I know it has been two months since I have updated – I mentally slap myself on the wrist and will try to avoid that in the future. I have just been SO BUSY! Not to mention out of internet reach for the last three weeks since I decided to return to the place that kicked off my whole Mongolia obsession five years ago. Namely: I returned to Hovsgol to surprise my first homestay family.
Ok, for those who don’t know what I am talking about: I participated in a study abroad program called SIT five years ago (the only study abroad program in Mongolia) that takes small groups of university students to communities of Mongolian nomads and places those students with families for extended periods of time. In my semester, we had the great fortune of having two extended homestays: one in the northern region of Hovsgol, in an area known as Ulaan Uul (Red Mountain) closs to the Russian border, and the other in Bayankhongor in the Gobi desert. I am still in contact with the program director and most staff members and thus when I heard that SIT was heading back to this Hovsgolian community with a new group of students, I asked if I could hitch a ride😉.
Ulaan Uul is in the very most northern part of Mongolia in Siberia where there are no roads and very few people, so getting there required an old-school russian bus (поргон) and over 20 hours of driving through Siberian taiga (if you are lucky and there is no snow as my return trip evinced: it took me around 40 hours to make it back to the city). It is located in the Darkhan Valley, which is also well known because of the presense of the Tsaatan, reindeer herders, and now because of a recent influx of ninja miners in the mountains. It is most probably the most beautiful place I have ever been and comparable only to (as a member of Mongolian parliament said to me) Yellowstone National Park or the Alaskan wilderness.
Since my family from five years ago did not have TV or electricity at the time I thought there was no way I could really inform them of my coming. My plan was originally to just show up and say surprise and see their faces, but since my family was so fantastic, SIT had planned to give them a new student this year. Thus, I was not ‘allowed’ to live with them, but SIT offered me another family. So, basically I repeated what I did five years ago with a new family: except this time, I was older, everyone in the community knew me, I decided to do a beauty survey amongst the nomads which required extensive travel between the various families, and last, but by no means least, I can speak Mongolian.
After driving the 15 hours to Mörön (the capital of Hovsgol), picking up the new students, and driving another 7 hours to the local sum
(district) center and another 1 and half to the remote community where we lived, I found myself entering the same ger (yurt) I had entered five years ago when I was picked up by my home-stay dad on horseback. I sat down amongst the students and all the Mongolian occupants of the ger starting wispering furtively about the surprise number of students (“Eleven? I thought there were only supposed to be ten??!”). I had on a scarf, which I used to (I thought surreptitiously, but I now know bogglingly obviously) to cover my piercings. My family’s gesture for me three years ago was forming their thumb and pointer finger in the sign of a ring and placing it on their lip (I had a fairly big lip ring then), and I thought my piercings were a dead give-away. So, I sat in the corner with a scarf covering half my face…
And my former homestay dad walked in – a wrestler, big guy with his two front teeth missing and a tiny goatee – who sat down next to me, not recognizing, and lit up a cigarette. Amused, I decided I would just go to their ger and shock them all at once, but my plan was thwarted when my former homestay mother arrived. Even though I covered half my face, I walked out with the students to get a quick horseback riding tip lesson, at first not realizing that she had been secretively eyeing me and asking everyone who I was. She waddled after the group of students and from a distance starred at me with a quisical, mustering look…
So, I cracked and ran over to her and their faces light up with recognition and shock and laughter at my badly obvious attempts at covering my face. (Apparently, she spent the next three weeks telling this story to every visitor to the ger, animatedly imitating my covering attempts). She then took me by the hand and started leading me to the horses to take me ‘home’ (“well now I have my daughter back, we can go”), but my insistance that they had a ‘new’ student and couldn’t take me home, stopped her. Instead, I spent the next few weeks riding/walking/motorcycling between the family I was staying with and my former homestay family, learning songs with them (since I could barely speak any Mongolian five years ago, we communicated and bonded through singing) and now being able to communicate ideas about my life and theirs.
It is incredible to now be able to talk to the nomadic families that took me in five years ago and I
decided to utilize the opportunity by doing a little beauty survey. So, while in Hovsgol the last few weeks, I horse-back rode and repeatedly drove the several kilometers between various families, explained my research to the nomads in the area and ended up collecting 20 surveys from them (20 doesn’t sound like much, but the population density of this place is very low) regarding beauty ideals. Amongst the questions were, of course, what does it mean to be a beautiful woman, but also if this was different than a ‘sexy’ woman, which ellicited a lot of really funny comments from older nomads (“wait.. you mean a sexy woman is not someone who just wants to have sex? aren’t we all sexy?”). I am not finished evaluating them yet (it is really hard for me to read cursive Mongolian), but cursory looks already reveal what I already knew to be true: that beauty amongst Mongolian nomads is very functional and internal based. Comments on “what does it mean to be a beautiful woman” included the classic answers, hard-working, well-behaved, well-versed in tradition, commonsensical, good-mother, but also others like “a woman who drinks milk,” “not a miss (beauty pageant) contestant,” and “a humble looking woman.” External physical qualities are almost never mentioned.
So, I guess I can now be sure that the nomadic conception of beauty varys little amongst nomads on complete different sides of the country (since I have now been in the Gobi, in horse-country and in the Siberian extremes), but more so amongst city and countryside. But I guess I knew that already.
Modernity vs. Nomadicism?
Ulaan Uul is the most isolated place I have ever been – with it taking over 30 hours in an industrial-style Soviet bus over terrain with no roads- to get there. The Darkhan Valley is relatively protected from the currents of change in the rest of the country, but even the Darkhan are on the cusp of modernity. Five years ago, my home-stay family and about half of the other families in the valley did not have either electricity or TV, and only a few had motorbikes. Everything was still done by candle and fire-light, people generally went to sleep and woke up with the sun, and entertainment consisted of card games and singing. I once asked my home-stay dad if he knew where America was (and Germany for that matter) and still remember very clearly the shrug of his shoulders as an answer. Why is it important for a nomad in a remote valley to be concerned with America anyway? I found this super refreshing.
Now, five years later, all the nomads in the valley have cell phones, TV and electricity. Television commercials make nomads wonder what these new wonder products are (coca-cola? oriflame beauty products? pepsi?) and they go into town to try them out. Global warming makes people have to move, because the grasses are getting shorter, and families complain to me about the changing health and increased drunkeness of the nomads since the advent of free-market capitalism. Entertainment often consists of TV (especially among younger families). And in the last two years, SIT could not go to this valley, because the discovery of gold in an area 60 km away caused the valley to be overrun with ninja miners who arrived, incured debt for the equipment to search for gold, found some gold, drove up the prices in the area and ruined the nature, and then peaced out as quickly as they came.
What you see in this area is kinda the same old story seen amongst all sorts of indigenous groups the world over once they started adapting to Western capitalism and ‘modernity.’ Rises in modern diseases (cancer, hypertension, high blood-pressure), changes to nature dependent on market forces (mining), break-down of old bonding activities replaced by TV, increased consuption of refined sugars (thank you coca-cola and refined flour) and alcohol abuse. And with focus on my research, I see these changes reflected in the changes of beauty ideals amongst Mongolians – a gradual but definite spectrum from large, healthy, motherly ideals to skinny, fast, ‘sexy’ ideals the closer you get to the city and sedentary life.
It has kinda left me questioning at the moment if teaching people about Western nutrition (which I had planned to do by creating a health booklet for women before leaving Mongolia) is really the best idea. The West doesn’t know everything either.
And in case you were wondering, my nomad dad still doesn’t know where America is.🙂
Well, now I am back in the city and physically and mentally exhausted. I separated from SIT a week ago, when they continued to the local lake with their students, and I was left getting back from Ulaan Uul on my own. And since we live in Mongolia, snow had already fallen between Hovsgol and UB, but, also since we live in Mongolia, that didn’t phase people and drivers decided they wanted to drive through it anyway. What ensued was a 40 hour Soviet bus ride over Mongolian terrain, mountains, and through cliff-passes in a bus designed for 12 people where we had stuck 17 and which got stuck in the snow at night for 10 hours and had to wait until the snow thawed a bit to keep moving. Furthermore, we had to get out several times and trudge through the snow pulling on a rope attached to the back of the bus as it went down slopes to make sure it didn’t skid-out and fall off the cliff. Luckily, we were also in a Soviet bus, because the larger busses has also decided to go, which definitely got stuck and spent over 25 hours stuck in the snow out of any cell-phone range. These are the vageries of traveling (and doing anything for that matter) in this country.
The constant unpredictability of life here, coupled with language difficulties (my Mongolian is
advanced, but not fluent – so I get confused a lot), extreme cultural differences (which I encountered a lot of while doing my survey with the nomads), and radical changes of dietary routine (I was vegan for five years, went to the countryside for 3 months and lived with 8 different carniverous families, came back to the city and was vegan again, and went back to the country where I drank the yak’s milk I had just milked myself every morning and ate freshly slaughtered marmot), and hygienic circumstance (nomads don’t use soap for washing most things, the word for privacy doesn’t even exist in the Mongolian language, and I have not showered for several weeks repeatedly in the last months) have taken a huge toll on my body. I have actually never been so repeatedly physically uncomfortable in my life.
I kinda feel like I am physically and mentally tettering between Western ideals and Mongolian nomadic culture and I don’t know which one is right anymore.
My mongolian teacher told me my home-work this weekend was to rest cause I looked so exhausted… oh je. At least my life in this country is ridiculous.
I hope the lengthiness of this entry has made up some for the silence… I have also drafted another entry about the beauty image workshop Young Women for Change and I held a few weeks ago, which I will post very soon (I promise!)
As previously mentioned, I also spent the last few weeks learning songs from my former nomadic family. In vein with my research, my former home-stay sister taught me this song about a beautiful woman called монгол бүсгүйн үзэсгэлэн (Mongolian female beauty). Below is an mp3 with my home-stay sister singing the song, including my (as of now hastily done – I will correct it soon) translation and the cyrillic lyrics, if you are interested.
Харзны ус шиг мэлтэлзсэн Emotionally contained like the water in an ice hole
Намуун зөөлөн аашаараа With calm soft temperament
Хараацайн жигvvр шиг тахиралсан Curved like the wing of a swallow
Нарийн сайхан хөмсгөөрөө With thin beautiful eyebrows
Миний хайрыг татах Pulls my love
Учиртай төрөө юү Like the reason you were born
Монгол бүсгуйн үзэсгэлэн Mongolian female beauty
Улам ч хөөрхөн болгоо юу Forever becoming prettier
Гурваар дарсан гэзгийг чинь Your three modest braids
Элбэн таалахад ханамгvй When caressed calms
Гуалиг тєрсєн биеийг чинь Your natural graceful body
Налан суухад уйдамгvй lovely to sit next to
УЙлэнд урнаа илчилсэн Good at needle-work
Сvмбэн цагаан хуруугаараа With rod-like, white fingers
Vрийн бvvвэй аялсан A mothering lullaby is sung
Сvvн цайлган сэтгэлээрээ With a heart kind like milk