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Patrick Sommer spent two years in Mongolia as a Peace Corps Volunteer
Patrick Sommer spent two years in Mongolia as a Peace Corps Volunteer
Welcome to the Mongolia section of Patrick's Page. Mongolia is a place where I spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer, from 1996 to 1998. There I lived in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, teaching English and doing community development work. I hope that some of my Mongolian friends will visit the page and others just interested in learning something about the country. Some of my pictures and associated stories are posted below. Also, be sure to visit the links that I have posted at the bottom of the page for great Mongolia related sites.
Traversing the Gobi
Here in the Gobi Desert, where the population averages less than one person per square mile, such sights are rare. Typical Mongolian families move their yurts (or "ger" in Mongolian language) four times a year, in search of fertile grazing land. It is not uncommon for as many as six family members to live in one ger. This photo was taken from the Moscow-Beijing train, moving at fifty miles per-hour. Notice the electrical lines, which follow the railroad tracks from the northern capital of Ulaanbaatar to deliver power to a sleepy provincial capital of 20,000 people five hundred miles to the south.
Stroller and Spear
Empowered by his too-small stroller and spear, Batbold proudly exclaims, "I am Genghis Khan, King of the Mongols!" Since leaving home, the resourceful boy has lived many places and invented many toys. During most of the previous winter, Batbold lived in the sewers of Mongolia's capital city, Ulaanbaatar. He says it was difficult, but warm. In a place where January temperatures often dip to twenty degrees below zero, warmth is the primary concern. Cold and very much alone, Batbold was discovered by a police officer late last winter and given a bed, school, and hot meals. However, spring has now arrived and Batbold is again on his own. For Batbold, warmth is freedom.
Wearing the ceremonial hat for men of high standing, young Ganbayer (who has recently learned to walk) takes one last look at his mother before ascending the hill ahead. His future, however, is an uncertain one. Like the majority of people in Mongolia's capital, Ganbayer lives with his family of five in a yurt, housed inside this fence on the outskirts of the city. Just last year his family was forced from their apartment of twenty years, and into the burgeoning "yurt suburbs," because they could not purchase the apartment under the government's post-communism privatization program. Along with forty percent of the capital's population, Ganbayer's parents are unemployed. Nonetheless, the family makes due with gifts of meat from their extended family, wood from the nearby vanishing forests, and milk from their five goats.
After hours of hiking the rugged mountain terrain, I unceremoniously stumbled into this remote Buddhist monastery. Ignored by the chanting monks, I commenced circling the room, bowing to the deities overhead and making offerings. Awaking me from my single-minded focus, the melodic chanting soon merged into frantic conversation. Apparently, I had been noticed, and the monks had never hosted a foreigner before. Soon introductions were made and I engaged the inquisitive monks in a cultural exchange. Discussing religion, the monks were surprised to learn that some Americans actually knew of, and practiced, their religion. Curious about America's economic prosperity, the elder monk inquired, "How many yaks does the richest American have?" Considering this for a moment, "Probably a lot." I replied, and the conversation moved on.
Running for Life
For three days every summer the Mongolian steppe comes to life for the athletic festival known as Naadam. Literally translated as The Three Manly Sports, competitions in wrestling, horseracing, and archery take place in every town, village, and city. Previous to each horse race, riders gather at the sacred "ovoo" pictured above, circling it three times and touching its blue scarves to their heads. Numbering in the hundreds, the riders are aged six to nine. Some ride in beautiful hand-carved wooden saddles, and others bareback. The race is a formidable thirty kilometers, run at full gallop to the riders' incessant whooping and whip. Literally run to their death, it is not uncommon to find young riders hunched over their still horses laying just steps from the finish line.
Indicative of wisdom beyond his years, young Tsend-Aiush sits meditatively in his monastery room. A boy among men, he divides his time between Buddhist study and play in the yard. As a child of not more than six years, he was delivered to the monastery that he now calls home. Sometimes his parents visit, but infrequently. He says, at times, that he misses home. "But this is where I need to be. My teachers are here," he continues. As the years pass Tsend's study will become increasingly rigorous, with instruction in Tibetan language, Buddhist scripture, and meditation. For the time however, the young lama's concerns are not so serious. Smiling up at me in youthful spirit, Tsend asks, "Would you like to go outside and play some basketball? I'm short but have a good outside shot."
"Raising children isn't easy, but good," says Tsetsgee, a nomadic herder and mother of thirteen. "And they made me a national hero for it," she exclaims. To encourage population growth in the most sparsely populated country in the world, the Mongolian government awards "National Hero" status to all mothers of ten or more children. In a country that values family above all else, Tsetsgee's diligent work as a mother has brought her great rewards: The government gave her a medal, her peers give her respect, and her children give her love. Tsetsgee is delighted that her grown children have chosen to remain in the western hills of Mongolia, following the family's herd of sheep and yak. Although her more restless children have visited the far-away capital of Ulaanbaatar, and some have tried to live there, "they always come home," Tsetsgee boasts, "Life is good here."
If you're interested in seeing many of the above photos and stories in the printed form, order a copy of Skipping Stones,Volume 11, No. 5 by sending a check in the amount of $5.00 to Skipping Stones, PO Box 3939, Eugene, OR 97403, USA.
Mongolia Related Links:
* Friends of Mongolia --Check out this nonprofit organization dedicated to Mongolia.
* MONSTUDENT--This is a great new site. A must visit if interested in Mongolia. English and Mongolian.
* Mongolia Online--Good general reference on Mongolia with lots links to the latest news. English and Mongolian.
* Email Daily News --Register to receive the latest news from Mongolia everyday via email.
* National Geographic's Genghis Khan --Great educational resource on Mongolian history.
* The Mongolia Society--Academic resource on Mongolia. In English.
* Mongolian Music--A must visit for anyone who loves Mongolian music. Music plays online--some dubbed straight off the Mongol radio!
* Radio Ulaanbaatar 102.5 --Connect with Mongolia's premier FM Radio station. More songs available.
* Mongolian Traditional Script Font Download --Download the script the Mongols used before communism.
* Oyunbileg's Great Mongol Homepage--A webpage about Mongolian culture and happenings in the American Mongolian community. In English.
* Ger Magazine --An online magazine about the latest in Mongolia.
* The Innner Mongolian People's Party--Support the Inner Mongolian movement for independence of China.
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Material Copyright © 1999 Patrick Sommerville
|By tufshin (188.8.131.52) on Monday, April 18, 2005 - 7:40 pm: Edit Post|
can't you get rid of this pic!?