Friday, January 31, 2014

You Win Some, You Lose Some

So far, I am not impressed with Tsagaan Sar.  Don't get me wrong, I understand it is family time, not a flashy festival involving wild and crazy stuff (unless you count sniffing one another's snuff bottles), but I was hoping for a little bit more.  Maybe it's Engrish's fault for suggesting earlier in the year that I might have students invite me to their homes.  I did try to hint to some of my classes that such an invitation would not go amiss - I even promised not to judge them if their buuz (mutton dumplings) were ugly, which is what Mongolians do - but, alas, none of them took the bait.  So I had resigned myself to a couple of quiet days before Sunday's more exciting events.

Then, I read this on InfoMongolia's upcoming events:
9:20 am Chief of Staff of the Office of the President of Mongolia P. Tsagaan and office officials to visit the Gandantechinlen monastery attending "Mandal" spiritual and ritual ceremony.

I've bitched before about how hard it is to find out what's going on in UB, and one of the things I've been wanting to see, ESPECIALLY since I didn't get to see it while I was in Tibet, was sand painting.  One of my students told me they'd seen it at Gandan once, so I made a wild guess, hoping that the ceremony in question was the painting of a mandala.
As I was leaving the apartment WAY too early (around 8, since I wasn't sure if the buses would run or if I could catch a taxi), I noticed that all the ovoos that I could see (quite a few, up here on the Hill) were surrounded by people.  I wanted to run up to the monument and see what was going on, but I was afraid that I would lose steam, and the game was afoot (yes, I may have watched the new season of Sherlock recently...)  I asked Enkhaa later what was going on, and he said that it's lucky to meet the first sunrise of the new year.  Damn it.  Well, I went on my way and found that the buses were, in fact running, and eventually made it to the monastery.
I poked my nose in a lot of places that I didn't see the first (and last) time I went to Gandan.  That time, I was on a city tour given by the school, and I was happy just exploring the main temple.  This time I was on a mission.  There was definitely something happening - there was a camera crew there - but I couldn't figure out exactly what.  However, it was kind of nice being there - it brought back memories of Tibet and Bhutan from this summer, and although the Energizer might be disappointed that the only thing I definitely  recognized were the protector gods, everything felt a lot more familiar, and that was nice.

I was giving up and headed for the exit when a Mongolian guy stopped me.  "Can I ask you a question?" he asked.  I passed over the well-worn response that he already had, and, since it was Tsagaan Sar, decided that I'd play nice.  "Sure, one question," I agreed.  He asked where I was from, and in the ensuing conversation I realized that he might be able to answer my question.  So I explained that I was there hoping to see them paint a mandala.  He went and found a monk to ask, and said, Wow, they're doing it today!  HA! - I thought - MY TREK UP HERE HAS NOT BEEN IN VAIN!!!  My new buddy Gampa told me it was supposed to be at 16clock (4pm), and he wasn't sure which building it was supposed to be in, but he showed me which one he thought the monk was talking about.  I chatted with him, happy about my decision not to be a bitch, and left for California (which was miraculously open) to have brunch, where I texted Enkhaa to see if he could drive me to Gandan that afternoon.
Well, part two was no more successful than part one, really.  I poked my nose into even more strange places, including this courtyard, which looked like it had been abandoned for decades and might be a good place to stage a zombie apocalypse film.  I wanted to leave no stone unturned, and I didn't, but I still didn't find any artistic monks.  The best clue I got was that the assembly hall that has the banners leaning against it in the above photo had monks chanting and banging drums and cymbals.  I stopped and listened, taking in the atmosphere (and warming up) for a while before calling Enkhaa, who told me he could come and take me home.  As I'm writing this, I have begun to wonder if perhaps that was the opening ceremony, as it were...according to Wikipedia, a cleansing ceremony including chanting and music is how the mandalas are started.  Unfortunately there is SO little in me right now that wants to go back to Gandan and see if they are working.  I'm going to start cleaning my apartment instead - usually about halfway through the process I want to do something else, so with any luck that will give me the motivation I need to get back out there...

The upshot to the whole fiasco is that, cold aside, there isn't a much better place to be during a holiday than a monastery.  Except possibly on top of the ridge behind my apartment, and since I can't cheat and drive up to the top, that probably wasn't going to happen, anyways.


  1. I can understand why your students did not invite you. Mongolians are very shy and reluctant when it comes to inviting a foreigner to their homes. It's very interesting for me to see Mongolia through your eyes. I moved to US from UB about 12 years ago. Haven't been back since and I feel like I understand you more than I can understand a Mongolian ;] Keep posting!

    1. Thanks for your insight! I'm glad you enjoy reading :-)