Tengri, Vodka, and Bad Roads: Seven Final Vignettes from Mongolia

Posted on June 7, 2012


Looking over my notes as I pack my bags for Kazakhstan, I’ve noticed that I have a few odds and ends littered throughout the book that I didn’t get around to mentioning. Also, I did promise to say something about Buddhism and Shamanism, although I fear it will all sound a bit trite now and I’ve touched on it tangentially before. But just to clear out the notebook, here’s another series of vignettes–somewhat more interconnected than the last ones–to close out Mongolia.

1. The entire conception of Buddhism and Shamanism and faith in general in this nation fits well into the “don’t give two fucks” theory I posed in my last post. This has become commonplace to me, but it may be amusing to those back home to hear that there’s no real urgency for anything approaching consistency in the religious practices in Mongolia, and religious affiliation is more just a fact of life, but not an identity that’s readily called upon.

For background, the bulk of the nation, perhaps 80 percent, is Tibetan Buddhist. 5 percent, mainly the population of Kazakh refugees from the turn of the twentieth century, practice a Sufi-Shamanistic brand of Islam very similar to the way Mongols practice Tibetan Buddhism. The remainder is made up of devout atheists circa the Soviet era of religious suppression, with a smattering of evangelical Christian communities like those that have popped up all over the former USSR since 1991.

Almost every ger has a Buddhist shrine of some sort, usually with a picture of the Dalai Lama or an artistic depiction of a yidam (spiritual protector) or the Buddha in the Tibetan or Indian style. There is no connection whatsoever to Pure Land, Zen, or other forms of Mahayana-based Buddhism as practiced in China, Korea, or Japan. It’s entirely Tibetan based. But the practice of leaving cookies out under the picture of the Dalai Lama is reminiscent of older ancestor reverence rituals dating back to the spiritual contacts and channelings facilitated by shamans and dream experiences throughout Central Asia before Buddhist contact.

Indeed, Shamanism is still alive and well. There’s a Shaman district in Ulaanbaatar–a few gers on the hill below the largest functioning Buddhist monastery, Ganden, in the city center. They perform rituals and fortune tellings and unify the down-and-out of the city. But you don’t have to be an out-and-out Shamanist to practice Shamanism. Everywhere from mountains of significance to national landmarks to Buddhist holy sites are littered with ovoos–stacks of rocks topped with wooden branches, occasionally yak skulls, and swathed in blue prayer scarves, occasionally with yellow. These mark sites of importance in a Shamanic tradition and are circumambulated clockwise three times, usually while throwing stones atop the ovoo, to invoke the spiritual/ancestral/personal meaning and power of the place. The same individuals who keep a shrine of the Dalai Lama will later that day walk around an ovoo.

Some other notes on Shamanism: To drink vodka, dip your fingers in and flick three times for the spirits of nature and then touch your forehead, the seat of the soul (defilement of the head or touching another’s head is a big no-no for that reason). Fresh milk should be likewise dipped and flicked for the spirits of nature and the ancestors. Blue prayer scarves represent the endless blue sky, the God that cannot be captured inside a building but encompasses the whole earth and is ever-present, is found within every religion but not as confined as they: Tengri. Mike appreciates the notion of Tengri so heartily that he has started to invoke the God’s name in half-jest, half-seriousness on our journeys. One may invoke Tengri while still practicing Buddhism in earnest. The gold scarves, far more rare, seem to represent the sun–the Mongols felt connection to the Huns as their progenitors, and the Huns were themselves known as the people of the sun, so that would appear to be the tie, but I am far less sure on that part.

The takeaway: coherency in spirituality and ideology is for the clerics. What do Mongolians care if you think their Buddhism, Islam, or Christianity is pure or not? It’s faith for them. There’s a reason why all temple inscriptions are in Tibetan, with few translations into the Old Mongol script, which few read. Leave orthodoxy to the lamas, many of whom are themselves rarely very concerned with it. Faith is faith and this is theirs–and Tengri cannot be contained or restrained.

2. As I mention the lack of concern with outsiders and their perspectives and definitions, I’m forced to think of an old notion: that food is the great unifier of peoples. That’s utter bullshit.

Food is not the great inclusion. Food, the meanings of food, the practices associated with food, and the strangeness and otherness of the foreigner who fails to understand those foods and their practices, are forms of identity, inclusion, and exclusion themselves. Food is not a unifier, but instead a cultural marker and a home to ritual and separation. Food is restrictive more often than not.

But, as Mike says, and as he has proven many times throughout this trip: “You can always find a comrad in cigarettes and alcohol.”

It’s very true. These are the cross-cultural unifiers–let it be sad or happy to you, however you choose to see it. Too bad I partake of neither, and must therefore remain all the more isolated.

3. The types of food which are more inclusive are those which fall outside tradition and ritual. And how much more outside tradition and ritual can you fall than Los Banditos, the Mexican-Indian joint Mike and I found in Ulaanbaatar yesterday. Half the wall was scenes from a Mexican tavern and the other half was copied from the more decent pages of the Kama Sutra. The blend wasn’t perfected: nachos were made not with corn chips, but with fried naan. Very interesting place.

It’s never inauthentic to enjoy international food while abroad. There’s much you can learn about a nation, its tastes, and its take on the world from the way it interprets and presents another culture’s cuisine. That’s why I’m always willing to try a burger wherever I go. And that’s why I am very interested to perhaps try the North Korean restaurant that operates in Ulaanbaatar before I leave in the morning.

4. But back to alcohol. There is unfortunately a problem with it in this nation. The steppe is equally littered with smashed bottles of vodka and liquor as it is with yak bones and the shit of the five snouts (pigs, yaks, cows [yaks and cows count as one] horses, sheep, and goats), those livestock that form the backbone of Mongolian nomadic life.

We encountered few drunks, fortunately, but the two raging drunks we did find were as follows:

While staying in a ger with Gaaj’s brother’s family, a motorcycle pulled up. One young man in a leather jacket who had a couple words of English tottered over to Mike and I and asked us again and again where we were from, then slurred a big “Welcome to Mongolia.” He subsequently stole four cigarettes from Mike before trying to take both of our pairs of glasses as a presumptive payment for us to join his dirty friend on the motorcycle so we could go and drink with him. He then pointed to his throat, yelled “WHISKEY!” and nearly fell over before getting back on his motorcycle and driving off into the steppe.

The second we met in a bar in Ulaanbaatar. He was an amateur fixer, offering to buy us drinks, set us up with “whatever we might need,” which seemed to include his “daughter.” My mind flashed to a story M.M. told us about getting into a cab when suddenly a girl in the front seat started taking off her clothes while the driver yelled prices without taking his eyes off the road. Mike bummed a cigarette or two from him and took a free shot of Chinggis Vodka, then we placated him and let him run off to try to “fix” for some other folks while we slinked out of the bar.

5. Unrelated–about roads. I’ve wondered why a nation which is somehow able to maintain an electric grid, water works, and internet connectivity over a vast and sparsely populated area has such a poor road network. The answer came, perhaps, from the driver of Bold’s pickup as we hitched back to the main road from Khustain Nuuru:

He said he hates the main road, the one continuously paved and maintained road in the country. It’s too flat and even and straight and it makes him sleepy. He likes a road with a few bumps and curves to keep him awake and engaged. It’s more like riding a horse, he said to us, through Bold. Perhaps there’s just no real demand for well kept road infrastructure.

6. Speaking of driving, I was excited to learn that there’s a military base outside of Ulaanbaatar that allows one to shoot an AK-47, launch a rocket from an RPG, and drive a Soviet-era tank for a small fee. Unfortunately I did not have time to visit. But just think on that for a while, yes?

7. Ulaanbaatar is the second-coldest capital in the world. It used to be the coldest before Kazakhstan moved its capital from Almaty to Astana in 1998. Winter is supposed to be miserable here, if not for the cold than for the fact that the pollution reaches greater concentrations in the city than in Beijing.

Yet I managed to get a sunburn here. So there’s that. Fin.

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