31 January 2011

Mongolia - The Land Of The Eternal Blue Sky

Did you know the average population density of Mongolia (2011) is 1.4 people per square kilometre? This is my brief introduction to the vast 'eternal landscapes' of Mongolia

There is a traditional Mongolian saying: 'man's joy is in wide-open and empty spaces.'  Here at Eternal Landscapes we completely agree - Mongolia is a country of sublime space and to stand amidst its landscapes is to see the world at its largest – nature on an incredible scale.  It makes you feel joyous.

Mongolian ger, Gobi Desert
Physically isolated behind massive natural barriers, Mongolia is the size of Western Europe - covering an area of 1,565,000 square kilometres. With a population of 2.7 million this leads to an average population density of roughly 1.4 people per square kilometre. It is a country of sublime space dominated by the sky. 
Mongolia is an ancient land of marked extremes, from its climate to its extraordinary natural environment. This boundless land stretches from horizon to horizon in bands of colour with constantly changing light and shadows. It is a land of contrast and unmatched geographical diversity (the remote Gobi Desert, the forested and pristine alpine north, the endless rolling steppe and the rivers and lakes that bring vital life to the nomads and their livestock). Mongolia's 'ecosystems  are of global importance because of their diversity, size and continuity.' (Bradt Guide to Mongolia). 
The vast wilderness landscapes are matched only by the vast stretching 'Eternal Sky' and both landscapes and sky are considered sacred by the nomadic herders. The Mongols practised ancestral shamanism, praying to the spirits around them. They worshipped the Eternal Blue Sky (Tenger) and the myriad spiritual forces of nature. The Eternal Sky was the most powerful and mighty of all forces and Chinngis Khan believed that he conquered with the Rule of Heaven - the supreme god of the Eternal Blue Sky. A combination of shamanistic and Buddhist belief remains to this day as an easy and unselfconscious part of Mongolian life. It is expressed in the stone shrines (ovoos) and the names of mountains: most are holy or sacred.

Lake Khovsgol at Khovsgol Nuur National Park, Mongolia
Sacred Lake Khosvgol - Dalai Ej - Mother Sea
I frequently mention to our clients that travelling through Mongolia is almost like a state of mind. It is not a destination where you tick off the number of places seen - it is a country 'just to be' and let each day and each  journey unfold. I like to remind clients to remove their watch, wind down and not to spend time thinking 'when will we get there?' They are already there, surrounded by the beauty, space and diversity that is Mongolia.

Of course, all journeys can be broken up with a turn around an ovoo. These stone shrines are erected by local families and travellers to show gratitude and respect and to honour the spirits of the surrounding land.  They are circled three times in a clockwise direction, and a small offering made, in order to ensure the safety of the trip or to ensure good fortune in life. When you visit, why not leave a khadag (one of the sacred blue scarves)  to fly in the wind - it's a delightful custom and you will leave a little of yourself in the spectacular, fascinating and welcoming country that is Mongolia.

A shamanistic ovoo. Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park, Mongolia

 'With time the ovoos become strange spiritual junk heaps piled with the debris of Mongolian life - a rickety construction of anxieties and hopes'
(Tim Severin)

'Creating them remains an easy, unselfconscious part of travel. a ritual by which Mongolians assert their heritage and the network that binds them'.
(John Man)

If you're interested in experiencing Mongolia the Eternal Landscapes way, why not have a look at the Mongolia holidays and tours pages on my Eternal Landscapes website?

2 January 2011

Mongolian Legends - The Camel Versus The Mouse

One of my favourite Mongolian legends about the animal zodiac. And yes, it is still doing the rounds in the 21st Century

My desk is not always as organised as I would like. I frequently visit the office of my website designer whose desk is impeccably arranged and organised. When I mentioned this he said, 'I am a Virgo - we have a reputation for being neat-freaks.' This made me think about the animal zodiac - the 12-year cycle that relates each year to an animal and its reputed attributes. There are several legends and folk-tales about how the animals were chosen - here is the Mongolian version that I share with clients when we are on tour.

Moonrise over sand dunes, Gobi Desert, Mongolia.
The Lunar Calendar is used in Mongolia for marking the new year, traditional holidays and auspicious dates. It incorporates elements of the lunar calendar with those of the solar calendar.  New Year is known as Tsagaan Sar which means White Month. It marks the ending of winter, the start of spring and a new beginning.
Image taken by Egon Filter.

Once upon a time during ancient times, God decided to create a 'pattern of time'. One day he made an announcement 'I am creating a 12-year calendar; however, I need 12 different animals to distinguish each year. I've decided that tomorrow afternoon the first 12 animals that appear before me will receive one of the years, until I have all 12'. So, the following day, animals appeared before him - an ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and a pig. However, the 12th animal that appeared was actually two; the camel and the mouse. God did not know which to choose.

The camel is proud, big and self-confident and the mouse is the opposite: quiet, shy and modest. God decided to have a contest for the 12th year because both animals were equal to him. The following day the mouse and the camel were told to watch for the sun to rise. The first to see it rise would go back immediately to God and tell him.

The camel sat on a hill facing east where the sun always rises. He was confident that he would see the sun rise first because he thought himself as very intelligent and was taller than the mouse. The little mouse, sat on the camel's hump and when the sun began to rise he saw the sun breaking the horizon before the camel. Thus, the mouse won the contest and became the first animal of the animal zodiac.

(A new addition to an old blog post. Here, in July 2013, we've just said good-bye to the Touchton family who have been travelling with us in the Gobi on one of our Mongolia family holidays I was telling them the above tale when Turuu, the lead driver for EL, asked if I had heard what Mongolian herding families say about the ash left over from the fire in the ger stove. I hadn't. Herders always dispose of the ash a distance away from the ger and camels like to roll in the ash and use it as a 'scratching post' - Mongolian herders say this is as a way of trying to get rid of the pesky mouse that won against the camel!). 

Bactrian camel humps, Gobi Desert
Who's got the hump?!