Five Weeks In Mongolia, Part Two

Five Weeks In Mongolia, Part Two

Written by Alón Sagee

Part One of this story ran in Issue 123.

A full day on the “road” to Baldan Baravain required significant recuperation. It took us some time to regain our land legs after ten hours of incessant bouncing. After dinner, we took a tour of the valley, circumambulating the ruined temple (which we were there to restore) clockwise in the traditional Buddhist fashion. Since the summer sun doesn’t set here until almost 11:00 pm, we expected a warm leisurely walk on a pleasant evening. Our tired minds and car-sick bodies were unprepared for monsters.

Alfred Hitchcock understood the human feeling of helplessness, especially when we are overwhelmed by forces beyond our control. In his movie The Birds, he played to those primal fears masterfully.

Until arriving at the peak of the two-week long season of the Mongolian horsefly, I had never known the sensation of being swarmed. These were not the flies North Americans are familiar with – but horribly beautiful creatures roughly the size of a large wasp, with spectacular multicolored eyes and a proboscis that can open your flesh through clothing! With an abundance of wild horses that don’t enjoy the benefit of having hands to swat these pests away, one would think humans would be excluded from their bloody menu. But alas, such was not the case. Ignorantly, I was wearing red – a raw steak increased to grotesque proportions by their multiplying eyes.

They travel in swirling clouds, hunting in packs. As we entered the woods peripheral to the valley, our small party was summarily set upon. Even with my daily practice of yoga and not-so-daily practice of meditation, calm remained elusive with hundreds of  carnivores attacking. Luckily I found that if I kept moving, these louts didn’t have the time to find purchase on my skin or clothing. It became quite comical; I used all the Kung Fu moves I’ve seen in movies, but resigned my delusions of stardom as the most effective strategy proved the most logical: run away! It turned into a sort of sick game, with me running full-tilt and abruptly changing direction to shake off the squadron that, once focused, inevitably caught up. Every time I lost them with my fancy soccer footwork, I would look back and see the confused cloud pause, regroup as a unit, and give chase once again. They were relentless.

Fortunately, the traditional Gers we stayed in seem to hold some protective mojo against these marauders. Except for the one or two that obviously didn’t read the rule book, the swarm simply stopped its pursuit at the colorful door to my abode. My breath heaving almost to the point of nausea, a more effective way to get blood circulating after a long road trip I could not have envisioned.

Believing as I do that everything has its place in the world, I’m still petitioning for an explanation of the need to bless us (and the equine world) with the company of these airborne demons.

Breathing relief on a small bed in the safety of my Ger (which the Russians call a “Yurt”), sounds emerged from the night. Through thick layers of felt set as remedy against the cold nights, all sounds from outside take on a pleasant otherworldly muffle. I smiled in recognition as the natural inspiration for European clock makers, the cuckoo bird, began its song. There aren’t many of them; they seem to be solitary creatures. But if you hear a pair of these avian tenors on opposite sides of an open valley, you’re eavesdropping on a distinct and beautiful conversation, in stereo. It was to their staccato arias that I dissolved into a deep, dreamless sleep – my first night in the wilds of Mongolia.

A Ger, traditional Mongolian dwelling.


Emerging the following morning, clad head to toes in the finest cotton armor, I found that horseflies – as a happy contribution to my sanity – have a reliable work schedule: punching in promptly at 10:00am, well-rested, hungry, their scissor-like mandibles freshly sharpened. They do what they were born to do and then return to their dens of Hell 12 hours later, bellies replete with fresh flesh. Breakfast without them was a joy.


During the restoration – I was privileged to work alongside the Mongolian carpenters creating traditional furniture for the temple; disassembling and moving the scaffolding (made only of fallen trees and cord, and reaching over 30 feet high and 150 feet wide) from the temple walls, and carefully working with shovels, picks and trowels in the continuing excavation. On this last assignment, I was thrilled to have revealed the original wooden threshold of the temple from its deep grave of dirt, rocks and weeds. The wood crumbled at the lightest touch, but patience was rewarded, first with a hint of directional grain, and then the discovery of the compromised threshold itself. I will never forget the feeling of my first find. I understand now how archeology could be an exciting vocation.

Scaffolding made from fallen trees and rope.

Over the course of the restoration, many artifacts were found in the rubble: Buddha statues and carvings, ceremonial horns, pottery, bones, tools, and hundreds of personal religious items worn and used by the 7,000 monks and nuns who once lived and prayed here.

Ceremonial horn.


Carved stones.


June 30, 2002. Today in Yokohama, Japan, Brazil and Germany will play in the final game of the World Cup of football (soccer), the most popular single sporting event on the planet. Without electricity or television, I knew when coming here that I would miss the only sporting event I have ever cared to watch. I assumed that I wouldn’t even hear the results for days.

To make the best of the situation, I organized a local version of a World Cup football match. Enthusiasm was high as we set up makeshift goal posts of weathered logs. By consensus, we jokingly decided on side boundaries: China to the south and Russia to the north. The field was resplendent with marmot holes, rocks, and mounds of dung at various stages of dehydration. With full teams comprised of three westerners and roughly 15 Mongolian men and women, we were ready to begin.

I was smiling so much it hurt. The sidelines cheered loudly and joyously at anything and everything occurring on the pitch, not differentiating between bad passes or actual goals. Most of the locals played barefoot, miraculously avoiding cuts, stubbed toes, or falls. Guré, Baldan Baravain’s new resident Lama – the same man I watched conduct a ceremony with a horn made from the shinbone of a human virgin – joined us on the field. At first, he played in full robes, but soon stripped down to American-style oversized boxing shorts, a billowy silk shirt and his yellow sash (an article that served to keep him not completely out of uniform). Guré turned out to be quite an athlete. He played like a Buddhist version of the Tasmanian Devil. He was everywhere at once and never stopped running or smiling. He must have come from good stock, since his mother was playing as well!

After two hours, all of us sweating, covered in dust and dung, and more tired from laughing than running, we retired happily to clean up and rest.

Later, Mark, the project leader, came into my Ger and asked if I wanted to go watch the World Cup finals. I thought he was teasing me, but he looked serious. It turned out that a well-to-do herdsman about 20 bumpy minutes away by jeep had a solar panel, a satellite dish and a black and white TV that could pick up Russian broadcasts! How could I refuse? We entered his Ger in time for the second half and sat down for the most surreal experience of watching sports ever.

Watching the World Cup.

At around 11 pm that night, after it was safe to be outside without a flame thrower, I stepped out of my Ger and gawked at a magnificent black canvas, so dense with stars, so humbling. But where there is beauty, there is also contrast – which became apparent the next day.


In the West, our food is very nicely packaged. In the case of meat products, this presentation effectively insulates us from its rather unpleasant origins. Mongolians, on the other hand, are very intimate with their food. During my stay in the countryside, for the first time in my life, I witnessed an animal lose its life to become food. It was not pleasant – branding me with lingering mental imagery that is still challenging to one who spent two decades as a vegetarian.

Jara, one of the herders, skirted the flock and feigned disinterest. Targeting a goat, he bolted after it, catching the terrified animal deftly and heaving it up on his shoulder in one fluid and practiced motion. At the appointed place, Jara straddled the goat and held on to its horns. Toumroo, a man I’ve only seen as jovial and gentle, approached the animal with the same hammer we were using to build furniture in the temple. My stomach turned at what was about to transpire, yet I felt the need to experience this, to expand my experience of life and death. The first blow to the top of the head stunned the goat but unfortunately did not render it unconscious. I will never forget the sound. The seconds between blows felt like hours. With the next strike, the goat hit the ground, its legs each shooting out from under it in different directions and sending its small tail into a desperate spasm. The animal was unconscious, but not dead. Its limp body was turned over, and Toumroo opened a slit in its chest with a long blade. I cringed as he reached deep into the steamy opening with his naked hand and squeezed the animal’s heart to end its life.

A celebratory barbecue in Mongolia is called a “Horhuuk,” and involves removing intestines and organs, and placing large, red-hot rocks in the body to cook the meat from the inside out.

It was disconcerting to find out that what I witnessed was done in our honor as “distinguished” guests.

Thankfully, as a reverent tribute to life and home economics, no part of an animal goes to waste here. We even learned to play a game of skill called “ankle bone flipping,” in which, yes, the ankle bones of a sheep are used for entertainment. Also available were intricate puzzles and other ingenious games made of this abundant resource.


After a hot morning of excavation work, and a lunch accompanied by a bucket of smoldering dung used to ward off the uninvited horseflies, everyone decided to go to a nearby lake. It turns out this lake was the site of Genghis Khan’s coronation as leader of the Mongol hordes. Nothing here seemed to lack historical significance. As a nod to the local legacy of tribal warfare, we engaged in mud ball skirmishes using ammunition scooped from the soggy bottom. Rural Mongolians, who probably found it strange to see westerners changing into bathing suits, had no problem stripping down to their underwear and diving into the war with abandon.

Four of us westerners had come to the lake prepared to camp out overnight. As we were setting up, a pair of blue herons ambled by slowly with that awkward slow-motion avian gait that makes you think that they really do belong in the air, where their six-foot wingspan presents us with a different picture of graceful movement.

After nightfall, as I was drying my socks marshmallow-style over the campfire, we spotted headlights in the distance. Before long, it was obvious that the driver saw our campfire and was heading for us. Not speaking the language, and being in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night, at least one of our party got nervous. A Russian military jeep pulled up, and stopped six feet from us, beaming its headlights into our eyes. We didn’t breathe, not knowing what subsequent seconds would hold. After an excruciating pause, the doors swung wide and three Mongolian men and one woman emerged, smiling wryly. We rummaged for our phrase books, and in no time the party began. Vodka came out of the jeep, to be matched by my  offering of dried apricots, pistachios, and Japanese rice crackers from a favorite store at home that I was saving for just the right occasion.

If anything, Mongolians know how to celebrate life with drink. After we (mostly they) exhausted the vodka, the songs started, with everyone taking turns. The woman, a Buryat from the north, transfixed us with a hauntingly beautiful song in her native tongue. All was quiet as she finished; no one could speak. Buryats in Mongolia have been able to retain their distinct and proud culture, which combines Buddhism and Shamanism, since the 17th century. If songs are any indication of depth of culture, Buryats must be remarkable people indeed. I wished I had brought my tape recorder. All I have left of that melody is an elusive echo.

As the remaining vodka was transformed into song, it became obvious our guests were not ready for the merriment to end. One of the men brought out a bottle of homemade “Airag,” a strong alcoholic beverage made from fermented mare’s milk. Yes, mare’s milk. Since it is very impolite to refuse a drink in Mongolia, we drank. A more “interesting” beverage has never passed these lips. But to its credit, it certainly gets one laughing in a hurry. After about an hour of revelry, our new friends abruptly rose, smiled their thanks and disappeared into the dark. For just one night, I felt like a nomadic host – receiving unannounced guests with the ease and grace of a native.

The next morning on our hike back to camp, we were startled by what had to have been an overnight explosion of wildflowers! Carpets of pastels rolled over the hills as if on this one day all agreed to unfurl their glory in unison. Minutes later, cresting a hill, we noticed another breathtaking phenomenon. Answering the call of the first explosion with perfect timing, thousands of small butterflies burst onto the scene in full regalia of powder blue and fire orange, creating a nearly kaleidoscopic image on the sunlit landscape. Magic is everywhere here. It is not surprising that Shamanism has held the attention of this land’s people for centuries.


The days blended into one another as we worked on the temple restoration, spending a good part of our time on rickety scaffolding, an experience interrupted at times by shouts of glee from amateur archeologists assigned to excavation duty.

On our last night, another mare’s-milk-vodka-sing-along was organized, but it turned somber. I realized that they are going to miss us as much as we will miss them. Early the next morning, we were bumping our way back to Ulan Bator – attempting to hold back the tears, with not much success.

I will probably never see these friends again. Somehow, they were living full lives without postal addresses, internet, e-mail or even telephones – communicating again with these last surviving nomads remains, at the very least, challenging. I miss their fearless and unabashed generosity framed by mischievous smiles and warm, twinkling eyes.

It took many summers and the consistent efforts of local craftsmen and foreign conscripts such as myself, but the yellow temple is now restored and returned to its rightful people as a nucleus of their lives. I feel honored to have been a small part of undoing the wrongs this gentle community suffered and helping them reclaim and rebuild their spiritual home.

The completed temple.


Postscript and photos:

I could spend many more pages relaying anecdotes of my time living with the Mongolian people. For brevity’s sake, I’ll leave you with an experience that illuminates their innate nature, this time back in the capitol, among its roughly 1.5 million city folk.

Every summer, in the heart of Ulan Bator, Mongolia puts on a national fête called the Nadaam Festival, which celebrates its culture through sport contests and other merriments.

My timing was good, as I just got back from completing my work at the temple.

Mongolians are thick-skinned and easy going. It takes a lot to ruffle them. The main entrance to the stadium was in a state of some disrepair, with the walking path being, uh…pretty much, well…absent. It was an 8-foot drop down to a pile of rocks and nothing remained but the original joists. So naturally, the eager attendees simply walked on what wood there was to work with, laughing and smiling.

Over the course of a few minutes I saw mothers in long dresses carrying children, elderly people who shuffled across with their canes and very big men whose weight I thought would snap the old wood like a pretzel…they all made it across without fanfare or any apparent distress.

Main entrance to Nadaam, Mongolia’s largest festival.

The Nadaam festival highlights the major sports that Mongolians love: wrestling, horse racing, and archery.

The stadium was full and the parade began. Suddenly, everyone looked up to see three men parachuting down to the center of the arena, and on their way down, setting off fireworks and smoke trails emanating from some hidden apparatus as they came in for a landing. But it wouldn’t be Mongolia if something unexpected didn’t happen. One of the fireworks that was supposed to go up misbehaved horizontally and released a small flaming rocket directly at the section I was seated in. The missile struck about ten feet from me, hitting a well-dressed woman in the abdomen.

As I’ve noted, it’s hard to ruffle these people up. She brushed the remainder of the fizzled-out flare away and patted down the smoky embers that marred her nice blue silk dress. She did not seem to be hurt, so she didn’t get up from her seat, didn’t complain…she just continued watching the festivities with a smile.

Traditional wrestling outfits.


Archery competition.


Horse racing.

Header image courtesy of Pixabay/Herbert Bieser.

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