ANU Students in Mongolia 2018. Post No. 4 ‘Echoes of Civilisations’

Echoes of Civilisations: Representing Mongolia’s Cultural History

By Ruben Seaton

Photo: Ruben Seaton. Temples at Erdene Zuu.

The open fields surrounding Kharkhorin (or Karakorum) have seen some remarkable moments in human civilization. Spending time at Erdene Zuu monastery and the site of the former capital of the Mongol Empire provided time to think about the country’s long and rich history. It also prompted questions about how we remember culture.

In the 13th century, Kharkhorin was the centre of the rapidly expanding Mongol Empire. It was a hub for trade, manufacturing, and the exchange of ideas across cultures. Visiting a site of such significance, I was expecting to be able to identify where the beautiful tree sculpture once stood and where mosques existed alongside a church. However, not for the first time on this study tour, my presumptions were misguided.

It was an odd scene: an elevated white concrete platform jutted out from the green landscape, disingenuously representing where the Great Hall once stood in the southwest corner. There was no recovered stonework to be seen; apart from the information boards near a turtle statue, situated beyond the temple on the grassland steppe, there was little to suggest we were standing in what was once the capital of a great empire.

In a strange way, it reminded me of the Shelley poem Ozymandias: a statement of grandeur which had been reduced to less than rubble thanks to human hands and mother nature. Bricks and materials from the city were repurposed to be used for building a monastery. The gradual deterioration of Kharkhorin, through centuries of dry summers and cold winters, was there to be seen.

Buddhist spiritual memory had also been disrupted, but in a profoundly different way. Erdene Zuu monastery and museum was a beautiful but troubling presentation of a rich spiritual history of over 400 years.

Within our intensive course we had been told about the execution of lamas and destruction of holy sites. Back at the library in the ANU, I flicked through a book called ‘Soviet Terrorism in Mongolia’ and thought that the word choice may have been a bit of an exaggeration. However, for me it was then that I really thought about the significance of the actions of the Soviets. High-level monks were killed; mid-level monks were put in jail and low-level monks were sent for ‘re-education.’ From 1937-1944, Erdene Zuu was essentially a ghost town, with monks and visitors too intimidated to return. Looking at the eerie open spaces within Erdene Zuu’s walls, due to the destruction of buildings and monuments, the reality seemed both stark and cruel.

Photo: Ruben Seaton. Dragon decoration.

A thought about sacred and culturally significant sites in Mongolia in general. Coming from Australia – even from the few days I spent in Beijing before arriving – we are used to seeing national monuments and sites maintained in a particular manner: perfectly manicured gardens, shiny displays, new paint jobs. While visiting sites such as Gandan Temple, the Bogd Khan Palace and Erdene Zuu, it was common to hear comments from our class group about the long grass, creaky verandahs and peeling woodwork. The logic behind these observations is understandable: If these sites are so important, why not take better care in presenting and maintaining them?

In thinking about this, I think it’s important to be mindful of imposing our own lived experiences and expectations on other cultures. Sure, the appearance of the sites could be due to lack of attention, or a lack of funds for repairing buildings. But it is more likely is that employees, volunteers and worshippers simply have a different conception of what is important in a sacred or significant site. The aesthetics of a building may be far less important than the spiritual value of what it houses or represents. Keeping short grass probably isn’t a priority for a pastoral nomadic people who rely on livestock to keep pastures low; old and faded paintwork may be a sign of authenticity, not disregard.

I arrived in Ulaanbaatar thinking that the best way to explore a new country was by jogging through its streets and parks, not dawdling through old buildings. However, visiting these sites and reflecting on their significance has been a poignant reminder of what was, of what has been lost and what is being remembered.

 

Photo: Ruben Seaton. Stupas at Kharkhorin.

Further Reading:

The History of the Mongols Podcast: ‘Karakorum’

https://podtail.com/no/podcast/the-history-of-the-mongols/karakorum/

 

New York Times: ‘Bringing a Monastery Back to Life’

https://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/20/arts/20iht-monk20.html

 

William of Rubruck’s Account of the Mongols: ‘XVII: Description of Karakorum’

https://depts.washington.edu/silkroad/texts/rubruck.html#karakorum

 

ANU Students in Mongolia 2018, Post No. 3 ‘Eagle Hunting’

Eagle Hunting: Marketization of Traditional Practice

By Lucy Xu

Photo: Christopher Michel (CC BY 2.0).

The 6000-year-old tradition of eagle hunting in the far west of Mongolia is a fascinating aspect of Mongolian culture that first drew me to the country. I did a little background reading on eagle hunting before coming to Mongolia on the ANU study tour, and was aware that there are now fewer than sixty ‘true’ herders who hunt with eagles left[i]. Imitation eagle hunters have been cropping up across the country, capitalizing on a growing tourism industry. I witnessed this at popular monuments like the Zaisan Memorial, and along major roads. The changes in attitude toward eagle hunting culture, provides a lens for studying the impact of environmental and economic transitions in the modern century.

 

Eagle hunting, or falconry, is practiced in the rugged Altai Mountains by ethnic Kazakhs, but was once practiced across Mongolia among nomadic and noble families alike. Hunting is generally passed down from fathers to sons, but not exclusively so, with daughters also allowed to participate. Hunters capture chicks from their nests at the top of cliffs, selecting females (as they are larger and fiercer) with the strongest claws and eyes, to train with them for around six years. They live and hunt together for another five or six years, before the eagle is repatriated back into the wild to breed and continue the line of hunting birds. Done in its traditional form, this practice is sustainable, with minimal ecological impact.[ii]

 

In 2010, UNESCO inscribed eagle hunting as a practice on the Representative List of Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Eagle hunting was commended as an ancient cultural practice and in order to safeguard its legacy.[iii] The annual Golden Eagle Festival was initiated to ensure continued visibility of the tradition, in a manner that ensures adherence to certain levels of ethical and humane treatment, but the practice has become susceptible to exploitation.

 

Environmental challenges, particularly the changing climate (with harsh summers and catastrophic winters, including severe weather conditions known as dzud), as well as overgrazing of Mongolian lands in recent years has meant a loss in livestock numbers and a decrease in biodiversity. The impact of Mongolia’s economic transitions have meant that more Kazakh families send their children to the cities to earn incomes to supplement pastoralism, leading to an influx of herders seeking employment in the city, or to take advantage of opportunities facilitated by the burgeoning mining industry.[iv]

 

The small, but growing tourism sector, has spurred the exploitation of eagle hunting as a form of business, capitalizing on the market brought by tourists and travellers. As a result, imitation eagle hunters, often not upholding the customary process and violating ethical standards of treatment, have flourished as informal trade. The marketing of Mongolian values and customs can also be witnessed across other areas, as a result of increasing tourism.

 

During my time in Mongolia, I wish I had been able to see the unique bond of trust and companionship shared between a Kazakh hunter and the golden eagle. Instead, in the heart of the city, beneath tourist destinations, and along the highway, I witnessed shadow imitations of the practice. Eagles were chained to posts, often in the heat without shade or water. Tourists were told to ‘shake their arms’ to make the eagles spread their wings for stability and to look more impressive for the camera. It was heartbreaking to see such conditions and the departure from fundamental values connected with eagle hunting that makes it so rare and precious.

 

[i] Denhoed, Andrea. ‘The Golden-Eagle Hunters of Mongolia’ The New Yorker (20 October 2015) https://www.newyorker.com/culture/photo-booth/the-eagle-hunters-of-mongolia

[ii] Carney, Matthew. ‘Is this teenage Mongolian girl one of the last eagle hunters — or the first of a new breed?’ ABC News (2 May 2017) http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-05-02/mongolian-girl-keeps-ancient-eagle-hunting-tradition-alive/8481956

[iii] Ali, Hajar. ‘An Insight into the Life of the Kazakh Eagle Hunters’ Culture Trip (22 November 2016) https://theculturetrip.com/asia/mongolia/articles/kazakh-eagle-hunters/#

[iv] Stamboulis, Dave. ‘Mongolia’s 6,000-year Tradition’ BBC Travel (28 September 2016) http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20160926-mongolias-6000-year-tradition

Revisiting the International ‘One Health’ Workshop

International workshop ‘One Health: health and wellbeing on the grassland steppes of Mongolia’ (2016)

We are re-visiting a workshop that the ANU Mongolia Institute held in 2016. Here is some video material from discussions held with Prof. Tserentsodnom, Divaasambuu Lama and Dr Munkhsumber after the ‘One Health’ workshop held in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Discussion initiated by Prof Li Narangoa and filmed by Dr Natasha Fijn:

 

ANU Students in Mongolia 2018. Post No. 2 ‘Reading Between the Lines’

Reading Between the Lines: The Adoption of Cyrillic and the Continued Role of the Traditional Mongolian Script

By Rebecca Rich

I was recently fortunate enough to participate in the ANU’s second iteration of the Modern Mongolia course, a winter-based study tour which saw sixteen students delve into a wide range of topics impacting Mongolia today. Throughout our time in Mongolia we also dipped our toes into the Mongolian language. Under the tutelage of Dr Bat-Ireedui, one of the writers of the Lonely Planet’s Mongolian Phrasebook and Dictionary,[i] we learnt some basic phrases and tackled the Cyrillic script. During these lessons it occurred to me that upon first arriving in the country it would be easy to mistakenly assume that Mongolia has always utilised this alphabet in written communications. Once you scratch the surface, however, and look beyond the Cyrillic coating on the buildings and menus within the city you will find that Mongolia did not always adopt this script and that the change to Cyrillic is rooted in Mongolia’s political past.

The Traditional Mongolian script as displayed at the Genghis Khan Statue Complex. Photo: Rebecca Rich.

First originating in the 12th century, the Mongolian script is comprised of 26 letters consisting of seven vowels, two diphthongs and 17 consonants. The script is a vertical one and is written from left to right, derived from the Uighur alphabet and linked to the Tibetan script.[ii] Following the formation of the Mongolian People’s Republic (MPR) in 1924 and under the influence of the Soviet Union, the MPR successfully and officially adopted the Cyrillic script in the 1940s.[iii]

Over the course of several lectures we heard of the many detriments of Soviet influence in Mongolia during the period of the MPR; however, one of the main benefits that was reiterated throughout these lectures was the literacy rate of nigh on 100 percent. Through this lens it is easy to see that although the Soviet Era severely limited the political freedoms of the people, education of the expanding population was a focal point and it greatly improved during this time. For this reason Mongolians still harbour feelings of gratitude and view the period when the country was a satellite state of the Soviet Union with mixed feelings.

Following the democratic revolution in Mongolia during the early 1990s and the rise of the sovereign state now simply called Mongolia, it was debated in parliament whether Mongolia would dispose of Cyrillic and readopt the Traditional Mongolian script to echo the dissolution of the MPR. However, this ideology was short lived as it would cause a large portion of the population to become illiterate overnight, untenable for a country that prides itself on its literacy rate.[iv] Furthermore, due to the recent adoption of the Cyrillic script it is largely phonemic: that is the written script represents the sounds of the spoken language. Albeit similar to the development of English, the Mongolian language has adapted over the centuries—with one letter representing several vowel or consonant sounds—making mastery of the Mongolian script much more difficult than Cyrillic.

Although the Cyrillic script is adopted throughout the country, in parts of central Mongolia, as well as within the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia, the Traditional Mongolian script—also known as the Old Mongol script—is still utilised as the main script for writing in Mongolian. Furthermore, after the democratic revolution, the script became a compulsory subject in schools and its popularity has been steadily increasing. It remains to be seen whether or not the traditional script will play a larger and more official part in everyday Mongolian life in the future, but I believe it is fair to say that even if Cyrillic continues to be used for practical purposes, with the traditional script so closely tied to Mongolian identity it will certainly not be rendered obsolete.

 

Road sign with Cyrillic script.

[i] Bat-Ireedui, Jantsan, et al. 2014. Mongolian: Phrasebook & Dictionary. Lonely Planet.

[ii] “Mongolian Alphabet.” Encyclopædia Britannica Accessed 24 October, 2016. www.britannica.com/topic/Mongolian-alphabet.

[iii] Yukiyasu, A. 2006. “Integration and Separation of ‘Language’: Language Policies of Mongolian Peoples in the USSR and Mongolia, 1920–1940.” Reconstruction and Interaction of Slavic Eurasia and its Neighboring Worlds, Osamu, L. and Tomohiko U. (eds.) Slavic Research Center, Hokkaido University, pp. 309–34, http://srch.slav.hokudai.ac.jp/coe21/publish/no10_ses/11_arai.pdf.

[iv] Franck, B. 2010. “Sounds and Scripts of Modernity: Language Ideologies and Practices in Contemporary Mongolia.” Inner Asia 12(2): 231–52.

ANU Students in Mongolia 2018. Post No. 1: The Importance of Traveling

A selection of four student blog posts from the intensive field course ‘Modern Mongolia: Challenges to the Environment, Economy and Empire’ will be featured within the next couple of weeks on various topics from experiences in the field in Mongolia,  July 2018.

Photo: Damien Bere (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

 

The Importance of Traveling

By Alexander Hill

‘When you travel you must always bring three things:
your passport, your wallet, and your sense of humour.’

Stuart Hill, 2018.

My father has always counselled that travel is life’s greatest teacher. Recently I have warmed to his view. I now believe that it is in the domain of traveling and exploring that we are presented with the greatest opportunity for academic and personal development. Although our fundamental, theoretical learning occurs in the classroom, I consider that a premium should always be placed on using travel to gaining experience and to develop character.

When I travel to a foreign country my favourite part of the day is usually dinner – here I get to enjoy new and exciting foods. During this trip to Mongolia I have been fortunate to develop another passion at dinner – getting acquainted with my fellow winter term classmates. In the sizeable mess hall of our Ger camp I began asking my new friends, “why do they consider travel to be important”. Their initial response was usually that travel fostered a greater respect and appreciation for other cultures. When I queried, “what is your primary motivation for traveling?” I began to receive a more diverse range of answers. Some answered that they travelled to be exposed to attitudes and behavioural norms that are regarded as highly unorthodox in our own country. Others replied that they travelled because the experience demands commitment and determination. Travel, they insisted, is a transformational experience. This group sought to be pushed beyond the peripheries of their comfort zone and into situations where travel forced them to adapt to different norms and adopt new perspectives.

I have learnt that travel, for me, is an act in humility. As students of the ANU we are very fortunate to be provided with the opportunity to expose ourselves to foreign ideas and landscapes as a part of our study. Travel dislocates us from our state of comfort and normality in Australia, into a position of utter abnormality and to some extent discomfort. (I am writing this literally on the back seat of a bus, on the bumpiest part of our four-hour trip back to Ulaanbaatar (UB), surrounded by the vast steppe and by livestock, who are courageous enough to consistently challenge motor vehicles to a game of chicken). Mongolia is profoundly different to any other country I have visited. Accordingly, I surrender to the magic of the steppe, embrace all that is around me, and try to remain humble.

I have been blessed with a most unorthodox itinerary in Mongolia and throughout the journey the country has not ceased to amaze me. As the trip has progressed from the bustling streets of UB, to the coalmines of Mongolia, and to the vast steppe of Kharkhorin, our travels have broadened my perspective. [i] When I arrived in Mongolia I was particularly interested in the history of the region and the story of empire.[ii] During the last fortnight however, I have taken a deep personal interest in the Mongolian people: their nomadic traditions and the emerging challenges of urbanisation.[iii] During my visit, the economic and environmental issues that are impacting the development of contemporary Mongolia have increasingly fascinated me.

Without the opportunity to visit Mongolia personally, I could never have generated such an intimate understanding of these phenomena. Most importantly, I have now been exposed to new and vibrant people, including the fellow students, who I may have once regarded merely as ANU colleagues, but now call my friends. As my trip to Mongolia concludes, I now feel bold enough to embellish my father’s travel advice. When I travel now, I will always make sure that I bring my passport, my wallet, my sense of humour, and my handheld Sony video camera!

[i] Wariko, K. & Soni, S. K. 2010. Mongolia in the 21st Century: society, culture and international relations. Pentagon Press, India. This book gives an extensive account of modern Mongolia, including its contemporary culture and connection with world history and empire.

[ii] Bedeski, R. E. 2006. “Mongolia as a modern sovereign nation-state” Mongolian Journal of International Affairs, 13: 77-87. I found this article to be most pertinent in conceptualising Mongolia historically and to understand the influence Chinggis Khan’s empire has had on the development of Mongolian identity.

[iii] Campi, A. J. 2006. “Globalization’s Impact on Mongolian Identity Issues and the Image of Chinggis Khan.” In H. G. Schwarz, (ed.). Mongolian Culture and Society in the Age of Globalization. Centre for East Asian Studies Press. Campi addresses the complex relationship between urbanisation and pastoral nomadism and subsequently their implications in an evolving contemporary Mongolia.