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

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: Post No. 3 ‘Kharkhorin or Karakorum’

Kharhorin or Karakorum

By Abhijeet Swami

Since the 1990’s there has been discussion to shift the capital of Mongolia to Kharkhorin from the current over-polluted capital of Ulaanbaatar. Historically, Kharkhorin was the centre of empires that had a significant impact across Eurasia.

The plain on which Kharkhorin (earlier Karakorum) is situated extends 30 kilometers or more between two east-west running ridges. No landform obstructs the sun as it travels along its length. The Orkhon river follows the base of mountains to the north. It is summer and the grass is plentiful. Availability of grass, water and space made the Orkhon valley an appropriate site for the encampment of an army, or for the establishment of a large city. It is not surprising that this valley is a place of ceremonial significance and that Mongols and nomadic leaders desired capital cities and empires to be built there.

Southern bank of the Orkhon and floodplain. Photo: Abhijeet Swami.

Turkic people first established a tradition of rule from this valley in the early 8th Century. Mortuary monuments to the Turkic leader Bilge Khaghan and his younger brother and commander Kül Tegin were found about a ‘day’s ride on horseback’ north of the ruins of Karakorum’.[i] Uighurs established the next empire (744-840) in the region and their capital, Khar Balgas, was also less than a day’s ride on horseback from Kharkhorin.

Kharkhorin became an imperial city in the second half of the 13th Century.[ii] Permanent buildings were established around 1235 and did not cease being built until the 1250’s. For longer than a decade, 1500 workers were building the city walls, until they were dismissed by Mongke Khan in 1251, who then ‘resettled’ 500 craftsmen families to build a palace.[iii] When Friar William arrived from France in 1254, although he was not impressed by the dimensions of the city or the palace, he saw twelve temples devoted to the faiths of different peoples, two mosques, and a church; as well as grain, sheep and goats, cattle and wagons, and horses being sold at the four gates of the city.[iv] The city became a centre of art production, where ceramic, metal, glass, wood, bone and birchbark objects were produced by artisans from around the empire for use and exchange.

But it was not easy to maintain the city in a place of savage winters and vast distances: freezing and thawing of the ground damaged infrastructure; raw material had to be imported from the far reaches of the empire; and the climate was not suitable for growing sufficient food. Indeed, Ogedei Khan issued a Yasa, which commanded that 500 wagonloads of food and drink should arrive at Kharkhorin every day.[v] This Yasa was a source of grief to generations of oxen, who pulled these big wagons from northern China.

Kharkhorin was destroyed by Ming troops in either 1380 or 1388 after lasting through violent sieges during the intervening years.[vi] Since then floods and rains have moved the earth so that the remnant city is now entirely under ground. When I visit, it is the time when the rains fall but I can see it is still possible to wade across the river. Widespread debris on the south bank and the high-water mark on the north bank indicate that the river can rapidly become deep and fast flowing. Four granite stone turtles, as foundation stones, used to face towards the cardinal directions. One of these turtles survives, as it was moved onto the mountain above Kharkhorin. An information board next to this turtle advises that the turtles were placed there to ensure a long and peaceful life for the city, to seek protection from floods and protection against invading enemies.

Turtle at Kharkhorin. Photo: Einalem (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Moving the capital from Ulaanabaatar to Kharkhorin would be an expression of Mongolian nationalism, while it would also relieve congestion and pollution in the current capital of Ulaanbaatar. Judging by the many permanent structures built on the floodplain, flooding may have become less of a problem today, perhaps due to climate change.[vii] From experience with the worsening conditions in Ulaanbaatar’s ger districts, the Mongolian government could plan to better accommodate future migrants in the city from the surrounding countryside. National debt and a small economy, however, may not allow construction of a socially-inclusive city. Development of Kharkhorin into the capital city at a future date is a possibility, given that it is a suitable place for settlement and connected to Ulaanbaatar by a sealed road. Yet Kharkhorin’s historic legacy alone may not be sufficient to draw migrants, or employment as infrastructure and maintenance will require significant government investment.

 

[i] Skaff, J.K. and Honeychurch, W. 2009. ‘Empire building before the Mongols: legacies of the Turks and Uyghurs’, In W.W. Fitzhugh, M. Rossabi & W. Honeychurch (eds.) Genghis Khan and the Mongol empire, The Mongolian Preservation Foundation and Smithsonian Institution, Seattle, pp. 84-89.

[ii] Erdenebat, U. and Pohl, E. 2009. ‘The crossroads in Khara Khorum: excavations at the center of the Mongol empire’, In W.W. Fitzhugh, M. Rossabi & W. Honeychurch (eds.) Genghis Khan and the Mongol empire, The Mongolian Preservation Foundation and Smithsonian Institution, Seattle, pp. 136-145.

[iii] Pohl, E. 2010. ‘The excavations in the craftsmen-quarter of Karakorum (KAR-2) between 2000 and 2005- stratigraphy and architecture’, In J. Bemmann, U. Erdenebat & E. Pohl (eds.), Mongolian-German Karakorum expedition, Reichert Verlag, Wiesbaden, pp. 63-136.

[iv] Rubruck, W. 1990. [13th Century], The mission of Friar William of Rubruck: his journey to the court of the Great Khan Mongke 1253- 1255, trans. P. Jackson, The Hakluyt Society, London, p. 221.

[v] Al-Din, R 1971, The successors of Genghis Khan, trans. J A Boyle, Columbia University Press, New York, pp. 62-63.

[vi] Pohl 2010, pp. 132-134.

[vii] Already Mongolia has warmed by 2.14 degrees Celcius, water bodies have become smaller or have disappeared and there were 57 days of dust storms in 2007, compared to 18 such days in 1960 (Ministry of Environment, nd, Climate change in Mongolia: outputs from GCM, Government of Japan, viewed 6 September 2018, https://www.env.go.jp/earth/ondanka/pamph_gcm/gcm_mongolia_en.pdf).

ANU Students in Mongolia: Post No. 2 ‘Mongolian Horse Racing’

Mongolian Horse Racing: tradition or tragedy?

By Melissa Duffy

Photo: ‘Naadam’ by Paulo Fassina (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Attending The Naadam

According to the Mongolian Tourism Industry, Mongolia is ‘the land of horse riders and horse lovers with at least one horse for every Mongolian, meaning there are over 3 million horses (MTI 2017).

I was fortunate to attend a local Naadam festival event and for the first time witnessed one of the epic Mongolian horse races. Mongolia’s horse races are between 15-30km long, depending upon the age of the horse. Jockeys are often children between seven and twelve years old and the horses must have a high level of endurance and stamina.

I spent quite a bit of time standing back absorbing the atmosphere, watching the Mongolian riders parading around in groups (I assume herding families and friends enjoying the catch-up time), showing off their riding skills and their horses. They were having such a great time just being together and enjoying the community event. The traditional clothing was beautiful, people were relaxed and smiling and even the horses seemed to be ‘talking’ to one another.

When someone got word the jockeys were nearing the end of the 20km race everyone ran or rode to the finish line and waited with much anticipation. A group of young boys and men gathered on their horses. As they were mounted up high they were some of the first to see the racehorses appear over the horizon to which in chorus they started calling loudly. Exhausted jockeys and horses responded to the calls and pushed hard to the finish line.

According to Mongolian tourism, at the National Naadam, the five winning horses from every official race receive awards and medals. The riders receive gifts and the trainers, significant monetary awards and titles. Mongolians do not bet on horse races, it is all about the pride and victory of continuing a long tradition. It is also more about the horses than the riders. Names and titles are important and can indicate if the horses have won a race before. If a horse has won more than four State Naadams, which is very rare, then the horse is said to belong to all the people of Mongolia and given the title State horse.

Environmental challenges linked to Mongolian herding culture, such as harsh winter weather and living conditions, highlight the traditional importance of being a skilled rider to a family’s survival. I therefore thought it was only natural to hear Mongolian children from an early age learn to ride and it seemed like a natural progression that a national sport would be centred on this craft. However tensions arise between the beautiful traditions of Mongolian culture, modern day racing and global human rights agendas.

Photo: Bulgan Naadam, by ‘WhatsAllThisThen’ (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

The welfare of the child

As part of our intensive field course, during visits to the Mongolian Red Cross and Save the Children, we were briefed on issues concerning child poverty, child labour, abuse and living standards. Some believe that, around the time of transition to democracy and a market economy, Mongolia’s horse racing tradition has been tainted by greed, corruption and ambition at the expense of vulnerable children and poor families. Many human rights activists are now expressing concern over the rise and proliferation of commercial horse racing involving child jockeys.

An academic article by Rebecca Empson emphasises the accumulation of wealth and the dangers of excess in a market economy in modern day Mongolia and the subsequent increase in morally suspect practices (Empson 2012). To many, Mongolian horse racing is a growing example of a morally suspect practice. International organizations such as UNICEF continue to voice concern over child jockeys in horse racing (Brown 2014). In May 2006, for the first time, the issue of child jockeys was discussed at the National Forum of Child Jockeys, organised jointly by the National Department for Children, National Human Rights Commission and National Sports Committee of Mongolia with financial and technical support from ILO’s International Programme to Eliminate Child Labour (IPEC) (ILO 2006). 

According to the National Human Rights Commission Mongolia (NHRCM) more than 30,000 child jockeys compete in horse races each year (ILO 2006). It is now law that children below the age of seven are no longer allowed to ride in the Naadam, although many children still know how to ride horses by the age of three. In Naadams, officially organised by the Mongolian Horse Trainer’s Association, all trainers are now required to provide riders with helmets, protective clothing and accident insurance. However, there are many reports describing the lack of adherence to such laws in the countryside and a blind eye is often turned when younger riders’ race and things like provision of accident insurance is ignored.

Broken legs, head injuries and facial damage are common and child deaths occur with added risk of being trampled after a fall during a race. With no insurance for jockeys that can no longer ride, already desperate families can be thrown into further economic and psychological despair. According to child rights defenders, children can be hired informally to take part for as little as a bicycle, a set of schoolbooks, or up to 150,000 tugriks (AUSD110) and, while the rider goes uninsured, winning horses may be insured for millions of tugriks (Brown 2014). Ownership of livestock is an important measure of success for rural voters, many of whom continue to lead traditional pastoral lives. Riders are often sponsored by local politicians, who also promote their personal ownership of race horses during their campaigns (South China Morning Post).

I can see that, as a country with strong cultural heritage and identity, it is important to acknowledge Mongolian traditions, but at the same time in my view, exploitation of children is not acceptable and it appears further advocacy is required in Mongolia when it comes to horse racing.

 

References

Mongolian Tourism Industry 2017. Naadam Festival Horse Racing Brochure.

Empson, Rebecca 2012. ‘The Dangers of Excess: Accumulating and Dispersing Fortune in Mongolia’ Social Analysis 56.1 (2012): 117-132.

Brown, Andy 2014. ‘In Mongolia, bringing attention to the plight of child jockeys’ <https://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/mongolia_76668.html>, viewed 10 July 2017.
International Labor Organization (ILO), 2006. ‘Mongolian child jockeys- balancing cultural heritage with safety’ < http://www.ilo.org/global/about-the-ilo/newsroom/news/WCMS_071483/lang–en/index.htm>, viewed 10 July 2017.

Lkhagvasuren, Nomin 2013. ‘Mongolian child jockeys race to danger’ < https://www.news.com.au/world/breaking-news/mongolian-child-jockeys-race-to-danger/news-story/f59f14305c80530ae93e733c753d8773>, viewed 10 July 2017.

Brown, Andy 2014. ‘In Mongolia, bringing attention to the plight of child jockeys’ <https://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/mongolia_76668.html>, viewed 10 July 2017.

South China Morning Post ‘Conflicts of interest keep Mongolian child jockeys in the saddle’ <http://www.scmp.com/news/world/article/2077844/conflicts-interest-keep-mongolian-child-jockeys-saddle>, viewed 10 July 2017.