Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Still Standing: Mongolian Balbals or Man Stones

Found in the western Mongolian steppes, these stone carvings of standing men are believed to be a commemorative to fallen warriors and are dated from the 6th to 8th centuries.

Also known as grave markers, the balbals vary in size and depending on the amount of erosion, you were able to still see quite a bit of the carved detail. There is something very proud about them. They spoke of courage, commitment and sacrifice. These battles must have been severe as the Mongolian warriors are well known for their fierce fighting and cunning strategies.

Most of the balbals included two rows of stones or wood stakes extending east away from the balbal (balbals always face east). Although there is still debate today about what they represent, many believe that the smaller stones and stakes are the number of men killed in that battle or possibly the number of those that attended the funeral.

Although many of the balbas have either fallen or are broken, they continue to instill the awe and respect of Mongolia's powerful and amazing history.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Ovoos of Mongolia

From a distance it just looked like a large pile of rocks. But it was much more than that. It was an ovoo at the top of a pass in the Altai Mountains of Mongolia.

Ovoo's are a type of shamanistic cairn typically made of stones and wood. They are sacred and are also used for Buddhist ceremonies. You don't just drive or ride by an ovoo. You stop and as you walk three times around in a clockwise direction you may decide to say a prayer, wish for a safe journey or good hunting, or give thanks. By placing some type of offering, be it a stone, bottle, blue scarf, animal head, food or anything else that you may have, you complete the ritual.

Our first ovoo was quite interesting with bottles, crutches, scarves and a cow head on it. Within a few minutes of us stopping, a jeep pulled up and family emerged to walk around the ovoo. After everyone was done with their offerings, we all shared some vodka together. It was an amazing moment shared by all.

At another mountain pass we came upon this ovoo which was much more formal with steps and a framed entrance. It was fairly popular with quite a few people and much more colorful with red, blue and yellow scarves. There was even a small table with things that you could purchase.

On the side of an extinct volcano, our guide and interpreter, Badmaa, added to the beginnings of an ovoo.

As we neared Lake Khovsgol, in north Mongolia we came across this amazing tree ovoo (I guess you can tell I really like the sky-blue scarves).

On our way to the Gobi desert we saw this small cairn with a rams head on top of it. I'm not sure if this is a marker or a small ovoo.

I found it comforting to be able to make a wish or say a prayer or to ask for safe passage at every ovoo. It was also nice to get out of the vehicle and give my bones a rest from the bumpy ride.


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Name Game

Fifteen of the 21 nights we spent in Mongolia, we camped. About mid way through our trip we realized that we had named our camp sites by some special association. By referring to the camp sites by a name, all of us immediately knew what camp we were talking about. This was really helpful since it was easy to lose track of what day it was and we didn't really know where exactly we were (other than in the west, north or central regions). So, here are some of our camp site names and how they came to be. I would love to hear about some of the names of your camp sites and the stories behind them.

Rainbow Camp: Okay, I bet you can guess how we got this one. This camp was in a beautiful glacial valley with a small river. As we were setting up camp it began to drizzle, then it stopped. When we looked across the river there was a colorful arch.

Brain Freeze Camp: Have you ever had a brain freeze from the outside in? After settling in but before sunset I decided it was time to wash my hair (it had been several days and we would have the sun for a few more hours). I took my big plastic mug over to the gently flowing creek, filled it with water and poured it over my head. The pain was instantaneous. That frigid water sent shocks of pain through my skull into my brain. After a few moments it subsided and I quickly decided that I would rather have very dirty hair than to go through that again.

Goat Camp: You guessed it. It ends up we were right in the middle of a goat herding path.

Spider Camp: After a very long day of traveling we decided to camp next to a lake. A couple of us went down to the lake's edge for a short walk and to sit. Within a few minutes we noticed that the smooth, flat, oval shaped rocks were moving. Looking a little closer we realized that those flat rocks were actually large spiders with very long legs. The spider's body was about 3/4 to 1 inch wide and their legs were an additional 2-3 inches. And there were hundreds of them. Needless to say, we moved our tents a few more feet further away from the rocky shore.

Sunset Camp: Although this may not have been my favorite camp, it was the most spectacular. We knew there was a storm approaching and we needed to get over a pass and into a safe valley. We made it and set up camp at the base of some lower hills. That evening, with the clouds rolling in, the sun put on a glorious show. When you looked east, it was dark and menacing, when you looked west, you saw that unbelievable sky filled with radiant colors, powerful clouds and rays of gold punching through.

I hope to hear from you soon.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Camel Crazy

I love the Bactrian camels of Mongolia. The combination of their quirky looks, loud bellowing and amazing physical capabilities just amaze me. Up until this trip, when I thought of camels I associated them to a desert climate. However, the first time I saw one of these camels it was in the glacial valleys of the Altai Mountains. Completely out of context. It's fairly rare to see them that far north, but there they were roaming around.

Camels are incredibly strong and can carry heavy and awkward loads which is why they are used to transport the gers of nomadic families when they need to move from one location to another. In addition, they supply food products such as milk and cheese. Milking a camel is no easy task as they are known to kick fast and hard. To assist in getting the flow going, they have their young calf suckle for a few minutes.

A critical step in milking is tying one of their rear legs back, as they are known to kick hard and fast.

Let's take a closer look at the camel. You have to admit, they look a little on the funny side.

The hooves are huge and designed perfectly for sand, and the butt end, well it's kind of cute, don't you think?

Their faces are a interesting to look at. Large eyes with long eye lashes, a cute mouth (when it's not spitting at you) and soft ears that you want to rub.

They can also be quite talkative as this little one is displaying.

They are comfortable in a pack, comfortable to ride and ready to serve you. Without them, you would not be able to survive in the Gobi Desert.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Home Sweet Home

The typical home for Mongolians is a ger. They can be constructed and taken down rather quickly, and easily transported making them perfect for nomadic life. The felt keeps the ger cool in the summer months and warm in the brutal, cold winters.

Inside the ger you will find an alter, beds, stove/heater, storage cabinets, storage area for riding and hunting gear, barrels for mare's milk and a small table and chairs. The door, toono and uni are beautifully painted with delicate designs in bright colors.

Here is a brief outline on how to build a ger:

1. Find a clean flat, rock free surface

2. Lay out the fabric and felt

3. Put together the toono, which is the center support and creates the upper smoke outlet and sky light

4. Set up the hana or the folding/lattice walls

5. Attach the door to the hana (always facing south)
6. Raise the toono

7. Attached the uni, or wooden sticks that extend from the toono to the top of the lattice walls. Tie them in place using horse hair.

8. Place fabric over the entire structure.
9. Wrap the tuurga or felt around the entire structure
10. Place a canvas fabric on top of the felt.
11. Tie the canvas down using rope.
12. Install wood or vinyl flooring
12. Install the stove with pipe in the middle of the ger so that the pipe extends out the sky light
13. Install furnishings

They say "Home is where the heart is" and this holds very true to Mongolians.