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.

What Herders Do Best

Last February, I spent a day with some herders just 2 hours outside of Ulaanbaatar. I was accompanying a friend of mine and her aunt as they went to buy two fresh sheep for the upcoming Tsagaan Sar celebration.

We arrived at the first family’s ger (home) around 10:00 am. They served us milk tea and some freshly made buuz. Then the husband and wife and their young son hopped in my friend’s small Toyota and we headed off to another herder family’s home about 10 km away. We were lucky to be on a paved road for about half of the way, but relied on the little hatchback to do her best as we off-roaded it over the snowy terrain to the second ger.

Amgalan's son runs to Amgalan and Batbayar as they examine a sheep

Upon arrival, we were again greeted and served milk tea, a standard sign of Mongolian hospitality. With the horses gone off to get water, we had to drive the Toyota through the snow to where the sheep were grazing – another several kilometers away.

I’ve never seen the herding process before, and I didn’t really know what to expect. Perhaps it might be different if the men were on horseback, but I was surprised at just how time intensive and exhausting it was to round up so many sheep. I was also surprised to see the method of catching the sheep: basically spotting the one you want, running into the herd, and tackling it. It’s quite entertaining to observe.

Over the course of the next hour, the two herders caught four or five sheep. They would compare their legs and tails to judge which one would be the best for eating at such a high holiday. They were very concerned with finding the two best sheep, which, to be honest, all looked the same to me.

After they chose the two winners, they tied them up, and lobbed them into the trunk of my friend’s hatchback, and we returned to the ger.

Watch a Video of the Herding Process:

The next 4 hours were spent killing, skinning, and cleaning the sheep – not for the faint of heart.

Batbayar skins one of the sheep

The traditional Mongolian method for killing sheep might be surprising. They cut the sheep’s belly lengthwise, stick their hand into the chest cavity and stop the heart by pinching the aorta. It takes no more than 5 minutes and the sheep don’t make a sound.

A woman sorts through the organs of a sheep as she cleans them

After, the two herders each skinned one sheep – ripping the skin from the fat and muscle. The pair made the skinning process look rather easy – using the fat to grease their hands and separating the skin from the muscle. The young boy climbed all over his father as he was exerting himself, but he didn’t seem to mind much. After about 15 minutes, the sheep were fully skinned. They would sell the pelts and feet later.

Once the sheep were skinned, the women took over. They spent the next several hours methodically cleaning the innards inside the ger. Each wife was in charge of one sheep’s o

rgans. First they cleaned the small and large intestines, squeezing out feces and running water through them until they were clear. Then they mixed blood with onion and garlic, which they poured into the intestines. This would later be cooked to make a tasty sausage-like treat.

After all the organs and intestines were properly cleaned, they stuffed them into the sheep’s stomach. They stretchy tissue served as an extremely efficient sack.

Coming from the United States, where the commercial slaughtering process is less than ideal, it was refreshing to observe how intimate the herders are with their livestock. Not part of the animal was wasted – nothing is taken for granted.

Batbayar tells me about his life as a herder in Central Mongolia

After all was said and done, I sat down with Batbayar, the older and more experienced of the two herders. He was extremely proud of his profession, saying that there was nothing difficult about it at all. ‘With the fresh air in the countryside, herding is a really nice lifestyle,’ he told me.

Batbayar comes from a long line of herders out west in Zavkhan Province. He moved to this region just outside of Ulaanbaatar with his family and 400 goats and sheep just 5 years ago.

Batbayar told me that his family was quite busy recently, selling and preparing sheep for out-of-town customers almost everyday ahead of Tsagaan Sar.

He said his daily life is simple: wake up, take the herds out to pasture, look after them as they graze, and bring them home in the evening. There are additional chores like tending to the cows and cleaning out the pens. But, for the most part it’s the same everyday. “We never change our work, we just have one job,” he explained.

MORE PHOTOS

Mongolian children often learn to ride horses when they are as young as 3 or 4 years old

The two herders spent over an hour picking, catching and scrutinizing the sheep

Zaya holds down a sheep while the herders search for a second one

Batbayar examines one of his sheep

Amgalan leaves the ger to slaughter the sheep

Amgalan kills a sheep the traditional Mongolian way - by pinching the aorta

Amgalan's son climbs on him as he skins a sheep

The herders will sell the ankle bones of the sheep for pieces in a popular game similar to jacks or dice.

After the sheep are skinned, the women clean the innards inside the ger

Woman clean sheep intestines together

Blood is mixed with onion and later boiled inside the intestine

Zaya pours blood mixed with onion into an intestine

Women sit near the door to their ger cleaning sheep innards

Once all of the intestines have been cleaned, they are stuffed into the stomach, which also operates as a sack

Three days later the cooked sheep was featured on a table along with other food for Tsagaan Sar

Camel Festival in the Gobi Desert

For the past ten years, camel herders have been meeting annually in the sleepy town of Sainshand to celebrate their animal of choice. The Temenee Nadaam (Camel Festival) is held in provinces around southern Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, where camel herding is most popular. The festival began about a decade ago in an effort to bolster support for the unique Mongolian Bactrian camel (two humps, not one), and the camel herding lifestyle.

Herders from across the province brought their livestock to Sainshand to compete in a variety of games. There were over 100 camels present, and about 400 people.

Camels surrounded the festival area, most of them tied up, but there were always a few who managed to get loose

Festival Activities:

  • Parade
  • Camel Race
  • Fashion Show for Beautiful Couples: Husband-Wife couples dressed up in matching traditional costumes and decked out their camels for this one
  • Camel Reign Braiding Race: One line of men whittled a piece of wood for the piece that goes through the nose, while a row of women braided camel hair into rope
  • Relay Race: My favorite event, involved Husband-Wife teams. The men first rode the camels around a series of posts, then dismounted, the women took the reins and led the camels through a field of dried dung, which they had to collect and put in their baskets, then the men remounted, rode the camels to an area where they had to throw three darts, and finally raced back to the starting line. Endless fun.
  • Camel Polo Tournament: this is exactly what it sounds like.

Camels lined up outside of the Sainshand arena

The main event was the Camel Polo Tournament. Each sum (county) entered a team in the competition to represent them. Thesums also each set up a ger with their flag out front for their festival participants. Anyone was welcome to come in and warm up with some hot milk tea or soup. While we sat in one particular ger, the county’s government official presented each polo team member with special medals, acknowledging their participation. It seemed like a big deal.

Overall, the festival was a real joy. It was a bit cold (but then again, it is in Mongolia). I was able to try camel for the first (and hopefully only) time in my life. And everyone there was truly excited to be participating. It was an event that many people look forward to for months to come.

Now, without further adieu, camel polo:

PHOTOS:

Sainshand is near a coal coking mine, making it one of southern Mongolia's industrial hotspots

A group of festival-goers pose near the stadium

A newly invented game of camel polo was the main attraction

Two young boys wrestle outside their county's ger

A polo player after finishing a match

Players wave their polo mallets in the air amidst a match

One of about twenty gers erected by the attending county representatives

Participants in the 'Beautiful Couples' fashion competition

Camels on Parade

A band played as camels paraded through the streets of Sainshand

A polo player races his camel through the streets during the parade

The beginning of my favorite event: the camel relay

A competitor throws a dart during the camel relay

A women collects strategically placed dung as part of the relay

These baskets are traditionally used by herders to collect dung, which they use as fuel

A crowd watches the relay competition

Women race to see who can braid a camel hair rope the fastest

Polo players in the central stadium

Players hit each others' mallets after each polo match

The ‘Jersey Shore’ Reaches Remote Reindeer Herders

In January, I had the opportunity to visit one of the most remote communities in the world: the Tsaatan (literally, Reindeer People). It’s a small community of about 400 people who live a subsistence lifestyle by drinking the milk of the reindeer they herd, hunting, and foraging. The Tsaatan live in teepees (called urts), changing camps with each season.

In the summer, they are only reachable by a two day horse trek from the nearest town, Tsagaannuur (White Lake). It takes about four days to reach them from Ulaanbaatar. Their winter camp is much more accessible. They move closer to the town and the ground, which is terribly boggy in the summer, is frozen, allowing for people to come by car.

The Tsaatan live in teepees called 'urts'. While they traditionally used reindeer hides, they now buy Chinese canvas for the walls.

The Tsaatan divide into two groups in the winter. One moves to the western part of the forest, the other to the east, what they call ‘West Taiga and East Taiga’. We visited the community in the East Taiga, a group of about 18 families. Although, 8 of the families were spending the winter in town where their children went to school.

The camp consisted of two cabins and ten teepees, each with a solar panel outside and a small stove inside. When we arrived, all but two of the men had just left with the male reindeer. They were on a two week journey to locate the female reindeer who they had let wander wild a month earlier. The half-empty camp meant a leisurely visit.

Our host mother melting snow into ice on the iron stove that also provides the cabin's heat.

Every morning we arose with the sun around 9:00. We stayed with a Tsaatan family in their small one room cabin, seven people in total. When one person decides it’s time to get up, everyone wakes up. Once we had made our beds, transforming the sleeping area into a living room, we drank tea mixed with reindeer milk and munched on some cookies or bread. The women would wander out into the forest and fill a large bag full of snow, which they would then melt for water throughout the day. Other daily chores included retrieving and cutting firewood, carving reindeer antlers to sell during tourist season, sewing and mending various items, and cooking. They fill their free time by visiting each other’s urts and cabins for some tea and conversation. Dinner was served once the sun went down (around 5:00) and was some form of meat (in our case, moose), with noodles or rice. It’s not the most luxurious meal, but in the frigid temperatures meat and carbs were more than welcome.

Laundry hanging to dry outside one of the two cabins in the East Taiga.

It might be easy to think that because the Tsaatan are removed from society, living off of what they can herd or kill, that they might be out of touch. Not so.

Nearly everyone seemed to have a cell phone, which they kept charged on car batteries or via solar power. Members from the East and West Taiga call each other on a ham radio each day to check in and joke around. And the two cabins, erected a couple years ago, each had a television where community members would gather after dinner to watch a show on one of the 20 plus channels they received. The favorite choice was a Korean period drama popular throughout Mongolia.

Our host father making his daily call to the West Taiga via radio. His code name is 'Polar Bear'.

On our third night with the family, we were all sitting around the cabin. Some were chatting, my travel companion was writing, I was crocheting, and the man of the house was flipping through channels. You can imagine my surprise, and indeed, excitement when I heard a familiar voice on the screen. She was faint, and dubbed over in Mongolian, but nonetheless it was her. It was that unmistakable voice of Snooki. That’s right. I had traveled thousands of miles from Ulaanbaatar to visit one of the most remote communities in the world, and there was the cast of the “Jersey Shore”. JWoww, Pauly D, The Situation, Sammy, everyone.

This is globalization at its purest.

It must have been bizarre for the Tsaatan family to watch it.

The two groups of people couldn’t be more different. The characters on the television show lead a hedonistic lifestyle, seemingly unable to do even a few hours of legitimate labor. The Tsaatan, on the other hand, ration their flour to ensure it lasts them through the winter. I wonder if they had a similar reaction to watching “The Jersey Shore” as Americans might have to watching a show on National Geographic about Mongolian reindeer herders.

The 'Jersey Shore' captures our attention in a tiny cabin in the forest.

JWoww on the television in the remote East Taiga.

By the final night with the Tsaatan, my companion and I had grown quite comfortable with our family. We joked, played music, and managed to have very basic conversations (I only had three months of Mongolian language lessons under my belt). It was truly refreshing to feel so at home in a place that was so far away.

Still, I am not sure if I could live that lifestyle. It’s not easy to live so close to the land, so far from the things we take for granted: running water, central heating, access to medical care, etc. And yet, there’s something so freeing about only having enough possessions that will fit in a 10 foot diameter teepee.

MORE PHOTOS:

The view of the sunrise through our cabin window (a plastic flap).

A Tsaatan man leading two of his reindeer.

Reindeer really are the most majestic animals.

Two feet of snow certainly doesn't make hiking any easier.

Our hike to the nearest mountaintop. One brave Australian companion did it in felt boots!

The rewarding view was short-lived. I could only take my hands out of my mittens long enough to take these pictures before they were frozen solid.

The dry cold made my eyes water. Then the tears would almost immediately freeze on my lashes.

My travel companion and me with our host family.

On the Road to Kharhun Panoramic

Photos: To The Countryside and Back Again

It seems there are two places in Mongolia: Ulaanbaatar and the countryside. While the climate, terrain, and even culture differ wildly throughout this country, the division is apt. According to the 2010 Population and Housing Census of Mongolia about 1.8 of the nation’s 2.8 million people are living in urban areas. Around 1.5 million of those people are living in and around Ulaanbaatar (ten times more than the next biggest city). Additionally, Ulaanbaatar’s population density has grown to 246 people per square kilometer, a drastic difference when one considers the national average: 1.7 people per square kilometer.

All this is to say, there is a significant difference between Ulaanbaatar and the rest of Mongolia.

This past weekend, I finally had the opportunity to get out of the city for a few nights and into the other part of Mongolia. I traveled with my roommate to one of the central provinces: Arkhangai. I was tagging along on a work trip as a volunteer photog and videopgrapher for Mercy Corps, the development NGO she works with. But I still think I got the good end of the stick.

We left Ulaanbaatar early on Sunday morning, escaping the morning pollution fog for the fresh country air. We weren’t 30 minutes outside of the city when I could already tell the difference in air quality. It’s amazing how humans can adjust to challenging living situations – but living in heavy air pollution is one I hope I am never fully comfortable with.

Goat Herder on Side of Road

Goat Herder on Side of Road

I had been on the very same road leaving town five years ago, but now with four inches of snow covering the steppe and slight mountains, it looked completely different. As we made our way to Tsetserlig (Arkhangai’s capital), we passed horse herds, goat herds, cattle herds, and yak herds with dozens of kilometers of nothing in between.

I found I was more than content to simply stare out my frosty window, letting my mind wander as we passed over rolling hills. ‘Picturesque’ doesn’t begin to describe the beauty of the Mongolian countryside. Pristine, ancient, crisp, calming, majestic… none of these words really do it justice. This was the scenery that called me back to Mongolia.

We visited seven different small business that Mercy Corps funds and supports in different ways. Four of the projects were in Tsetserlig, the province capital where we stayed. Another two were in the ancient capital Kharkhorin, about a 5 hour drive from Ulaanbaatar. The last was in Kharhun and was the most difficult to reach.

Tsetserlig

Tsetserlig

We left Tsetserlig for the tiny town of Kharhun around 10 AM and drove on paved roads (a luxury here) for about 30 minutes before veering off onto what more closely resembled tire tracks in snow than any sort of real road. From what I gathered, our directions were some version of “keep going straight, cross the mountains, you’ll get there eventually”. And 3.5 hours later, we did get there. Kharhun is essentially a county seat – a small government center with a population of only a couple hundred. Still, compared to the isolation that surrounds it, arriving at our destination felt like we were definitely entering a significant population center.

The Road to Kharhun

The Road to Kharhun

Kharhun's Town Sign

Kharhun's Town Sign

We got out of the SUV, stretched our legs and introduced ourselves to the owner of a felt-making operation and his wife, sons, and employees. He showed us around the property and demonstrated the equipment that helps turn wool into felt. He sells 300 felt blankets used for the shell of the Mongolian ger (or yurt) annually. We were checking out some new equipment that allows him to produce felt in the winter, a time when he was previously idle. After the demonstration and a brief interview, his wife prepared a lunch of mutton, boiled potatoes, milk tea and bread for us – a warm and welcome meal after the journey. After a few hours with the ger felt-maker and his family, we thanked them for their hospitality and raced the sun as we headed  back to Tsetserlig.

Felt Factory

Felt Factory

The next day we visited projects around Tsetserlig, a city of about 20,000. We spent time with a baker, carpenter, masseuse, and members of a sewing coop – all using modest grants to improve or expand their businesses. I could only catch bits of what each of the business leaders were saying about their livelihood (the interviews were all done in Mongolian).

The final day, we stopped in Kharkhorin on our way back to Ulaanbaatar to visit a milk producer and felt handicraft cooperative. All very typical and practical Mongolian businesses. I was surprised to learn that the felt handicraft cooperative was the very same that made felt items sold in my favorite shop in Ulaanbaatar. I’ve been eying slippers and felt coasters for a few weeks, knowing they’ll make excellent Christmas presents.

Felt Handicrafts

Felt Handicrafts

Returning to Ulaanbaatar after four days away felt both shocking and slightly relieving. Shocking because the crazed and hectic city has never felt more so. When compared to the quiet and still of the countryside, Ulaanbaatar’s overcrowded streets, orchestra of car horns, brown haze, and bustling citizens are jarring. Still, I felt a sense of relief to be coming back to a city I’m beginning to know. I have friends here now. I know my way around. Ulaanbaatar is indeed becoming my home away from home.

Peace Ave in Ulaanbaatar

Peace Ave in Ulaanbaatar