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Published: February 12th 2011
Happy Tsagaan Sar
Suvdaa, Nomin (Suvdaa's daughter), Me and Suvdaa's husband
Spring has sprung!
I am probably speaking too early but there is nothing like seeing (and more importantly, feeling) temperatures in the negative teens (and single figures during the warmest part of the day) rather than negative twenties and thirties! Even the ice melted off my apartment windows!
The lead up to Tsagaan Sar (Цагаан сар, literally 'White Month', Mongolian Lunar New Year) felt so much like Christmas at home. There was a major shopping frenzy, work slowed down, including work days being unofficially shortened, and the black market seemed to be brimming with more sheep carcasses than usual. Why? See my photos - all families cook up a whole sheep for the four day event.
Tsagaan Sar is all about family, honoring the elderly, visiting, and celebrating the end of 81 days of winter! The start of Tsagaan Sar on Thursday 3 February coincided with the Chinese Lunar New Year, as it did last year, but this is not always the case.
Like Christmas at home, people go all out for this festival and even take out loans to ensure they can purchase all the food and gifts required to make sure the start of the
new year is a prosperous one. Work places help out too. For example, at the Darkhan Health Department, they announced that first 2 weeks pay for February would be paid in advance (on 1 or 2 Feb) rather than mid-February.
Buuz, steamed mutton dumplings, are prepared a few weeks in advance as they can be frozen. I did a quick poll of my Mongolian friends to find out how many buuz they had prepared for Tsagaan Sar and these are my results: Suvdaa, my Mongolian language teacher, 1500, Battsengel, one of the Health Department managers, 2000, and Altai, my interpreter, 500. With the exception of me, the foreigner, invites are not offered for Tsagaan Sar, you just turn up. Therefore, it is important for all families to have a large quantity of food available. They say that if you begin the new year full, then you will have a good year.
Early in the week, and helped by the mild weather, there was a constant beat outside which I found to be boys and men beating carpets out in the square and the surrounds of the apartment buildings. Puts a new twist on 'Spring cleaning' for me.
This final week in Darkhan was filled with good times but also a significant touch of sadness. I had dinner on Sunday night with Rita and Brigitte, the two Swiss teachers, and the following night went to my final dinner at the Asian Kitchen with the 'Monglish' group. For a change, there were few attendees but that made it better for chatting to the Peace Corps (Stephanie, Ryan, Maggie and Claire), Tu, a Vietnamese intern at the Agricultural university and a handful of Mongolians. I also had my final Mongolian language lesson, the highlight of which was looking in the kitchen on my way out of Suvdaa's home. On the stove was the largest rectangular pot I had ever seen and it contained a sheep’s back and tail called "Uuts" (ууц). Knowing my dislike of animal fat, Suvdaa and her husband delighted in pointing out how lovely and fatty this sheep was! Apparently the bigger and fatter the tail, the more delicious it is considered.
I was very honored to be invited back to Suvdaa's home on day one of Tsagaan Sar. Traditionally, day one is the most important day and is when only the closest family members visit.
On the short work to Suvdaa's from my apartment, I was impressed by the number of people out and about. There were many more private cars (rather than taxis) driving about and parked in the streets, and families were walking to their next destinations. And like Christmas at home in Australia, there was joy and happiness evident everywhere and many greetings exchanged as I passed by Mongolian families.
Upon arrival, we exchanged special Tsagaan Sar greetings and I gave the oldest member of the household, Suvdaa's mother-in-law, a khadag (blue prayer scarf). Suvdaa assisted me in folding it in the special way with folded edge facing the receiver. The giving of the scarf is sign of deep respect and wishes good health and long life. I had also wanted to follow the other tradition of handing over some new, crisp 1,000₮ notes (they are blue in color, which is why they are selected). However, I was unable to acquire any at banks before the holiday and I considered it better not to give than hand over worn notes!
All the family were dressed in their finest and, with the exception of Suvdaa's son, who was wearing a
The buuz I could not eat....
Suvdaa served me up 18 - which I was meant to eat all of - but the final 8 were just too much, even with a hot sauce to spice them up!
suit, they were all in beautiful Mongolian deels. I was simply pleased I had not worn jeans!
I sat at the table and Suvdaa's husband discussed the shagai (Шагай, sheep's knucklebones) he had lying on the table. The four sides of each shagai represent a different animal - horse, camel, sheep and goat. The challenge set was to roll all four shagai to reveal one of each animal. If you roll it first time, you will have a stellar year. I took only four rolls so I was assured I am going to have a fantastic 2011!
Next, I was offered a khoorog (a snuff bottle made from semi-precious stone). Again, there is ritual associated with this tradition and I was careful to receive and return the bottle in my right hand. I took a cursory sniff, which is acceptable, before returning the bottle. Suvdaa's husband showed me a very small khoorog he had made for his son from a more expensive stone. This small khoorog had only been polished on one side and had a natural internal chamber.
The table itself was really impressive. There was Ul Boov, a pile of ceremonial bread of five layers
The color of the table
Berries, salads and fat-laden mutton!
with white food and sweets on top. The number of layers is highly symbolic. For Tsagaan Sar, there is always an odd number as the layers are happy, sad, happy, sad, happy etc. Traditionally, grandparents have 7 layers of Ul boov, parents 5 layers, and young couples 3 layers. The cake is not dismantled until at least day four of Tsagaan Sar but guests are free to eat the treats on top.
Next to the Ul Boov was the "Uuts". According to custom, the fattest sheep should be killed and the lower back and tail boiled and served on the table for the entire holiday. The table also had white foods, salads and a range of sweets.
I was instructed in the traditional order of eating. I was first served milk tea then invited to eat white food from the top of the Ul Boov, then I sliced off cold meat from the Uuts plate (and I skilfully avoided the fat!), then tsagaalga (rice flavored with Mongolian butter, sugar and raisons).
Suvdaa's daughter then brought me a plate full of buuz. Suvdaa's son challenged me
to eat the full plate quicker than him. After a clearly shocked look from me, he said he was only joking! Suvdaa had made special buuz for me - no fat! I was most pleased and the hot chilli sauce made them enjoyable rather than the chore I had expected.
Apart from hadem (milk tea without tea! ie, hot milk and water), I drank sea buckthorn juice (yum!) and another berry juice which I don't have an English name for. The latter is a Mongolian wild berry and is a little sour but really lovely.
As Suvdaa and her family are devout Christians, I was not offered vodka shots. Given I had other homes to visit over the weekend, this absence of alcohol was not an issue for me!
Finally, when it was time to leave, I was given some sweets as a gift from Suvdaa's mother-in-law. The giving of gifts to the guest is another interesting phenomenon for me. I am used to guests providing gifts as a thank you for the hospitality rather than the other way around.
What a lovely way to spend a few hours!
The next day, I was invited
to Saruul's family home. Saruul is an interpreter for Kara (VSO volunteer) in UB but comes home to Darkhan most weekends. When I met Saruul on Friday, before walking to her home, she informed me that her family was not celebrating Tsagaan Sar this year due to the death of her grandmother in October last year. What that meant was the Ul boov had only 3 layers (as a sign of respect) and the apartment was quiet with just her parents, her younger brother and niece present. Again, I had a lovely time, eating plenty of buuz and salad, drinking heaps of milk tea and a few shots of vodka!
I mentioned in a previous blog entry about the elaborately decorated cakes the Mongolians had purchased for New Year. These were again a feature in the stores prior to Tsagaan Sar. Whilst I was happy not to indulge in eating some of the cake, Saruul was happy for me to photograph it! So much frosting and so pretty.
I had taken with me photographs of Melbourne, the coast, Australian animals, the Melbourne Cup and family and these proved to be a big hit. Saruul, in turn, showed me
photos of her family and her own photo album of her travels around Mongolia. Some of the photos were spectacular - she clearly has a good eye for landscapes.
The highlight of day three of Tsagaan Sar was a late afternoon walk up to my favorite Buddha and the Morin Khuur (horse head fiddle) complex. Often when I have visited over the past few months, I have been the only person at the Buddha. During this holiday, however, there were families everywhere! I think I was the only person there on my own. As I have already mentioned, everyone is just so happy. So many smiles and greetings and one lady even requested I take her photo! Most unusual!
After spending much of my Sunday packing up my apartment, in the early evening, I made my final Tsagaan Sar visit to Battsengel, one of my Darkhan Health Department managers with my interpreter, Altai.
What can I say but more milk tea, more white food, more buuz, more salad, and this time, red wine! I gave Battsengel’s mother a khadag and greeted all present in the traditional manner. By the way, in addition to holding forearms, the Mongolian
Saruul's parents, niece and Saruul herself.
greeting is to ‘sniff’ rather than kiss each other on both cheeks. Very cool! I was treated to looking through three photo albums, one from each of the generations of the household, Battsengel’s mother, Battsengel's and Battsengel’s daughter. I then showed my Australian photos and Battsengel’s daughter acted as a most effective translator for her mother. After many thank yous and the exchange of a few small gifts, it was time to leave and Tsagaan Sar and my life in Darkhan were officially at an end!
On Monday, Altai came to my home to help me move my considerable amount of belongings into a taxi and bid me farewell. It was a genuinely sad occasion.
I am now living with Farrah in UB. Farrah’s apartment has been my home-away-from-home for my entire stay in Mongolia so I am already beginning to feel settled and happy and it is lovely to have a house mate for a while.
Whilst in UB, I will be working with VSO staff on the In Country Training program. So far, I have revised and edited a heap of documents in preparation for the new arrivals. However, the real work of ensuring the
two week training program for the new volunteers is well organised and runs as smoothly as possible is the challenge yet to come!
This has turned into a very lengthy entry for what was my final week in Darkhan but I hope you are as fascinated as I was about the fantastic traditions of Tsagaan Sar.
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