Kazakh Style

One of my good friends and a fellow Fulbrighter in Mongolia is just about to wrap up her 10 months. Johannah Herr is an artist and designer from Brooklyn, NY. Through her research and art, Herr focused on Kazakh design and adapting it to large-scale murals and portraits. Her work brought her to stay with the Kazakh community in the far western province of Bayan Olgy three times.

The capstone of her Fulbright was a show at Ulaanbaatar’s Red Ger Gallery entitled “Homeland(s)” at the beginning of November. Sadly, I was unable to attend, but I thought this would be a great excuse to share some of her work with you.

You can follow Herr’s blog here.


Profile: The Vanishing Cultures Project

Last spring I was lucky enough to meet two enterprising young journalists in a cafe in Ulaanbaatar. Nina Wegner and Taylor Weidman were new to Mongolia and were going to spend the next six months researching, interviewing and photographing for a book about how Mongolian herding lifestyle is changing. It was their second book for their non-profit journalism organization, the Vanishing Cultures Project.

Meeting Nina and Taylor was kismet. So much of what drove them to start the Vanishing Cultures Project (long-form journalism, desire to cover people that are often overlooked, passion for international coverage and travel) is what led me to Mongolia.

Nina and Taylor started VCP while working in Nepal. Originally there for on a Fulbright Fellowship, Taylor and Nina soon discovered a remote tribe in the Himalayas whose customs had seen little change for the past century or so. They were granted exceptional access to this community, and their work turned into a beautiful and informative coffee table book (with a forward from the Dalai Lama!). They decided to donate the proceeds from this book back to cultural initiatives to support the Mustang people.

With the success of their Nepal project, they decided to continue working with this model. They are now spending a significant amount of time in a location – up to six months – and documenting a culture undergoing rapid change through writing and photography.

The endeavor is a rare and worthwhile one, and something I wish I’d thought of myself. But I didn’t, so I decided to do the next best thing.

I befriended Nina and Taylor and enthusiastically accompanied them on a couple trips to the Mongolian countryside. We exchanged contacts, research, skills, and more importantly, words of encouragement as we all struggled to cover a country we were still trying to figure out.

Here is a short promotional video I produced for the Vanishing Cultures Project. If you like the organization please support them by buying one of their gorgeous books or fabulous prints or simply by donating.

Watch More Videos from my collaboration with the Vanishing Cultures Project:

Khovsgol Province: Herding Life

Khovsgol Province: Shamanism

Happy Naadam: Wrestling

Happy Naadam: Horse Racing

Happy Naadam: Archery & Shagai

Khovsgol Province: Shamanism

Shamanism is a an ancient spiritual tradition practiced throughout Mongolia. People who follow shamanism believe that nature and humans are connected in a deeply spiritual way. The shaman is the link between those worlds and acts as a conduit for people to reach beyond. According to the Lonely Planet, “two of a shaman’s main functions are to cure sickness caused by the soul straying, and to accompany souls of the dead to the other world.”

While witnessing a shaman ceremony is a special event, signs of the spiritual tradition are throughout Mongolia. Ovoos (sacred piles of stones) are scattered across the countryside as indicators of respect for nature. They are typically built at noteworthy locations as a sign of respect to the natural realm. When one passes an ovoo, he or she  must circle it three times and toss a stone onto the pile as an offering. Others might offer horse skulls, vodka bottles, or even tires.

Recently, Mongolia has seen a resurgence of Shamanism as many young people are becoming shamans. However, some believe a number of these new converts are “tourist shamans”, people who will perform the ceremony as a show for a fee.

Last August, I traveled to Khovsgol Province with the Vanishing Cultures Project to meet one of the country’s most well-respected shamans. She was kind enough to invite us to a ceremony, which she also allowed me to film.

This is the second in a series of three videos from Khovsgol Province. They were produced in partnership with the Vanishing Cultures Project.

Watch more videos from Khovsgol:

Khovsgol Province: Herding Life

Khovsgol Province: Herding Life

Last August, I spent a week with the Vanishing Cultures Project co-leaders Taylor Weidman and Nina Wegner in Mongolia’s northern province of Khovsgol. We were documenting the herding lifestyle for their upcoming book, “Mongolia’s Nomads: Life on the Steppe”. I had the privilege to tag along on their research journey as a filmmaker.

Over the course of the week, we stayed with two different herding families, visited with one of the country’s most powerful shamans, and I filmed a behind-the-scenes look at the work Taylor and Nina do with Vanishing Cultures Project. Two months later, I’ve finally been able to sit down and finish these short films!

Here’s the first of the three, a profile of two different herders living in Khovsgol Province:


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The Sounds of a Countryside Naadam

Last week, I produced a radio piece about Uugtaal’s Naadam for PRI’s The World with the help of Nina and Taylor at the Vanishing Cultures Project. There’s some great sound from the festivities, including child jockeys singing the ‘Giigoo’ t their horses before heading to the starting line.

In case you missed it, you can listen here.

And, if you haven’t already, check out my posts and videos on the Naadam events of:

Horse Racing



Happy Naadam: Wrestling

Arguably the most manly of the three so-called ‘manly sports’ of Naadam has to be wrestling. Wrestlers tend to be enormous. They’re more muscular that Sumo wrestlers, but certainly much bigger than the likes of A.C. Slater. The bottom line is, I do not want to be on the wrong side of an argument with one of these guys.

Like horse racing and archery, hand-to-hand combat was an essential martial art back in the days of Chinggis (Ghengis) Khan. Mongolian wrestling is steeped in tradition.


The wrestler’s costume is one of the more eye-catching aspects of the sport. Rather than the Western singlet, wrestlers don Speedo-like bottoms, an open jacket, and leather boots. The fabric and boots are adorned with traditional patterns. The clothing has white stitching and tends to be blue or red, but I’ve also seen bright pink, turquoise and orange. For me the most interesting part of the uniform is the jacket, called a Jodag.

Once upon a time, the legend goes, wrestlers wore closed jackets. Then one day, after beating several contestants and winning a competition, a wrestler tore open her jackets exposing her breasts. Since that time, the official wrestling uniform has required a bare-chested jacket, in order to prevent a repeat performance.

Arm Flapping

Before each wrestler competes, he approaches the referee (each wrestler is assigned their own referee). He offers his hat and then approaches the eastern side with his arms outstretched like wings. He is mimicking a mythical bird called the ‘Khan Garuda’. Then, he slaps this thighs three times representing the three Naadam games. After the match, the winner’s referee places a special hat on his head and he does the dance again, flapping his arms while rotating in a circle.

Rules of Engagement

Mongolian-style wrestling differs significantly from its Western counterpart. The object is to force your opponent to touch the ground with anything other than his feet. Once you have accomplished this task, the game is over. However, there is no time limit, and so until someone touches the ground, the match will continue. Additionally, it is fair game to grab and tug on each others’ clothing (what little there is of it). That is strictly off-limits in the American-style.

Watch a Video About Mongolian Wrestling:

Read and Watch More about the Naadam events of Horse Racing and Archery.

These videos were produced in partnership with the Vanishing Cultures Project.

Happy Naadam: Horse Racing

One of my favorite parts of the Naadam celebration in Uugtaal last week was the way the small jockeys (aged between 5 and 12 years old) would sing to their horses before each race.

This particular Naadam had 6 races. Each race varied in length depending on the age of the horse. The shortest distance was about 6 miles, while the longest was 14. And so several times over the course of the two-day long event, a group of between 15 and 40 children would ride their horses into the main stadium singing the ‘Glingoo’. It’s a free-form kind of song that is meant to encourage the horses to run quickly.

After riding around the inside edge of the arena, the riders would gather at the front where they would drink airag (fermented mare’s milk) and pour some on their horses’ heads and hind quarters. Singing once again, they would exit the stadium and trot toward the starting line.

Horses are an essential part of Mongolian culture and the traditional lifestyle. They are veneered and used for everything from transportation to nourishment. But until I saw how the children interact with horses, I didn’t quite understand just how much a part of life they are. Dozens of young boys casually rode their horses around the grounds, showed off by doing tricks, squirted water guns at their friends and even shared ice cream cones. It was clear that if you were an 11 year old boy without a horse, you were just not cool.

Watch a video about the horse race:

Read and Watch More about the Naadam events of Wrestling and Archery.

These videos were produced in partnership with the Vanishing Cultures Project.

Happy Naadam: Archery and Shagai

Saihan Naadaarai! Happy Naadam!

Today (July 11) is the first of the annual three-day long celebration of Naadam. It is a sporting and cultural event that dates back to the 13th Century, a time when the three ‘manly sports’ of horse racing, wrestling, and archery were vital to Mongolia’s global dominance.

Although the national Naadam celebrations started today, county-wide and province-wide competitions and festivals have been occurring around the country since the beginning of July.

Having already attended the Naadam celebrations in Ulaanbaatar back in 2007, I was curious to see how it was celebrated on a more intimate scale.

Last week, I traveled to Uutgaal, a small county seat just 150 km from Ulaanbaatar, with fellow documentarians Nina and Taylor of the Vanishing Cultures Project and Mark of Open Road Movies. We spent two days watching horse races, wrestling matches, archery and the newly added game of Shagai (ankle bones). As the only foreigners and journalists at this Naadam, we were granted excellent access to the roughly 400 participants, organizers, and spectators.

Here are the first two in a series of four videos highlighting each of the four main events.

Read and Watch More about the Naadam events of Horse Racing and Wrestling.

These videos were produced in partnership with the Vanishing Cultures Project.

Country Music Comparison

While Mongolia’s version is lacking the twang, blond bombshells, and sold out stadium concerts, country music in the Land of the Blue Sky does have a few things in common with its American namesake.

For one, there’s a strong sense of national pride associated with both. Stateside, songs like Lee Greenwood’s ‘Proud to be an American’ and Toby Keith’s ‘Courtesy of The Red, White and Blue’ are full of pro-American rhetoric. Granted, the American patriotism in these songs tends to be a bit more aggressive than its mountain-praising Mongolian counterpart. Still, Mongolian country music is full of patriotic anthems. Javkhlan is one notable singer known for praising his homeland. He’s respected by many for being extremely pro-Mongolian. Although, as far as I can tell, his love for his country is more of the praising Mongolia and less of the threatening foreigners brand. Javkhlan is so committed to Mongolia, in fact, that he is purportedly running for office in next month’s parliamentary elections.

Another similarity is the fan base. In both Mongolia and the United States country music is aptly named to represent the people who consume it as much as the people who create it. Here in Mongolia, country music is most popular among those who live outside of Ulaanbaatar (about half of the population) and those who recently moved to Ulaanbaatar. In the United States, country music fans tend to be from rural areas or states that have a larger proportion of rural citizens.

Appearance is important in both genres as well. Musicians try to look like an aggrandized version of a folk hero. In America that means denim, cowboy hats, boots, and big muscles (for men, that is). In Mongolia, that means deels (the traditional dress), Mongolian hats, boots, and big muscles. Music videos often rely on visuals of horses, hard work, connection to the land, overt national symbolism, and images that reinforce an idea of traditional life (a white-picket fence in America vs a white-felted ger in Mongolia).

Finally, both styles are musically accessible. American country music is full of those good old predictable G-C-D chords that anyone first learning to play the guitar knows. Songs are easy to sing along to and are familiar even to those Americans who don’t actively listen to country music. Similarly, Mongolian country songs are all written in the pentatonic scale – the five note scale used in traditional Mongolian music. It’s easy for Mongolians to hear country music without having much musical knowledge themselves. Mongolian country songs tend to be well known, even by those who openly admit to disliking the genre.

One of the places the two country music traditions part, however, is overall popularity. Even in Ulaanbaatar, roughly 70% of the radio play is dedicated to country music. There are generally more live* country music events than any other genre (save, perhaps, classical). Seven times out of ten my taxi driver will be listening to country songs on the radio or on a CD – sometimes singing along. While this might be the case for country music in certain regions of the United States – in massive population centers like New York City, Los Angeles, or Chicago, it is certainly not getting the majority of airtime.

I’ll admit, I’ve been hesitant to look into country music too much. I think my aversion stems from the fact that all of the backing instruments are created via computer creating a hollow sound that I find difficult to listen to for long. But, it is a significant percentage of the music currently being produced in Mongolia, and a huge portion of the market.

I’m hoping to look a little deeper into the scene in the coming weeks, and will hopefully have a more nuanced update.

*The backing tracks for Mongolian country music are almost exclusively done on computerized midi files, which means a live music event is a singer accompanied by one of these recordings.

Clubbing in Darkhan

Earlier this week I had a friend visiting from out of town. He was en route back to the States after nearly 6 months cooped up on a base in Kabul. I wanted to show him as much of Mongolia as I could over the course of his very short stay, so I took him up to Darkhan (pronounced Dar-han).

Darkhan is a city of about 75,000 and only a 3 hour drive from Ulaanbaatar. The city is an urban planning experiment, built just 51 years ago in 1961 with the help of the Soviet Union. While we were there for less than 24 hours, I was able to get a little bit of a feel for Darkhan. It’s much more laid back than bustling UB. It also seemed a lot cleaner and had fewer of UB’s urban problems of crime and violence.

From the moment we arrived, we were taken under the wing of the sister of a friend of mine from UB. She, along with a friend of hers, took us out to dinner and then gave us an option: karaoke or night club. It was Monday, mind you, so I was leaning toward karaoke. But like so many ‘choices’ I’m given here, it was an illusion. So, after a nighttime stroll around Darkhan’s lovely central park (I’m told there are excellent fountains during the summer), we headed to DD Club.

If DD Club isn’t the best that Darkhan has to offer, it has to be up there. Like all great bars, you have to descend a staircase to enter. It’s decorated like some sort of tricked out cave. The stucco walls have strategically placed holes that make them feel like organic rock formations. The tables are made of frosted glass and glow blue or red. But the highlight is definitely the dance floor. The floor is made entirely of glass blocks and raised 2 feet above the ground so you can see the rubble beneath your feet as you get down. It’s lit with a neon green, adding to the cave-like feel. The DJ spins (that’s generous) on a stage in front of a large screen fully equipped with trippy videos, lasers, and the obligatory fog machine.

The dancing was actually quite organized. The DJ would play fast songs (mostly Euro-pop) for about 30-45 minutes. Everyone would pile onto the floor. Then he would switch to slow jams and everyone would return to their tables (most of which sported a bottle of vodka). Then the fast songs would start, and the cycle would continue.

At one point, I noticed the alternating words on the screen behind the DJ said ‘Hey Guys’, then ‘Freedom’, then ‘Free Dance’. I tried to capture the splendor of DD Club on my iPhone, but after only ten seconds, the girls we were with vehemently told me to turn it off.

At any rate, here’s a grainy and ugly sounding peak into DD Club: