Under the Big Mongolian Sky: Echoes from the Steppes

Under the big sky are the Mongolian steppes. Only the distant mountains challenge its rule over an almost infinite space.

But man, too, with his implements dares cross its borders to get to high ground;

Where he may or may not find himself a blissful retreat;

I stood in the darkness in the middle of the steppe one evening and saw something I’ve never seen before; an unobstructed view of the stars in the skies above and the horizons around me.  Nothing else was there; no trees, no skyscrapers, just the stars all over, as if I was under a huge dome made of stars. That was when I realized why they also call Mongolia the land of the big sky.

Where Mother Nature’s snow melts on mountaintops and sends streams into the valleys;

Streams of life that caress the windswept plains;

Streams that sustain the grasslands that feed the herd;

Streams that give hope to Mother Nature’s children;

And thus feed the hungry souls in her growing cities;

And then the plains and mountains wait for the snow once again.

Such is the cycle of life under the big Mongolian sky.

I was in a ger camp of a herder family and the day was spent doing what herders do in the steppes but, because of the seemingly endless breadth of open space, much of the time was lost just driving to places; to the next ger camp, to their grazing herd, to a ‘nearby’ river, and then back to camp (Good I chose to ride in the car instead of on a horseback!).  The trip to the river was especially arranged so I could try fishing in its waters.  Unfortunately, the fishing gear they produced were not appropriate and I caught nothing.

But, back at base, the family surprised me with a bunch of freshly-caught fish and everybody just smiled when I asked where they came from.  After a huge dinner of fish and meat, I was treated to a welcome party of vodka, vodka, and more vodka. Oh, there was also airag, a fermented mare’s milk, but it didn’t last long and we quickly shifted back to vodka. Apparently, a hoard of vodka bottles was riding with us all along from the city and all over the steppes in an old Russian jeep !

After the ceremonial offering of vodka to Mother Nature  — done by flicking droplets of vodka to the air using the right hand fingers — followed by a series of 3 shots and exchange of well-wishes with the head herder; each person around the camp fire took turns drinking shots but the rule was one has to render a song before drinking. Luckily, there was a young herder’s son who can beautifully render a khoomei  or throat singing and he made a good substitute singer for me after the first 3 rounds. The others rendered songs summarized to me by my English-speaking Mongolian colleague as songs about nature, mother, the horse, the wind, love — almost in that order of frequency. I didn’t understand a word from their songs but it was often a heartfelt rendition and, with much help from the vodka, I eventually sang with them in Mongolian, my own version, and even requested some of the melodies I liked to be sung once again.

That night was one of my most memorable in Mongolia. Though I didn’t like vodka that much, I gained a deep appreciation of the Mongolians‘ strong connection with Mother Nature.  But the biggest surprise to me was the boy’s throat singing — my first experience with khoomei where two or more notes were simultaneously produced from the throat and the sounds of the steppe’s wind, animals and natural surroundings were imitated. The boy’s father bragged that the melody produced by his son can travel great distances in the steppe and I believed him. The group fell silent everytime the boy started singing and the strange but beautiful sound seemed to float in the air and ride the wind to the deep and dark reaches of the steppe then come back to us moments later.

When it was time to sleep many hours later, I was was given a space on the floor together with the rest of the family inside the head herder’s ger. Having been briefed by my colleague that I came from the tropics, they covered my body with 3 layers of thick sheets but I didn’t get to sleep that soon. On top of the snoring and various sounds people make when sleeping, I can still hear the boy’s voice reverberating from the steppe.  Or, perhaps it was Mother Nature herself singing a lullaby? I couldn’t tell.

I was sweaty under the 3 layers of sheets when I woke up at dawn. My hosts were still asleep so I groped my way out of the ger where a glorious early morning greeted me.  The stars were fading, a cool breeze was blowing, and the distant mountains were starting to appear in various shades of blue.  At the herds’ corrals, two ladies were starting to milk the goats and cows while a man was preparing the horses.  I heard something that sounded like a wolf’s howl from far away.  It’s the start of another exciting day in communion with Mother Nature at the steppes.

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Note from the Author: Except for the photo of grazing horses, all the photos in this post were taken at Uvs Aimag, Mongolia way back in 2005 (the photo of grazing horses was taken in Cental Aimag in 2009); the photo of the city and the mountain cottage were taken at Ulaangoum Soum, also in Uvs Province.  The cloth-covered pole in the 2nd and last photo is an animist totem placed by shamans and can be found all over the steppes so that the passersby can pay respects to Mother Nature.

If it’s your first time to hear about throat singing, there’s a short article about it at the website of Smithsonian Folkways in this link.  Thank you for visiting this post.

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