Friday, 27 November 2009

Mongolia - Bayartai

And so my learning about Mongolia comes to an end!  I've cooked the food, listened to the music, read a book, various blogs, tweets, newspaper reports - even listened to Mongolian radio streamed live through the Internet. 

I really enjoyed reading Louisa Waugh's account of life in Bayan-Olgii aimag Hearing Birds Fly - she really got stuck in to life in the village and I enjoyed learning about Western Mongolia through her experiences and wisdom.  One of the things that really struck me about her book was that sense of 'being removed' from the lives of those around you.  It doesn't matter how long you spend in a place, you will always be an outsider and that's something most people find it hard to come to terms with.

She also talks about how her language changed after a few months in the village - her language became one of survival - wood, ice, meat, flour - and when her Tuvan colleague suggests going to a disco, she is suddenly taken aback by her forgotten words/thoughts of pleasure - dancing, wine, sex. 

She talks about the importance of rain, and yet again I'm reminded of Lesotho's motto and the attitudes we have in the UK and Ireland to rainy days.  For the villagers in Western Mongolia, waiting for rain to come after a long hard winter, means waiting for life to spring forth, for the valley to turn green and the land to rouse from its weary hibernation.  It's something we take for granted in our Emerald Isles!  I remember my students in Uzbekistan dreamed about going to England, of day after day of rain which, coming from a desert, is hardly surprising.  My Thai students used to dream of snow - they would talk about cold countries like Russia and Finland with nothing less than wonder in their voice.  Yet we do everything we can for a bit of sun, to escape the dark skies and the oppressive wet Sunday afternoons. 

The rhythm of life in Western Mongolia seemed directly at odds with life in Europe.  Whereas we look forward to the summer months as a chance for a holiday, to get away somewhere with the family, in Mongolia the summer means work.  It means fattening up the animals and long days of preparing food to be consumed throughout the long winter.  Everything boils down to the winter preparations, just like in Russia, it's literally a matter of life or death. 

As well as reading Louisa's book, I did a lot of reading on the Internet.  I learned about the Hun Chollai (Stone people) of the Uyghurs, that the soldiers who escorted Chinghis Khan's dead body back from China murdered every living soul they met on the way home (it must have been a very silent calvacade).  I learned about the Mongolian wind horse, something similar to the Greek myths of Pegasus.  I learned about the murder of Zorig in October 1998 and the profound effect that has had on post-communist Mongolian politics.  I learned that the Mongolian currency, the Togrog, is printed at the Royal Mint in South Wales!  I learned all of this and much, much more.

I've been a big fan of Mongolian music for quite a while now and would really recommend Egschiglen's album Sounds of Mongolia, I'm listening to it now, as I write this blog.  I really hope you can watch the YouTube video I've embedded in this blog.  It's my favourite song, Eruu Cagaan Bolimor which means 'White breasted sparrow'.

Bayartai Mongolia - I hope to visit for real someday!

Image credits

The Mongolian flag is from

The book cover is taken from and the Egschiglen video is courtesy of YouTube. 

Monday, 23 November 2009

Mongolia - Tsuivan

If it's Mongolia, it's got to be mutton! I think my partner, Zhenya, was quite relieved this time round. After the panic-inducing hot spices of Lesothan Chakalaka and the . . . well, corned beef of Kiribati, he was quite into the idea of mutton and tells me that Tsuivan is very similar to a Kalmyk dish.

Tsuivan is a kind of mutton stew with thick flour noodles. As a sort of challenge, I decided to make the noodles myself from scratch, much easier than it sounds actually, as it's like frying chapati or pancake and then slicing it into long rectangular shapes. If you're interested in finding out how to do this, I found a really good website called

Once my noodles were made, I fried an onion, a carrot, a courgette and two garlic cloves. Then I added the mutton, browning it, before pouring in enough stock to fill the pot three quarters of the way up. I added some white cabbage on top and let it boil for about 15 minutes.

Once the vegetables had boiled and shrunk a bit, I added the noodles on top, then covered it for another 15 minutes reducing the heat. It's important not to uncover the pot at this stage, because the steam inside is used to cook the noodles, so they don't stick together in one big soggy lump :-)

I served it with fresh scallions (spring onions), see photo!

I wouldn't say mutton is my favourite meat, at least, I wouldn't like to eat it everyday. Like a lot of my learning about Mongolia, I was reminded of Central Asia. The taste of mutton brought me right back to Samarkand and all the traditional Uzbek plov I ate during my two years there.

Image credits

The Mongolian flag is from

Both photos were taken by me :-)

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Mongolia - Education and Ethnicity in Western Mongolia

As part of my learning about Mongolia I'm reading Hearing Birds Fly: A Nomadic Year in Mongolia by Louisa Waugh.

Being a bit clueless about Mongolia when I ordered this book, I was surprised to find that Louisa's year was spent in the majority Kazakh village of Tsengel in Mongolia's most westerly province, Bayan-Olgii. Still, I'm learning about Mongolia, not just the Mongol people, and I sometimes think you can learn a lot more about a country through the eyes of it's minority populations.

Louisa spent two years teaching in Ulaan Baatar before moving to Tsengel and she suddenly finds herself, fluent in Mongolian, but totally lost when it came to Tsengel's two main languages, Kazakh and Tuvan. She can still use Mongolian to communicate, of course, but people will ultimately want to go back to their native tongue, especially at family gatherings and social occasions.

She is befriended by a Tuvan family and unwittingly is deemed to align herself with the Tuvans/Mongolians in the village rather than the Kazakh majority. I'm at the part where she's starting the new school year in September and has moved in with a Kazakh family, so as not to be seen to be taking sides, but also to learn something about Kazakh culture.

Interestingly at the school where she teaches, students are segregated into language groups. Kazakh and Mongolian. The Mongolian group includes the Tuvan students, who are culturally and linguistically related. I guess there are practical reasons for this but, thinking of a context like the one in Northern Ireland, I can't help thinking that segregated education is a key factor in institutionalising cultural differences, rather than inspiring students with a sense of common citizenship (regardless of their ethnic or religious backgrounds). In the case of Western Mongolia, it also reminds me of Soviet models of education and the way education was segregated in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, where I taught for two years.

Most people in Samarkand speak Tajik as their first language, with the national language, Uzbek, being spoken by a minority as their mother tongue. It's hard to quantify this, as most people speak both languages and are bilingual and often trilingual (Russian being a common denominator).

I learnt Russian, as a more accessible language, but I also picked up some Tajik (from friends) and Uzbek (from the telly), both of which I've since forgotten. The schools and university in Samarkand were also segregated into Uzbek groups and Russian groups, with most Tajiks studying in the Russian group. It always amazed me that there was no Tajik group, despite the fact that this is the majority culture of the city, but I guess there's an ongoing denial of Samarkand's status as a Tajik city, which owes its legacy to the stalinisation of Central Asia. If you want to study in a Tajik group, then you need to go to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan.

The tension Louisa feels in the village, between the Kazakh majority and the Tuvan minority reminds me of the tensions that simmer in a lot of countries, I'm thinking of the Serbs and Croats, Northern Ireland, the Uyghurs in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (Western China). They can simmer for a long time, occasionally coming to the boil when political interests stoke up resentment or feelings of discrimination finally bubble over.

Image credits:
The Mongolian flag is from
I love the photo of the Mongolian signpost which was taken by flickruser Steve Burt who is from Portland, USA. Thanks Steve for sharing this image with us using the Creative Commons License!

The Mongolian script is from Wikimedia Commons and therefore copyright free. It means Mongol Khel, literally Mongol person.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Mongolia - Cynophobia and Ger-tiquette

Apart from being landlocked countries, I was trying to find something else that Mongolia and Lesotho have in common and I came up with this:

they have similar levels of population.

Hard to imagine this would be the case with Lesotho being the size of Belgium (or a little bit bigger than Massachusetts, for our friends in the US), whereas Mongolia is the 19th biggest country in the world, right after Iran. It's also the least densely populated independent state in the world, with only 1% of Mongolia's territory being classified as urban.

I can't even begin to comprehend a 'space' like that. It must influence everything about Mongolia, from their love of horses, the bird dancing rituals before wrestling, the timelessness of a landscape barely altered by man.

If claustrophobia is a fear of enclosed spaces, then what is a fear of open spaces called? I've looked on the Internet, but no one seems to know the answer to this. Officially it should be 'agoraphobia' which is the fear of crowds (or markets), but can also imply the fear of an empty market, of being alone in a landscape.

By all accounts Chingis Khan had an irrational fear of dogs. Dogs seem to be all-present in Mongolian society. A common greeting is Nokhoi Khor, which is the polite thing to say on entering a ger (traditional Mongolian home, like a big tent made of poles and wrapped in felt). It literally translates as 'hold the dog'.

Being Irish, children and dogs are brought up (or is that dragged up?) together and, until I went to Uzbekistan, I'd always felt comfortable around dogs. Arriving in Samarkand, the floppy, affectionate puppies of my youth were suddenly replaced by the earless, snarling guard dogs (they chop off their ears, so that every sound will be irritating, which makes them incredibly nasty and fierce.) It certainly reminded me of their primary function and put their essential relationship with man into perspective, in a way I'd never really thought of before.

To learn more about Mongolia, I ordered a cheap second-hand copy of Lonely Planet, dating back to 2001, coincidentally the year I went to Samarkand and, much as I've learned a lot from Lonely Planet over the years, some of the advice made me giggle.

Although it's probably quite practical, the phrases they recommend learning, for when you're hiking in the Mongolian wilderness and finally stumble across civilsation are 'Where am I?' and 'Is that dog dangerous?'. I can't help thinking that if that dog were dangerous, I wouldn't get the chance to ask my question in the first place!

Okay, so I'm being a smart-alec but, to be honest, I think I would have found Lonely Planet's guide to does and don'ts, in a ger, terrifying. I loved the advice to leave your weapons outside. Who goes to Mongolia with weapons, honestly? I could just picture myself, the clumsy foreigner, walking the wrong way round the ger to avoid the dog, stumbling over ropes and people older than me, banging into poles and frantically shaking hands with everyone! Disaster!

I remember taking this kind of advice all too seriously when I went to Uzbekistan, being afraid to blow my nose in public, never knowing where to sit when invited to someone's house. I think people understand that you're a foreigner and can be very forgiving. That doesn't mean you don't make an effort to do the right thing, of course, but trying to remember lists of do's and don'ts can take away from the experience. The important thing is to interact with people and join in the laughter when you get it wrong. Stoopid foreigners don't have many uses, but at least we can be amusing, without even meaning to - oh, and it's nothing personal.

As part of my learning about Mongolia, I've been reading the blog of an American woman, Tara Munch, who is currently teaching in Ulaan Baator. It's called 'So I moved to Mongolia' and her stories about traffic and dodgy door knobs have brought a smile to my face and conjured up memories of Samarkand, the frustrations of living in a country that barely functions, the feeling of not knowing what's going on a greater part of the time, but also the sheer hospitality of the people you meet and the adventure of being somewhere so totally different from the place you grew up in. I like the way she tries to focus on the positive things, too many people end up being grouchy ex- pats! Enjoy it, Tara, while it lasts. You'll have enough time back in the West with all its rules and familiarity :-)

If you want to visit Tara's blog and wish her luck, it's

Image credits

The image of the Mongolian flag is from

The image of the snarling dog is from flickruser misterbisson an information architect and librarian from Manchester, New Hampshire.

The image of the Ger is by flickruser jrubinic

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Mongolia - Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus

Mongolia is a country I've been fascinated by for a very long time. When I was a teenager, I was obsessed with learning languages, attempting Greek, Danish, Breton . . the more obscure the better. I think attempting to learn Mongolian in my first year of college was about as obscure as it got (and I'm pretty sure I didn't get past the first unit in the book).

Apart from this first foray into Mongolian culture, I might have ended up living in Mongolia. After my two years with the Soros Foundation in Uzbekistan, I had the option of doing a year in Mongolia, but chose the easier option and ended up in Thailand instead.

I'm sure that Mongolia and Thailand are worlds apart, but one thing they have in common is that they are both Buddhist nations. From my preliminary reading about Mongolia, one thing that has really struck me as a national 'psyche crisis' was the loss of religion. (I'm not sure what else to call it - in Kiribati it was the rising sea levels, Jamaica was a strong awareness of the past, Lesotho the tragically high levels of HIV infection).

My first experiences with Buddhism were in Thailand, a country that takes religion very seriously. Thailand follows the Theravada form of Buddhism prevalent in South Asia and this was the form of Buddhism that I became most familiar with. Despite not being religious myself, I used to love visiting the temples and sitting in contemplation of the Buddhist statues and the smells of incense. The temples were always open on all sides and sanctuaries of cool stone and shade in the sweltering heat of Bangkok.

Mongolia follows the Mahayana (the Great Wheel) form of Buddhism, due to its close links with Tibet. Even the meaning seems to be different from Theravada Buddhism, the turning of the great wheel of time suggesting something more forceful than the languid contemplation of the steamy tropics. My partner is from a Western Mongolian tribe called the Kalmyks and I have visited their 'Khurul' or temple and begun to understand the differences in the Mahayana tradition with its prayer flags, monks wrapped up in robes, enclosed temples and more than a hint of shamanism in the background.

Mongolia and Tibet share a lot of traditions and, although seemingly quite distant from each other, are culturally close, no doubt helped by the continuum of Tibetan people through the Chinese province of Qinghai, reaching towards the Mongolian border.

In fact, the 'Dalai' bit of 'Dalai Lama' is from the Mongolian word for 'ocean' - a common theme in Mongolia, Chingis Khan is also thought to mean 'Great Oceanic Khan' - I guess the Ocean was the edge of the Earth for a medieval Mongolian. Mongolians used to make once in a life-time trips to the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, the fourth Dalai Lama was Mongolian and, when the British (no blog would be complete without them) invaded Tibet in 1903, the Dalai Lama fled to Mongolia for safety.

By all accounts the Chinese were relieved when the Mongolians finally adopted Buddhism, as it chilled them out and stopped them constantly invading China! When the Soviets came to power in the 1920's, an estimated 1/3 of the adult male population in the capital Ulaan Baator were monks. With such large numbers and incredible influence, the revolution didn't dare tackle Buddhism straight away but waited until the 1930's under the Stalinist Choibalsan (a former Buddhist monk!) to purge the Buddhist population, murdering an estimated 17,000 lamas and religious leaders. It would seem that having 1/3 of your male population remaining celibate, and contemplative, flew in the face of Soviet policies of increasing the number of workers available for five-year plans and the exploration of Siberia's wealth of natural resources.

Reading about Mongolia, it's this great loss of the 1930's that strikes me most. I guess every country has its 'psyche crisis' (the Irish equivalent would be the Great Famine), when the very essence of the nation is challenged and changed irrevocably.
Image Credits:
The image of the Mongolian flag is from the website
The two photographic images were both taken by me. The first one is Buddha and the Wheel of Law, which I took in Thailand. The second one is the biggest Buddhist statue in Europe, which is in the Great Khurul (Temple) in Elista, Kalmykia.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Lesotho - Chakalaka and Pap

Chakalaka and Pap was probably one of the easiest dishes I've made as part of this learning experience. Chakalaka is a fiery hot stew made from everything red and orange - tomatoes, bell peppers, scotch bonnets (I know, again!), onion and carrot. I added chicken and the result was a delicious, albeit incredibly spicy, dish. For Pap, I used Polenta, which I have an inexplicable fondness for and which helped cool my mouth down, as I shovelled it into me in sticky spoonfuls.

I think Chakalaka is probably the second hottest dish I've ever eaten. The hottest dish was in rural Thailand and was called Phad Phet, literally 'fried spicy'. Whatever you do, if you go to Thailand, never order anything which is called 'fried spicy'! Mind you, I probably should have used regular chillies, rather than the Scotch bonnets which I seem to be dangerously drawn to.

After much nose blowing, forehead mopping and watching my partner, Zhenya, turn a funny crimson colour, I comforted myself with the thought that my stomach probably needed a good spicy dish to kill any harmful bacteria, or just . . . anything, lying around in there. Am I the only one who finds that palate-blowing spices can be cleansing?

Anyway, we've lived to tell the tale. Would definitely make Chakalaka again, but maybe ease up on the chillies next time! As you can see from my photo, I've tried to make the polenta look presentable, by shaping it in a ramekin, before putting it on the plate :-)

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Lesotho - The Ampleforth Connection

A quick blog about an interesting connection between Lesotho and the UK. Both modern Basotho kings Moshoeshoe II and his son Letsie III were educated at Ampleforth College, the so-called 'Catholic Eton' on the edge of the North York Moors National Park.

Most likely due to intense missionary work, most Basotho Christians are Catholic, including the two modern Kings and it was certainly the first time I'd ever heard of Ampleforth.

I do a lot of work with schools in the UK and it always amazes me how many Catholic schools there are here. Coming from Ireland, it's easy to fall into stereotypes of Britain as a Protestant nation. Not forgetting the influence of Irish migrants to Britain, there seems to be something else going on: an older, aristocratic Catholicism, that has somehow been preserved in the upper echelons of British (particularly English) society. This fascinates me, as does the thought of Lesotho's kings being educated in the wild setting of the Yorkshire moors.

I know this post may not seem to be entirely relevant to learning about Lesotho, but I believe that learning about other countries is in fact learning about your own country/society and, in this case, our closest neighbour, which is Britain. I would say Britain has been in the background of this entire journey so far. Whether it's Hong Kong, Jamaica, Kiribati, Lesotho, Britain's presence is undeniable.

Coming from a small country living in the shadow of Britain, it has been difficult for Ireland to find its place in the world. I guess, as I'm learning about other countries, I'm learning about how other countries interacted with British culture. I'm trying to understand our own reactions to our powerful neighbour, but I'm also finding traces of Ireland everywhere the British have been.

Lesotho is a good example of this. I see a lot of parallels between Lesotho and Ireland and I'm beginning to understand why our two countries have had such a close relationship.
Image credits:
The photograph of Ampleforth College is courtesy of cat-loving grandmother and flickuser Verity Cridland who lives in Yorkshire. Thanks Verity for sharing this image using the Creative Commons License.