caught the Tengri bug

By Neil Pederson

our last extended field excursion went off without a hitch. No major mishaps or illnesses to report. Well, I did catch the Tengri bug.

It was mostly paved road to our first stop – smooth sailing all the way. We stayed at the home of our colleague’s best friend from college. Like always, the hospitality was the tops – ceremony, pre-dinner foods, two kinds of main dishes and the best room in the house was ours for the night. The conversation was great. It mostly centered on the differences between the American & Mongolian diets. It was an insightful, warm and fun conversation. Perhaps the biggest conclusion was that the Mongolian tea – milk, black tea and salt – makes perfect evolutionary sense – it is their Gatorade. It must help them combat the arid environment. Most interestingly, the concentration of salt increases as aridity increases, moving east to west across the country. It might be that with climate change and increased moisture availability western Mongolia, future tea will be characterized as having less salt (our hosts at dinner last night explained there is less salt in eastern Mongolian tea because of the minerals in the water that occur as a result of the limestone bedrock; guess Inner Bluegrassians already know this? They also explained that western Mongolian is tea is better because of additional ingredients. This is an observation I agree with – you’ll have to go west Cari to get the good stuff).

Our other interesting conversation was based upon ‘burial’ rituals in Mongolia and Inner Mongolia. The book “Wolf Totem” explains how Mongolian culture is strongly influenced by wolf culture. The great Mongolian Armies of the 13th century, if not earlier versions, adapted some the tactics that wolves use to hunt. So, I asked if it was true that Inner Mongolians bury their dead as described in the book. These rituals begin with taking a stripped corpse and putting it on the back of a cart. They run the cart up into the mountains. When the corpse falls off the cart, that is its burial location. The burial, however, comes next. Wolves come and, uh, hmm, bury the corpse by ingesting it. The interesting thing is that, in the book, this is portrayed as an honor. Most importantly for the surviving friends and family is how quickly the corpse is buried. The faster it is buried, the better that person is thought to have lived and the quicker they will reach their version of heaven.

Our host said this was generally true. He went on to tell us that on the steppes of Mongolia they do something similar to this – they put the corpse under something [a special cloth? sheet?] and have the large vultures bury the deceased. The faster they are buried, the better the lives that they lived and faster they come back to human life. The longer it takes for a steppe Mongolian to be buried, the longer the journey back to human life for that person. First they might come back as a dog and then a cow or yak and then a horse, etc, before they come back as a human. Apparently family or friends paint or mark the good ones and look for them to come back. They search their children for marks or mannerisms of favorite ancestors.

Which, of course, led to a brief discussion on blue spot or blue mark (which is a great song, btw) or the Mongolian spot. This is a common blue birthmark in many Asians and, interestingly, native Americans. Our colleague’s 3 yr old girl apparently has a lot of spots on her back and it bothers her a bit. According to wiki, these spots go away by age 5 or so.

Now, my Tengri bug. Apparently, I caught it in 1998. It lay dormant for 13 years. The sacred Orkhon Valley and prevailing weather conditions triggered a massive episode of Tengri. Wow, was the sky beautiful on this last trip. We sampled trees near the only waterfall in central Mongolia on the margins of the day, at dusk and dawn. This made the sky simply brilliant. It was hard to take one’s eyes off the sky, shadows and colors. It was brilliant. The intervening night was crystal clear as well. In fact, I noticed for the first time [or did not remember from prior observations] the ‘k’ shape in the Milky Way. It was stunning. It was definitely a top ten sampling day.

What does Tengri look like? Here is one example:

for the complete gallery, go here and be sure to view on ‘Slideshow

Two other notes from this part of our trip:

First, this waterfall is the Madonna, Prince, Beyonce, Sting of waterfalls in Mongolia. When we were trying to come up with a site name for our work, our colleague said it was hard to derive a three-word descriptor that we typically use for sites as it only had one name – Hurshree.

Finally, we happened to catch Altan Urag two nights in a row. The first concert was planned. Ashley wanted to see them play. It was a packed house at Ikh Mongol. Despite some early technical difficulties, they really rocked the house. The difficulties actually made them smile a bit. And, apparently the drummer has a boyfriend or a close, western acquaintance. He stood against a wall near the stage at the beginning of the show. Their eyes locked and she smiled! It was cute. Altan Urag’s soundman was a kick. There is no doubt he listens to them live almost every night. Yet, at Ikh Mongol he was rocking out like he was hearing them for the first time. They were on fire, though, so it is understandable. While playing a rocking tune (that I do not know the title to) the bassist was inserting some near funk rhythms making the  band interpret the song a little differently. It was great. The next night, they were not as hot [though still good].

We went out to a celebratory dinner – our colleague turned 42 and it was the last time he was going to see Ashley before she left Mongolia. So, we went to the upscale restaurant, Mongolian’s. As we walked in there was an Altan Urag poster. Apparently they play at Mongolian’s weekly – they are even featured on  the back of their menu. What a treat. They took the stage nearly on time, but without their female singer. It was a pity that she was not with the band as they could not fully play Native Mongolia or Shiree Nuur. They played nearly all the same songs as the first two times I saw them this year. But they only played 4 songs last night. It was just a business performance for them, no doubt.

Our colleague didn’t appreciate them as much as we did. I think he was looking for more traditional Mongolian music. He is worried people will think this is traditional Mongolian music. He commented on how only two instruments, the horn and the (string & spoons), were close to traditional. The morin khuur that Altan Urag uses is not made properly and does not have the correct sound. I tried to remind him that the great Mongolian empire under Chinggis liberally borrowed from other cultures, Persia, eastern Europe, China, etc, and blended them with their traditions to create the great Mongolian empire. This is what I see with the Mongolian artists and musicians like Altan Urag. It is really nothing new in that sense. He did note that the drummer used the traditional
Mongolian face – epic stoicism. I did catch her nearly smiling, however.

hints of a smile

BTW, it is clear that the male Mongolians really dig her. Our younger colleague, seeing them play for the first time, noted that she was a great drummer. Apparently he hasn’t yet heard John Bohnam, Neil Peart or Dave Grohl, among the many other great rock drummers. I think the Mongol boys admire a strong and attractive woman that can rock the kit.

Finally, finally – apparently combining traditional Mongolian music to beatbox is all the rage. See here, here and here.

highlights of our last trip:

entering the sacred Orkhon Valley

Ashley strolling on ancient lava

nicknamed, by me, the Beastie Buddha Stupa, i listened to this and this while facing the temple

Ashley coring on the cliff above Orkhon Gol

Bayaraa sampling on the cliff above Orkhon Gol

the Orkhon Gol, unfortunately, is now polluted by gold mining upstream

Galaa next to a tom shins (big larch) next to Orkhon Gol

Galaa and another set of falls on Orkhon Gol

in the distance you can see the last forest in the Orkhon Valley. just over the mountains begins the great Gobi Steppe & Desert. from this view, we are ~30 km from the southern edge of the Mongolian forest in the valley.

love the orange lichen in Mongolia

tourist ger camps near Hurshree

the light at sunrise inspired the field work

some random shots from the last three weeks:

our apartment is near the times square of Mongolia. the State Dept. Store is behind the photographer. this was a drab, empty location 13 yrs ago. now it is full of life, for good or bad.

you are seeing a happening! we were shopping at the cashmere store when, suddenly, a fashion show began. after it finished the designer for the new fall line apparently arrived and was interviewed for television and such. she is the one in the hat, of course. her assistant is next to her with coffee in her hand, of course. her male assistant, you can see his Adidas shoes, had a long pony tail, a leather jacket and was seen carrying a small lap dog later, of course. the American might have been an agent for a store in the US. she seemed familiar with the Devil who Wears Cashmere [she is not likely a devil; just thought we were in the movie].

one never knows what they might see or hear in Mongolia. apparently a branch of the Rainbow Family got lost and ended up in a swanky Mongolian restaurant. dad is on the far left.


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