Accidental Saunas and Throat Singing

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

We had quite a steaming hot night in our ger last night. Our Swiss travel-mates filled up the stove with wood before going to bed, with the aim of keeping the ger warm as long as possible so we wouldn’t end up freezing in the middle of the night. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but since our ger was fairly small (and apparently well-insulated) the result was that our ger quickly reached sauna-like temperatures and remained that way for several hours. We had to open the door to let in some of the sub-zero air from outside (We tried to find out how cold it was by putting our travel clock outside the door, but the temperature was below the range of the clock’s thermometer so we only got a reading of “LO”). Sometime in the early morning hours, the temperature finally became comfortable, but it only lasted a short time before the man of the family we were staying with came in and re-loaded the stove, and we were back to the sauna! We ended up getting dressed and going outside to escape the heat. Despite the less than restful night, it was hard not to start the day in good spirits, with a view like this out our door.

Most of the day was spent in the car, getting from Terelj back to Ulan Bator (1.5 hours), then from there to Karakorum (8 hours), the ancient capital of Mongolia (with a brief stop to shower at the hostel in between). We passed through some beautiful desert (we think?) landscapes, and I even saw what looked like some kind of sandstorm – I’m sure there’s a proper term for it, but it looked like a dirt-tornado. Cale was sleeping so he missed out but I did manage to get a few snapshots.

Our drive was frequently interrupted by herds of various animals (sheep, goats, horses, cows) crossing the road at various points throughout the day.

Eventually the dry, sandy, grassy terrain we had been passing through for much of the day became snow-covered once again. Other notable sights that we encountered along the way included a flock of (huge!) vultures…

… a group of Buddhist stupas on a snowy hill…

… and herds of camels.

We arrived to Karakorum right around sunset. For one of Mongolia’s more famous places, I expected there to be a bit more to it, but it’s hardly more than a village. The main attraction is the Buddhist Erdene Zuu Monastery, which was built in 1586. At its height, there were 100 temples and over 1000 monks lived there. Now only 18 temples remain (many of the rest were destroyed during the Soviet era), only one of which is active. The rest has been converted to a museum, which we will visit tomorrow.

Our ger for tonight is much larger than the one we had at Terelj last night, but otherwise it’s very similar. Mongolian gers are quite standardized when it comes to the construction, decoration, and even the layout.

The outhouse here makes the one from last night seem luxurious, with its raised toilet seat and even a lid. Here we have small shed-like structure built into the fence with wooden planks across the floor, but instead of a center plank, there’s a gaping hole. There you squat (or stand and aim, if you’re lucky enough to be male) and do your stuff. Not a pleasant scenario anytime, but particularly so when it’s freezing outside.

By far the highlight of today was a completely unexpected surprise. Shortly after we arrived, while we were settling in, we heard a knock on our door. The gentleman who entered introduced himself as a musician from the town who plays three traditional Mongolian instruments, signs, and even does “throat singing.” Our travel companion for this part of our trip, Bill, is a retired schoolteacher / amateur photographer from Connecticut, and he had been telling us earlier that day about throat singing earlier that day and recommending that we try to catch a show at the theater in Ulan Bator. Even better, though, this local musician offered to perform for us in our ger for 5000 tugrik each (less than $5). So of course we said yes, and he returned an hour later dressed in his full ceremonial costume.

We were well entertained for a good 40-50 minutes, and I was able to get great video all of the songs – nice thing about private concerts in your ger is that there’s no bad seat in the house! Here’s a sample of a few of the songs.
A folk song about the Gobi desert and a baby camel, played on a traditional Mongolian harp:

This one is a song about horse racing, played on Mongolia’s iconic horse-head fiddle (the strings are made of horse hair). I love how parts of the song actually sound like a horse neighing.

And, finally, throat singing!

We thoroughly enjoyed our mini-concert, and were happy to support our entertainer by purchasing his CD, which he graciously signed for us with the date, location, his name (printed and in the ancient Mongolian script), and his signature.

Tomorrow we go to Erdene Zuu, and then we are off to the semi-Gobi for the last night of our countryside tour.


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