Correspondence from Lexie Wallace ('06) in Mongolia
I just got back from the Mongolian countryside and finally saw the Mongolia I had romanticized for so long before departure. I lived with a family in the mountains outside Dadal Soum, a small town near the Russian border in northeastern Mongolia. This area is also believed to be the birthplace of Chiingis Khan, and so the feeling of sacredness was always in the air. It took us two full days to travel through the steppe only 400 km away. Roads do not exist outside of UB [Ulan Bator] and the paths were essentially deep tire ruts in the powder snow. Those days of driving were unbelievable. Everything was white. The landscape seemed endless and quite omnious from our tiny vehicles. The wind and weather was bitter cold and it was difficult to stand outside for more than two minutes. Peeing immediately meant a frozen bottom and chilled fingers and toes. At one point our huge Forgon (Russian jeep/van/gi-mundo land crossing vehicle/leader of the other SUVs) got stuck in the snow and we had to dig it out with shovels. Our drivers were great and cleared chunks of snow and ice the length of my arm-span with ease. I questioned if they were human numerous times on this drive because twice two SUVs broke down and were immediately fixed by them and anytime a tire popped we were back on the path in minutes. It was crazy. Americans know nothing about their cars-- (ha this reminds me of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) and other material mechanical items.
Staying with a family who spoke not one word of English was incredibly difficult at first. Gestures and books were all that we could use but I learned a lot about communication from the lack thereof. Smiles, appropriate moments to talk, being comfortable with constant silence etc. -- it almost brought me closer to my host parents than if we would have just been able to talk talk talk. Everything had to be shown, not said, which pushed me to truly be everything I believe and wanted to convey to them--not just say what I wanted or believed. For example, I wanted to help them out with their many chores and really work hard on their farm. This meant getting up at 5:45 am with them and physically standing next to them to watch how the work was done. When I tried to say to them in Mongolian "can I help you" they would always say "bish bish" or no no, you rest and stay inside where it is warm. This communication barrier and the fact that our small cabin had one room for all domestic activities and my mother was incontinent at night were probably the two most difficult aspects at first. Every time I woke up to her peeing in a small bucket my heart dropped and I was absolutley terrified I was wetting my own cot and the whole community would know me as the American girl who peed the bed.
But instead I became known as "Buriad Doorhma" which means "laughs a lot." I thought it meant bad cook until the last day. Mongolians work outside and come in for food about 12 times a day. Every morning you start with milk tea, bread and sour cream and sometimes fruit jam if you're lucky. Then you must have two servings of breakfast which is usually something like mutton soup. The smell of mutton is very distinct and brings me close to vomiting. Mongolians like their meat with a lot of fat on it and sometimes I confused the fat chunks in our meals for potatoes. In America after we pull meat off the bone or carcass we discard the rest of it. Well in Mongolia that fat is dessert. My dad would sit with the huge horse bone/fat mass we had just taken all the meat off of and delightfully eat the chunks of fat like a candy bar. Every day I ate the same thing in different forms. Always bread and sour cream with milk tea and then some kind of meat wrapped in dough or soup with meat and dough that had been cut into noodles. I have really loved being back in the city and eating my first fruits and vegetables for 2 and 1/2 weeks.
I rode a horse to language class each day and went on a few long horse treks with my father. He really spoiled me with his time and attention and I felt how I imagine that literary "father-son" relationship to be often. He would teach me how to carve animals out of wood (only after we had cut them down, dragged them to the house via horse and sled and then sawed and chopped each piece), clean off the new born animals, and herd the goats at night. My mother also spoiled me with candies and specially made food including yogart and hashbrowns! She was a talented woman and if she was American I imagine her name would be something like Janie Coyote. My coyote woman mother could basically fish, milk the cows and prepare dinner for five all at the same time. Or so it seemed. She ruled.
I definitely became a regular part of the family after a few days and knew how to do all the chores and could help herd the animals in at night. I would milk cows in the morning and then take all of our baby goats and sheep out of their pen to their mothers. Lots of babies were born while I was there and for any of you who have seen the movie "The Story of the Weeping Camel" I definitely had to hold the mother sheep as my host mom sang and tried to get them to accept their young. It worked both times and was such an enchanting moment. Life with them was clear and simple and I became so close to them that leaving was very sad and difficult. It was great living in their company and being able to really live the way they do each day.
So that's a lot more than I'm sure anyone cares to hear. I hope all at Kenyon and other schools enjoyed their spring breaks and write me stories if you've got any good ones. I hope all is well wherever you are. Talk to you later.
Our group returned last Thursday from a small bag (town) center called Gallut Soum in the Bayanhongkor Aimag in southeast Mongolia. Most people in the city say WHERE the hell?? which question I thought I would have escaped after actually getting to this country. But-- that's the difference between the nomads and the city dwellers.
The countryside people truly are removed from any culture but the one that has existed for over 3000 years. We had no running water, electricity, mirrors, radios, vegetables/fruit, outhouse (just the mountain boulders behind the ger) and definitely no toilet paper, napkins or ice cream --which I am still fantasizing about to this day. Again, I had some of the wildest experiences; authentically free and wild we were in the mountains and open plains. I lived in a ger with my 35 year-old father, 28 year-old mother, 6 year-old brother and 5 year-old sister. Both of whom were crying devils. I couldn't even speak as much Mongolian as my little sister but again I became part of the family in a way I never could have asked for.
The first day my family did not quite know what to do with me so I sat outside and read for about three hours straight, which is an exceedingly long time when you're at a new place with people you can't even speak to and you know the only way to get to know them is to constantly try to interact with them. Every second of those three hours I was conscious of their movements, trying to find a good time to hang out around them. It was draining. They did not think I could help so they expected me to just sit and do my own thing. I got terribly homesick that day. Too much time to think, feel lonely and far-removed from anything that made sense to me culturally. But when the high afternoon hit they began combing sheep for cashmere wool which I'd done at my last homestay. I squatted by them on the poop-pellet covered sandy ground for a while and then just grabbed a metal comb and began helping. I got more cashmere wool off than the permanently sunburned old man who had come over to help. They all laughed and the ice was broken. -(Not by a polar bear this time Meg, but the weight of the build up to that moment was just about as much as a polar bear on my shoulders I think).
The next day was much better and I went hiking in the mountains with my friends and our teacher in the language group. After our hike all of the students' fathers took us on a horse trek to see these ancient cemeteries for Chiingis' horses. They looked like crop circles only made of rock in the semi-desert landscape. Probably about thirty rocks were placed in a circle around one huge boulder under which the sacred horse lay. These cemeteries were everywhere-- and I would love to see them from the sky. They would look just like bull's-eye's dotting the terrain. That day we went down to the valley's lake (called Bayan Nuur) which my house overlooked from the mountains. As it is just becoming spring in Mongolia we were surrounded by hundreds of nesting birds, swans, ducks and other wetland species. It was magnificent. That night my father and I herded in the horses and I finally understood why they are such a great symbol of this country. Shorter and furrier than their American relative, the Mongolian horses can gallop in any weather condition for about 200km without stopping. That's some endurance let me tell you. I was in a full gallop behind the group and couldn't keep up with them at points. The sand was flying up from their hooves into my face and their manes were flipping and blowing in the wind. It was such a moment from Legends of the Fall or Last of the Mohicans or some other movie like that. At times they would stop and roll in the sand or small ponds surrounding the lake. Then they would get up and shake off and I could see the little water specs reflecting light from the sun in the air. I think I've decided to own horses for the rest of my life-- they were so beautiful.
More days of horse treks way up into to snow-capped mountains followed, and I began helping my mother cook, clean and rock the kids to bed. One night this crazy drunk man came over who kept calling himself the "black man" (XAR XYN in Cyrillic) because he had extremely dark hair, skin and eyes. Of course I was quite uncomfortable calling him this, but didn't have to after about five minutes of our conversation because once he realized I didn't speak Mongolian he began rapidly explaining things in hand signals. He decided we were "meant to be" and we should have two babies like my little brother and sister and go marmot hunting together for income. This I understood by him pointing at my little brother and sister, then winking at me and making a huge circle around my belly with his hands. He was definitely crazy and after he left my mother told me he was a "bad bad man" (MYY MYY XYN). Wild drunk people-- always fun.
The town there had never seen white people so they threw up a huge luncheon, disco and camel trek to these beautiful Buddhist cave drawings. Camels are like gigantic hairy recliners, and they do spit. The spit usually lasts for about three days and where there are no showers this is a devastating thought. The Buddhist drawings were beautiful, and huge, and very carefully carved into this red rock mountain face overlooking a river. We visited one of the oldest monasteries there in that small village as well. The monk was good friends with my parents and one time when my friends were making their way to my house in the one snow storm we experienced, they fell off their horses and the monk ran out to his van and chased after them across the sand in the blizzard. I couldn't believe that image-- such a mixing of the modern and traditional worlds. The monk in his honda mini-van driving across the river and sand after my friends who were full-out running after their wild horses. The night before we were leaving one of the students in my language group threw a huge disco party at her ger. All of the people from the area were invited and we had about 35 people in the small circle space dancing to a techno version of John Denver's "Country Roads." We ate about a hundred buuz (steamed meat dumplings) and drank airag (fermented mare's milk). They forced us to take a thousand pictures in which every Mongolian refused to smile. My mother held my arm every time we went outside to pee and I imagined she would have been quite a enthusiastic sorority girl if she had lived in the States. My father would spread his legs like he was doing a squat and would sway from side to side when he was dancing. It was incredible. He looked like a wrestler in a wool dress from waist down and a baby in a high-chair with his fists clamped pounding the air. Each time I blinked it was like taking a Kodak picture from a commercial; all of the Mongolian faces around me smiling, dressed in their traditional del's, the food and drinks unique to the land and lying out before us like a king's buffet-- I could put together the most perfect abroad portfolio of photos from this past homestay.
We drove home through the ancient capital of Mongolia (Krakhorim) and it took us three days to get back to the city. We saw some famous monuments of the past great empire, including a rock shaped exactly like a penis which the women of the city used to worship. There are some interesting things in this world. Since I've been back I've moved in with a family here, and am seeing the city in such a different light. I took the very crowded bus to school this morning, and for the first time I am finally feeling a little less like a foreigner asking to be pick-pocketed. Tourist season is picking up and it's great hearing others' traveling stories. I can't wait to get back to the States for the summer time and to have better communication with everyone. It will be so wonderful to be able to speak and get around more easily. I can't believe the things I miss. Well I hope all is well and I am so jealous of all of you enjoying the spring there.
Talk to everyone soon-- write me any stories or questions!
Well here I am. I am currently relating well to the grateful dead saying: "long time gone short time there." Like water running through my hands. After four days of traveling from Mongolia which began my Sunday morning at 4 am and arriving in Cleveland Ohio this morning at 7 am, I finally have a chance to take a breath and write my last letter from the ever so enlightening, amazing, life-changing abroad experience. Hahaha, how else can I put it? It always ends up this way. I can just see it now-- walking down middle path at Kenyon and the conversation going something like this:
"Hiiii! (big hug exchanged)." "So how was Moscow?" "Oh, Mongolia... but great, great. Best time of my life." "And how was Scotland?..." "Amazing. Best time of my life." "Great!"
It's actually pretty amazing that the human being can endure extreme hardship and in the end always seem to make something positive and beautiful out of it. The biggest challenge now will be trying to articulate this time as I'm sure my buddies have previously discovered upon their returns.
Today has already been so strange. It's just so weird to have my neighborhood, the one I used to have huge hide-n-go-seek games in, and the roads that I rollerskated on and first learned to drive stick shift on, be foreign. The houses here in America are so crazy! They are huge to start, but they seem so close together. Especially because homes in Mongolia are at least 5 km. away from each other and separated by some extreme environment. Where are the animals? Wait there is toilet paper here? People can understand what I’m saying? (This could be bad actually…) And my furry cat is definitely about as big as a baby goat. It was truly shocking to look in my closet and have a choice of more than two shirts like I have for the past four months out of my hiking backpack. Ohhhhh… so nice. It will be so great to see and talk to everyone too. That’s the most exciting part, and the one thing that was pulling me away from Mongolia. Otherwise, I may never have come back. ( :-) Just kidding Mom)
For the last month there I took on an Independent Study project researching Nature Conservation Ethics in Mongolia. It was a great time being free from the reigns of my teachers and the constraints of a 14 person traveling troupe. I got on a public bus with two other girls and headed to Khovsgol aimag, near Russia—the coldest place in Mongolia. We wanted to research a small culture 10 km from the border, who are referred to as Tsataan people which means “reindeer herder” in Mongolian. It was quite an exercise for my language and charade skills.
The public bus was really just a Forgon (a VW van on steroids) with 15 people and 11 seats for 26 hours. It was the most uncomfortable experience of my life but also the most hilarious. Mongolians travel with only their basic needs: imported chinese goods in big wooden boxes if they are going from the city to the countryside, plastic soda bottles filled with milk if they are going from the countryside to the city. There I was with my ipod, "car snacks," sodas, books—I even pulled out one of those neck pillows people use on airplanes. Everyone was cracking up. It looked just like that van on dumb and dumber when they start singing "mock, yea, bird, yea..." except only Mongolian faces. The three of us had to ride backwards so as we drove through mountains, streams and rivers I could only look back at the 9 Mongolian faces staring at us and trying their hardest to understand why American students would ever put themselves in such a miserable situation.
When we got there we met our good friend and driver Bat-Erdene and he took us up to Ulaan Uul soum and then onto Tsagaan Nuur soum. In Tsagaan Nuur we hired horses and two guides to take us to the reindeer people. They were 50 km from the soum so we rode for a full day and then camped by a river next to some of the tallest mountains in Mongolia. They were covered in snow and I was glad it was sunny down in the valley where we were. That night we cooked some dried meat we had brought along on a luggage horse. Mom had mailed me some easy mac and I tried to cook it in the pot but it didn’t quite work out. I ended up being so thankful to eat the hard noodles and cheesy paste anyway. The next day we continued the horse trek to the village. We had to cross through about 10 km of bog and I felt like Atreyu in the never ending story when his horse gets sucked into the mud. A few times my horse did get in pretty deep but a little encouragement and his fear of being sucked in did the trick. It started raining just at that time too, which created quite a nice ambiance. It was misty and smelled like rotting plant debris and we were trying our hardest to keep the horses calm so we could cross over this dandelion grass mud zone. When we got there the horses did start to spook because they could smell the reindeer up ahead. We had to get off and pull them with all our strength. It started snowing just at that moment as well-- which seemed all to perfect as we encounted the reindeer grazing. So there I was bundled up in mid May, tugging my horse who was just throwing his head around with a gaping mouth full of dirty teeth and it was snowing all around us. Plus we were going to interview a village of people who have seen foreigners maybe twice—and they had no idea we were coming. But it turned out quite alright.
That night I stayed with a family of four in their tepee. I slept maybe one hour because of the cold—even though they covered me in two blankets and had me sleeping right next to the fire. In the morning the inside walls of the teepee were covered in ice. They had two canvas squares on the floor inside the tepee, but otherwise it was just grass and dirt on which to sit and sleep. Perhaps the tepee had a small wooden shelf on the western side storing food products, which were mostly reindeer meat and milk. Only a few of the families had flour and oil. No one had anything that came in a plastic package. No one had a TV. They had heard of them but had never seen one. The children had candy for the first time when I gave it to them, and they smothered me everywhere I went afterwards. Some families had one or two extremely worn toothbrushes and brightly colored cotton blanket covers. Everything they used came from their environment around them, which made them a great source for my research project on environmental ethics. From them, for the most part, I found out that economics always trumps ethics, and they were going to cut the trees, and use the water from the nearby stream, and hunt the endangered snow leopard and bear for food, regardless of what environmentalists said. It was an excellent exercise in the realities of life.
The next day we took the trek back and again slept by the mountain river. We had taken 5 kilos of rice, 3 kilos of flour plus bags of sugar, potatoes, carrots and onions as payment and thanks for the interviews we did in the village. We left this with the families but asked them to prepare some noodles and bread for us before we left. Again I was eating nothing but white dough and dried meat. My body has turned into a squishy ball of carbohydrates. When we got back to Tsagaan Nuur we drove to Khatgal soum which is a small town located on the second largest fresh water lake in Central Asia, and the fourteenth largest in the world. It was so great to be around birds and ducks and the sounds of a lake. I did some more interviews there and sponsored an essay contest at the local school for 8th graders on the topic “what nature means to me.” It was so fun going to the school, presenting a certificate I had made and taking photos with the winner and the head of the school. His essay was marvelous. In Khatgal we left our translator and driver and my friend Rachel and I were fully alone in Mongolia for the first time. We went hiking in the park overnight and after a few more research days there took a public bus down to the soum center Morin for a flight back to Ulaanbaatar. It was again another concrete learning experience. The people there provided more hope for my project as they were all aware of sustainable development and nature conservation living next to the national park. But they still saw nature as a means of survival and many of them were willing to exploit it for profit.
I spent the last two weeks in Ulaanbaatar writing my 50 page paper and preparing for my presentation. This was not fun. But it flew by and then we found our group meeting up after the month apart and preparing for our last week in Mongolia. After the two presentation days we took our last trek to the countryside where we set up our own gers and had countless horse races. It had just become summer time so the bits of green grass were showing and the sun was shining hot. It was beautiful riding around under the sapphire sky. The environmental contrasts there are astounding. The yellow-brown ground with bits of green meld into the darker brown hills and mountains in the distance which greet the hot blue sky. It’s so pretty. We had many discussions about what to expect upon return and we relived many of the days we had had over the past four months. I was grateful for this time to just be there—fully immersed before the craziness of travel and return. So now here I am and I can’t wait to talk to everyone. Let me know what you are doing for the summer and I’ll see if I can come and visit you.