Opportunities to travel outside of site are seldom in my part of the world. My town isn’t on a major thoroughfare, nor is there much travel between any other city besides Ulaan Baatar. Soums (small villages) are so far scattered that going anywhere will most often require a weekend or at least long traveling days. Travel is so hard that my site has the nickname “The Fortress of Solitude” reserved. Any chance to go further out in the countryside is more then welcome. So when a friend of PCVs offered to take us to a horse festival for the weekend, we were stoked to go.
We loaded up into our friends purgon, a type of Russian military vehicles that are ubiquitous in Mongolia, and set off for Tsagaan Chuluut Soum, about 5 hours south of us on a dirt road. While purgons look like boxes with wheels, it was a roomy ride with just four PCVs and lots of leg room. Along the way we stopped at a frozen river, taking awesome picture s of the contorted blue ice, had some hot coffee and watched my fellow PCVs fall and slide on the ice. After a lunch we moved on, the road continuing on valley after valley, even stopping to try my cross country skiing skills, till we finally arrived at Tsagaan Chuluut Soum, which translates to “White Rock”, probably coming from the large boulder formations just outside of town.
As someone who lives in a larger town of about 15,000 people, the soum life is quite a different. Nestled between rolling hills, with a line of white Buddha statues lining the surrounding ridge, approaching the little village felt like entering a different time . We walked up to the surrounding hillside at sunset to take some pictures, and I was struck but how beautiful and still everything was. The brightest stars were starting to come out, and there was a quiet stillness over this little town with the Altai Mountains in the distance… things like that remind me of how the most beautiful things just don’t ask for attention.
We stayed at our friends families house, and as it was the last day of Tsagaan Sar, we were welcomed with the traditional new years greetings, exchanging snuff bottles and lots of bainsh ( aka. Small dumplings). We pulled out our deck of cards and spent the evening playing “American ” card games like BS and Spoons. BS came out as the overall favorite. Spreading the most important part of American culture; games… check.
Even though we had a long day we stayed up late playing games and then eventually chatting into the evening. The family we stayed with owned a store and a pharmacy – we ended up sleeping on the floor of the store, which with our PC issued sleeping bags and floor mats was incredibly comfortable.
The next day we woke up *somewhat early* and had ‘morning tea’, then checked out the tiny soum school that was across the street. Tsagaan Chuluut couln’t have had more then 700 people at one point, and there couldn’t have been more then 100 kids that attend that school. Most schools in such small towns only go up to 9th grade, after which most kids will either turn to herding their families animals or moving to a larger town to attend a secondary school or vocational school. Our town tour was quick though, as we loaded up into the purgon again, got gas from a Soviet relic pump, and went off to find the horse festival.
I say having to ‘find’ the horse festival , because there is no fair ground; the festival is a spontaneous gathering of whereever the large herd of horses will end up before settling on a spot. While it took about a good hour drive, we eventually found the horses, but turns out the people would be slow incoming. As this is Mongolia, we took the opportunity to take pictures or the herders and towns people coming through to watch the festivities. Once the herders found we could somewhat converse in Mongolian, we exchanged snuff bottles, asked for pictures and were asked about how we liked Mongolia. ‘Oh we like it’ we replied , to chortles over our heavily accented Mongolian.
We observed young guys in traditional garb sitting on their horses, whip out a iPhone 4Ss from the folds of their deels and asked us to take pictures. Young boys (who probably should have been at school) were leading around their small ponies, catching up with their cousins and extended family. The festival was a small town affair, and was refreshing seeing the traditional life up close. So often we have to contend with very modern vs traditional clashes at work, that its nice to get away from that and into the countryside life.
The actual business of a horse festival started a good four hours after the expected start date. We ended up seeing two events. One I will call the “Lasso Pick-Up”, where riders come up to a blue scarf on the ground at a gallop, pick that up and toss it aside (true stunt rider style) then rush on the pick up their lasso, also on the ground. The lasso I should say is a long stick , maybe 15 feet long, with a loop tied at the end. The next was lassoing a horse from the herd while standing on the ground. Now that one was interesting, because it involved herding all the horses through a funnel made by spectators, herded toward the lasso-ers. To say the least, the horses figured it out and it became really slow going. Luckily the lull was broken by the call that the racers were approaching the finish line, which was on the other side of the line of cars. The crowd jolted over and our host family was the owner of the 4th finishing horse, which is always a respectable finish.
As we were watching the festivities, while it had been a bright blue sky day at the start, by the end of the horse race, ominous clouds started to move in over head, which signaled that we needed to start heading back to the aimag center fast. We hopped back into our little Russian-vehicle- that-could and went back to Tsagaan Chuluut. We stoppped by our hosts house to get some dinner dumplings and we were surprised by what was on the TV… the 2015 Academy Awards. We were easily in one of the remote spots on earth, so remote that our cell phones don’t have signal, but we were still able to watch Lady Gaga sing her medley of “Sound of Music” tunes, and marvel about how little we knew about the movies that were nominated this year. Such is the Mongolian life I suppose.
I won’t bore you with the trip back, only to say that these Russian military vehicles can DRIVE through snow. Which by the time we got back, there was quite a bit of. That being said, I’m glad I got a taste of real Mongolia this past weekend. The thought did run through my mind was that this was going to be my last Tsagaan Sar, and while there will be plenty of moments to cherish America-ness in the future, my Mongolia time is slowly running out. Got to enjoy it while it lasts.
Hope this finds you warm- V