Brendan Devine is a graduate student currently pursuing his master’s degree in Central Eurasian Studies. He traveled to Mongolia in the summer of 2016 on a Title VIII fellowship. He agreed to write about his experience for the IAUNRC website and newsletter.
“Wild Horses, Wolves, and Weddings”
When I first arrived in Mongolia, it was after midnight. I had just spent the better part of 26 hours on planes or in airports. I was tired, and I was struggling to remember even basic Mongolian after having studied the language for two years. The first week I was hesitant to speak Mongolian for fear of embarrassment. However, Mongolians are among the kindest and most earnest people I have ever met. When they discovered that I was actually making an effort to learn the language, they were excited to speak with me and to help me learn, and I found them to be very patient with my mistakes and mispronunciation. I quickly found that the best way to practice my Mongolian and to force myself to find creative ways to express new ideas was simply to leave the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, or even just to leave the city center. The farther from the city center you go the less likely you are to find English speakers and in many sojourns out into the beautiful Mongolian steppes, I did not encounter a single Mongolian who spoke English. With this revelation, I found myself leaving the city at every opportunity that I had, which led to some of the best experiences of my life.
Just a few weeks after I arrived in Mongolia, I took a day trip to Khustai National Park which is a must see in any tour guide book for Mongolia. Khustai is a protected area in Mongolia that is home to the Takhi (Przewalki’s Horse) which were reintroduced to the area in the early 1990s and are the only non-domesticated, wild horses left in the world. Takhi are short and stocky in comparison to Western horses. They are endangered and even in protected zones they are rare. Many tourists will stay in ger camps near popular watering holes and wait for the horses to come down out of the hills and mountains in the evenings. However, when I went to Khustai it was extremely hot, in excess of 100 degrees, and the park rangers told us the Takhi were high in the mountains and it would be a long hike if we wanted to see them. Undeterred, my companions and I trekked into the mountains. After hours of searching in the heat, we had nearly decided to give up when we realized the cliff we were standing atop was serving as a shelter from the heat for the Takhi below us. We were able to observe the horses for quite some time before returning to the camp tired, sore, and dehydrated. We found out while talking with other people at the camp that no one else had gotten to see the horses, making us feel even luckier and glad we hadn’t given up when we had first discussed the proposition.
Two weeks later, during the Naadam holiday, I found myself once again out on the steppes but this time for an entire week! I started my week at a popular tourist site but when one of the employees discovered that I was studying Mongolian, he told me that he had a friend who lived not far from where we were and that he could arrange to have me stay with them for a few nights. In hindsight, the fact that this was not the biggest surprise of my time in Mongolia is, in itself, a bit astonishing. During my time with this family, I learned how to ride a horse. On the first day, I spent a couple of hours being led around the camp by a young boy who was more than ten years younger than me. On the second day, I was thrown fully in. We rode for nearly 12 hours that day ranging further and further from camp. Easily the most terrifying moment came when my new friends led their horses into the Tuul River, which was easily four feet deep where we crossed. To me it seemed a miracle that these hardy ponies handled the strong current and carried us across with only some damp boots. Adding to a wonderful experience, we saw a pack of wolves in the valley neighboring our own, which was a treat to say the least. However, it also led to a long night in the saddle as the family wanted to keep an eye on their sheep, an adventure which I was glad to have been excused from after an already long day in the saddle.
When I returned to Ulaanbaatar at the end of the week I was certain that nothing could top the week I had just spent hiking in the mountains, swimming in the frigid Tuul River, riding horses, and having been immersed in the culture, food, and hospitality of the Mongolian people. I made a few more trips to the countryside over the following weekends and visited the city’s black market (although there is nothing illegal about it!) Naran Tuul on a number of occasions to shop for friends and family. My official classes ended the first week of August and I had a few days before I would return to Bloomington for the fall semester. I decided that I wanted to get out of the city one last time and visit a small town, which had been the first place outside of Ulaanbaatar that I had visited in Mongolia. I decided not to bring my camera or my smart phone as I had visited before and had plenty of pictures from my first trip. Instead, I elected only to bring the small phone that I had purchased for use in Mongolia, a cellphone that would have been outdated 15 years ago in the US. In hindsight, it was a mistake!
I was scheduled to leave Mongolia on Monday morning, so on Saturday I found myself a taxi and negotiated a price of 20,000 tögrög (less than $10 American) and settled in for the two-hour ride out to the country. When I arrived, I paid my driver and started down the dirt road into town. By the time I realized that the town was oddly deserted, my driver was already a speck in the distance only distinguishable by the cloud of dust in his wake. As I made my way to the far edge of town (less than a kilometer), I realized I had walked into a wedding and - it being such a small town - everyone in the village had been invited! Not wanting to intrude, I tried to make my way down to the river thinking that I would just spend a quiet day alone before calling for a taxi back to the city. Before I had made it halfway to the river, I found myself with a short, elderly Mongolian woman pulling on my arm and leading me back towards the festivities.
Before I knew it, I was in the middle of a Mongolian wedding, dressed in jeans and an IU t-shirt, and feeling more out of place than I perhaps have ever been in my life! At first I felt like I was intruding but everyone seemed happy to have me there and were delighted when they found out that I spoke Mongolian, although, as weddings were completely new to me, there was a lot that needed explaining and more new words than I could keep straight! I found out that the old woman who had pulled me in was the bride’s mother and the people made me feel welcome as if I was simply an invited guest who had arrived late! The hospitality of the Mongolian people never ceased to amaze me! We danced and sang, ate delicious food, and I was teased for not partaking in the airag, an alcoholic drink made by fermenting mare’s milk. The children were delighted to try to teach me even the simplest songs, which I struggled with mightily!
As the afternoon went on the festivities only seemed to become livelier and some of the men and boys began to wrestle. In Mongolia, wrestling is one of the culture’s traditional “Three Manly Sports” along with horse riding and archery. I was taken aback when pulled into the wrestling and paired with boy much younger and 40 lbs. lighter than I but joined in the laughter when he easily threw me to my back!
Before I knew it the sun was setting and I realized that there was no way that I would be able to arrange a ride back to Ulaanbaatar that evening. When I mentioned this, I was immediately welcomed for the evening and given a warm bed to sleep in. The next morning I awoke with the sun to find that my hosts had already arranged a ride back to the city for me. After a hearty and grateful farewell, I was on my way back to Ulaanbaatar. My driver asked me, in broken English, where in the city I lived. I answered him in Mongolian and we found ourselves talking the entire way back to the city. As we reached the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, I realized that we had spoken, with little trouble, for nearly two hours.
As I returned to my apartment to pack my belongings, I found the irony in the difference that just a few short months had made. I had arrived in Mongolia scared to speak and I had trouble communicating where I had arranged to live for the summer. Yet, I left with a series of wonderful memories of the best summer of my life. It was an unexpected turn of events for someone who had always struggled to learn foreign languages. I found that I had come further than I ever expected when I first sat in Tserenchunt Legden’s Introductory Mongolian class during the IU Summer Language Workshop just two years before. With the help of wonderful teachers at IU, the Mongolian community in Bloomington, and a generous Title VIII fellowship from the Summer Language Program, I was able to embark on the best summer of my life