Published: October 26th 2010October 24th 2010
The statue of Ghengis Khan is placed as a figurehead on the front of the State Palace
Mongolia - land of blue skies and cold nights and winter has only just begun.
Caroline and I landed in Ulaanbaatar at 10pm last Thursday after 27 hours travelling from home via South Korea. We were met at the airport by Shombodon, our Mongolian assistant and his son, who is to be our driver. Shombodon is friendly man with a wealth of experience colaborating with researchers and NGOs.
I am here to work on a research project looking at pastoralist communities and nature and changes in land management brought about through the influences of donor agencies and religious revival particularly Buddhism. I will be spending 6 weeks with herders now and another 3 months in the spring. It's Caroline's 10th visit here and she is running this project with another researcher from Cambridge through funding from the Leverhulme Trust.
Our first few days have been in Mongolia's capital Ulaanbaatar so we can arrange our work. So after landing we were whisked off through the night to Hotel Negdelchin, our Soviet style hotel. The rooms were rather jaded but thankfully warm - too warm - and have ensuite showers.
Ulaanbaatar is a Soviet style city - grey, square
Lenin also features but as time goes on has less influence
blocks. From 1920s to 1990 Mongolia was a socialist country under the influence of Russia and this is evident in the capital. There are a few scattered Buddhist monasteries and a central square in front of the State Palace which features a large statue of Ghengis Khan, Mongolia's historical figurehead. Mongolia is now a democracy and trying to develop a new economy although over 60% of the population are still herders and depend on their livestock. The country is rich in minerals, particularly gold, which may bering future wealth but also environmental problems.
As we landed on Thursday evening the air temperature was 8 degrees C, similar to home but within 3 days it has dropped to -4 degrees in the day. Winter is approaching rapidly. There are occasional flurries of snow and I already have my thermal leggings on. Local people are variously dressed from older folk in traditional deel gowns to young ladies in modern dress and high heels. There is a large state store and some new exclusive stores selling goods that are way out of the price afforded by most Monglians. There are few tourists although enough cafes and restaurants to supply the non-Mongolian palette
Buddhism is reviving and it's influence in environmental conservation and herder livelihoods is one of the foci of our research.
which prefers a meat based diet.
With barely a night to sleep and recover from jet lag we had our first meeting with Shombodon to organise our field work. He helpfully started to call around and arrange meetings and arrange where we were to be based in the steppe-desert area in the Gobi. Most of the work will be in Bayankhoingor aimag (province) in south of Mongolia. We are choosing 2-4 soums (districts) to concentrate on. For 5 weeks I will be based there, with patchy phone and doubtful internet connections. Caroline is returning to the UK next week.
On Saturday we arranged to visit Gandan monastery in Ulaanbaatar. One of our interests is how Buddhist and shamanic beliefs are reviving and how they may be shaping people's use and beliefs about thier lands and pastoral practices. Traditionally in the past spiritual sites were protected and areas of land set aside for emergencies. Under Soviet rule these practices declined but in some places are now being revived in a form of enviropnmental protection. We hope at some point to interview key leaders at monasteries in Mongolia to ask about their work. Shombodon accompanied us but unfortunately the person
Traditional dress is vibrant in colour and the singing beautiful
we wished to see was not there. The monastery itself survived the Soviet era although the main gold Buddha statue has been rebuilt after the original was melted down for bullets by the Soviets.
Shombodon later sadly announced that he did not feel that he was the best person to accompany me on the fieldwork due to hearing problems and introduced us to Nyamaa another Mongolian researcher. She quickly understood our work and immediately became part of our team. I am looking forward to working with her. She looked worried about our accommodation in the Gobi - I am afraid it may be a small guesthouse with little heating and she ominously warned me of -20 degrees by the end of November.
On Sunday evening we were invited to a concert by people staying at our hotel. This was a mix of traditional Monglian music, children dancing, Russian influenced classical singing. It was marred only by the drunk sitting next to me clapping and whisling his way through the concert.
On Monday I went through the laborious process of extending my visa at the Immigration Office near the airport. Shombodon was a great help and we managed
River and buildings
Dry river, mountains and Soviet style appartments in Ulaanbaatar
to get my passport updated. I still have to clarify if I was officially registered in the country though. I don;t want to be arrested whilst I am here!
This may be the last blog for a while as we leave for Bogd soum in Bayonhongor province tomorrow morning. I hope I have enough thermals to keep me warm.