In Search Of The Furry Mongolian Groundhog
"Autumn is the time for delicious tarveg," said Aldraa, the petite Mongolian girl with golden cheeks. Aldraa is the Mongolian colleague of Kenneth, my good friend in London, a fellow Singaporean who has temporarily traded his oil company executive city suits for a six month volunteer stint in Mongolia.
The tarveg is the Mongol word for marmot, the furry groundhog found across the Mongolian plains.
Having tried (perhaps most politically incorrect but certainly in accordance to time-honoured Asian tradition ? while ensuring that it was legal to do so) numerous wildlife ranging from the Amazon tortoise to Greenlandic seal and Peruvian guinea pig in the past 12 months, I couldn?t resist the temptation of the Mongolian marmot. And so off we went in a jeep in search of this creature unknown to the Southeast Asian gastronomical adventurer.
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Mongolia - This is one of the most sparsely populated nations in the world, with 2 million people across 1.5 million square kilometers. Seemingly empty and endless steppes of rolling grass stretching all the way to Ukraine. Shiny brown hills and eternally snowcapped mountains. Fine sands of the golden Gobi, and deep green forests of the North.
The Mongols are a feared race in world history. They revolutionised cavalry warfare under the leadership of Genghis Khan (- Chinggis Khaan or Universal King to the Mongols), who not only united the Mongol tribes but also turned the entire nation into a war machine. The Mongol ger, their white felt tent quickly became the symbol of their armies of destruction. Nations that surrender fast were treated with some benovolence, while those that resisted were wiped off the face of the Earth as examples for others. Countless great cities disappeared this way - from Baghdad (will a new Chinggis destroy the city yet another round?) to Merv and Samarkand.
Under the banner of the blue wolf, the Mongols set up the greatest land empire in history, stretching from Hungary and Poland at the heart of Europe, to Korea at the eastern end of Asia; and from Lake Baikal in Siberia to the north to Java, Indonesia, to the south. The Mongol khan sees himself as the King of the World - all lands not conquered by him as territories in temporary state of rebellion. When the envoy of the King of France came for a visit, the Mongols demanded for unpaid tributes and back taxes.
The Mongols reserved particular contempt for the Chinese - Chinggis Khaan required his attendants to remind him daily that that contemptible land of vegetable eaters remained on his southern borders. Only the meat eaters and free nomadic riders deserved to rule the world. Today, most rural Mongolians eat nothing but mutton and dairy products. Vegetables are for the whimps.
It was certainly easier to set up an empire on horseback than to govern one on horseback. The empire did not last more than a few generations, and soon fell apart as rival princes struggled for land and loot. The efficient trading and postal network ( - the world?s first common market and trade organisation of this scale) fell apart as warfare once again took over the lands. The brutal subjugation of conquered lands eventually led to massive rebellions that destroyed the empire. Even Mongolia proper was eventually divided by its two powerful neighbours, Russia and China. Today, there are about 7 million Mongols worldwide - 4 million in China, 1 million in Russia and only 2 million in Mongolia.
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I arrived by train from Russia two weeks ago. The friendly Mongolian border officials greeted me warmly "Welcome to Mongolia!" they said as my passport was examined and stamped. This contrasted amazingly with the rude, monolingual Russian officials who regarded tourists as unnecessary hassle, perhaps even as unwelcomed potential spies, terrorists and criminals who should not have been in the Motherland in the first place. I felt liberated in Mongolia, no longer shouted at by police officers who interrogated and treated me as a potential criminal on a daily basis. Many of my fellow passengers have horror stories to tell. Some were accused of the most bizarre crimes and others had all their cash (running into three thousand dollars in one particular case I heard) confiscated merely because they were not given customs declaration forms when they first entered Russia.
Kenneth picked me up at the train station and before long we, together with Aldraa and Gana, our jeep driver, were out on the rolling plains of western Mongolia. Over a few days we were out in the hauntingly beautiful steppes of central Mongolia. We passed by countless ovoos, piles of stones set up at holy sites, together with offerings of vodka, cash and shreds of bright blue cloth - these are manifestation of the revival of Mongolia's ancient religion, shamanism. On the eve of the most auspicious day of the year, we witnessed a ceremony at a new ovoo, where lamas of Mongolia's Tibetan Buddhist faith chanted scriptures while shamans performed rites of offerings - in this timeless land, one can hardly tell whether one is Shamanist or Buddhist - the tolerant traditions of the East means that all merges to form a seemless whole. Local faithful, mostly nomadic herdsmen who had arrived on their horses and, yes, motorcycles, knelled in front of smaller ovoos surrounding the main one - each representing a different animal of the set of 12, under full moon and cloudless skies. It was a magical moment. Home is near and my journey is approaching an end in a month or so. Who knows what lies beyond ?
We spent the night in a dodgy hotel in the dusty, windswept village of Karakorum. Here, the inhabitants live in wooden shacks and tin roofed houses, but set up gers anyway in their backyard. The memories of the free nomad persists. Despite enforced collectivisation and urbanisation by the Communists, it has never disappeared, merely becoming part of the modern reality. As democracy emerges after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, old traditions are reviving with a vengeance in this ancient land.
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Day light emerged quietly like a late church goer entering a church. I looked out of my window to find the rays of Apollo playing on the 108 white stupas of the Erdene Zuu Khiid, Mongolia's premier monastery. Is Nirvana just beyond those magnificent walls ?
Karakorum was the ancient capital of the Mongols, before Chinngis Khaan's grandson, Kublai Khaan, moved the capital to Dadu, now as Beijing, after the conquest of China - a move that the Mongols never forgave him for, as many Mongolians had felt, it entrenched the influence of Chinse culture on many aspects of Mongolian culture today, from arctitecture to food (not that they have learned a great deal in this aspect though...). In its hey days, Karakorum was a cosmpolitan city of great and small gers. Diplomats and traders - not just Marco Polo who was more interested in prices of local women in his famous travel accounts - arrived from far corners of the world, while priests and holymen of all religions compete for the souls of the Great Khaan and his subjects. As the imperial fortunes collapsed, Karakorum suffered the fate that befell many of the Mongols' earlier victims. In 1388, army of China's Ming Dynasty, which overthrew Mongol power in China, marched to Karakorum, and destroyed the city in a way that left no stone unturned. Two hundred years after that, the great monastery of Erdene Zuu Khiid was built here, over the ruins of the old capital. Today, as prayer flags beat over the dusty plains, the fortress monastery and its white stupas stood out on the pastures like lonely witnesses to the ravages of history. I remembered the magnificent but sad facades of the mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar at Merv, Turkmenistan, where I visited less than 2 months ago, the last remains of once-magnificent Merv, destroyed by the vengeful armies of the Mongols. How often history repeats itself. I watched the gathering duststorm to the west, and thought about the events unfolding along the Tigris. Historians call that the march of folly.
We drove around the surrounding countryside, looking for obscure archaeological sites. The Orkhon Valley was the beloved homeland of the ancient Turks ? the place where their horsemen set off westwards across the plains of Eurasia and Middle East, eventually reaching Anatolia and the Balkans, settling across the lands they passed through. Turks, Azeris, Turkmens, Kazaks, Kyrgyzs, Uzbeks and Ugyurs - these are all descendants of this great migration. Turks are fond of saying that one can speak Turkish from Sarajevo to the Great Wall of China. That might be a slight exaggeration but isn't too far from the truth. What used to be the Turkic heartland, too has become the spiritual centre of the Mongolian nomads. Today, herdsmen roamed around the wide valley and its plains, tending their horses and sheep as they had done so for the past millennium on these plains.
The hospitability of the Mongolian herdsman is legendary. We stopped by several gers and were piled with sweets, yogurt and more than desire quantities of airag (fermented mare's milk) and arkhi (Mongolian vodka, also made from fermented mare's milk). The latter two are well known to travellers as products of acquired taste. Request for short rides on their horses were greeted with great enthusiasm, and we had a few brief moments of joy pretending to be members of the Great Khaan's cavalry force.
Hearing about wedding at a nearby ger, we invited ourselves there and was welcomed to join the party. We were treated as the most honoured guests and asked to sit together with the bride and bridegroom and their parents. As punishment for our intrusion, we were duly overwhelmed with piles of mutton soup, biscuits, sweets and seemingly endless cups of airag and arkhi. We were treated to an authentic session of Mongolian concert as visiting guests sang traditional songs dedicated to the wedding couple, the herds, the land and all the good things of life. Sweet melodies prevailed the increasingly crowded ger.
At this point, to my horror, I was asked to sing a song dedicated to the wedding couple. I had a sudden mental block. Besides, I have always thought that any exercise of my vocal cord would almost certainly crack any glass window (none in the ger anyway). Guess what - I decided to sing the nursery rhyme "Mary has a little lamb," which was over almost as soon as I began.
"Tell them it's a song about sheep and goats," I told Aldraa.
That was received with an enthusiastic applause and wide smiles. It's a subject the nomadic herdsmen can relate to. The guest from faraway Singapore cares about the local sheep and their masters. Welcome! Welcome! Perhaps the only time I came close to becoming a star singer!
We must be the highlight of the wedding party, for we almost caused a minor riot when we wanted to leave. Everyone wanted to take pictures with us. Many of the guests rushed out of the ger to see us off, not to mention that there were other nearby herdsmen who rode here because of news of strange visitors to the local wedding. Even the bride and bridegroom came out to take a few snaps with us, together with their two year old baby. The nomads move together when they like each other, and have children as and when they want to. Freedom is paramount to the nomad. Marriage certificates are for spineless urbanites oppressed by artifical rules and dubvious notions of morality.
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The two crazy Singaporeans and their equally mad Mongolian friends decided to conquer a steep hill rising above the plains. They charged up the hill on their battered jeep. What a wonderful view over this timeless land. The plains stretching as far as they could see. Men and horses were but tiny dots as the setting sun turned everything orange like burning flame. What a beautiful scene. I am falling in love with this land, something I didn't quite expect as my journey enters its ending phrases. I wish the moment could last forever.
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Back to Ulaan Baatar ("UB"), I explored the local museums and relics of the ancient nomadic migrations across Eurasia, a topic which has long been my passion. At the local guesthouse, I met many interesting travellers and fellow techno nomads on the road, plus members of the local expat and NGO community whom Kenneth introduced to me. I also met two cool Singapore sisters, Ming Lee and Ming Boon and an inteprid English traveller, Emil. They were veterans of North Korea, Sikkim and other wild places. Between us, we must have completed more than half the world.
UB used to be a drab communist town transplanted from Soviet planners' handbook onto the dusty plains of Mongolia. Nick Middleton once wrote a famous book, "Last Disco in Outer Mongolia", about his journey in the 1980's when there was only one disco in this strange town, which stuck up like an alien spaceship on the great steppes. Today, there are countless discos, casinos, restaurants (including authentic Singapore and Thai restaurants too!) and bars in town. I visited the exurburent UB Palace, a gigantic complex of disco, where revellers danced away like the world's going to end soon, no different from their counterparts elsewhere in the world.
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We did not find the marmot. The dangers of the bububonic plague - commonly known as the Black Death - the one that wiped out a big portion of European population during the Middle Ages - meant that fewer people are catching these creatures.
Never mind the marmot. I love Mongolia all the same. The temperature is fast dropping and I'd better set off for the south. Tonight I will be taking a 30 hour train journey to Hohhot (in Chinese - Huhehaote), capital of the Chinese "Autonomous Region" of Inner Mongolia.
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Published on 3/26/04