Saturday, October 12, 2013

More Kazakh than Kazakhstan

Before I took the job here in Mongolia, I was very interested in a trilingual school system in Kazakhstan, the Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools.  Besides being a great opportunity, I was intrigued by Kazakhstan, which I was passing familiar with from reading (at that point - I watched it soon after) The Long Way Round.  When I mentioned it to my colleague in Shanghai, Iron Man, he asked, "Isn't that where Borat was from?"  >sigh<  ...PE teachers...
Yes, Borat was from Kazakhstan, but don't believe everything you see in movies.  Kazakhstan is a central Asian country, formerly part of the USSR, with a rich heritage, but the best place to experience their culture isn't Kazakhstan; it's Bayan-Olgii.  Chalk it up to the fact that Mongolia under communism wasn't as hard on culture as the Mother-Russian' Soviets.  After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, a fair number of Kazakhs repatriated, but there are still plenty of them in Bayan-Olgii province. 

In fact, it hardly feels like part of Mongolia.  To start with, there are the gers....or, technically, yurts, although we were never able to get ourselves to call them that.  On the outside, they're taller and pointier.  And on the inside, they are even more colorful than Mongolian gers.  Kazakhs are famous for their beautiful, hand embroidery, and the tapestries that deck the...walls?...of their yurts are truly works of art.  I've been eyeing the tapestries and bags sold at Mary and Martha in town, but have been holding back since I knew I'd be going to the Eagle Festival this year.

(Note to anyone who might be interested in going - you can get a MUCH better deal buying them at the source.  Mary and Martha is a fair trade shop, and that's wonderful, but they are still there to make money.  If you are going anyways, do yourself a favor and save some money by eliminating the middle man!)

I ended up coming home with a new purse, a long, embroidered jacket with fox fur cuffs and collar, and a long, narrow antique piece that was honestly probably once on a pair of eagle hunter's pants.  Engrish, I think, came back with even more, although her vest was not quite as "dope yolo swag" (as my students would say) as my coat, on account of lacking kick-ass fox fur.
Oh, and the clothes!  I hope you've gotten a little bit of an idea of what the Kazakh style of dress is like, based on my last two posts.  Today on our way to the orphanage, we were passed by a Mongolian on a horse in his deel, and it seemed strange again, for a moment.  For a year I've been around men and women who wear Mongolian dress all the time - not just for special occasions - but after six days away it took me by surprise.  That's how different the clothing styles are.

I wish I'd taken more photos of Olgii itself, because it looks SO different from the towns in Central Mongolia.  Homes in Bayan-Olgii have flat roofs, and I don't know what it was, but they definitely had a kind of middle eastern feel to them.  Or so I thought, at any rate...Geek, being a veteran of Kuwait, might have disagreed (I didn't ask her because I was afraid of sounding like a moron.  OBVIOUSLY better to introduce this idea on a blog where the internet's anonymity allows people to be MUCH more bitchy!)

It is possible this is a connection I made up in my head, based on the fact that Kazakhs are traditionally Muslim.  Regardless of whether or not your friendly, neighborhood art teacher saw architectural similarities that weren't there, one thing Bayan-Olgii did have in common with my former host countries of Bahrain and the Emirates are its mosques.  Islamic ephemera doesn't give me nearly as many warm fuzzies as anything Korean, but I was hoping to hear the call to prayer, because I've always found something hauntingly beautiful about its sound.  I didn't hear it, but Engrish did, early one morning.
The change from monastery to mosque wasn't the only change in the scenery - we were also hard-pressed to find any ovoos, the stone cairns decorated with colorful silk scarves.  As we topped a pass going into the countryside on our third day, Engrish pointed out that any other place in Mongolia would have one in that precise location.  But not in Bayan-Olgii.  We did see one, and there was another marker that looked more Tibetan to me, with prayer flags tied onto a branch broken off from a tree, but these were few and far between.  Instead, the landscapes were dotted with cemeteries, which would be an oddity elsewhere in Mongolia.  Until the rise of communism, Mongolians typically put their dead to "rest" with sky burials, which means that they chopped up the body and left them on the mountains for animals to eat.  If birds came to feast, it was a sign that you were karmically ascending closer to nirvana.  On the other hand, being eaten by land creatures - dogs, for instance - was a bad sign (I think the whole concept would be a great way to get rid of a body if you murdered someone, which made Geek pretty uncomfortable until I pointed out that murdering her would NOT make me a very good role model for my students). 
Kazakhs, on the other hand, are (as I mentioned) good Muslims, which means they bury bodies with all the necessary rites.  And THAT means cemeteries to stop by and look at while driving hours on end through the countryside.  Speaking of which, you have one last blog to look forward to about Bayan-Olgii, and that's our trip into the countryside to see the "roof of Mongolia."  'Til then....

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