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
Post a Comment