Trip to Mongolia
July ' 05 I joined the first HK Chinese group ever to trek the Altai Nuruu, in the Western Province of Bayan-Olgii , Mongolia .
Altai is Mongolia's highest mountain range, interposed between Mongolia , Russia and China .
We were met in Ulaan Baatar ( Red Hero ) by the local Canat Tour guide, Arkhangar ( Arki for short ), a young guy who teaches English in an elementary school 6 months of the year, and moonlights in the short summer months as a tour guide .
While the rest of Mongolia is dominated by the Khalkh Mongols, 90% of the population in Bayan-Olgii are Kazakh Muslims. Physically very different from
the Mongols, they generally have fair skin, high nose, and brown hair and eye . The word Kazakh means "free warrior" or "steppe roamer", befitting name as their nomadic ancestors had climbed the Nuruu to settle in Mongolia a century ago from Kazsakhtan and the Xinjiang Province of China . I joked with Arki that if his ancestors had stayed put in Xinjiang 2 generations ago he'd be Chinese today !
My first impression of Olgii was of an archetypal ghost town out of an old Western movie, remote, wind swept, desolate .
Olgii-Kazakh culture and language is very different from Mongolian, and in the nineties when Kazsakhtan broke away from the Soviet Union they wanted to increase the proportion of Kazakh population to the Russians', so they offered Mongolian-Kazakh free passport and state welfare, resulting in a mass exudus which near half emptied Bayan-Olgii .These past few years the emigration rush's slowed down a bit, and some of the people who left earlier had returned, realising the grass' not always greener the other side of the fence.
Arki lived in Kazsakhtan for 9 years, taken advantage of the free college education for Kazakh of all origins, but opted to return because he had great faith in the new economic reform in Mongolia, a faith surprisingly prevalent in all the younger Mongolians I talked to . Kazsakhtan is heavily Russianized and Arki speaks Russian better than English , but nonetheless scornful about the Russians . He told me in the last World War the Russians won the war on the backs of the Kazakh, but neglected to mention to the rest of the world they put all the dark haired Kazakh to the front-line as canon fodders, and kept the blue-eyed blonde Russians to the back ; the Kazakh lost more than half of their male population as a result .
Canat Tour is part of the "Blue Wolf Expeditions" . The Blue Wolf is much revered in Mongolia because the Mongolians believe they are descendants of a union between a Blue Wolf and a Fallow Deer . The only surviving account of this ancestral myth, " The Secret History of The Mongols" dated from 1200 , is in the form of a Chinese transcription by Yuan Ch'ao Pi Shin, at present kept in Beijing .The deep symbolism inherent in the union of the predator and prey goes some way in explaining the "Mongol Phenomena" : the incredible feat of a small people in building the largest empire in all of human history .
To the uninitiated this is a union between the masculine attributes : strength, courage and power, and feminine attributes : softness, sensitivity and intuition, represented by the wolf and the deer respectively. Except the wolf does not come from the steppe, but the dark, cold Northern forest where the first main Mongol tribe originated. The forest , not the steppe, is the source of Mongolian primodial spiritual forces . This is an important fact as in the Siberian and inner Asian Shamanistic belief, the wolf is an intrinsically feminine animal, sharing many qualities with the deer .The wolf is immensely sensitive, furtive, perceptive and shy. For all its physical prowess it hunts by using cleverness and stratagem . It has great powers of discrimination and an unfailing intuition to sense any weakness in its prey ; it also has an unbelievable ability to endure pain and adapt to any circumstance . On the other hand it is extremely refined with a high degree of togetherness, compassion and solidarity in its social behavior. The wolf is thus a symbol of awesome excellence.
The deer is of no less importance than the wolf and stands for the principles of Mother Earth, without which no fertilization, birth and growth of new things can take place. This belief stems from the second main Mongol tribe , the pastoral nomads of the grassland , and corresponds to the Southern,Turkic steppe element .
The offspring of the wolf and the deer is thus indicative of a strong predisposition towards high endeavor and great achievement .
The Mongol mythology illustrates the complexity of relationships in the Universe, and how the true meanings are often much different than what is visible on the surface ; it also demonstrates an astonishing wisdom and knowledge of the guiding principles behind the Spiritual World of the Mongols. They are certainly not the crude barbaric tribesmen most people think they are !
The treking started from the bottom of the Altai , at the base camp of Tavan Bogd Peaks, where the glaciers begin .
On the first day of the treking Maggie sprained her ankle . We were dismayed to find the group leader had left the First Aid box in Ulaan Baatar , on account of a restriction on the weight one can carry on the small domestic plane ( over-weight lugguge are fined one US dollar per Kg). Yet he saw it fit to bring aboard tins of fishes and baked beans, even his personal folding chair , for which we all had to pitch in to pay the fine ! So there we were, 16 people in the middle of nowhere, without so much as a crepe bandage !
Lucky for Maggie we met a group of New Zealand trekers. One of whom , a friendly red head, Lydia, offered to tape and bandage her ankle as she 's a
trained physiotherapist and had a good supply of bandages . This charming unassuming lady turned out to be the first woman to summit Everest without supplementary oxygen and she's in the Guniness Book of records ! ( Check out her website : http://www.brassmonkeybivouac.com/ )
We swapped treking itineraries and it seemed the New Zealanders knew more about our schedule than our leaders. The first day kind of set the tone for
the rest of the journey.
Maggie could hardly walk so a horse was arranged for her , which meant Arki, our only guide , had to stay with her to lead the horse. In all the days of
treking there was no briefing and no debriefing from our leader and co-leader ; 16 people wandering all over the mountain at different paces, often walking long stretches alone, none of us had any idea where we were going . There was a set of walkie-talkie and a small solar pad to recharge the battery, except it was used to recharge the leader's camera instead, so the walkie-talkie was dead and useless after the first day .
The flatness of the steppe is an illusion, the landscape is in fact widely undulating, and you can walk in any direction for 2 minutes and be totally hidden from view from everyone else . When we compared notes later we discovered a lot of us had experienced being temporarily lost in the wild, the vastness of the plain makes it easy to lose orientation, and there were many occasions when some of us were stricken with extreme panic !
The stronger trekers raced ahead but often picked the wrong route and had to double back , but occasionally this led to somewhat dangerous situations.
There was an incident when 4-5 of them climbed up a pass and ended half-way on the face of a slope completely covered with loose rocks which cascaded and rained down onto the people below. Terrified, they scrambled madly to climb higher still, hoping a path that's not there would miraculously appear .
The leader who was at the bottom of the hill with the rest of us was duly concerned , as he had personal experience of a treker sustaining head injury and lapsed into a coma in a similar situation in another trip he organised , but all the instruction he shouted up to them was, bless his heart : " Be careful ! I'm so worried about you lot !" when he could have taken charge as a leader should and ordered the people on the higher position to keep still ( the 5 people were on different levels) , let the people lower down move sideways and out of the way onto the correct path, before moving the people on higher ground , level by level until all of them're safely off the slope .
Treking was hard on account of the non-discernable treks, the grounds were boggy, covered with tufts of grass and over-run with water : you think you're stepping on solid ground and might suddenly find yourself calf deep in water ! At times the slopes were too steep even for the horse , and all the girls "AHhhh...ed " with clasped hands when Fung Sir spread his broad shoulders and carried Maggie up on his back . My unstable ankles on the springy uneven grounds and slopes led to hip pain fairly early on ; as the days went on bilateral Achilles Tendonitis were added to my injury score, and before the end of the trip I'd managed to lose the nail on my left 4th toe . All these serve to make me ponder maybe my treking days are numbered .
We were way off the scheduled treking time of 5-6 hours a day, some days we were on the road 10-12 hours and it took its toll on some of the girls.
After a particularly gruelling long day we were told by the leaders the group'd go to a pass near-by the next morning , but as there's nothing much there, those in need of more rest could wait in the camp . Those of us who stayed back found out later the " nothing much there " were petroglyphs dating back thousands of years and was in fact one of the high lights of the tour ! To do the leaders justice it's propable they didn't know what was in store, they were as much at sea as the rest of us most of the time !
The weather up on the mountain is unpredictable and treacherous, so sunny and hot one minute one breaks out in a sweat even in a short- sleeved T-shirt, then suddenly the clouds and the wind take over and it's winter again . We were caught in a gale storm minutes after we set up camp one day, it was so bad it took the whole weight and strength of me and my tent-buddy just to stop our tent from being blown away, but 20 minutes later it was all over, the sun came out and we were rewarded with the most spectacular and perfect double rainbow we'd ever seen .
In the short summer the glaciers melt and life returns to the land. The lower we went the more lush the grazingland , and the steppe was carpeted with billions of flowers of all colours, beautiful beyond belief .
Unfortunately the mosquitoes were also beyond belief ! Bigger than my palm and with proboscis tough enough to pierce through clothing , they too came
in the billions and made pin-cushions of all of us ! Tragically none of us came prepared, not having been told the menace. I found out the mosquitoes normally feed on the yaks and horses, so 16 soft city-dwellers must have been a real treat for them . I was sad to note global warming has receded the glaciers, and it is possible in less than 100 years Mongolia would be no more as it would have lost totally its only source of water.
Wildlife flourishes in Mongolia despite an extreme climate . Keith , a HK building contractor hired to renovate a Mormon church in Ulaan Baatar , swore he saw an ibex on top of a far mountain. Though it is possible to sight gazelle, antelope, wolf, lynx, reindeer, elk , fox, ermine, hare, etc, which are all native to the area, all that I ever saw were marmot holes, and that's only because I nearly twisted my ankle stepping into one . I was surprised to learn marmots are vegetarians, and Arki, a confirmed meat- eater like the rest of the Mongolians , told me a joke .
He said a very famous Mongolian author was on a book tour in New York and was pestered by a very loud American woman, who tried to convert him to vegetarianism . The great man looked the woman in the eye and said " Madam, cows eat grass, we eat cows, we're further up than you in the food chain !" and effectively shut the cow up. One wonders what Arki really thinks of the few vegetarians in our group, all incidentally frustrated, limited, middle aged women ?
Zud is a particularly Mongolian phenomenon - a long dry summer followed by extremely cold winter . 1999 / 2000 was a really bad year for Zud and 3 million animals (about 10% of the herds ) were lost, leaving the people destitute and the country's agricultural sector in a state of collapse . Many nomads
had no choice but to pick up their gers, move into town, set up tents where- ever they could find a bit of land , and sunk into urban squalor .
There were a lot of talks about the end of the traditional nomadic way of life .
I was happy to see a few years on there're signs of recovery . The gers we passed on the trek were well stocked, most families boasted a TV set, a satellai disc, a solar panel and a jeep or motor bike, which is rapidly replacing the trusted horse as a form of transport. It was just after the lambing season and the baby lambs and foals ran amok all over the steppe .
This is all good , because as one nomad commented : " We don't make good city dwellers, we're used to the steppe - out here your nearest neighbour is
miles away. But put us close together, put walls around us and we start to go crazy. We drink, beat the wife, throw rubbish into the neighbour's yard, it's terrible ! " Let's pray that never happens again .
Towards the end of the trek we camped by an army out-post at the border between Mongolia and China. We were cautioned not to take pictures , unfortunately this was precisely the bait to incite the sneaky among us .
There was some confusion as to the legitimacy of our camping site, and Arki was summoned to the army headquarters to soothe the officials with yet more
US dollars, only to find on return the leaders were barbecuing some fishes they caught in a river near-by , totally ignoring the rule that one needs a permit to fish in Mongolia !
Mongolia's completely landlocked and Arki's never seen the sea in his life .
An American tourist he befriended sent him a small bottle of sea water from New York, so one evening he gathered his whole family around and ceremoniously dipped their finger in the sea water to taste it. I told him I could sent him sea water from HK but I wouldn't recommend anyone tasting it ! Come to think of it it probably wasn't such a good idea to taste water from the Hudson Bay either.
Back in Olgii we attended the Nadaam Festival, which has its origin in the ancient Ovoo-worship Festival and is held every year on the National Day ( 11-13 July ) . During the 3 days there're horse riding, wrestling and archery competitions all over town ; everybody put on their Sunday best and hang out in the bazaars chocked-full of Russian and Chinese imports, and generally have a good time .
The boss of the Canat Tour invited Kerepwih Inurcynbi , a well known local singer/composer to give us an evening of Kazakh songs and dance . I was mildly surprised to find him in the restaurant kitchen the next day preparing the meat, and totally startled when his daughter, who's studying German in the Ulaan Baatar University, told me he's in fact the chief O&G doctor in the regional hospital in town and was still in practice ! A lot of the people we met there under the age of 30 were delievered by him.
The move from socialism to free market economy and the withdrawal of Soviet cash has dealt a hard blow on the middle class, and multiple-jobs seem to be the order of the day. Arki, the teacher and tour guide, had also opened a small shop by the aimag museum selling hand-embroidered ger wall hangings ( tush ) and bags, with the typical Kazakh stylised animal and flower motifs, as images are banned by the Muslim faith .
I visited a small village hospital and was appalled by the primitive facilities . Although the town hospitals might be better equipped, the advice we gathered from most guide books was in case of illness it's prudent to hop in a plane and fly to Beijing for treatment, which is just an hour away from Ulaan Baatar .
Joyce and I said goodbye to the rest of the group , picked up Delna at Ulaan Baatar and started the second half of our journey, heading towards the Gobi
Desert. The Gobi covers 1/3 of Mongolia but to call it desert is a misnome as it's actually a stony scrubby wasteland, only 3% of the Gobi is sandy dunes . The weather's not as hot as we feared on account of the strong wind, which produced a chanting musical note as it blew over the sand dunes, thus they're dubbed the Singing Dunes . Unfortunately the wind also picked up grains of sand which stabbed like needles when they hit the bare skin .
As advised we took with us a large supply of water , augmented by Genghis Khan beer whenever we made it to a ger hotel . Mongolian tourism still has a long way to go, often times we found we were the only guests in a hotel of 30 gers . We picked up a hitch-hiker one day, a local furniture-maker on his way to visit his parents but missed his normal ride . Hitch-hiking's risky as passing vehicles are few and far between, and one can get dehydrated very quickly in the hot sun .
Naraa our guide, is typical of her generation of young Mongolian women . Mongolia is unique among developing countries in having more girls than boys in school . The end of communism and the consequent unemployment forced Mongolian males back to the land, while girls in cities gain that all-important schooling and eventually the better jobs ; women now make up half of the work force .
Naraa's a final year law student, working temporarily as a tour guide while awaiting her exam results. She came from a middle-class family, her father's a professor in Economics and her mother's a pharmacist, she also had an older brother who's in I.T. . Her parents divorced when she was 11, but they remained on civil terms and Naraa's in constant contact with her father .
Naraa loved fashion, make-up and Western music and was offended when in my ignorance asked if she ever goes to discos and bars. " Of course, all the time !" she said curtly , then added " We dance and hang out with friends, no different from anybody else ! " She's not decided if she'd be a lawyer or make it full time as a tourguide, but the world's her oyster and she's in no hurry .
The entrepreneur spirit abounds in women of the new society ; the receptionist in our hotel in Ulaan Baatar told me she's quitting her job to open her own B& B in a few weeks, and would I like a copy of the address ?
Miga, our driver, did not have the same advantage of high education . With 2 children and a wife to support he sneaked into South Korea as an illegal worker twice, was twice deported , but was still awaiting a chance to sneak over a third time . Mongolians are patriotic to a fault . I was told they would go abroad to make money, but however long they'd been away they always return .Naraa's certainly very sensitive and defensive over any remark she thinks carry even the slightest hint that disparages Mongolia .
Miga's a good driver but the roads were bumpy as hell . I sat at the back of the Japanese jeep and was thrown about like clothing inside a washing machine ; there were many a times I truly missed the Russian jeep which carried us all over Olgii , solid and steady, it was built like a tank .
We stopped at the Hustai National Park Resort where the one and only species of wild horse in Mongolia , the Takhi, were raised. The Takhi was discovered
at the end of the 19th century, but had become extinct in its native land since . Fortunately some Takhis were given to Germany and Holland as gifts a hundred year ago, so the species was preserved in the world . The Mongolian Association For Conservation of Nature and the Environment, along with
Foundation Reserves Przewalski's Horses have brought a total number of 84 Takhi back to Mongolia during the last 10 years, mainly from Holland, and
now the number of Takhi has reached to more than 200. Miss Julia Roberts is one of the patrons behind the preservation movement and the photo she took with all the staff when she visited the National Park a few years ago, was hung proudly in the museum lobby .
Mongolia used to be the second, after Tibet, stronghold of Buddhist religion. However, with the arrival of the Communists in the 1920's, the religion was severely repressed, and all but one monastery were destroyed . More than 30,000 monks and priests were executed and another 70,000 exiled or imprisioned .
The liberalization of 1990 allowed a revival, now more than140 Buddish monasteries have been set up anew . We visited a monastery built in the style of the Potala in Tibet, where Dalai Lama stayed when he visited Mongolia .
Under the new freedom of belief, other religions flocked in. I had a long chat with a Union Presbyterian Church pastor from Canada , he and his Korean wife, an award winning writer and " Lifeline "counselor , had been to Mongolia 5 times to spread their faith . Apparently in Ulaan Baatar there are more than 30 different churches and cults, all imported from the West .
Mongolia is a country rich in symbolisms .The Hammer Pattern and the Nose and Horn Patterns which I've borrowed for my painting are the most widely used. The unending Hammer Pattern represents continuous movement, to signify a person's life should be in permanent and continuous motion. The Pattern is known to have been in use for at least 4 thousand years, since the bronze age . According to Mongolian legend the form of the pattern is derived either from the shape of the hammer, or from the cross-shaped ropes used for tethering horses. The Nose and Horn Patterns are derived from the shape of the animal's noses and horns, they are the oldest traditional patterns specific to the prehistoric nomads of central Asia.
I've put the eight auspicious symbols on the tree of life , together with the Mongolian and the HK flag , but integrated them with the specific Kazakh stylised pattern of wallhanging , flanked on both sides by offerings to the Buddha .
The auspicious symbols represent faith , teaching and protection in Buddhism :
The fish is the Indian emblem of the universial monarch ( zagas )
Parasol is the symbol of royal dignity and protection from harm ( shukher )
Conch shell symbolises victory in battle ( dun )
The lotus blossom symbolises purity amidst dirty surroundings (liankhua )
Banner of victory symbolises the victory of spirituality (tug)
The vase of sacred water, filled with the nectar of immortality (rashaan )
The wheel symbolises teaching and wisdom ( khorol )
The knot symbolises eternity (ulzu )
The Soyombo is the national symbol of Mongolia , used on the flag and the state seal . The 3 flames at the top represent prosperity in the past, present and the future; fire is also a Mongolian symbol for growth and progress. Under the flames there are a circle and crescent representing the sun and moon . The 2 triangles pointing downwards represent spears, symbolising death to the enemies of the Mongolian people. The 2 horizontal rectangles symbolises honesty and fairness. The round yin-yang symbol in the centre is known to Mongolians as the 2 fishes, which symbolise eternity as their eyes are always open. The 2 fishes also represent male and female, reason and wisdom. The 2 vertical rectangles on either side of the Soyombo represent walls, symbolising strength of friendship.
The Mongolian philosophy, like the Chinese, is built on the 5 elements of earth, water, fire, wood and metal . Recent archaeological discoveries have thrown light on the complex interconnectedness between the Huns ( the forerunners of the Mongols) and the Chinese . The economic, political and spiritual contact between these 2 people is much deeper than previously thought , so much so one cannot arrive at an adequate understanding of the Mongol culture without delving also into Chinese culture. Long a province of China, Outer Mongolia only declared independence in 1911 when the Qing dynasty fell and a communist regime was installed with Soviet backing in 1924 . Lest one forgets, the Mongols ruled over China for over a hundred years during the Ming Dynasty .
As a very young child I lived in Inner Mongolia for a year when my family was sent into exile by the Chinese Communist Party . Though my memory of that time is hazy, I've forever a soft spot for the Mongols . Fifteen years ago I went back to Inner Mongolia but not a trace was left of the place where we were stationed ; it's as though our time there had never been. Overcoming my initial disappointment, I realized on reflection that this is as it should be , for according to the wisdom Buddha teaches : Everything is transient and Emptiness is the Permanent Truth .