At home in a foreign land

At home in a foreign land

  • By Dulguun   -   Jan 08,2023
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By Allyson Seaborn

Each time I fly into Chinggis Khaan International Airport, I am overcome with a sense of relief. I’ll soon be home – home in a country that inspires me. As we start our descent into Ulaanbaatar, I gaze at the kaleidoscope of multicolored roofs in the city’s outlying districts, sheltered beneath that big, blue sky Mongolians call the “Khukh Tenger”. I’d spent a week in Hong Kong feeling suffocated and claustrophobic – much like an ant in a swarming sea of nameless faces, where everything goes according to schedule, expeditiously and efficiently, with far too many insincere niceties.

I’ve missed the white smiles of Mongolian children who’ve grown up chewing on aaruul. Pure, calcium-enriched grins. I’ve developed a strong emotional attachment to this country over the past four years, perhaps, it has to do with my own nomadic background. The Hong Kong taxi driver queries where I am from, “You mean part of China?”

“No, I mean Mongolia, Mongolia. The Democratic country. The capital is Ulaanbaatar. I live there,” I tell him.

The usual look of confusion follows and precludes more questions. Deep down, I secretly think the blood of Chinggis runs through my veins. I love the wild beauty of this country. One of my most vivid recollections of Mongolian grandeur was in Khentii Province. I was at Khukh Nuur (Blue Lake of Black Heart) one summer surrounded by endless fields of wild khongorzuls. I can only describe these flowers in Dr. Seuss terminology – as “Horton Hears a Who” blossoms or “Wizard of Oz” flowers. Flowers that look as if they would giggle and dance with you if they could. Purple, prickly and larger than golf balls. They’re ubiquitous in Mongolia and particularly abundant surrounding the banks of Khukh Nuur where, according to the “Secret History of the Mongols”, Temuujin was coronated Chinggis Khaan. The khongorzuls run up to the top of the hill, overlooking the lake where my favorite Ovoo (sacred stone heaps used as altars or shrines) in all of Mongolia is. I prayed there, glancing up at the endless blue sky, knowing that if there is indeed a God, he could hear me loud and clear from there.

In July 2015, I met young Australian documentary filmmaker Emma Hudson and her friends enjoying the Naadam Festival in Tsetserleg soum, Arkhangai Province. She had planned to visit Mongolia since she was 16 and described her journey, “As three young women traveling spontaneously in Mongolia, we had little knowledge or expectation as to how we’d be received. Initially, I felt quite safe but what I didn’t realize was how far that intimacy would grow during our travels; I never expected to be touched by such welcoming people. We were driven across the Arkhangai region for two days by a male driver that spoke no English. Baatar taught us the name for every animal we passed in Mongolian and sang two phrases of a song on repeat and that was about as far as our communication went.”

“Baatar, translated to English as ‘hero’, was exactly that. He drove us safely and gently through a mud-ridden landscape and cared for us like we were his own. I was humbled by the generosity and nurturing instinct carried by every Mongolian we crossed paths with. I have never been in such an unforgiving landscape and would not have felt the awe and wonder I experienced without the selflessness of the people of Mongolia.”

It was gratifying to have someone else capture in words what I have felt for years and I asked Emma to expand on what she found most amazing about Mongolia. She shared, “I found it incredible how preserved their nomadic lifestyle still was. It was raw, primal and only testified to the deep connection they hold with their families and the land. We are increasingly becoming more and more disconnected from nature and our spiritual instincts. However, this kind of human and somewhat magical energy was still very much alive in the countryside of Mongolia.”

Emma describes it so well – it is indeed a spiritual instinct, a magical energy. It is as magical as the dancing, purple khongorzuls I often dream about. It’s the emotion I experience when I witness young Naadam jockeys urging their sweaty, exhausted horses onward to the finish line in a cloud of dust. The cheers from the crowd of people in traditional Mongolian deels and the excitement and raw energy always bring tears to my eyes, even though I’ve seen this race dozens of times. Beauty does this to me. It’s the smell of mutton and dairy, the warm “amar baina uu” greeting at Tsagaan Sar and the superstitions and reservedness of the Mongolian people – the shyness and quietness they diligently maintain until they get to know you. Their innocence and naivety are untarnished, particularly in the countryside.

Earlier this year as I crossed Lake Khuvsgul in an open sleigh, sleigh bells rang and a stiff shot of vodka fortified me in preparation for the ride. I serenaded my trusty steed with a few Mongolian melodies as we charged across the ice. Never have I been so cold, but the warmth of the experience balanced the brutality of the wind and ice. After the Ice Festival, the thrills continued when we returned to find our charter flight frozen on the runway at Murun city. A group of senior Italian tourists in designer outdoor gear looked aghast as this clearly was not on their detailed itinerary. I peered outside my tiny window as airport staff tried to manually spin the propellers. “Nope, not going to start,” I mumbled to myself and listened to what the flight staff were whispering about. “The plane is frozen. Shh.” We were starting to get very cold sitting on the tarmac. A gracious Mongolian hostess asked if we would all not mind getting off the plane because there seemed to be a “slight” problem. We crammed into a small bus and headed into Murun, to a strange restaurant that had opened a tab just for us and called in all their wait staff. “Don’t worry,” I tell a nice Italian lady whose face I could barely see because she was wearing so many layers. She remained deeply concerned, telling me, “I wish the pilots would tell us what the heck is happening!” I lied in response “We’ll be ok – everything is under control,” and chuckled to myself thinking – “just go with it.”

While a new plane was chartered from Ulaanbaatar we reminisced, sang and ate a delicious meal. The highlight, however, was a few rounds of table tennis with the two charming pilots. They had clearly been stranded in Murun before as they knew where to find the paddles behind the check-in counter. Many hours later, after we eventually arrived in Ulaanbaatar, I spoke with a gentleman from Rome. He was exhausted but grinning from ear to ear.

“I was a little worried, but you couldn’t have planned for such unexpected excitement. I thought we were going to freeze on the runway but things turned out ok,” he said. “Now, that’s the spirit!” I thought to myself.

I told him about how beautiful Lake Khuvsgul is in summer and he simply couldn’t fathom that anything could be more spectacular than this large body of water, frozen solid and teeming with festivities.

Another cold and remote place I have fond recollections of is the East Taiga Region of Northern Mongolia, about 70 kilometers from Tsagaan Nuur (The White Lake). In August of 2013, I arrived at an uurtz camp after an arduous eight-hour horse ride through open grassland, pine forests and snowcapped rugged terrain. This is the most remote place on Earth to me, the edge of civilization. The forests are filled with wolves that regularly threaten reindeer, the Tsaatan people’s only livelihood. During my visit I was – ironically – called on to treat the local shaman’s toothache, received a proposal of marriage and had a moose sighting, all in one day. I meandered my way up a valley where cold, clear water trickled down the mountains. An enveloping, endless cloud made me feel like the only person on Earth. A few male reindeer passed me, curiously nodding their velvety antlers toward me. Surreal is the only way to describe this part of Mongolia.

Barry Jiggins is an Australian radiographer and founder of the charity MongoliAid, which helps nomads and communities within the Gobi Desert. Barry has had a love affair with Mongolia ever since he first arrived. His eyes twinkle as he recalls, “Ever since my first visit in 2003, the hospitality of the Gobi people has been on show. It is ingrained in the culture to offer directions, refreshments and even a place to sleep to visitors, and particularly to those of us who might arrive unexpectedly from a distant land.”

Barry and I joke about what it would be like to rock up unexpectedly at a stranger’s house anywhere else in the world looking for a bed and a meal. It just doesn’t happen. And if it did, “The police would certainly be called,” he laughs. “The Gobi people have an expanded sense of fraternity that is seldom found elsewhere in the world and never in cities. It is a philosophy that reflects a shared battle for survival in a harsh environment. Long may the nomadic heart beat!” beams Barry.

The Gobi is indeed a landscape not to be missed. In July 2015, I completed a 4,000-kilometer overland journey through five provinces, discovering my very own dinosaur fossil while walking just east of Bayanzag, also known as the Flaming Cliffs. This is the name given to this region by American paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews, who visited Mongolia in the 1920s. This part of the Gobi is most famous for yielding the world’s first discovery of dinosaur eggs. Scampering around and scaling small cliffs in the brutal desert heat, my friend Chuka and I unearthed a Paleolithic claw of gigantic proportions – buried beneath the surface for millions and millions of years. “These bones are lying around everywhere,” a local tells me. They are often smuggled over the border to China but this one lies here for me to marvel at. I gazed at it, blew sand off of it, touched it and then, covered it back up pretending I was Indiana Jones. A secret lost in time. I want to take my children to this spot, which is etched in my memory. I hope the monstrous claw is still there for years to come.

That evening in the Gobi, I peered into the night sky, teeming with distant galaxies. It was so bright and so beautiful. That same sense of peace and wonder I often get in Mongolia overwhelmed me once more. The next day, we headed further west along a dusty desert road, past a silvery-haired man, his face carved with lines. His deel was old but the color hadn’t faded. He was selling centuries-old bronze arrowheads, which he had found over the years. I see these in Ulaanbaatar’s museums but the Gobi is a living museum. It’s all there, I imagine, mostly unearthed and untouched.

In Dornod Province’s capital city of Choibalsan, I once stumbled upon an old military bunker outside the main museum, which is usually empty and quiet. The musty underground hole was packed with authentic Russian military uniforms, grenades and machine guns. There was nobody in sight to scold me so I pulled the khaki garments off their chains and put them on, like a child playing dress-up. A photo of Stalin on the wall glared at me. I sneezed and coughed – an allergic reaction to dust embedded in this military attire for decades. Nobody was selling me souvenirs or offering to take cheesy photos. There was no kiosk to grab a coke from. This was a real bunker and I was wearing a heavily-starred Soviet uniform, holding an old grenade. I felt a part of history standing there on my own. Stalin’s portrait was a little unnerving, but I straightened, determined to savor the moment.

I spent seven days driving around Tavan Bogd in Bayan-Ulgii Province with my two children in the summer of 2014. Altanbek was our Kazakh driver and, oh my, could he could sing – loudly and with gusto! Had it not been for the song, our drive would have been more arduous along the rugged terrain in a beat-up Russian UAZ jeep, across raging rivers, past ancient Turkic archaeological ruins and old graves. I’d always wanted to see Tavan Bogd and stay with genuine Kazakh Mongol eagle hunters. To my children, who usually trip around with me, this was completely ordinary. We’d just spent a few days recuperating at Khoton Nuur – a remote turquoise lake surrounded by high alpine meadows. We’d rescued a stranded baby goat that was bleating in a dark pine forest, spent some cold nights wrapped in fur on the dirt floor of a brightly decorated Kazakh ger and raced around the countryside on the back of the local doctor’s motorcycle. It was windy. It was heavenly. Altanbek reached our final destination.

“Look at that kids! Ta da…the glorious Tavan Bogd Mountain Range!” My children were car sick, cold and sleepy. Seeing the weariness in their eyes and sensing a meltdown of magnanimous proportions, I pulled their legs, “So, what do you say we do this again next summer?” They simultaneously burst into tears. My son sobbed “Mom, why can’t we please just go to Disneyland?” and flopped his body upon the cold, rocky ground. The overland journey had taken its toll – plus we’d run out of two-minute noodles. They were hungry and refused to touch the ever-present smorgasbord of goat parts. The charred head (often with tongue sticking out between a cavern of teeth) was always the most confronting. Inside I laughed, hoping that one day these kids of mine, who missed their Xbox and modern-day niceties, would recall how lucky they were to have experienced this trip – the toughest one I’d dragged them along on yet. 

I want to leave you with a passage from the novel Big Tiger and Christian: “Their Adventures in Mongolia” by German author Fritz Muhlenweg – it’s a passage that resonates with me:

“The poor foreigner,” he said, “has been acquainted with our grasslands but for four short days.”

“We must pity him,” said the old man with feeling. “How hard it must be,” commented the woman, “not to be born a Mongolian.”

“To be sure,” said the old man, “the fellow is most unfortunate. But how blessed he is to have found his way to us!”

I’ve dreamt that after sauntering alongside the purple khongorzuls, I’m lying in a warm ger on the steppe, wind whistling outside and I can smell the boiling urum (Mongolian clotted cream, formed on boiled milk). I’m looking up at the central ring of the ger, which is called a toono. It is ornately painted with bright blue and orange. I’m listening to the quiet chatter of my hosts who are whispering so as not to wake me. It is always a peaceful slumber. I hope that my children return to this country with their children and their children’s children to relive the adventure. I hope that the rich culture of my home, Mongolia, endures throughout the years.

Allyson Seaborn moved back to Australia two years ago. She used to work as the editor of The UB Post and her kids, now 17 and 18, boast to their friends about their trip to Bayan-Ulgii Province and how this is one of their favorite childhood memories. She requested The UB Post to republish this article she wrote in October 2015 as she wished to share her fondness and admiration for Mongolia and its people with a wider audience.

Dulguun Bayarsaikhan