Epic at Altargana

During June and July this year, on fieldworld for my PhD, I was lucky enough to be in Ulaan Üde in the Russian Federation for the biennial folk festival of the Buryat Mongols, Altargana. Since 2002 Altargana has been held in various locations in Russia, Mongolia and China because of the liminal nature of the diverse ethnicities that identify as Buryat. It is perhaps the only opportunity Buryats as a whole have to come together and engage in the traditional pursuits of Mongolic communal gatherings – competitive sports, dancing and musical performances.

A young performer accompanied by his sister on Morin Khuur. Epic among the Buryats is traditionally a male pursuit (Photo copyright of the author).

The recent rebirth of epic performance among young Buryat reciters is quite an amazing phenomenon, bolstered because of Altargana’s clever grassroots encouragement and arrangement of semi-finals in regional areas to popularise the events and traditions over the past fourteen years. During the Soviet era, increased Russification of Siberian Buryats and the discouraging of the old tales of epic heroes, lead to the breaking of the traditional paths of knowledge transfer between generations. This means that today’s young reciters, most of whom have no reciters in the family, have had to reincarnate their traditions from whatever they have available. Most often this is derived from publications of epics transcribed by historians and anthropologists during the Soviet period. In the tradition of oral epics everywhere, the reciters modify the material they have learned and then fit it to their own skills, style of performance and according to the kind of audience as an improvised art form. Some sing, others declaim, some play the traditional Morin khuur (horse-head fiddle) as they do so, while others are unaccompanied. The results are diverse and the event is no mere showcase. It is a competition as much as sporting events like wrestling, which also form part of the Altargana. The audience know whether what they are viewing is good or bad and can get quite antsy when someone is awarded with a prize when they think the performer should not have been.

Most notable was a performance by sixteen-year-old Rodion Shantanov from rural Irkutsk, whose parents are only thirty two. Seated on a pelt and dressed in a massive fur hat in forty-degree weather, Rodion had the whole audience of the small, Soviet-era concert hall captivated as he conjured up wondrous images of heroes rescuing their horses from a thieving titanic mangadkhai (monster). This is a typical theme in Buryat epic, very much familiar to me from books, but breathtaking to hear and see delivered in person by a talented storyteller. Rodion, who wants to be a theatre director when he leaves school, has performed in a number of Russian dance productions in Moscow and even in Spain. Yet during his whole life, so he told me, he had wanted to come to Ulaan Üde. A very strange dream perhaps, compared with Moscow and Barcelona, or so it seemed to me at the time, until he explained that it is because in Irkutsk Buryats are much rarer than in Buryatia. Ulaan Üde, especially during the throes of an international Buryat cultural festival, felt like a kind of homecoming.

Everything on show as part of the competition was traditional epic. Here a boy and girl take it in turns to tell a folktale while puppeteers act scenes out behind them (Photo copyright of the author).

Rodion holds the audience in this thrall (Photo copyright of the author).

Rodion explained to me that at home his family often switch between Buryat and Russian, as bilingual people often do, a kind of mercurial game perfect for raising a young performance poet. Yet, many in rural Irkutsk no longer have such a luxury because the Western Buryat languages are, as UNESCO has been saying since the early 1990s “nearly extinct”. Among the educated elites in Ulaan Üde it is increasingly common these days to meet bright young metropolitan and well-travelled Buryats who speak English and Chinese fabulously, but not their own language. A Buryat friend of mine who came to Altargana with me was incessantly asked if she spoke Buryat or even Khalkha Mongolian, only to have to embarrassingly answer each time that she did not. Not a jot. The old Soviet program of Korenizatsia (Indigination) from the 1920s onwards made the creation of minority language print and radio media compulsory, encouraging the transcription, study and printing of Buryat oral epics. However, the irony is that for Siberian Buryats, Russian, as the academic and literary language of art and science became the gateway to perceived social mobility. Attempts since the fall of the USSR to rekindle interest in adult learning of the language have not made a great deal of impact and most children know that to get ahead there is little point in treating the local language as seriously as one would do with Russian.

Yet these young reciters, as much as they are dependant upon old texts, are not from this world of Buryat academia. A lot of them are from the countryside, for whom seeing something like a public performance of epic in a local town hall can be a life-changing event. If there is a creative outlet for performing in language like Altargana, this can only be a good thing.

Winners for the three age groups of Altargana 2016’s üligershedei konkurs (competition of epic reciters) (Photo copyright of the author).

Jonathan Ratcliffe is a PhD candidate in Asian History at The Australian National University, Canberra, Australia.

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

Group photo outside The Museum of Mongolian Traditional Medicine, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
Group photo outside The Museum of Mongolian Traditional Medicine, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
Prof. Li Narangoa opening the proceedings during the One Health workshop. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
Prof. Li Narangoa opening the proceedings during the One Health workshop. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
Workshop presenters and participants, including Dr Natasha Fijn filming in the foreground with the national Mongolian television network in the background. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
Workshop presenters and participants, including Dr Natasha Fijn filming in the foreground with the national Mongolian television network in the background. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
Medical practitioner from Inner Mongolia, Chigekhitu, speaking on Mongolian Traditional Medicine. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
Medical practitioner from Inner Mongolia, Chigekhitu, speaking on Mongolian Traditional Medicine. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
Workshop participant responding to Dr Fijn's presentation.
Workshop participant responding to Dr Fijn’s presentation. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar
Prof. Tserentsodnom with venerable monk from Ganden Monastery, Mongolia. Photo: Itgel Chunuunbaatar.
Prof. Tserentsodnom with venerable monk from Ganden Monastery, Mongolia. Photo: Itgel Chunuunbaatar.
Group photo with Director of the Museum of Mongolian Traditional Medicine, Prof. Tserentsodnom.
Group photo with Director of the Museum of Mongolian Traditional Medicine, Prof. Tserentsodnom. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
A banquet after the International Mongolian Traditional Medicine Conference and One Health Workshop.
A banquet after the International Mongolian Traditional Medicine Conference and One Health Workshop.

ANU Mongolia Update in Ulaanbaatar, 2016

Audience at Mongolia Update 2016
Audience at Mongolia Update 2016. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
Prof. Li Narangoa introducing former Mongolian Ambassador to Australia, Batbold.
Prof. Li Narangoa introducing former Ambassador to the UN, Enkhsaikhan Jargalsaikhan. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
One of the speakers, MP of Environment and Green Development, Oyun Sanjaasuren.
One of the speakers, MP of Environment and Green Development, Oyun Sanjaasuren. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
Christian Sorace asking a question from the audience
Dr Christian Sorace asking a question from the audience. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
ANU Mongolia Update
Mr Amargargal Rinchinnyam, MP and former Prime Minister of Mongolia.
Current and former members of the ANU's Mongolia Institute
Current and former members of the ANU’s Mongolia Institute
Former postgraduate students who studied at the ANU
Former postgraduate students who studied at the ANU

Coping with emerging risk of natural disasters in Mongolia

Nomadic animal husbandry has a tradition spanning thousands of years in Mongolia, where herding communities are highly dependent on their livestock and therefore vulnerable to natural phenomena. With just over three million people and one of the sparsest per capita land areas in the world, the country is extremely vulnerable to climate change and its consequences. Mongolia remains highly exposed to global warming, visible in its degraded pastures and an increased frequency of summer droughts. Mongolia and Australia, despite a distance of thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean, share common risks from natural disasters, including bush and fires on land serving as pasture for livestock, caused by a continuation of long and dry summer months. A cyclical drought has occurred every two to three years and almost 70-80 percent of pastureland has become degraded.

Web source: www.nema.gov.mn
Web source: www.nema.gov.mn

Bush fire disaster in Mongolia

Mongolia’s animal husbandry occupies twenty-six percent of the total GDP and includes one third of the population within the agriculture sector. According to statistics, Mongolia experiences over 3000 small to medium scale disaster incidents each year, with a large proportion related to fire. Bush fire causes great damage to society from inadvertent and intentional human-triggered fires. In the spring of 2015, a large scale bushfire spread from the southern province of Sukhbaatar, across to the provinces of Dornod and Khentii, where a large part of the area borders with Russia and China. Despite efforts and resources, such as fire prevention and response measures, the overall relief operation requires increased capacity to respond effectively in the next anticipated fire season in 2016.

Climate change induces summer drought phenomena, which ultimately prevents herder households from having sufficient hay and fodder reserves and from effectively protecting their livelihood through the long and harsh winter months. There are often a great number of livestock losses, causing a tremendous impact on herders’ livelihoods and agriculture.

 

Emerging risk of winter disaster: the “Dzud”

A harsh winter, referred to as “Dzud” in Mongolia, has been gradually recognized as one of the longest lasting nature-driven disasters (according to the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination Team (UNDAC) in 2002). Dzud is primarily triggered by a meteorological phenomenon such as heavy snowfall, snow blizzards, extreme cold, and ice-bound pastures. During these phenomena, livestock are unable to graze due to a snow blanket, or ice covering. Secondly, it is triggered by the unavailability of pasture caused by droughts, desertification and land degradation.

Mongolia has recently experienced tremendous losses of livestock driven by the Dzud twice in the last two decades, in 2000 and again in 2009-2010. The 2009-2010 disaster meant 9.7 million livestock perished in a single winter season, causing thousands of herders to be without their livelihood. The weather during the summer of 2016, from late May to early September, is predicted to have high precipitation, with an increased capacity for pasture resources. This year is referred to as the “Monkey Year” in the traditional lunar calendar and the winter in such a Monkey Year is often harsh and devastating. Consequently, herder households tend to slaughter their animals (mostly cattle and sheep) to avoid future economic losses, as they believe the Dzud will cause their animals to perish. As a result, the meat supply in the market increases significantly, whilst there is not sufficient demand from the consumers, which means eventually the meat price in the country falls.

The world has become aware of the Dzud since the 2009-2010 as devastating but the phenomenon is very much country specific and perhaps unique to Mongolia, due to a reliance on a nomadic way of life and because Mongolia experiences extreme fluctuations of summer and winter temperatures. Mongolia is grateful for its world counterparts (such as Australia, Russia, China, and Japan) providing relief support in these times of disaster.

Web source: www.nema.gov.mn
Web source: www.nema.gov.mn

Government effort to cope with natural disasters

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) notes that rural residents in Mongolia face greater challenges to secure employment because of great distances from city centres, the high frequency of Dzud disasters, and poor access to markets. This has led many from the herding community migrating to urban areas to look for an alternative way of making a living. The Government of Mongolia prioritized environmental degradation as an emerging challenge, particularly with regard to the vulnerability of herder communities in relation to Dzud disasters. The government has, therefore, adopted a National Sustainable Development Strategy and Mongolian Action Plan for the Twenty-first Century (MAP-21) after the severe Dzud disaster of 2009-2010. Criticism from scientists, however, has been the policy gap of only addressing responses to these phenomena, rather than focusing on long-term consequences, prevention and mitigation. On a policy and execution level, the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), a regulatory agency operated under the Deputy Premier’s Office, has a mandatory duty to reinforce policy and operational level disaster mitigation activities, tackling the frequent disasters of Dzud and bushfires. As it is operating under a semi-military status of a high level degree of readiness, it saves the lives of almost the same number of people it has on duty each year but future improvements of the service are undermined by financial constraints.

D.Baasansuren

Master of CC, The Australian National University

 

Sources:

United Nations Development Program (UNDP): “Dzud Early Recovery Project” document

International Organization of Migration “Displaced Rural Herder Communities Response Assessment and Intentions Survey (RAIS)”