the room in a centralized position and stays there for most of the night.

At one wedding, I made it clear that I wasn’t feeling up for six bowls of fermented dairy on top of three bowls of straight vodka, so my punishment was 15 shots of straight vodka in two hours. The pressure was immense–even a colleague of mine who is allergic to alcohol was made to drink. But my social credibility was at stake as a new member of the community, and succumbing to partying as a social inclusionary behavior paid off for me in the long run.

New Year

Unlike weddings, New Year parties never put me in danger of becoming the event photographer (as the only one with a camera). So This portion will have more photos.

My experience with new year parties has been limited to large-scale school/work events, but I’ve seen enough to know that the New Year is just as alcohol-soaked as weddings, if not more so. Once again, it is customary for work parties to lay out lavish spreads of food and alcohol on long tables in a large hall. At my particular branch of the Mongolian University of Science and Technology, the New Year celebration was held in the gym with a ring of 20-meter-long tables arranged under huge departmental logo banners on the walls. Every table boasted at least $1,000USD of food and drinks, and I was surprised to see that the school had even splurged on baby pigroasts for each table.

lavish table spread at my school's faculty new year party

a lavish table spread at my school's faculty new year party

the cyrillic text on the pig was written with mayonnaise. It says "happy new year" in Mongolian. the other side said the same thing, but in Russian. no one even thought about eating any part of these charred piglets.

the cyrillic text on the pigs was written with mayonnaise. it says "happy new year" in mongolian. the other side said the same thing, but in russian. no one even thought about eating any part of these charred piglets.

I should note that there were actually two parties for the new year that week–one put on by the senior class in honor of faculty, and the second put on by faculty in honor of themselves–neither of which took place on or even close to New Years. Both were also combined with the Mongolian version of Christmas, as the two are considered to be one holiday.

my seniors in front of the great new year's christmas fiberoptic tree

my seniors in front of the great new year's christmas fiberoptic tree

Like all Mongolian parties, both celebrations were rife with performances and speeches. Several of the departments competed against one another in risque coordinated dance routines. I was not so surprised to see that the performance that swept the adoration of the second celebration’s crowd, though, was a ten-minute slapstick routine featuring men dressed in pig-masks and Ming Dynasty Chinese clothing  jumping around the room, mocking Mandarin language in loud twangy squeals, and hitting people in the head with buckets. No one could stop laughing long enough to explain the cultural significance to me, but it was a pretty clear display of anti-Chinese sentiments.

senior students performing at the first celebration, which was put on by the senior class in honor of faculty. the girls all made their own dresses for the occasion.

senior students performing at the first celebration, which was put on by the senior class in honor of faculty. the girls all made their own dresses for the occasion.

That it was a vocational party meant that there was an added element of the announcement of professional awards, as well. These garnered little attention, as alcohol had distracted much of the guests. Most of the awards were announced to deaf ears, and eventually the ceremony slipped into a slightly debaucherous dance festival with flashing lights and wild motion. The most fascinating thing about this, though, is that the instant a slower song came on, everybody grabbed a partner and assumed the respectable, agile movements of the traditional Mongolian waltz without skipping a beat. Then a techno song would return to the playlist and everyone would resume grinding.

awards!

awards!

For the sake of brevity (or something close to it), I’ll spare the details on the other holidays and just describe some of the basics. Teachers’ Day, for my community, was more insane than New Years–more vodka, more money spent on pizza and fish and chicken and pineapples and all sorts of things that aren’t usually available in Mongolia. Soldiers’ Day may have already happened, and if so I don’t remember it, but I know schools and government offices are closed (which means everything else is, too). Men are expected to drink a lot. Women’s Day is coming up in March, and traditionally women are completely relieved of their domestic responsibilities and men have to assume the stereotypical Mongolian housewife role for an entire day (staying at home, cooking, cleaning, tending to the fire, taking care of children, washing clothes, etc). The king of Mongolian holidays, though, is Tsagaan Sar–or “White Moon.” It marks the beginning of a new lunar year, and it usually takes place in February. For each family, it calls for the preparation of thousands of meat dumplings (buuz), candy, alcohol, and gifts. In urban centers, families will leave their houses each day for three days and visit dozens of households around their community. At each house they are offered small presents, buuz, and sometimes even money, and they are expected to return the favor when visitors enter their homes at another scheduled (or unscheduled) time during the three-day period. In the countryside, this holiday can often last up to a month.

On a personal note, I was told by an English teacher colleague that I would be exempt from the normal responsibilities of a Mongolian Tsagaan Sar host due to “the global recession” (and I was impressed at her vocabulary when she said it), and that I would only need to prepare “pizzas, a meat dish, and one candy bar each for eleven people.” No small feat, that. I still luck out as a foreigner, though; the average Mongolian spends up to 3 months’ salary in preparation for Tsagaan Sar, and a few pizzas from scratch and horse meat curry won’t set me back too much.

m'little pizza in m'little oven

m'little pizza in m'little oven

I’ll say it again–it is next to impossible to fully convey the intensity and importance of the party lifestyle here, and my frustrations as a foreigner are even harder to contextualize without offering some idea of the allocation of funds for these events. My school, for instance, may have spent over $20,000USD for the most recent Teachers’ Day party (which was the source of the wild video clip earlier in the entry). While these expensive celebrations are happening back to back, the school can’t seem to get its hands on the money to replace a few broken sewing machines or to repair the ceiling in the English resource room.  And to make matters worse, preparing for these events seems to take precedence over making the necessary arrangements for the beginning of the following semester. My work has yet to finalize its spring semester course schedule, and we are already approaching our third week of classes–and all because teachers and administrators were too busy preparing their dance performances, drinking, and making decorations. Having never experienced anything like that in my entire life, I’ve caught myself feeling a judgmental regard swelling up somewhere under my tolerant exterior; but then I remember how important these social activities are to the maintenance of a solid communal unit, and it begins to (almost) make sense.

Without going into too much detail, my relationships with my colleagues last semester suffered immensely under the pressures of our discrepant work ethics, and at the hands of a few gossipy parties who feared for the security of their own jobs and resorted to some group-damaging self-preservation.  I thought that I had officially been excommunicated from the interpersonal network of my surrounding job culture. But I put on a smile and went to these New Year parties, and by the end of the first night I had waltzed with all of the enemies I thought I’d made, looked at camera-photos of their children, and made my way back into good graces just by sitting at a table and eating and drinking and laughing with everyone. Vocational survival = achieved. That doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

rare party fruits

rare party fruits

Apologies for the inconsistent posting! I  just returned from a 10-day business trip (sans internet) around various parts of Mongolia, and the experiences I had made me realize that it was about time to discuss the challenging world of travel in this fascinating country. Prepare for a wildly anecdotal and generally all-over-the-place post.

Giving an accurate account of the intensities of travel here in Mongolia would take a lot more time and consideration than I’m able to offer, but I can at least try. The reason for this explanatory difficulty, as with so many other aspects of communicating the nature of this lifestyle, lies in the incredible contrasts between Mongolian life and the lifestyles of my readership. To say that travel is a challenge here, then, might not mean as much to someone reading this post from the comfort of a computer desk in America as it would to a fellow volunteer living in Mongolia. (No judgment there–I promise–just bear with me!)

I suppose the first thing one should know about the nature of travel in Mongolia is the unfortunate fact that, with a few route exceptions, virtually all inter-city travel must go through the capital city, Ulaanbaatar. Even if a desired destination is between my hometown, Arvaikheer, and the capital, I have no choice but to go straight to UB past my destination and find a means of transportation that backtracks to where I want to go. Direct transport is an option for some people if they have their own vehicles and are willing to do off-road driving, but this works out to be a tremendous, and often dangerous, inconvenience.

This is due in part to the fact that Mongolia has only two adequately paved roads that stretch over one or more aimags (provinces), only one north-to-south railway that runs from the Russian border in Selenge Aimag to the Chinese border, and scattered (rarely used, expensive, often runway-less) airports in several cities. This lack of a transportation infrastructure, combined with Mongolia’s status as the second largest landlocked country on Earth, makes travel a huge undertaking.

Part of these challenges, at least from a foreign perspective, is the wide range of alternative driving techniques and risks that Mongolian drivers (Jolooch) are willing (or compelled) to take in order to get from place to place. In the case of my particular town, superstition often plays a large role in such driving decisions. There is a brand new, almost fully-completed paved road extending the majority of the 300-kilometer trek from Arvaikheer to Ulaanbaatar, and yet some drivers consider this road to be bad luck. Bus or van drivers who fear the pavement feel more comfortable adding as many as 11 hours to the trip if it means sticking to familiar sand and dirt paths, which can be extremely bumpy and nauseating for some passengers.

I once crammed myself into a van with 21 other people and rode through the open all-terrain desert–parallel to, and within eyeshot of, the paved road–for 17 hours to the city, when it could have taken a mere 6. At the time I was livid…But as frustrating as it can be to experience discomfort and delay at the hands of a superstitious driver, one still has to respect the cultural significance of such ideas. It requires a lot of effort, but I try to take pleasure in the notion that adherence to traditional cultural trends in transportation is evidence of aspects of Mongolian culture surviving in an increasingly complicated and externally-influenced modern era.

Check out this video of the ride from Battsengel Soum to Tsetserleg, Arkhangai Aimag:

^^The blue/red/white plastic cover over the bed of the truck in this video was used to secure a pile of dead sheep in place. Slaughtered livestock are usually transported in the beds of trucks, on the tops of vans and cars, and even alongside passengers and personal belongings on the insides of vehicles.

there are seven people (including me) in the back seat of this four-seater jeep, and three in the front.

On the way to Battsengel Soum. There were seven people (including me) in the back seat of this four-seater jeep, and three in the front. A complete stranger was sitting on my lap (not pictured).

In addition to acting on customs governing the safety of particular travel routes, many Mongolians also tend to avoid travel on certain designated “unlucky” days of the week. In my village in Selenge last summer, for example, it was impossible to find cars into the closest city on Saturdays or Wednesdays due to their perceived inauspicious qualities.  As increasing foreign investment, urban relocation, and the post-Soviet climb of  social mobility continue to fuel the values and agendas of a less traditional lifestyle, though, finding travel options on these “unlucky” days is getting easier.

To compound the travel difficulties that stem from overcrowding, sharing space with dead animals, and uncomfortable off-roading, nausea is a common side effect for many Mongolians during long rides. Buses, in particular, seem to draw out the worst symptoms, and passengers whose rural lifestyles have scarcely exposed them to rapid (i.e. non-horse) transport have the most intense reactions.

Virtually every Ulaanbaatar-bound bus ride I have ever been on has featured a seven-hour chorus of vomiting. Headphones have proven to be quite useful in my carry-on.

the partially-nauseated bus to UB

the partially-nauseated bus to UB

I’ve noticed that when female passengers get motion sickness, the drivers often let them sit or recline in the cushioned chair adjacent to the console at the front of the bus while they vomit into the on-board trashcan. Sick men tend to just stay in their seats and vomit into plastic bags that they have prepared especially in the event of nausea.

I know this sounds like a load of complaints, and I know all of these personal anecdotes may seem too subjective to be representative of the foreigner experience in Mongolia, but I stand by their accuracy. In the interest of not sounding like a total softy, though, I’ll combine my last two general issues into one worst-case scenario (with which I have quite a bit of experience already): winter breakdowns.

Traveling in the summertime yields all of the same frustrations for me that traveling in the winter does–crowded buses and vans, bumpy rides that leave the coccyx shattered and the skull migrained, timing issues, peripheral peanut gallery nausea–with one exception:

In the summer, one doesn’t run the risk of freezing to death if one’s van breaks down.

Winter is a different story. After mid october, exhalation condenses and freezes on insides of the windows in all vehicles, and visibility is therefore limited to small portions of the front windshield. The floors of vans and buses are usually the same temperature as the outside air, which creates tremendous discomfort in the lower extremities. And this is all while the vehicles are running smoothly! The instant the vehicles break down, the front doors go open while the driver is alternating between tweaking whatever it is that broke in the undercarriage and returning to his seat to check on engine performance. The frigid air whistles its way in through the open doors until the vehicle is fixed.

an etched out vista in the frozen window of the bus on the way back to UB

an etched out vista in the frozen window of the bus on the way back to UB

If one is traveling by van and the van breaks down, everyone has to get out while maintenance is being carried out. If this should happen at night, under-prepared passengers have to figure out how to survive in unspeakably horrendous conditions.

That said, I do not know of a single Mongolian who would ever set foot outside his or her own home without enough clothing to stay warm for a while. I have, however, broken down in a van during a freezing cold night, and I witnessed a young mother barrage the driver with indescribable rage until he figured out a way to make the van sputter along for at least 5 kilometers at a time until he could find an automechanic shop. Everyone was a little frightened that we would be stranded.

I had been in the country long enough at that point to know that when Mongolian passengers  express discontent at the inconvenience of mechanical mishaps, something is seriously wrong. And this brings me to a trait that never ceases to both impress and infuriate me–the ability of the average Mongolian to regard such adversity as just another part of the adventure. In my first 8 months here, I have been on perhaps 10 trips in vans or buses. I am not exaggerating when I say that not a single one of those excursions began or ended on time, nine of them them had me positioned in a space too small for my body, and eight of them were  marked by at least one break down that lasted more then forty minutes in the cold. And yet, somehow, the aforementioned experience with the young mother was the only instance in which I observed even the mildest of frustrations in the responses of my Mongolian co-passengers.

At first glance, this seems like an absolutely lovely way to travel. What better company with whom to share your travel experience than someone who never, not once, complains?  Step back, though, and imagine the lone foreigner straddling the lap of an elderly Mongolian stranger in the back of a frozen van with a busted timing belt in the middle of the Gobi Desert, at night, in late October. He will most assuredly miss his morning business meeting in the city, and he’s frustrated–huffing and puffing, kneeding his face, sighing loudly, shaking his head. In the cultural context of Mongolian travel, his behavior–which would be deemed perfectly normal for such an inconvenience in America– is unacceptable. He–(or “I”, if you haven’t figured that out)–is made to look like a complete and total misanthropic ass by his calm surroundings.

This is the source of the admiration-frustration combo that summarizes my regard for the Mongolian travel disposition. Once again, though, we arrive at the same conclusion–that the contrasts between my personal/national cultural background and the structural and cultural trends inherent to my new life in Mongolia have put me in a position to reexamine and reevaluate my own perspectives. In this way, it is absolutely crucial to recognize the circumstances that give rise to Mongolia’s contentment with the state of things as they are; Mongolians are not frustrated by the same concepts and trends that might frustrate me, as a foreigner, because our respective vistas are informed by vastly different experiential sources. That the American life I’ve lived before was so different than the life I have here, in an altogether different context, is not a reason for me to take a judgmental stance.

And I’ll do my best to try to remember it the next time my bus breaks down.