Happy 850th Chinggis!

I believe Hallmark has yet to develop a cheesy birthday card celebrating/mocking one’s 850th year. But, Mongolian’s are not letting Chinggis (Ghengis) Khaan’s momentous day go unnoticed. In fact, it seems that they are giving it extra attention.

This newly erected statue of Chinggis Khaan stands at 40 meters tall

This past week, Mongolian Parliament has devoted time to debating the official celebration of the Mongolian leader’s birth, mainly what day and how it should be acknowledged. After reading the limited reports I could find (RFL/RE, MAD, UB Post), I am actually more confused about the outcome.
It seems there was debate over whether the government should declare Chinggis Khaan’s birthday a national holiday and celebrate it on a different date than the National Independence Day (November 26) or maintain the practice of celebrating it on the same day. It also appears there was lengthy debate over which day is his actually birthday. Some argue there’s substantial evidence indicating November 14, others say it is difficult to discern using the Gregorian calendar.

The discussion surrounding the issue is quite revealing of Mongolians’ relationship with the ancient conqueror. I was particularly struck by the following statement made during the debate of the birth date:

We Mongolians are undoubtedly the descendants of Chinggis Khaan who are continuing his family lineage and are custodians of his birth place and home land. Today more than ever it is of great significance to determine the birthday of Chinggis Khaan so it can be celebrated. I am especially glad that this discussion is occurring as currently Mongolians mark only two national holidays Tsagaan Sar and Naadam Festivals while celebrating foreign religion such as Valentine’s Day have encroached into the Mongolian psyche. Thus, we must mark the birthday of our Chinggis Khaan nationwide with a magnificent display once a year. It would help our next generations to know about their history, revere their country and grow up with strong affection towards Mongolia.

– Professor, PhD Sh.Choimaa (via M.A.D)

Also worth reading (or skimming) is President Elbegdorj’s pretty poetic speech given on November 14 entitled “Temujin-Chinggis is the Greatest Pride of us, the Mongols” (Temujin is Chinggis Khaan’s childhood name).

Heaven-sheltered Great Khaan Chinggis was not born out of void.
We was born of Mongol life.
Fed by the waters of Kherlen river, riding his horses, he worshipped his land and the Sky.
Listening to his mother, roaming in the steppe packing his ger, and feeding and raising his younger siblings.
He knew the value of a bowl of bird-cherries.
Accruing everything his fathers and forefathers left in him, he built up his strength.
Temuujin, grew up and distinguished out amidst the life-soaking miseries and challenges.
It was to get back his stolen light-bay horses that he raised his bow for the first time.
It was to save his bride Burte that he started his first war.

He later goes on to say:

The blue-spotted great grand children of the Lord Chinggis Khaan are being born to their fathers and mothers, bringing joy and happiness.
The blessing for Mongols to grow more is carrying on. (applause)
Mongols are uniting in the spirit to advance and prosper our country.
The State, established by Chinggis, with its seal, Sulde, the coat of arms and the owners of the country are flourishing. (applause)
The State and the people of Mongolia join altogether in saluting our blessing to our great Khaan in the turn of the nineth century of establishment of the Great Mongol Empire.

At first glance, Mongolians’ reverence for Chinggis Khaan might be almost comical to a foreigner. His visage and name are everywhere (vodka bottles, beer mugs, hotel signs, energy drinks, cigarettes, rugs hung in gers around the country, statues, murals, restaurants, and more). A large bronze statue of Chinggis Khaan sitting in a position modeled after the Lincoln Monument sits in front of the Parliament Building. And in 2008, a 40 meter-tall silver-colored metal statue of Chinggis riding a horse and staring off into the distance toward his birthplace was erected about an hour outside of Ulaanbaatar. Tourists who visit the privately-funded monument can walk out onto the top of his horses head to get a view of the surrounding countryside and an up-close look at a very stern Chinggis.

Tapestries depicting Chinggis Khaan are common living room decorations in Ulaanbaatar

To an outsider, all of this may seem a bit overkill. But, when one considers Mongolia’s recent past and current struggle to place itself in the world, the extreme reverence for this internationally known man begins to make sense.

Prior to the democratic transition in 1990, the mention of Chinggis Khaan was essentially forbidden. He was not celebrated as a national hero or founder of Mongolia and schools barely mentioned him in their history lessons. In 1962, the Prime Minister was removed from office, exiled to Western Mongolia and “eventually chopped up with an ax” after trying to erect a small monument at Chinggis Khaan’s birthplace, according to anthropologist and author of “Ghengis Khan and the Making of the Modern World” Jack Weatherford. “He was something that was simply no longer in existence in Mongolia. But the people didn’t forget. They had to change their songs, they had to change their poems, they had to strike him from the history books, but the people didn’t forget. In 1990, one of the most important things for them was to resurrect their history.”

And so when the new era of Mongolia and Mongolian national identity was ushered in two decades ago, Chinggis Khaan was already becoming a strong figure. One of the subversive rock groups of the 1980s named themselves after the leader. People had already started evoking his name as they protested for democracy. Chinggis Khaan had unified the warring tribes of Mongolia in 1206 and Mongolians relied on him once again for national unity.

Chinggis has been portrayed as the ultimate man – strong, large, authoritative, warrior, healthy labido. He is responsible for the world’s largest land empire – spanning Korea to Eastern Europe. But the side of Chinggis western schools often overlook is also celebrated.

“There’s no question that Chinggis Khan was the greatest conqueror in the world,” says Weatherford. “But he was also a very innovative thinker. He was also a great law-giver. He created international law that in many regards we still have today, or at least we still strive to have today. He had a law of diplomatic immunity – we still strive for that today, it’s not quite there. He had a law outlawing the buying and selling of women – again, we don’t have that today, but we still strive for that. There’s law that promoted religious freedom. The world still wants religious freedom. He was a very innovative thinker and he gave the Mongolians a very wonderful moral foundation for their nation.”

He’s also proof of a once-strong Mongolia.

It’s impossible to understand Mongolian national identity without acknowledging the active and passive roles its neighbors of Russia and China have played. They are a landlocked country of 2.7 million stuck between two of the world’s most powerful (and fairly aggressive) nations. They are dependent on them, yet they deeply wish to maintain their independence. And so Mongolians also use Chinggis Khaan as a reminder that they were once the most powerful people in the world and that blood still flows through there veins (never-mind that most of Chinggis Khaan’s direct descendents were killed due to hundreds of years of internal political conflict). That’s a pretty powerful national figure.

As Mongolians now eagerly establish their place in the world, determine how to negotiate their quickly growing economy, and work to become key players in their region and international politics, the reminder of Mongolia’s great past serves as a call to create a great future. The days of waging war with horses and bows and arrows are over (as Pres. Obama and Mitt Romney reminded us a month ago), but the psyche remains, and as far as national identity is concerned, that can be pretty powerful.

View from the top of the Chinggis Khaan statue

Chinggis sits in a law-giver’s pose in front of the Mongolian Parliamentary building

There are several competing brands of vodka named after “Chinggis”

Chinggis paraphernalia is for sale in one of the many tourist gift shops in central Ulaanbaatar

Losing Lenin


A crowd of about 300 people watched the Lenin statue be taken down from its podium on October 14th. The affair lasted from 10:00 am until 4:00 pm and was mostly low-key.

According to a friend of mine, Christa Hasenkopf, there was only a handful of onlookers present until the end, when Ulaanbaatar mayor Bat-Uul gave a speech. She says the crowd was mostly made of middle-aged to older men, just standing around. As it was being taken down, four people threw shoes at the statue (a sign of great disrespect) and then one person waved good-bye as it was taken away.

Photo by Christa Hasenkopf

Photo by Christa Hasenkopf


Later this week, the statue of Vladimir Lenin that has been prominently peering down at passers-by off Ulaanbaatar’s central thoroughfare for nearly 60 years will be finding a new home.

According to a recent article published by Reuters, the remnant of Mongolia’s soviet days will be up for auction with the bidding starting at 400,000 togrog (less than $300).

[City Mayor] Bat-Uul said two companies had already expressed interest, including a tourist “ger” (yurt) camp outside Ulan Bator which already owns a statue of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

Ulaanbaatar’s Lenin statue (Image: asia-trip.info)

The newly elected mayor has been actively working to improve Ulaanbaatar. By August, only a month after he took office, Bat-Uul had implemented a series of traffic laws aimed at easing the flow on the heavily congested roads. As one of democracy’s loudest cheerleaders, the symbolism of removing Lenin’s statue seems to be of no small significance.

Bat-Uul said he was surprised the statue had survived as long as it had, given the millions who died in famines and mass executions under Soviet rule.

“We had a brutal communist regime in Mongolia too,” he noted. “We lost around 40,000 people in just two years during the 1930s. They were killed in cold blood. It was genocide.”

Four years ago, Bat-Uul was a key figure in the fate of a very different kind of statue. The ‘Beatles Statue’, as it is commonly called, was unveiled on October 9, 2008 as, yes, a tribute to the famous rock group, but also as a reminder of the country’s Soviet past.

Most foreigners and many younger Mongolians who see the statue are unaware of it’s symbolism. Many use it as a landmark and commonly refer to Tserenhand St., on which the statue resides, as “Beatles Street”.

Posing with the Beatles on a wintry evening in Ulaanbaatar

But the Beatles Statue is actually quite symbolic. In a time when access to the foreign marketplace and Western culture was banned, the Beatles came to represent free society. I’m told by many Mongolians in their fifties that contraband such as ball point pens, jeans and Beatles albums were hot commodities that they would secretly trade.

The statue has two sides, separated by a brick wall. One one is a bronze image of the four singers as they appear on the cover of “Abbey Road”. On the other, is a statue of a young Mongolian playing guitar in a stairwell, reminiscent of the days when that was a common occurrence. There’s also a window on this side where a tiny whole has been drilled into the brick (although it was later filled in). This, I am told, is supposed to symbolize the youth peering into western society.

Honestly, I’m a little sad that the Lenin statue will no longer stand as one of Ulaanbaatar’s many remnants of history. Not because I’m a Lenin fan, but because I always liked that the city was full of statues from so many different era’s of the city’s past stood concurrently. The fact that it wasn’t torn down after the democratic revolution, like statues in almost every other formerly soviet country were, I thought was a testament to the Mongolians’ ability to move on. Their revolution was a peaceful one. Somehow allowing the Lenin statue to remain for all these years seemed to represent that.

The ‘soviet’ side of the Beatles Statue (Image: http://cycletourtake2.blogspot.com)

Continue reading

Daraa Ulzii (See You Later)

This post comes a few days late. I was hoping to write before I left Mongolia last Wednesday, but found myself frantically working up until the last minute. Now, I have been back in the United States for a few days and the past ten months I’ve spent living in Ulaanbaatar already feel like a surreal dream.

I have not been posting nearly as much as I would have liked over the summer because I have been so busy collecting interviews and footage. But I look forward to sharing all that I have been working on over the coming months as I begin editing my documentary about rock music in Mongolia.

For now, however, I’d like to share some personal thoughts on my time in Mongolia.

As I depart from the land of Chinggis Khan, mutton, camels, and seriously adorable babies, I am struck by how fond I’ve grown of this place. It has not been an easy place to live. Crossing the busy streets clogged with honking cars often felt like a suicide mission. Finding a decent (affordable) salad became a small, but not insignificant, victory. Walking down the sidewalk was often an adventure as I would negotiate piles of rubble, uncovered manholes, and hostile nationalists. Learning what I could of the Mongolian language (which my friend claims sounds like aggressive Elvish) was a feat. And simply surviving the brutal and lengthy winter was a major accomplishment.

Yet, despite the physical and mental challenges of living in a city like this, I grew to love it. I’m left with two overwhelming impressions of the Mongolian people and culture. First, there is a sense of optimism that permeates the country – from the nomadic herder to the ambitious college grad. Second, I was constantly impressed by the generosity and hospitality of the people who were so eager to help me with my project and time in Mongolia.

Mongolia is a small country. It’s landlocked between two political and economic giants: China and Russia. Until recently, the majority of the population survived off of their livestock. The climate is extreme and the infrastructure outside of the capitol is sparse. It’s not an easy place to be.

But the challenges seem to only embolden Mongolians as a people. While I might look at the nomadic lifestyle and see a path full of uncertainty, hard labor, and harsh weather, they see an incredible amount of freedom. I might look at Ulaanbaatar and see chaos that I still can’t fully understand, and they see entrepreneurial opportunities. Mongolians are proud to be descendents of some of the greatest conquerors the world has ever known. They know that the wealth of their country lies not only in the natural resources so many entities are eager to extract, but the incredible wilderness and nomadic life that is hard to find elsewhere. They know there is something special about a country that has maintained the same language, script, diet, clothing, and music for over a millennium.

If I adopted anything from Mongolia, I hope it is this sense of optimism and self-worth.

Over the past ten months I have often said that I wished I had a partner. Filming, interviewing, editing, and researching such an expansive topic as rock music in a language I don’t fully understand proved to be a daunting task. But I did have an enormous amount of help. In fact, I relied on the kindness of strangers for almost all of my research.

Almost everyone I have met has been so supportive of my project, offering their time, contacts, advice, interviews and free translation in spades. The Mongolian music community took me in and rallied for my success. The foreign research community has been generous with their knowledge and experience. I owe these people so much and feel lucky and honored to have benefited from their generosity.

As I mentioned above, I will be spending the next several months sifting through my massive amount of material and will continue to update this blog.

Thank you for following over the past year and I hope you continue to read about the music, culture, and times of  the Land of the Blue Sky.

For now, here is a short video capturing a herding family moving from their summer to fall location in Khovd Province:

Election Day (News Round-Up)

Mongolians are heading to the polls today to participate in the 6th Parliamentary election since the country embraced democracy in 1990. Election day is a national holiday here, which means that businesses are closed in an effort to encourage voter participation. In Ulaanbaatar, voting is easy. There are several stations where citizens can cast their ballots. It’s a bit trickier in the countryside, however, where herders live dozens of miles away from the nearest polling place.

The two major parties, the Mongolian People’s Party and the Democratic Party, are both campaigning on how they will spend Mongolia’s rising income from mining projects on the people and developing Mongolia. New roads, a subway, pensions – these are among the lofty promises, which, it seems not many average citizens take very seriously.

A campaign flyer for a Democratic Party candidate shows the Ulaanbaatar of today and the Ulaanbaatar he promises for tomorrow.

Two young Mongolians wrestle outside a ger erected by the Democratic Party in a small town in the Gobi desert (Photo by Taylor Weidman)

Read more on today’s election and how the new economy is playing a part:

How does a poor country spend billions? Mongolian elections to decide how to spend mining boom (Washington Post)

Mongolia’s new wealth and rising corruption is tearing the nation apart (The Guardian)

Mongolia Votes, as Resources Bring Wealth and Challenges (Moscow Times)

Resource nationalism to irk investors as Mongolia goes to polls (Reuters)

Mongolian elections decide how to spend a windfall (Fox News)

Read more on campaign ads:

An Introduction to Mongolia’s Political Ads

When Music Videos and Campaign Commercials Combine

Campaign Monologues

The Lighter Side

Mongolia’s Political Ads, Part 4

The Lighter Side

This is a pretty self-explanatory ad produced by the Mongolian Peole’s Party. Set to ‘Eye of the Tiger’ (just like the Newt Gingrich team used this year), a boxer representing the People’s Party is training for his match. His opponent is a lazy and slothful representation of everyone else. Guess who wins.

Here’s another music video aimed at the younger generation. Several young musicians teamed up to record this song about uniting the country they love to reach it’s bright future. The song is called ‘We Believe’. A rough translation of the lyrics is below.

I believe, I believe our country has a future
I am loving and I am young and I believe in my future
Your life may be comfortable, but you shouldn’t be complacent
Our future is improving, let’s create a good future together
We believe we are one
Mongolians are equal to people in other countries
We have a goal and we are close
We have to be strong and we have to be united


An Introduction to Mongolia’s Political Ads

When Music Videos and Campaign Commercials Combine

Campaign Monologues

Mongolia’s Political Ads, Part 3

Campaign Monologues

The first ad to catch my eye was a video of a dramatic reading. A man stood alone on a stage with a microphone in front and a large movie screen behind him. He recited a monologue as quintessential Mongolian images flashed on the screen behind him. Not understanding what he was saying at the time, I let my attention shift to the images. Some of the shots were from archival footage, but many were from international productions like ‘Babies’, ‘The Story of the Weeping Camel’, and ‘Mongol’, which I thought was interesting, and not terribly surprising.

After seeing this initial commercial, I soon saw a second that mimicked the style of the first, but was for the competing party. According to a staffer for the Democratic Party, theirs was first. However, I have not contacted the Mongolian People’s Party to confirm this.

Here are the two ads along with rough translations:

Jujigchin Amaraa Olyylaa Yalna Shuu – Together We Will Win (Democratic Party)

I am the eighth child in my family
I have 5 sisters and 2 brothers, we are many
From childhood we would share everything
If we shared what we ate it would taste better
I can still remember the taste
I believe in my ability
First there were the words, ‘I have a dream’
These words represented many people’s dream
Because of Martin Luther King, the African Americans were free
One example is Barack Obama
I believe in the Mongolian mind – what we are all thinking
There were many good people that changed our future during the revolution
My words are important
We don’t want to repeat what happened on July 1st and so we chose Pres. Elbegdorj
We don’t want to see more fighting
Everyone wants to protect themselves so we must create the law together
Pay attention to what I’m saying
Many Mongolians live in other countries
But although they are gone, we are still here
Mongolia is still here
Mongolians who are abroad feel lonely – it’s hard for them
They want to come back and live happily
We are many but we feel like we are few
It’s now time to say, ‘Enough’
Remember what you did in the revolution
We will win together
My words are important, pay attention to them
The Democratic Party will win – You make the right choice
We must have a lot of support

Minii Khen Baikh Khamaagui Bid Bugd Neg Mongol – Who I Am Is Not Important, We Are All Mongolian (Mongolian People’s Party)

My name is Amara and my name is not important
But for me, the most important thing is the Mongolian destiny
I don’t want to say bad things about my friends from university after four years together
But my blood is Mongolian Blood and it’s very loyal
Every Mongolian’s blood is like this
I am a part of them
Mongolians have a treasure – we have power and we must be united
I don’t like using words like ‘election’ and ‘voter’ because during election time politicians will always lie
Democracy and freedom – these words are allowed
In a free country we can talk about democracy and freedom
Before you say, ‘I love Mongolia’, you have to be responsible for Mongolia
Passing judgement is easy, but taking action is difficult
I haven’t forgotten the first time I saw a cell phone in a movie
I haven’t forgotten when I was a child and we would try to make our own candy
I haven’t forgotten our parent’s generation, when everything was scarce
How long will we be fighting each other?
How long will the political parties fight?
Countryside people are fighting with each other
Towns are fighting each other
Friends are fighting each other
How long will we be divided?
We do not have as many people as Russia
We do not have as many people as China
We are just 2.8 million
We live our own lives, but our future, our air, our roads, our sidewalks are all shared
We are one Mongolia
Under the blue sky we used to play as children
Our history has been very hard, but our history has made us strong
We have learned from our history
I believe our bright future is very close
I am the new generation of Chingis Khan’s Mongolia
I have never bowed my head, I have never kneeled
I am Mongolian
We are Mongolians
Mongolia is equal to other countries – everyone is equal

SLOGAN AT THE END: Let’s create a nice life here in our country


An Introduction to Mongolia’s Political Ads

When Music Videos and Campaign Commercials Combine

The Lighter Side

Mongolia’s Political Ads, Part 2

When Music Videos and Campaign Commercials Combine

What could be better than a campaign commercial? One that is also an epic music video! I just discovered these today, and I’m so happy I did.

Music is an integral part of campaigns in America. Each candidate has their theme song, that familiar tune that gets cued up at the end of a fervent stump speech that the poor underpaid aids must be so sick of hearing by November.

In 2008, the Obama campaign used Stevie Wonder’s ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours’. Then there was the celebrity-laden, Will.i.am-produced ‘Yes We Can’ music video that went viral. Hillary Clinton used Tom Petty’s ‘American Girl’. John McCain’s choices were troublesome, picking a series of songs written by democratic musicians who either publicly chastised or even sued him for unauthorized use including ‘Baracuda’ by Heart, ‘Johnny B. Goode’ by Chuck Berry, ‘Right Now’ by Van Halen, and ‘Running on Empty’ by Jackson Browne. He eventually settled on ‘Raising McCain’, an original by country music star John Rich. This year, Republican presumptive presidential nominee Mitt Romney has been going with Kid Rock’s ‘Born Free’.

Mongolian campaigns go one step further with their music by producing several epic music videos with national celebrities and high production values. Below are a few choice videos from the Mongolian People’s Party and the Democratic Party, along with rough translations of the lyrics.

Bid Bigd Neg Mongol – We Are One Mongolia (Mongolia People’s Party)

Featuring several very famous musicians from three generations.

Our Mongolia comes from us, we are one because we are all born with the same blue spot
When we go to the countryside with the blue skies and yellow fields, our minds are cleared
The sky and earth meet at one point and if there is heaven on earth it would be in Mongolia
I am dedicated to my country
Through our destiny, our hearts we are like the blue sky and the sun, We are one Mongolia
Through our wishes, dreams and beliefs, we are one Mongolia

Haluun Elgen Nutag – I Feel Warmly For My Country (Democratic Party)

This is one in a series of videos produced in provinces around Mongolia. The song is a famous one here, one that everyone would recognize. The individual video is not particularly impressive, but the overall effect of having the same song sung in each province is meaningful.

When the flowers grow, it is becoming spring
The river is singing a song
The mountains look like they are smiling
I feel warmly for my country


An Introduction to Mongolia’s Political Ads

Campaign Monologues

The Lighter Side

Mongolia’s Political Ads, Part 1

An Introduction to Mongolia’s Political Ads

The Mongolian Parliamentary elections are taking place on June 28, just two days away. While the election cycle is considerably less lengthy than I’m used to back in the States (candidates campaign for a maximum of two months here compared to the year and a half I’m used to), the parties are now out in full force.

Everyday I see vans drive past adorned with party flags and faces of candidates plastered to the windows, blasting music and party slogans. When I’m home during the day, someone will inevitably knock on my door with party propaganda, look a bit confused when I open the door, and then just turn around and leave so as not to waste their time on a non-voter.

But the thing that I’ve enjoyed the most about the campaign season is the advertising. Campaign commercials have always been my favorite part of the run-up to elections. I still remember my favorite spots from the U.S. presidential election in 2008: some post-modern videos produced by the Mike Gravel election team.

As I’ve been in Mongolia for most of the 2012 campaign and Republican contest, I have missed a lot of the gems being broadcast back home. And so when I started seeing what the Mongolian campaigns were producing, I was instantly intrigued.

I think the thing I enjoy most about campaign commercials is the insight they provide into the larger trends in a nation. Each party is trying to succinctly express the values that they represent while inciting the populace to adopt and support those values. They have to both broadcast their intentions and respond to the cultural and philosophical trends of the day.

Watching the videos put out by the two main parties in Mongolia, Mongol Ardiin Nam (The Mongolian People’s Party, formerly the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party) and Ardchilsan Nam (The Democratic Party) has been an incredibly valuable way for me to better understand the goals, passions, dreams, and frustrations of Mongolia in 2012. It’s a succinct window into the national identity.

Largely, the commercials have been reaffirming some of the ideas I’ve developed about Mongolian national identity in my time here. However, it’s much more difficult to get an average, non-political, citizen to articulate their own nationhood. And so many of my theories about what it means to be Mongolian today have, until now, remained tentative.

The themes that emerge from the campaigns (on both sides) are very in line with my own observations as an outsider. The desire to unite as Mongolians, the feeling that a bright future is within reach, the notion that it is only a matter of time until Mongolia is on par with the developed world, the connection to ancient Mongolia and harnessing the strength of Chinggis Khan, and the notion that although we are small, we are mighty. These ideas have all come out, much more subtly, in interviews and interactions I’ve had throughout the past eight months.

I hope that by sharing a few of these commercials, I can help shed some light on the Mongolian understanding of nationhood to you, my foreign audience.


When Music Videos and Campaign Commercials Combine

Campaign Monologues

The Lighter Side

Dinosaurs and the Benefit of a Small Country

One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about living and working in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia for the past eight months is just how small it is. The city often feels more like a village of 1.2 million people who all seem to know each other and interact in dozens of different ways.

In studying the music scene, I’ve been impressed at how frequently and seamlessly individual musicians from genres as diverse as classical, hip-hop, jazz, dance, and traditional work together on projects by writing lyrics or playing on an album. Personally, I’ve seen the intimacy of Ulaanbaatar through the various friends I’ve made in what I originally thought were different circles. Everyone seems to know each other.

Recently, I’ve seen the advantage of a small and connected world play out in international headlines with the ongoing drama of the sale of a dinosaur.

A tyrannosaur in Mongolia’s Natural Museum of History

About one month ago I ran into a couple I’ve befriended in the airport while waiting for my mother to arrive from the U.S. Oyungerel and her husband Jeff have been very kind to me throughout me stay here and even invited me to their home for Tsagaan Sar (Mongolian New Year) Celebrations. I first reached out to Oyungerel after hearing that she wrote lyrics for pop singer Naran. I discovered that she is a Mongolian Renaissance woman with masters degrees from Yale and Stanford, has authored two best-selling books (a novel co-written with Jeff and a guide from Mongolians who want to study abroad), and has been the assistant and adviser to President Elbegdorj for years. She is currently running for Parliament.

Oyungerel and Jeff kindly bought me a cup of coffee and we sat and chatted about my research, the upcoming elections and the most recent of the projects the two are pursuing: a book on dinosaur tourism in Mongolia. It had been an eventful day, they told me. That morning, while doing some research for the book, Jeff had stumbled upon the announcement of the upcoming auction of a nearly complete tyrannosaur skeleton. The fossil hailed from the Gobi Desert, although it was unclear if it was from the Chinese or Mongolian region. But Jeff and Oyungerel were fairly certain the fossil most likely came from Mongolia. And if this were true, then it would have been smuggled from the country illegally, as Mongolia has strict laws forbidding the exportation of fossils.

Oyungerel decided to bring it to the attention of the President. With much more pressing matters to attend to, it took some convincing on Oyungerel’s part for him to agree to take action. But by the end of the day, he had released a statement hoping to hault the auction until the fossil’s origins were clear.

But three days later, on May 20, Heritage Auctions sold the fossil to an anonymous bidder for $1,052,500. The following day, the sale was halted until an investigation of the fossil’s origins was complete.

In the following days,Tyrannosaurus bataar, as he is known, became the star of the paleontological world as paleontologists worked to determine its home. Now, the United State Attorney’s Office has demanded Tyrannosaurus bataarbe returned to its native land.

Read a full account of the mammoth ordeal here.

These sorts of dramas always unfold because one person happened to be in the right place at the right time. If Oyungerel and Jeff weren’t researching a book on dinosaur tourism, it is highly likely the sale would have gone unnoticed and Mongolia would have been robbed of a national treasure.

Watching the full story of this dinosaur drama unfold has reminded me of the many advantages of living is such a unique, intimate, and connected city.

A Mongolian Hair Cutting Ceremony

I was recently invited to a hair cutting ceremony by a family in Ulaanbaatar that has taken me under their wing. The boy, Orgil was three-years old, and had nearly shoulder length hair for as long as I’d known him. Over the course of a 3 hour ceremony, friends and family members cut off locks of Orgil’s hair until it was too short to cut.

Traditionally, Mongolian parents let their child’s hair grow until they are between 3 and 6 years old. When the child has reached an appropriate age (usually 3 or 5 for boys and 4 or 6 for girls), they mark the first haircut with a ceremony. It’s a sign that the child has survived the dangers of the first few years of life.

While this tradition is a time-honored, it has experienced a resurgence in the past few decades. It’s one of many Mongolian traditions and symbols that increased in popularity since 1991 when democracy was ushered in. Some ceremonies are quiet affairs, only family members and the family’s closest friends are invited. But more frequently, they are elaborate affairs. Think Bar/Bat Mitzvah or Quinceañera celebrations. Wealthier families will invite as many as a hundred guests, serving a full meal, and providing entertainment.

But regardless of the size, the ceremony is generally the same. A monk or family member will give a blessing, for the child. Then the parents will cut the first lock, collecting the hair in a khadag (traditional sacred blue cloth). They will then bring the child around to all of the guests – closest family and friends are first. Everyone will greet the child saying, ‘Tom xun bolooroi!’ or ‘Sain xun bolooroi!’ (Translation: Become a big/good person). Then they will give the child a gift, usually cash ($5 – $20), but sometimes a toy. As is the case with most ceremonies centered around young children, this is mostly for the benefit of parents and family members and serves as a good excuse to celebrate.

I have only been to one hair cutting ceremony, and so it’s difficult for me to know what is typical, but I suspect this was not. The family held the ceremony in a banquet room of the hotel they own. They served the guests a three course meal and had ample vodka, beer and juice available. An emcee guided us through the entire evening, and we were entertained by a morin khuur (horse-head fiddle) player, traditional throat singers, and even a Mongolian pop star who’s zenith was in the 1980s. It was pretty amazing.

Here’s an example of another kind of hair cutting ceremony:


The plate of fried cookies topped with candies and curds, called a ‘heviin boow’, is a common centerpiece at most formal celebrations.

Orgil, the guest of honor

A decorated roasted pig was among the special foods at the hair cutting ceremony

Orgil runs around with his cousins, a key part of any family celebration

Next to money, toy trucks were the most common gifts Orgil received

Orgil with his mom before the ceremony