Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Blue Sky Seeking

So, in December I was working on a piece of writing for a contest for Nowhere zine.  Yesterday I woke up to find out that I was not one of their finalists.  This is an interesting experience for me.  Writing was never my #1 form of expression, until it quietly took over from art and music, and I find myself having more empathy for the struggles that my writer friends have gone through.  Even though it's a little different to not win a contest than it is to have your writing rejected, it still sucks, and between this and the Lonely Planet contest from this fall, I'm feeling a little pessimistic about writing (especially when a day before the finalists are announced said zine shares a story on Facebook about Mongolia written by some pretentious writer who's never been there).  This is all part of the reason why I haven't been blogging as much this year, but anyways.  So their judge didn't care for my writing?  I don't give a shit.  It didn't turn out quite the way I wanted it to, but I still think it's an interesting piece, so I'm publishing it here.  I hope all six of you readers enjoy this.
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I sat on the subway in Shanghai, rattling over the tracks while listening to Socrates prattle on about what he did on his travels, and despaired. “The nightlife was shit,” he moaned, “but I rather liked the space-age architecture. Reminded me of that video...you know, that one?” He was my would-be love, there in that slick, shiny city where an American girl couldn’t get a date to save her life, one of the few foreign men who didn’t go nuts over Chinese girls, and that was what he went in for - nightlife and modern architecture? What a bummer. He obviously read this on my face. “Oh Becky, stop being so judgmental! You should get out more often.”

Maybe he was right. Maybe I was being judgmental. I walked away from the conversation - and eventually, him - thinking you could tell a lot about a person from their motivations to travel. In his case, he was shallow. In my case...well, it took a while before I got around to thinking about that.

I’ve never gotten over the way time moves as an expat, the slipstream of my years abroad. Caught between the whirlpool of short days in cold climes and the craggy cliffs of young niblings growing up too fast and too far away, I finally found my way back to that question four years later. Why the hell was I spending the holidays on the road in Southeast Asia when I could be home for Christmas? So what if Iowa would be cold and its chief attraction was my family. I’ve been traveling so long that the bragging rights of being someplace new really wasn’t enough anymore, was it?

In the midst of this existential crisis I managed to drag myself out of bed and down snow-dusted roads onto the bus to church one Sunday morning. Being a single thirty-something in the Mormon church in Mongolia can be summed up with one word: awkward. You never quite fit. Not with the foreign families, not with the Mongolian singles, in spite of the fact that everyone is absolutely wonderful (although to be perfectly honest, absolutely wonderful people can also be alienating when you’re the kind of person who takes “snide, sarcastic bitch,” as a compliment). My religion had, in its own way, separated me from my family as surely as the thousands of miles between us; ocean, hills, mountains, they were all more comprehensible than a slightly different take on life, the universe, and everything. Still, I kept plugging away at them both.

On this Sunday, as the chill of a bleak December morning permeated the chapel’s new windows and unfamiliar words rose up around me in familiar strains, I mused over my upcoming journey, and the ones that had brought me hence. I remembered climbing the hillsides through the ruins of Delphi, deserted as the rains misted down over the Oracle’s seat. I remembered an early morning, traveling to the outskirts of Kyoto to wander through the shrines of Fushimi-Inari-Taisha, the early autumn warmth not reaching my heart through the mist hanging on countless red gates, accompanied by the cackles of crows getting drunk on sake. I remembered standing on the Giza plateau under the burning noonday sun, listening to the buzz of a million mosques calling the faithful to prayer. And it came to me like a lightning bolt thrown by a possessive god - I travel to find that moment, that place, where you can feel the world part and see a little further.  

That spiritual streak - that yearning for things you can’t see but if you’re still might just be able to feel - has always been there. As a child I used to scurry up my treehouse after church and sing hymns, clinging to that feeling. As a teenager it led me to throw in my lot with the Mormons. That turned out to be lucky, since Mormons are just about everywhere, and knowing that my spiritual home would be wherever I found myself gave me the confidence to take that big first step overseas.  I loved and missed my family, but I wanted to go to the places other people worship; to smell the incense and sit beneath the eaves of their temples as the echoes of chants long silent mingle with those still hanging in the air.  Living abroad freed me to do that.
I’ve been in Ulaanbaatar more than two years now. It’s a wild place, and exactly what I needed after my contract in superficial Shanghai was over. Where the Shanghainese were polished the Mongolians are rough. Ulaanbaatar is skirted with ger districts, small houses and felt huts which burn coal for warmth in the bitter winters and have no running water. The roads, especially (and ironically) in the nice area in which I live, are full of potholes, some big enough to swallow a car whole. Many of the buildings in central UB are Soviet-era eyesores holding over from its years as a comrade of Mother Russia, and while the city has developed a lot even in the two years I’ve lived here, infrastructure is still lacking. But even though Mongolia hasn’t exactly taken its own great leap forward, there’s a sincerity and happiness in its people that I rarely saw in Shanghai.

I didn’t really plan to stay here past my first two years, but I fell in love. I was warned that I would on my first trip to the countryside. It seems strange that endless rolling grassy hillls could be so beautiful, but they are. Each moment’s changing light reveals new depths in the colors of the steppe, which is strewn with more kinds of purple flowers than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio. To those in the know, Mongolia is known as “The Land of the Eternal Blue Sky,” and for good reason. In the winter, in the city, it’s hard to believe that blue skies exist. The smoke from those coal-burning stoves hides even the sun and seeps into everything with which it comes into contact. But drive an hour away and you’ll be blinded by skies so blue they hurt to look at. I feel like if I could open my eyes wide and stare deeply long enough into them that I could take their purity into myself and become the person I’m always trying to be - stronger, fiercer, better.

Mongolians have long worshipped this sky, among other things. The melting pot that makes up Mongol spirituality includes elements of Animism, the belief that everything physically created has a spiritual essence. It took me a while to understand that the colorful silk scarves tied to bridges and cairns of stones weren’t just the Mongolian equivalent of Tibetan prayer flags. Mongolians also use them to show honor, both to people as well as to the spirits in things. In the hills above the school where I live and work is a tree covered in them. Nobody has been able to explain what it is that makes that tree special, but that didn’t stop me from taking a hike up to visit it in my first year here. My friend’s directions had been a little vague, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to find it, as I crunched over fields of snow and dried grass. I climbed the hill and the world was made up of the blue sky, the golden needles of the larches, and the white of the snow, and when the tree came into view its brilliant colors - red, yellow, blue, green, white, and even black - made it all too easy to spot. They were roped around its trunk, and knotted to its branches. I pulled out my scarf – red for fire, warmth being something I was definitely wishing for that frigid first year – from my bag, and tied it around a knot coming out of its branch. I was becoming a part of Mongolia, and it a part of me.

During its years as a communist country the powers that be tried to beat this out of the people. One site, Mother Rock or Eej Khad as she’s called in Mongolian, was forbidden, and they even attempted to demolish it, but it remained and the people just kept coming, offering her milk and vodka as they whispered wishes in her ears. The monasteries and temples of Buddhism didn't fare as well. During the Stalinist purges religious teaching was banned. In the Political Persecution Museum you can see the bullet-holed skulls of some of the 18,000 monks who were killed. Across the country, monasteries and temples were destroyed, and in fact the only functioning monastery throughout Mongolia's communist years was Gandantegchinlen Khiid, in Ulaanbaatar. It was strictly for show, of course, kept running so they could present traditional Mongolia when visiting foreign dignitaries came to town, but it kept the fires going til freedom found its way back to the steppes, borne thence on the wings of Beatles tunes.

I visited Gandan during my second Tsagaan Sar, the Mongolian new year celebration. The cold was – as usual for Mongolia in January – brutal, and I was swaddled in layers as I bused into town and walked up the hill. I probably would have been better off staying warm in my apartment, but just like Christmas Tsagaan Sar brings religion out in people, and I came out to witness it. I walked through the main hall, spinning prayer wheels and hoping to see some sand painting, since a student had told me they'd seen it there once. The statue of Avalokiteshvara looked down on us from the gloom, smiling benevolently on our hopes for the new year. The Mongolians were dressed in beautiful new deel, brilliantly colored silk coats lined with horse hair or sheep's fleece. I followed them into some of the smaller prayer halls, where the monks chanted in saffron robes, bestowing blessings on the supplicants.
Since coming to Mongolia I've kind of been chasing Buddhism. Although it's not for me and I've never been under any illusion that it was, there are things I can learn from it.  The fact that Buddha is okay with sharing like that is one of the things that appeals to me. Thus we went out to the Naadam stadium one evening in mid-May to celebrate Visak Puja, the day when his birth, enlightenment, and death are remembered. The sun was still fairly high above the horizon when we set our packs on the dry grass. The smooth surface of the field for the national games was punctuated by candles on poles. As night slowly fell, we were joined by monks, and the meditation began, accompanied by their chants, the blaring of their horns, and the crashing of their cymbals. We knelt on the grass, bowing, letting the calm wash over us. Finally, it was dark, and volunteers brought around fire to light the torches. After more speaking, or preaching (it's hard to tell when you don't speak the language), a large white paper lantern was given to each group. We unfolded it and stuck the wishes we'd written onto its surface, then held it over the torch to light the block of wax underneath. Like a tiny hot-air balloon, it filled with air, and at the word we released it. They rose shimmering into the night, carrying our dreams.

Having realized the soul is what's been leading me by the nose around the world, it seems so obvious. After all, I spent my first summer off from Mongolia learning the names of the different boddhisatvas and their poses and the stories about them from sassy lady guides in Tibet and Bhutan. Before I wandered around with Buddha, it was Allah; I lived two years in the Middle East and still have a soft spot for minarets and muezzin. So I was happy to come across this old friend while visiting Bayan-Olgii province.

My friends and I went there, to Mongolia's own Wild West to see the Eagle Festival. We'd been dreaming of weathered-faced men on their horses, eagles nobly perched on their arms, and we were not disappointed. But as a bonus, we got a blast from our pasts: the call to prayer drifting out on the evening air from the town's mosques as we wandered the streets looking for a good restaurant. Western Mongolia is less than thirty miles from the eastern border of Kazakhstan, and home to a sizeable population of Kazakhs. In many ways, Bayan-Olgii is more Kazakh than Kazakhstan; the same communist rule that was so hard on Buddhists was satisfied to leave this minority to their own devices. Kazakh culture in its own country was not as lucky as part of the USSR.

Having seen the hunters in action, we hired a driver and cook to take us to visit Altai Tavan Bogd, the highest peak in Mongolia. As we drove out over rough and tumble roads, it became clear that the muezzin wasn't the only sign that we weren't in Kansas anymore. Topping out over a pass, we saw no stones piled in an ovoo to greet us and celebrate the fact that we'd come that far safely. Instead, strewn occasionally along the way between the rugged mountains we came across cemeteries. Marked graves are few and far between in Central Mongolia; the traditional way of sending your loved ones to their next life was to leave the body on a mountain side. You'd know if they were eaten by a creature of the sky that they would be reincarnated in a higher state; those eaten by dogs and other earth-bound animals would find themselves in a lower plane of existence. Since Kazakh Mongolians are largely Muslim, this would be sacrilege.  We asked our driver to stop, and we wandered in the gate of the cemetery. Walls of stones surrounded piles of stones atop the graves, and one wall held a long pole topped with a crescent. We took in the solitude with reverence, then moved on.

As a nomadic people, moving on is something Mongolia understands. Someday I'll take one last flight out. I contemplated this as I waited to board my flight out for the holidays, finally at peace with my decision to spend my time traveling. Someday the steppes will roll out behind me, instead of before me, but the marks they have left on my soul will remain. 

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