Monthly Archives: July 2009

the deepness of Mongolian generosity

i kid not, the title doesn’t do justice to the depth of Mongolian generosity.

i have long known how generous Mongolians are. i’ve known it now for more than a decade. but, what happened yesterday still brings tears to my eyes.

on my first trip to Mongolia, i studied up on Mongolian culture via Lonely Planet. they said how if you showed up at a ger [also known by the Russian moniker, yurt] and the family fed you or let you spend the night and you tried to pay them, it was considered rude. this was really hard to take on the first trip. ‘mericans, in general, like to give as well and really like to give money as a gift. so, when you show up at someone’s home and they put on a big spread, and you can tell they obviously have little monetary assets [and you often see a couple of children running around], you really want to give back some how; to at least show your appreciation. it is hard not to do that.

it is hard not to do that when you show up at someone’s house and they drop what they are doing, no matter what, pour you a nice bowl of piping hot Mongolian tea [1/2 milk, black tea, perhaps some butter and salt in the west (little to no salt in the east)]. this offering is quickly followed up by a big bowl of hard candy and, often, a bowl of dried yogurt and cheese. if you stay for nearly an hr and it is August, airag [fermented mare’s milk] will be pulled out and a small drinking ceremony begins. airag is roughly 1.5%, so it isn’t overwhelming, alcohol-wise. if you stay longer, let’s say for 2-3 hrs, they will cook you a meal.

and here is the tricky thing: the longer you stay, the more they give. you don’t want to leave quickly for seeming rude. and, back in the 1990s when westerners were rare, they enjoyed the company and were very curious of us. more so, they wanted to share what they could share with their American guests. having an American in your home was seemingly a great thing – almost a thing of pride. we’d talk, ask questions back and forth, joke…etc.

in reflection, their generosity is an amazing thing, especially during the slightly ‘hunger years’ of the post-communism 1990s.

what we would often do during the 1990s was pull out the Polaroid and take pictures of the family with us and give them to them. these pictures immediately went up on the bureau that was full of family pictures from the past 30-50 years. we could often study family trees via this display. there were the parents of the grandparents in this home. there are the pix of the grandparents newly married or entering the military. there are the parents and their siblings and then some pictures of children.

and then there was our picture with them. right up there with the family pictures. it was an amazing thing to me.

ahh, but that was 11 yrs ago in rural, western Mongolia where few people lived and fewer westerners visited. what about today?

today, i can tell you, that among my colleagues, their families and friends, the generosity culture has not worn thin with rapid cultural change & westernization. our host sleeps very little when we are in town. he does EVERYTHING for us – everything to make our visit successful, enjoyable and comfortable. and, he is the head of his department in the #1 university in Mongolia. his students work just as hard.

so, what happened yesterday, however, just blew all of this experience and knowledge away.

i hosted a Mongolian student for about 3 months in the spring. on this trip she said many times that she wanted me to meet her parents. as time was short before i left, i suggested that next yr would be better. she didn’t give up [and heard through the grapevine she shed some tears when her supervisor suggested the same thing – it was that important]. so, as the August crew was headed through her parent’s town to conduct one more field trip, we decided to follow them out for lunch at the parent’s house.

lunch – HA!

it was Thanksgiving. out came the Mongolian tea [unfortunately for me, no salt – i like salty, Mongolian tea]. then the candy [hershey’s kisses, tootsie rolls & hard candy, no less]. then, khushuu [fried meat dumplings about 2.5″ wide X 4-5″ long X 0.5″ thick]. then, pickles. then, “Russian” salad [pickled carrots, peppers and some other veggies – kinda sweet, very nice]. then, orange juice. then fresh airag – the best airag i’ve had yet in my five visits. her father wasn’t eating much. when i asked why, he said he was waiting for the real food….i instinctively stopped eating. this was the warm up. out came nicely cooked mutton on a large platter. again, the best mutton i’ve had in Mongolia. the platter about about 18″ in diameter. the food was piled up about one foot. it also had carrots and potatoes. it was very fine. after a few minutes, the drinking ceremony started for real. first airag. then, suddenly, unexpectedly, out came Elijah Craig bourbon. she knew this was my favorite bourbon and somehow got it all the way to eastern Mongolia from Kentucky. all carry on….well, this really hit the spot. so, i partook more than usual to show appreciation.

though we cannot pay, we can show our appreciation by knowing the rituals and eating & drinking deeply. even if you are painfully shy and do not eat much, you can make this all up by draining a bowl of beverage in one slug. thus, i did this.

after about 30 minutes, a blue scarf came out. these blue scarves are sacred. you can find them on sacred trees and oovas. they wrapped the scarf around a copper drinking bowl filled with what i thought was airag, but turned out to be milk [whew! i knew i had to drink deeply again]. they gave the first one to our Mongolian host and then a second one to me.

well, i was touched and drank very deeply. i drank all of it.

but, the bowl, scarf and honor was not the real gift. as i was finishing, they informed me that my student’s parents bought each of us a horse. really. seriously. a horse. there is a horse in the country side that i ‘own’. seriously.

[her Mongolian teacher, our host, actualy has his choice between a cow or a horse]

“my” horse is only a young horse right now, apparently. when the student sees it, she will take a picture. i was/am stunned. it took about 10 minutes to understand what happened. the copper bowl, scarf and honor was enough. it was so hard to accept it. i made a crude joke to try to ease my feelings. i said that next yr i would eat it [horse really tastes good]. they said no, that it would live out its natural life on the Mongolian Steppe. so, i was then shamed again.

“of course i wouldn’t eat it!”, i clarified. they joked i could race in Nadaam next yr. while i am still young-looking for my age, i think they will notice that a) i am not Mongolian [that might be a close one. i might be able to sneak through] and b) i am a bit older than the other riders, who are typically 6-10 yrs old.

but, think about it. i hosted and trained their daughter. i taught her some field and lab methods. she created three chronologies for me and assisted my students. i only taught her a little bit. i’m actually kinda embarrassed at the host i was during her visit compared to how i am treated in Mongolia. it is embarrassing.

but really, think about it. what they essentially gave me was a car. the horse in Mongolia is the equivalent of a car in the U.S. they gave me a car for doing my job, a job i wish i had performed better before the horse.

i was stunned for the next three hrs [i still am when i think about it]. i cried, internally, for hrs.




last night over dinner my host said that when you are fed in Mongolia, you are supposed to feed those feeding you more than what you were fed next time you have the chance.

what do i do? any ideas?



yesterday was really an emotional day for me. the horse is obvious. after we parted from the August crew, however, my host and i headed back to Ulaanbaatar, we first stopped at the Kherlen Gol [gol = river]. i went to wash my face, hands and neck in Kherlen water. this is a river i had never seen before, but i am deeply connected to. see, this river was the main subject of my first, true scientific paper. it is a paper with a long personal history. it was initially & harshly rejected by reviewers on the DAY i was accepted into my phd program. it was a day when i wondered if the path i was now moving along was the right one for me.

eight years later i have to say yes. washing in the Kherlen brought full circle the real beginning of my scientific career and my initial ventures in Mongolia


what a difference a word makes

dear readers,
i do not foresee too many more posts this summer (on my end, at least) – next week is my last week here and i am overwhelmed by the things that need to get done before i leave, not to mention the words that must be memorized before my final exam next week! but i wanted to share with you just how inspiring it’s been to be able to use my arabic, as full of errors as it may be.
as i think i mentioned in an earlier post, i have been spending an afternoon or two a week in the old city, doing homework with classmates and speaking arabic as much as possible. our conversations are full of mistakes and many english words (or hebrew, depending on who i am with) make their way into our sentences – – but the effort is there.

and the effort has been met with such warmth! arab hospitality at its best – – just for speaking a few words of a shopkeeper’s mother tongue.

i plan on continuing with my arabic as much as i can this given year and in the future – but the response i’ve received in the past few weeks has proven to me that even just a little bit makes a huge difference. this is so important for the kind of work (and research) i do, and i knew that before – – but it’s been made all the more clear during my time in jerusalem this summer.

one city, three worlds…

the city i refer to is jerusalem.
i’ve been thinking about this city recently, and i think there are at least three worlds somehow coexisting here – definitely not peacefully, but coexisting nonetheless.

first, there is the city i most identify with – secular (or at least not super-religious) west jerusalem. this is where i live, where i seek out culture and nightlife, where i run in the mornings, where i do my grocery shopping, where i meet my friends.

but recently i’ve been discovering east jerusalem – part of the same city, yet an entirely different world. a world where i hear arabic rather than hebrew, and where i have plenty of opportunities to practice my arabic – at a coffee shop, at the shuk, or asking directions. believe it or not, despite having lived here for more than two years (at different points in my life), i am only just now discovering this ‘world’ in jerusalem. it’s got an entirely different vibe than the west side of town, and no, i don’t feel like i am going to get shot when i am there (not that i’ve spent that much time there). i was talking with a friend the other day, though, and we were discussing the fact that as jewish israelis we’ve somehow been taught (indirectly and directly) that we shouldn’t go to this side of town because it is dangerous/unsafe/bad/all of the above. it’s been an interesting challenge for me over the past few weeks to try to break this mindset somewhat. i can’t say i’ve totally succeeded, but i am definitely feeling more comfortable in the christian/muslim/armenian quarters of the old city. (and no, i haven’t ventured deep into east jerusalem beyond that). it’s made me think quite a bit about the way we’re taught to see the world and how this differs so greatly depending on what side of the line we grow up on – in israel, and elsewhere. and how much of what we’re taught is reality, and how much of it is not.


i mentioned three worlds. the third world, and, quite honestly, the one i least understand, is the world of the ultra-othodox jews (both in east and west jerusalem). this world has been crashing into my world the last few days – the haredi (ultra-orthodox) community instigated a series of violent riots throughout the city in response to the arrest of a mother accused of starving her son. the riots have been blocking major thoroughfares in the city, which is a major pain, but my morning commute is nothing compared to the fact that they’ve been setting fires, vandalizing traffic lights, and clashing violently with the police. this is in additon to the ongoing demonstrations that have been held in protest against the opening of a parking lot near the old city on shabbat…
i like to think of myself as a pretty open-minded person, ready to hear the views of almost everyone, but this has really thrown me for a loop. who are these people? what in the world are they thinking? and why are none of their leaders telling them to stop?? sheesh.

like i said, one city, three worlds. it’s definitely an interesting place…

Jerusalem dialogue

Last night I facilitated a dialogue about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for a group of non-Israelis living in Jerusalem. The dialogue was sponsored by this organization, which I consult/facilitate for on occasion. Although the group has facilitated over 200 dialogues in the USA on this issue, last night was the first one to take place in Israel.
It was a fascinating conversation, but the most interesting comment that was made was, essentially, “Why does this matter?” In other words, what’s the importance of dialogue, and more importantly, dialogue about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while we’re in Israel?
It’s a good question – in fact, it’s the one I’ve been asking myself for years, and the question that I hope is the basis of the dissertation I start working on imminently (I guess you could say I already have begun to work on it, since all my meetings here – or the large majority of them – have focused on preparations for next summer’s research). So I was intrigued by it last night. The interesting thing is, nobody really had a clear answer. It’s not that people didn’t think that this dialogue wasn’t important, it’s just that they couldn’t answer *why* it is. Interesting…

Anyway, my apologies otherwise for not posting much lately – it’s been super busy. But, I have some pictures from a trip last Saturday to Israel’s “Orchid Park,” and those should be posted soon.

You’ve come a long way (baby)/Whiffs of the ADKs/Where is my Mongolia

I will not be able to post as much or as in depth as I had hoped. There is little down time on this project so far. We’ve completed the first leg of our field research. it was great getting into the Mongolian countryside again. anyhow, so this post will almost be a grocery list of thoughts & observations [i wish blogging/internet cafes were common on my first trip 11 yrs ago. the experience was so much more intense. i had much more to say about Mongolia then].

act I – You’ve come a long way (baby) – i cannot believe how ‘far’ China and Mongolia have come in the last 3-10 yrs. the Beijing airport is something to behold – it really is lovely. the changes in Mongolia in the short time since my first visit in 1998 borders on unfathomable. they’ve remade Sukh Bator Square so now there is a wonderful statue of Chinggis Khaan overlooking the square. 10-11 yrs ago the parliment building on the square was a drab, communist building [like the 1st beijing airport i traveled through]. now, it is a wonderful tribute to Mongolia’s long history. yet, it is touched with a wonderful glass facade. it is really interesting to see how Mongolia blends the old with the new. Mongolia went from the 1600’s [or 1900s] to the 21st century in about 20 yrs. it is interesting to se how they honor the Mongolian Empire while consuming the modern world. i’ll try to dig up pix from 10 yrs ago sometime when back in the states. the change is unreal.

act II – yesterday we were deep in the Mongolian landscape, yet relatively close to the cap[itol city of Ulaanbaatar. what struck me the most was how much one part of the landscape reminded me of the southern Adirondacks. in the past, i traveled to the coldest or driest portion of the Mongolian forest. yesterday we were in one of the wettest. we came upon a jeep trail that petered out at the base of a curving mtn range. to our left was a large wetland complex filled with shrub willow and potentilla. the surrounding forest was a mix of boreal conifers & hardwoods. it was lovely. it smelled wonderful. the scent in the air told me i was in the boreal forest, yet, in combination with the landscape of low mtn and large wetland complex, it transported me to the southern Adirondacks north of the West Canada Lakes region. as i have been extremely fortunate in seeing many patches of the world, i have constantly been trying to find a place like the ADKs. a part of Siberia was close in geology. but, it lacked the water & wetlands. yesterday’s location was the closest yet that i’ve seen. i really wanted to camp there for a while. it was the first place in Mongolia that the reminded me of home.

– speaking of home, as you know, Mongolia is like a second home to me. i had no idea at the time, in 1998, at how lucky i was to be here so soon after the fall of communism. i saw a very basic Mongolia – little religion, communist architecture, pure Mongolian food and shopping. it was physically hard on westerners. the food is a acquired taste. now, however, you can buy almost everything from western civilization that you possibly want. we got organic raisins from Whole Foods, for Pete’s sake. i could almost come here with only my research equipment and some clothes and buy all i need to conduct a month’s research. it is so far from 1998. so far that i almost miss it. but, it makes me think of what is happening internally. i cannot even conceive of the culture wars happening between generations, the sexes and rural VS urban. the culture wars in the US are nothing, i would guess.

apologies for typos. gotta run for a meeting. try to get more out over the weekend. we ar attending Nadaam. i’m really excited about this.

btw, i did realize which piece of meat that i ate yesterday was horse. it was really fantastic meat!

more of Jerusalem

i took this picture from the mt. scopus campus of the hebrew university of jerusalem (where i’m taking my arabic class). it’s not the best photo, but (i hope) it gives you a sense of what it’s like to look over the old city from the university. (this picture is the result of me trying to put together a panoramic…it didn’t come out so well, sorry. neil, you’ll have to help with this when you get a chance!)

the arabic class, by the way, is really kicking my butt (and no, to all interested parties, i don’t know how to say that in arabic yet). i have become very, very good friends with both of my dictionaries, and i’ve been listening to israeli radio in arabic (i learned the word for “junction” the other day!), but there’s no doubt about it – there are days when i feel completely overwhelmed. however, this afternoon after class, i went with two of my classmates to the old city, where we found a cafe at which to sit and do our homework…and speak lots of arabic with others sitting there. it definitely felt good to be using the language in a setting other than the classroom – after all, that’s why i’m learning it!