Thursday, September 25, 2008

Mongolia- Land of Manly Skill

There were a few other Western girls on the dig, and one constant topic of conversation was how "manly" the Mongolian men were. They worked, worked worked, all day only to spend the evenings and breaks with more activity--- soccer, volleyball, and contests of all sorts. Who can lift the heaviest rocks? Who can throw them further? Wrestling match anyone? It was all very amusing.

Now, this "manliness" thing is not something we made up, it is emphasized in their culture--- although I wouldn't compare it with the machismo of Latin America. in Mongolia there are three skills that are considered the pinnacle of manliness- wrestling, archery, and horse racing. These skills are celebrated in naadam festivals, the large national naadam being held in Ulaan Baatar every summer. Local naadams are held throughout the year and people of all ages can participate. These days, women participate as well-- although not in wrestling.

We were fortunate that a local naadam was held at Baga Gazaryn Chuluu (our region) while we were there and we all got to join in the fun.

Gathering for the BGC naadam. (click for a larger view)

It was a whole day affair, starting with a knuckle bone shooting game (sheep or goat bones?). I only saw men playing this game, first the older men but then others got to try, including some guys from our camp.

Our guys are on the left end, Byambaa (shooting), with Dashka and then Galdan to his right.

A little later the horse races began. In this case it was all children riding! We were really lucky because the owners of the tourist ger camp took us in their car along the whole route of the race. We drove behind the horses as they went to the start point and then sped alongside them as they raced back to the finish line. It was an exciting way to watch.

Walking their horses to the start line.

The guy we were cheering for (a relative of the owners of the ger camp).

Rider in the distance.

After that we observed a Buddhist ceremony and ate some fresh yogurt and hard Mongolian cheese and socialized a bit. I took some photos for people and sent them the prints later.

Lovely older ladies looking at the picture Saadia took of them.

Having fun at naaadam.

A traditional blessing, flicking the milk (or yogurt?) to the ground, the wind, and the sky.

Next, was wrestling! This is a sport Mongolia is famous for so I'm glad I got to see it. Two of our guys, Byambaa and Ishee participated which made it even more exciting! The competitions started with little kids and moved up to older and experienced wrestlers. They do an "eagle dance" at the beginning and when they win. Their outfits may look funny to us, but its old traditional gear. The shirt leaves the chest open so that no women can disguise themselves and participate-- humiliating the men!

Although our guys didn't win the top spot, they did well--- it was a fantastic day!

Ishee (orange belt).

Byambaa (orange belt).

Enjoying the show.

Next Post---- dinner at Ishee's house (I mean, ger)!!!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Desert Disco

I did not expect to do a lot of singing and dancing while in Mongolia-- but it turned out to be one of my favorite parts!

We had two parties at the tourist ger camp, which was a few miles away. It consisted of a few lovely rows of gers, a restaurant ger, and a bathhouse. The well we got our water from was nearby.

Baga Gazaryn Chuluu Tourist Ger Camp

Restaurant and bathhouse.

Inside the restaurant.

For our parties the whole camp piled on top of each other in our five vans and poured into the restaurant ger. The tables were moved to the side and Bill (our director) was kind enough to get the first round of beers and vodka. The lights were dimmed, track lighting was flipped on, and then a bizarre mix of five year old American pop, random Europop, and Mongolian hits were played while we all danced our butts off. I loved it.


The ger camp closed us down by midnight so we took the party back to our camp --- again, piled on top of each other in the jeeps, except this time driving off road in the dark! Back at camp the vans would park in a circle, turn on their blinkers for "disco lights" and blare the music. Then we'd continue the party, dancing in the sand.

After returning to UB (the capital of Mongolia, Ulaan Baatar) we had a few after-parties. Karaoke night was the most fun. I normally hate karaoke but our group is such a bunch of fun loving people its hard to be self conscious and not get into it! I never would have guessed the building we went to for karaoke was even in use-- it looked abandoned from the outside. They took us up some dark and uneven stairs into a hallway that surprisingly held a dimly lit bar. Rooms shooting off from the hall were private karaoke rooms with couches and everything else you would expect. Great night! Seeing a bunch of manly Mongolian men singing "It's Raining Men" is quite a sight and I never thought I'd have the opportunity to sing the one and only Russian song I know!

Boldoo, Saadia, Me, Alyson, and Emma.

Well, obviously, I had a great time with the BGC crew!

Next post... Mongolia: the Land of Manly Skill....

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

One more....

Another Mongolian song I really like. This video has some cool ger scenes too. (Ger= Mongolian house, rhymes with "bear").

Traditional Music

I loved the traditional music that was played in the vans sometimes on the way from camp to site. Listening to this music and watching Mongolia's incredible landscape go by gave me that tingly, alive feeling --- "wow, I'm really in Mongolia".

Here's a good representative of the music. A sad song! The ruined temple, (called Sum Khok Burd), the singer is sitting in, was a few hours from our site. We visited there one weekend and took showers in the nearby town.

Listen to how she rolls her "R's". I cannot for the life of me reproduce this which makes me wonder if I'll ever be able to learn Mongolian!

Me at Sum Khok Burd

Mongolia -- The Basics

On site, three meals a day were provided for us by the lovely Jagaa and Zola, the only two Mongolian women present on this project. (There are female Mongolian archaeologists on other projects)

Breakfast alternated between rice porridge and cream of wheat. Gomber was also always present--- sort of like a funnel cake without the powdered sugar. Instant coffee and tea rounded it out.

Gomber frying. Fresh gomber with honey is fantastic! (photo by Ian Nelson)

Lunches and dinners were always a goat dish. Goat dumplings, goat soup, goat and fried noodles, goat and veggies, goat and macaroni salad...... you get the picture.

On two occasions we had mutton which was a welcome break--- so tasty!

Veggies are not so easy to come by in the Gobi so they relied on things that were easy to store and supplemented it with whatever passing nomads were selling or what could be found in the nearest town on the weekends. (which wasn't much) Usually we had potatoes, carrots, cabbage, red and green peppers, and pickles. I would have killed for a tomato.

I really didn't mind the food, in fact some of the dishes were delicious! The problem was the tremendous portion size. I could never clear my plate and the cooks were quite unhappy with you if they saw you dump it. Many plans were devised to avoid their disdain. Asking for a smaller portion had no effect whatsoever, if you were brave enough to try.

A goat was brought in almost daily, purchased from one of the nomad families nearby. Ishee, one of the archaeologists who was from our region, had the task of dispatching it. Traditionally, Mongolians slaughter an animal by cutting a small slit in its chest, reaching in, and stopping its heart with his hand. I'm not kidding you. Ishee, impressively, did this for the camp. Most of the goat was used, although the Mongolians eat a lot of parts the Westerners weren't too keen on. The cooks cooked meals based on Western tastes and made separate dishes with the intestines, etc, that just the Mongolians ate. Worked for me.

For snacks, I quickly learned it was essential to have a hoard of candy and sodas in your tent. Not just for you, but also to bring out and share and/or bribe people with. Trips to town and tourist camps were an opportunity to replenish. If you had vodka, your popularity would increase for sure.

Vodka. I thought I knew things about Mongolia before I came, but I didn't know about the prominence of vodka in their culture. Any occasion could potentially call for vodka. When one of the vans broke down a bottle of vodka was pulled out and a blinker used as a glass while they waited for help. All of our "parties" involved copious amounts of vodka. When I told one of the guys that back home I drink, but not vodka, he incredulously asked "but then, what do you drink?" Hahaha.

Luckily, the way they distribute it allows you to take a decent break between drinks. One person pours into a cup (I loved the antique cups that we saw at Ishee's ger-- more on that later), he then passes that cup to you with his right hand. You accept with your right hand and shoot it or sip it, your choice (at least, they didn't harass us if we couldn't shoot it). You then hand it back and he does the same with everyone in the group. Then it all starts again-- the larger the group, the longer the break. If you don't want to drink, dip your pinky in and flick it three times (to the earth, the wind, and the sky?) and then return the cup. I really enjoyed this, it made drinking seem more intimate and social.

Well... vodka leads to dancing, which will be the theme of my next post! Stay tuned!

Jagaa, Ishee, and Zola

Friday, September 12, 2008

the adventures don't stop...

I have to interrupt the Mongolian stories to give a Thailand update---

--- horrible creatures invade Uttaradit!

Well, not really, but I have had a lot of encounters with the local fauna this week. I've gotten pretty used to the geckos all over the house and the occasional frog or centipede in the kitchen but this week we had a special scorpion guest join us for breakfast one morning. Usually I'm first in the kitchen, but lucky for me, Al was this time, so he had it all taken care of before I came down. hey can't kill you unless you're unlucky enough to have an allergy to its poison but still, I don't want a scorpion sting surprise while I'm getting ready for the day.

Today I finally had a snake encounter, which I knew was just a matter of time. We have a lot of vegetation around our house and we have daily encounters with the things snakes like to eat, so we knew they were around. I like snakes but as there are so many venomous ones here and some rather large ones as well--- I've been wary of them.

I was riding the bike down the main street, near the rice paddies, when what I thought was a stick out of the corner of my eye reared up and struck at me. Of course, on my bike I just whizzed by and tried not to veer into traffic while screaming and trying to get a better look at the thing. I don't know what kind of snake it was, but I'll try to find out. It was as long as some of the large rat snakes I had seen in Kansas and it was a light brown with thin, dark stripes running the length of its body (not around it's body but from it's head, down). From what I've read many do fake strikes before actually biting so I don't know if it had really tried to bite me or not. Yikes! I'd like to think that because of the speed of the bike I had surprised it and that if I had been walking it would have heard/seen me and gone away (at least that's what I have to tell myself since I walk there all the time)!

Anyhoo... another day in Thailand!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Mongolia-- weather

Well we were in the Gobi so you can guess it.... hot and dry!

I found it to be pretty reasonable. In Thailand the heat and humidity is unbearable and even the smallest activity leaves you dripping in sweat. The 0% humidity in Mongolia made for much more pleasant working conditions. We usually had a nice breeze as well (although not ideal when you're sifting the dirt)! Most days it was bright and sunny which just added to the natural beautiful scenery at BGC. It did get cool at night though and one night I just couldn't get warm, even with my clothes on, mummy sleeping bag drawn tight, and all of my gear piled on top of me!

Three days in we had a really fantastic storm. It's funny because we watched it come in for some time after dinner--- great lightning show! Most of us were still chilling out by the kitchen tent when it hit so we retreated to the lab tent as a deluge of rain came down on us. The rain was soon joined by marble sized hail and then what was a trickle of water running on the ground turned into a flood! It only went up to our calves but, never having been in a flood, and being in the middle of nowhere-- I was scared! We rushed to get the artifact boxes off the ground and worried about our tents and belongings. Trying to run outside or to the rocks was pointless as our headlamps just reflected off the rain and the floodwaters were so cold it hurt your legs to stand and walk in it a lot anyway.

I don't think it lasted too long before it began to calm a bit. At this point the camp vans were beeping their horns outside and flashing lights so we all jumped in for shelter. The tourist ger camp, a few miles away was nice enough to house us for the night. The next day we got to inspect the damage and although a lot of tents were messed up and everything was soaked it was all back in shape by noon. That dry heat came back in full force and everyone was really good about making the rounds of everyone's tents to help with repairs. My tent suffered one broken pole which caused a partial collapse-- but back to new in no time.

Of course, in retrospect it's exciting, but at the time I wondered what I was doing there!

Sometimes the lightning seemed to stretch across the whole desert--- but of course I didn't manage those shots!

Me, super excited about floods. (notice the skulls behind me)

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Mongolia-- the work!

OK, this was a pretty exciting project! If you want a lot of details go to the official website here.

Our volunteer team excavated two burials; first a Xiongnu grave, then a slab burial.

The Xiongnu people are the guys the Chinese built the Great Wall to defend against and they're believed to be the precursors to the Huns (and are sometimes just called the Huns). The grave was roughly 2,000 years old. Bill and Amara (the directors) have been working in this area for six summers, so these graves had already been located and mapped. There are hundreds in the area and only a small sample are excavated. They are easy to recognize as they were always covered with a large number of rocks, which is pretty distinctive on the landscape. Our grave, like most from this period, had been looted so the skeleton was in a jumble. There were still interesting artifacts interred with him though, including parts of his bow and horse bones.

The second feature we excavated was a slab burial which dates even earlier than the Xiongnu-- up to 3,000 years old. The graves are quite spectacular looking but unfortunately ours no longer held anything.

We also had the opportunity to try other tasks such as survey, and lab work. Survey is basically walking around and noting any possible cultural features that might be examined later. Of course, where you walk and how you record things are systematic. It's fun, but I was too out of shape for going up and down the mountains! Flat land for me this summer, but next summer I'll try harder. There are a variety of things you can do in the lab but I was most interested in working with the skeletal material. I haven't had any experience with it since I left grad school and had forgotten so much! It was nice to freshen up my memory again.

In addition, various staff members gave us tutorials on what they specialized in and sometimes let us help out a bit. Through these guys I got to try my hand at sawing human bone for DNA samples, aging a goat by its teeth, measuring the landscape for topographic maps and more-- all new, fun stuff.

Overall, great experience-- wish it went longer!

Xiongnu grave.

Slab burial.

One of our survey areas.

Friday, September 5, 2008

BGC location in Mongolia

This is where I spent 3 weeks volunteering on an archaeological dig.
clipped from
 blog it

Mongolia--- characters and setting

I have a lot of stories about Mongolia and my short trips afterward to Beijing and Ko Samui, so I will have to break it up into several posts after the next few days.

Rather than a day-by-day story, I guess I'll start with a description of our site and the people I met there as well as a short blurb on what we were up to.

First of all, I was one of eight volunteers who met in Ulaan Baatar (UB) and were trucked out to site where the excavation had been going on for a few weeks. We were the second phase of volunteers to come through and work with a team of Mongolian and American archaeologists as well as Mongolian students of archaeology. Our volunteer group had a wide range of ages and backgrounds which made for an interesting trip from the get-go.

I arrived in UB (more about the city later) three days early and stayed in the dig apartment while the others trickled in from their flights (and one train). Those of us who had the energy did some sightseeing and sampled our first Mongolian dishes (beer too)!

We were told to be ready to go by 7am the day we had to go to site, but of course, we didn't really take off until almost 10 (this is Asian time-- you get used to it). We embarked in an old Russian jeep and van with drivers Bada and Hashbat for a 6+ hour drive to Baga Gazaryn Chuulu, an area of small rocky outcrops and mountains in the Gobi (map above). No sleeping or reading on this trip though, the roads outside UB are unpaved-- just tracks that are used until they are too rutted and then new tracks are made.

We made it to camp just before sunset and had to hurry to set up our tents before it got dark-- an exciting start.

The camp has three large main tents-- the kitchen, laboratory, and supply tent-- a latrine, a hand washing station, and some chairs and tables. We had to bring our own tents, gear, and water pumps as the water came from a well near the site.

The whole area was rather picturesque especially during sunset when the sun caught the rocks just right.

We woke up at 7 for breakfast and tried to be in the vans by 8 to go to our sites (several were being worked on at one time). We'd come back from 1-3 for lunch and rest and then go out again until 7. It got dark by 9:30-10 so that left a little time for dinner and volleyball or soccer before turning in.

The best thing about this whole trip was working with the Mongolian crew. We would never had been able to get to know local people on any tour in such a way, working and playing together everyday. They were friendly and kind and always tried to help us out as we were adapting to the weather, food, workload, and language and cultural difficulties. They were also just a lot of fun! Always joking around and turning everything into a game or contest. I miss them terribly!

The camp.

BGC rocks (there are tents hidden in there)

My tent at night.

Dinner in UB. This isn't everyone but the core of the people I really connected with. Left to right (with some haziness on spellings) Jargal, Zola, Jagaa, Eugene, Ryan, Amelia, Boldoo, Dukka, Saadia, Daugua, Alyson, Emma, Galdan, Patricia, Dalai, Me, Hatnaa. This was a fantastic night!

The ladies of BGC. Top row: Me, Saadia, Jagaa, Emma, Zola, Patricia Bottom row: Alyson, Amelia, Michelle