Saturday, August 14, 2010

Folking Around

I returned recently from a nearly two week long journey through the countryside by jeep. I took this shot of the Altai Mountains about a week in, not too far from Mongolia's southwest border with China.

I apologize to those of you who’ve been checking this thing. I plan to begin posting fairly regularly now. There is much to tell about. I suppose I’ll start right from the beginning.


I spent ten very eventful days in the capital before heading out west. When I first arrived in UB I explored the city and attended Naadam, an annual celebration featuring the three manly sports: archery, horse racing, and wrestling. Here are some pictures of the event, shot from afar:

I thought it would be great boon to my project if I could get a little Mongolian language under my belt. (So far so good.) Pictured below are my two helpful and lovely Mongolian language teachers: Bayarmaa and Urnaa. I was extremely lucky to meet them. In Mongolia, a country of 2.9 million, there are roughly 30,ooo Zakhchin people, most of whom live in Hovd Aimag. Both of my teachers happen to be Zakhchin and grew up in the region where I was soon to be headed. They were thus able to give me plenty of advice and help with contacts. (The Zakhchin, by the way, are the group whose music I am here studying. Their name means "border people," and they are a group or "sub-ethnicity" within the Oirats.)

The Everlasting Bus Ride & Hovd City

The morning of July 21st, a Wednesday, I awoke abruptly and scrambled to tie up loose ends. I paid my bill, packed my bag, and purchased some tobacco and other small gifts on my way out of town. Once at the "Dragoncenter," I was glad to see Odnoo (pronounced "oad-no" – she was also one of my language teachers); the trip would have been a lot less bearable without her. They had really packed the bus full of people and luggage, so it was pretty cramped from the start. I relinquished my reserved window seat for a woman and a little girl and was then seated to the left of Sik (seek), a Mongolian soldier who had been deployed in Afghanistan and was soon to return. On my left sat a little girl, ten years old and very outgoing. During the entire trip she took the liberty to sleep or rest on me whenever she pleased. She also insisted on helping me study my verbs, for which I thankful. After a drawn out wait, the bus finally departed, and all the dust and noise and traffic slowly gave way to the vast, open steppe.

When I look back on that roughly two and a half day crossing, everything tends to blur together because I was sitting in one spot for the entire time. The three or so meals we had along the way were my first real introduction to countryside food, which usually consists of a combination of two or more of the following: doughy noodles, rice, mutton, chopped potatoes. (Most of the food in the countryside is pretty bland, to be honest. But it's gradually growing on me, especially the boiled mutton.) The periodic bathroom stops were quite a relief for all. At one point while stopped near a river, Sik asked me what I think of Mongolian women. I said I think many of them are very beautiful. Later in the conversation he grabbed my right bicep aggressively, and I was quick to retaliate by doing the same. My instinct, if at all reliable, was that we'd just become friends. (Later he got my mobile number, and we are planning to hang out some time.)

Nights on the bus were the roughest part. Limbs and luggage were strewn all about, making it impossible to get comfortable. It was sweaty and sticky affair. Knees and elbows jabbing you; the little girl always clinging to your side; bugs crawling up your back and neck; and the bus always swerving abruptly or bouncing voilently from hitting a bump at high speed. But my mind was usually elsewhere. On the second night, we stopped for a bathroom break in Zereg Sum and were ravaged by a swarm of mosquitos, many of which made it into the bus to bite us into the early morning.

But don't let me mislead you: the vodka and the singing and the landscapes more than made up for all the grueling aspects of the journey. And though I can't recall when, I must have gotten some sleep along the way.

In the early morning twilight of July 23, the bus pulled up in Hovd city. Mosquitos were still preying on us as I said good by to Sik and Odnoo and the little girl. Boldoo (bowl-dough) came and picked me up after I called him several times. We arrived outside his ger on the edge of town, and I was relieved to collapse on the floor next to his family.

When I awoke I experienced a kind of brief and frightening vertigo: I'd totally forgotten I was in Mongolia! When I came to, Otgoo (oat-go) and her husband, Hungard, stepped into the ger and introduced themselves. Though I was quite beside myself, I mustered a smile and tried to be attentive. I stepped outside and walked with two of them to their guest ger. Hungard gave me a crash course in herder etiquette: men on the left, women on the right (generally); always accept objects with your right hand; never walk through the two center beams that prop up the ger, as the space between them is sacred; and so on.

I remember that afternoon and evening vaguely. At some point, I learned about a bit more about Otgoo and Hungard’s history. Otgoo grew up in Zereg Sum (not far from Hovd city) during the final two decades of communism in Mongolia. An outstanding student, she was also a talented and popular young singer in her area. Not including Boldoo (who is technically her nephew but grew up in her ger), she has nine siblings. Her parents were herders and worked very hard to give their children some opportunity to pursue whatever careers they may choose. [At this very moment I lay among the hills just outside of the town of Zereg. When we arrived and set up camp here early this evening, Otgoo showed me a path on which she used to accompany her father to hunt and trap marmots.] When she was very young – twelve, I think – she moved to Ulaanbaatar to be a singer. Later in her teens she lived in Russia and then in her early twenties she moved to Japan and learned Japanese. She first met Hungard as he was solitarily venturing through Hovsguul (a province in northwest Mongolia) on horseback some fifteen years ago. Apparently Hungard, in his early thirties at the time, was quite smitten with Otgoo and kept returning to Mongolia to see her – which eventually culminated in a traditional marriage in Otgoo's family's ger about ten years ago. Since then, Otgoo has moved to Austria, learned German, and begun her Phd work in ethnomusicology, coming to western Mongolia every summer to collect Oirat music. Hungard is a geneticist and works at a university in Vienna. The two of them also own a ger that they sometimes vacation in during the summer when they visit Mongolia.

Music in the Countryside with Otgoo: Pt. 1

July 26th: Before we departed we sat in Otgoo's ger and performed an old ritual meant to ensure safety and good luck. Boldoo lit some powdered herb on a tray and caused it to start smoking. Then he, Otgoo, and I each passed the tray around around our torsos three times clockwise to let the smoke envelop us. The tray was brought out to the jeep and the interior was blessed with the smoke as well. I learned that this is an old animist ritual performed on a variety of occasions, such as when an individual is ill or family is moving into a new home. At the edge of town we stopped at an ovoo, a sacred shamanistic site comprised of a large mound of rocks with blue ribbons erected at the top. People often leave offerings such as money or vodka or candy at the base. As custom dictates, we each circled the cairn three times clockwise and tossed a small rock on the pile.

As we left Hovd City behind and journeyed into the countryside, I felt a kind of laughing disbelief. This grand vision that I began to carve out over a year ago was, eh, actually happening? Apparently. Otgoo had earlier warned me that our expedition would be very difficult and uncomfortable. I stared out the window while listening to some Zakhchin music on her MP3 player, trying somehow to prepare myself for whatever lay ahead.

We drove for a few hours in the direction of Chandmani Sum (Each "aimag" is divided into various "sums"). I thought at the time that this was a terribly bumpy ride, but I soon realized that it was the newly paved car pool lane compared to the terrain we would cross later on. En route we picked up a seemingly distressed old man whose eyes looked like they'd been engulfed in a milky fog. He and I spent a good portion of our time in the backseat killing the dozens of mosquitos that had entered the car when he did. We dropped him near the town of Chandmani and soon arrived at the ger of Rentsen, a (purportedly) seasoned khoomei singer. (For those of you who don’t know what khoomei is, see wikipedia--or I'll post about it soon). His wife told us that he’d drunk a bit too much at a wedding that afternoon but that we were welcome to visit him the following morning.

About 200 yards away we set up camp beside a small stream. The grass was the color and texture of grass on a golf course, and golden, picturesque mountains stood far off to both the east and west. We were also in the close company of sheep, goats, horses, and yaks. I frolicked around a bit and experimented with my camera. Later, we three sat in a circle and slurped our noodles as night descended. Boldoo was soon to bed, but Otgoo and I stayed up and became more well acquainted under a brilliant full moon (a good omen, I think) that illuminated the rolling steppe and the khoomei singer's white ger in the distance. I had no trouble falling asleep that night, nor any night since.

The following day, July 27, we awoke around 8 AM, and after some coffee and bread, quickly packed our tents and drove to the nearby ger. Inside, Rentsen and and his family had been awaiting our arrival. This was of course my first experience doing any kind of fieldwork, or even using my equipment in a serious context. After drinking two bowls of yak's milk tea and struggling (mostly in vain) to grasp bits small talk, I fumbled awkwardly with my equipment when it came time to start recording. Otgoo asked Rentsen a few questions, and after a long and seemingly thorough explanation of his practice, he began to sing. He demonstrated the three fundamental tones, upon which, in his opinion, all traditional khoomei should rest. (I've learned that khoomei, although an oral tradition often passed down by famiy members, tends to be a very individualistic practice.) He then performed a song The guttural near-growl emanating from the man's throat contrasted strikingly with the ethereal overtones produced by the constriction of his windpipe. I've listened to recordings of khoomei since, and it scarcely comes close to sitting right next the source of such an odd and intriguing sound. At one point, Rentsen stared at me with a curious expression as his subtle overtones sounded a cheerful melody, a moment which has since played again and again in my thoughts.

Rentsen playing Tovshuur while singing Khoomei

Rentsen's ger
His son also carries on in the tradition, and together the two of them performed a song for us.