Thursday, February 6, 2020

When you Dine with Reindeer Herders in Mongolia: Bread, Meat and Milk

Beer and dried meat on a platform beside an urts (teepee) in an east taiga spring camp. 

“To remain who we are, we must continue to eat what we do.”
Indigenous Youth, Arctic Change & Food Culture.  

Eating is more than sustenance, with the very definition of food rooted in cultural knowledge. One person’s delicacy is another’s forbidden fruit.  As a Baltimorean, I was raised on steamed blue crabs flavored with the ubiquitous Old Bay Seasoning original to Maryland. These crustaceans would never find their way onto a table hosted by observant Muslims or Jews. Personal preference means I shy away from my friend’s favorite soup made with sheep’s heads, while in restaurants my children pass me the anchovies from their Caesar Salads. Encompassing religion, availability, personal experience, even income and education, the collection, preparation, and sharing of food involves specific skills and the enactment of rituals learned from one’s family. This includes special recipes handed down through generations, particular foods found only in our home regions, and the language used to name our favorite dish. Everyone, too, can he relate to the feeling of contentment experienced when encountering a familiar aroma as it wafts from the oven or pot creating an immediate visceral link to childhood. What we choose to put in our bodies is a reinforcement of who we are and where we came from. When we lose the connection to our foods, we lose our collective past. 
        Most people in the industrial world today do not raise their own animals, grow vegetables, forage or hunt, but buy their food preselected at the supermarket. Much of what we consume is prepackaged, dehydrated or frozen, ready to be baked, reconstituted, or microwaved for a ready-made meal. Not just family traditions, and hunger, but time, money, supply chains, and marketing strategies play a role in what we eat every day.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Naadam in the West Taiga, Mongolia

Getting ready for the children's reindeer race.

"Naadam" or "eriin gurvan naadam" or "the three games of men" is a major national holiday held every July in Mongolia. The three games are archery, wrestling and horse racing. A huge event attracting tourists from around the world, it is held in the national Sports Stadium in Ulaanbaatar. The horse racing occurs a bit outside the city. If you cannot attend this three-day event in the capital, smaller Naadams are held during the summer in the countryside.

This past June we were visited the Dukha reindeer herders at their summer camp in the west taiga of northern Mongolia. Upon arrival at our camp we learned that a group of tourists from the USA were staying nearby on their annual visit and that the next day there would be a small Naadam for guests and hosts to enjoy. By the afternoon of the next day, reindeer herders and their families had arrived for the festival. In addition, foreign tourists from Europe staying with herders elsewhere in the west taiga arrived in different groups with their guides. Besides the locals, our Mongolian horse guide and the other USA tourists participated in the wrestling event. 

There was no archery competition and instead of horses there were reindeer races. The first race was for children. Boys and girls from the age of three (a little boy tied in to his reindeer saddle) to ages 11 or 12 participated. A small six year-old girl I knew from previous years was a fierce competitor. She did not win, but she finished ahead of our 11 year-old horse guide. Her mother rode in the adult race. For the spectators, some enterprising locals were selling khuushuur (a meat pastry) and small packaged snacks. For tourists, there were carved reindeer antler pieces and reindeer antler accessories.

Though small, the gathering was colorful and the children's race especially was very exciting and intense. It was a nice way for families to have an afternoon visiting friends and family before heading off again to their separate camps in the west taiga.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Taiga Kindergarten

The kindergarten urts, west taiga, northern Mongolia.

Transition to kindergarten is an exciting time for any child, but even more so for the Dukha reindeer herding children of northern Mongolia. Throughout the year, families migrate four to six, even ten times to new pastures for their animals. They move back and forth seasonally from the forests to Tsaagannuur sum (the government center) where the schools, two banks, a hospital and a few local shops are located. In the taiga forests where the reindeer graze families stay in a birch and canvas urts (teepee) that is heated by a wood burning stove. When staying in town most families have a small wooden house. No one has indoor plumbing.

This past summer, to prepare them for entering school for the first time in the fall, five-year olds in the west taiga attended a 21-day pre-kindergarten class. There were two specially erected urts for the occasion, one a dedicated classroom and the other a temporary home for the instructors. Toys, games, floor coverings, and all of the necessary materials were transported to the countryside from Tsaagannuur by horse or reindeer. Thirty children registered for the class. Two teachers stayed from the end of June until mid-August teaching the children not just ‘academics,’ but reinforcing good hand-washing and teeth brushing habits as well. There was also lots of time for outdoor play and storytelling. Our small NGO Corawill donated some notebooks, workbooks, markers, pens and games for the children. 

In the taiga, weather delays and school closings do not exist. It snowed lightly the first day of school as the kids arrived by foot, horse and reindeer. On opening day parents came too and tied up their 'transportation' as they visited the school. What a beautiful setting for their new learning experiences.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Summer Migration in the Taiga

Urts (teepee) poles left after the migration, after a storm.The Dukha east taiga summer camp in northern Mongolia.

Reindeer are the only semi-domesticated animal native to the north. Reindeer herding is believed to have originated around two to three thousand years ago in the Sayan Mountains, located between Russia and Mongolia. Today, 24 different indigenous groups in nine circumpolar countries herd reindeer, or rangifer tarandas. The smallest of these groups are the Dukha of northern Mongolia. Today, about 58 families herd roughly 2700 reindeer in the east and west taiga (boreal forest) located on Mongolia's border with Russia. Unlike other reindeer herders, the Dukha do not regularly slaughter their animals for food. Instead, they are milked and used as pack animals.

The Dukha say that the reindeer let them know when it is time to migrate, roughly four to six times a year. Every June, a few weeks after school has ended, families migrate from the spring camp to the summer camp high in the Sayan mountains. They stay until mid August when it is time to pack up and migrate back to the winter camp near the town. While some families and young people will remain at the winter camp, children, their mothers and the elderly will return to the nearby town for the beginning of the school year on September 1. Older students will stay in a newly built dorm while those younger than third grade will commute from their homes. Most Dukha have a small winter house or a ger (yurt) in town.

Taking down an urts (a birch pole and canvas tepee) and packing up for migration, then traveling from the spring to summer camp is accomplished in one day, regardless of the weather. In 2016 when I visited, the days were dry and beautiful, the sky a clear deep blue. This past year, there were freezing rain storms in the east and snow in the west during the days we traveled with the herders to their summer camps. We learned that intense weather is no match for a warm deel (Mongolian traditional robe), a durable rubber Russian raincoat and a sturdy taiga horse.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Charlie Creates a Movement in the Caucasus Mountains

Charlie, enjoying a quiet moment in our hotel, Shatili Tower.
In his excellent TedTalk, Derek Sivers illustrates how a crazy dancing guy at an outdoor concert creates a movement, inspiring followers by example. In the video, a 'lone nut' starts out dancing wildly on his own, but soon finds himself in the middle of an ecstatic crowd mimicking his moves. 

On a hiking holiday in the Republic of Georgia, I got to see this process unfold in real time.  I watched my friend Charlie, a community newspaper writer and editor from a small town in New Hampshire, become a lone nut and create a movement.  

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Up Close and Personal with Ancient Mongolia

Above, petroglyphs at Nukhen Utug, Mankhan soum, Khovd province. 

When traveling through historical sights in the US, we are accustomed to being fenced off, roped off and warned ('don't touch!') lest we break, ruin or somehow deface places and things of value. Rightly so, the past can at times be fragile and should be protected. That being said, it is somewhat thrilling to encounter ancient rock art and hand-carved monuments bereft of fences, ropes and signs. Indeed, they are just out there in the open, available for photos and moments of quiet contemplation about how these thousands years old objects came to be. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Corawill Returns to Vratsa

In August, Corawill had their largest group of volunteers ever volunteering in Vratsa, Bulgaria. The 23 volunteers included students from Western Connecticut State University's (WCSU) Creativity and Compassion Club and Danbury High School (DHS). This year, two volunteers were on their third trip with Corawill to Bulgaria. We were joined by a wonderful group of Bulgarian volunteer translators. Our activities centered on two social homes, one for special needs children.

The activities included games, sports, 'magic sand,' painting and puzzles. The students from WCSU also shared aspects of their traditional backgrounds, with one volunteer showing everyone how to wrap and rock an India sari. We all played endless rounds of UNO and the matching game and had a blast with a Mexican piƱata. We also made s'mores and American pancakes with fruit. Our painters put a shiny new coat of chocolate brown on the fence that surrounds the faciltiy and we ended the week completing hand-prints with biographical poems translated in English and Bulgarian so that we call all learn about each other. The highlight for everyone seemed to be our two trips to the community pool with an ice cream treat. The volunteers also took the children to the Ledenika Caves where everyone enjoyed the light show. It was cold inside! The final day ended with our traditional pizza party and music.

Many new friendships were formed. Many volunteers expressed interest in returning next year. See you then!