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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Losing Lenin

UPDATE:

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

ORIGINAL POST:

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)

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Mongolian Rock in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

I was happy to contribute an article for “The Next Page” section of yesterday’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The piece gives a brief history of Mongolian rock music but also features Mohanik, one of the bands I was following last summer. Mohanik spent last spring and summer preparing to record an original sounding rock album in the countryside. At the end of August, they brought a crew up to Amarbayasgalant Monastery (5ish hours from UB) and recorded the full album in one day. They let me tag along and film the incredible experience. I’ll be posting more on Mohanik as I sift through all of my footage.

You can read the full article here.

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:

Twenty Years of The Ringing of the Bell

Last June, as Mongolians were preparing to head to the polls, I came across a music video on a friend’s Facebook page that caught my eye. It is was called ‘Khonkny Duu – Virtual Version’. ‘Khonkni Duu’, which means ‘The Ringing of the Bell’, is an iconic song in Mongolia. It was written in 1989 as a call for democracy, and quickly became the anthem of the movement.

Since then, dozens of artists have performed it in different styles and adaptations. The most recent rendition is the virtual version – a 21st Century appeal to the youth of Mongolia.

‘Khonkny Duu’ Lyrics

I had a nightmare last night
As if a long arm tortured me,
Strangling my words and blinding me.
Luckily, the bell rang and woke me;
The ring of the bell rouses us.
The bell that woke me in the morning,
Let it toll across the broad steppes,
Reverberating mile after mile.
Let the bell carry our yearning
And revive all our hopes.
 

 

 

More on ‘Khonkny Duu’

A Mongolian Rock Group Fosters Democracy – New York Times 1990

 

 

Note: I mistakenly included one music video that was not “Khonkny Duu” in the original post.

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

Archery

Wrestling

Music Profile: The Lemons

One of the most interesting things about a music scene as small and young as the one in Ulaanbaatar is that every band seems to be the first at something. I have met with members of the first Mongolian grunge, punk, metal, folk rock, and alternative bands – all of which are still performing.

The Lemons are one of these pioneering bands. They would fall into the post-rock, alternative category and were the first to create a Strokes-inspired sound in Mongolia.

The four-person group (plus a regular sound guy) formed in 2004 when they were in their late teens and early twenties. Each member brought different musical tastes to the group, but they all agreed that alternative rock was the way to go. After eight years and two albums, they have now become one of Mongolia’s quintessential alternative bands.

The Lemons’ songs are generally high-spirited with bright-sounding guitar riffs. One of the hits off their first album is a tune about a frog princess. After the male protagonist breaks the spell the princess is under, turning her from a frog back into a human, she thanklessly forgets about him. Another hit song is an ode to Ulaanbaatar. Some of the lyrics are poking fun at the soviet-era obsession with production. But it’s mostly just a peppy song praising their hometown.

The Lemons say their appearance was no accident. When they first formed, they took care to cultivate a sort of hipster style, buying skinny jeans from abroad since they didn’t sell them in Mongolia. Odnoo, the lead singer generally sports dark sunglasses and a leather jacket while the others are a bit more casually dressed.

All three band members that I interviewed said it’s not easy being a rock musician in Mongolia. Even as late as 2004, when they first started, it was difficult to find instruments and a practice space – two key ingredients to any band. Now, guitars are a bit easier to come by, but they still struggle to get amplifiers, mixers and electronic equipment.

Beyond the logistics of acquiring instruments and finding a place to rehearse, it’s not easy to make a living as musicians. While they are one of the most famous bands here, the Lemons still have to play weekly gigs at a handful of bars around Ulaanbaatar to make money. They sign contracts with the bar owners agreeing to play the same six or seven songs each week. It’s typical for a band to show up at a restaurant, play for about twenty minutes, and then be on their way. The fans don’t seem to mind the abruptness nor the repetitive sets, but the bands certainly do. Guitarist Tulga told me, “We are actually bored by singing the same songs and don’t have any interest in singing at these kinds of places. But we have no choice.”

On the other hand, lead singer Odnoo says that playing with the band makes up for it. “The best thing is practicing and playing our own shows,” he explained. “I like to create new things.”

Now, the Lemons are working on their third album, which should be finished by the end of the summer. Their songs have taken on a more electronic sound after importing a special electronic keyboard from the U.S. that helps them create different effects. Before an interview this spring, Tulga showed me some of the unfinished tracks. One song featured a long song singer (a traditional Mongolian style of singing). I thought it worked really well with the electronic sound and added some unique Mongolian flavor to the music. But now they cut the long song, claiming it was too similar to Mongol Pop, a style that blends traditional elements with pop music.

When I asked them what they want a foreign audience to know about Mongolian music, they all agreed that just knowing that this kind of rock music is available in Mongolia is enough. Most foreigners come to Mongolia expecting the traditional herders and horses and don’t pay much attention to the rich urban culture Ulaanbaatar has to offer. For them to simply know about the music scene here is enough, they say.

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.

Costume

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.