Tuesday, July 29, 2008
Image from Boundless Journeys
I have had a curious lifelong fascination with Mongolia. Something about the idea of rugged warriors storming innocent villagers on the backs of blood sweating horses caught my young imagination, and the interest hasn't lifed: I still read books on Mongolia, listen to Tuvan throat-singing, and harbor a passionate desire to someday wander the steppes in real living color someday. Perhaps I was a Mongol warrior in a past life and just have a subconscious half-remembered desire to light fire to grass huts, intimidate innocent Polish people (they really did get that far) and wear silly hats. Perhaps.
Mongolia is curiously popular on the dirt bag tourist circuit. While staying in Beijing, I met a truly surprising number of people who had been to Mongolia and had nothing but good things to say about the experience. One guy did have his tent robbed, but he really shouldn't have left all his stuff in it and gone out to toodle around town so NO SYMPATHY. I also recall one gentleman who related an epic tale of hitching from Mongolia to Beijing on 15 bucks and eternal optimism, which leads me to believe Mongol people must be pretty nice indeed.
Certainly I should feel no shame at harboring interest in a land that spawned an empire which eventually subjugated 22% of the earth's total landmass. Mongolia may not have that type of political sway anymore, but it is still inhabited by tough-as-nails people with a unique culture, an interesting animist native religion, and some of the eeriest and most ethereal music on earth. I am afraid they cannot be credited for Mongolian Barbeque - I hear actual Mongol food is pretty damn dismal - but they do have a hand with the barbequed marmot. Perhaps I can do a graduate school dissertation someday on the cuisine of Mongolia. And exactly two people will ever read it.
- Although Genghis Khan was Not a Very Nice Chap, the Mongol empire did tolerate a surprising amount of cultural and religious indepence from its vassals. After they burned your city and killed most everyone. After that, they were cool.
-Genghis Khan's son began the Yuan Dynasty in China, which lasted for only 100 years because the Mongol ancestors had become too pussified by Chinese culture to maintain power. This adds credence to my theory that China is actually The Borg.
- Some scholars say that the death toll from the Mongol invasion of basically everything amounted to 40 million. Ouch.
- India's Mughals (you know, those guys who built the Taj Mahal under Shah Jahan) are descended from Genghis Khan.
- Mongolia is not exactly an easy country to get around in (no interstate highways back in the day), meaning that Mongol horsemen would drink small amounts of their horses blood when things got really rough. Yummy.
-Mongolia is the world's most sparsely populated country, with only 2.9 million people in a Very Very Big Landmass. It may be an ideal travel destination for the misanthropic.
-Mongol wrestlers are extremely scantily clad. The story goes that during a big wrestling match many years ago, one competitor was discovered to have been a woman. The male wrestlers were as you may imagine totally mortified and since then, near-nudity has been the way Mongolian wrestlers do. I bet they get chilly.
Mongolian Music is absolutely unique and deserves much more attention then it currently gets. Mongolian and Tuvan music has a deep, dark primeval quality to it that is absolutely bewitching: you can really feel humanity's simultaneous loneliness and exaltation at occupying the big wide open of Mongolia's plains and mountains. And it just sounds cool.
Throat or overtone singing is Mongolia's best known sound - it is really quite impossible to describe what it sounds like, so download some of the mp3s offered below. It sounds completely bizarre and your neighbors may wonder what the hell you are listening to, but this stuff is addictive. And gorgeous in a primitive, fascinating way. By the way, Tuva is a part of the Soviet Union, but shares a cultural identity with Mongolia and Mongol people, and many Tuvans live within Mongolia's borders. So now you know.
Not all Mongolian music is steeped in tradition, of course. If you saw the recent Mongol movie (which was quite good), you might have noticed the interesting rock/throat singing song that played over the ending credits. This kind of fusion music is gaining popularity in Mongolia and the Soviet Union and really does sound awesome. I like Yat-Kha, a Tuvan band that has toured internationally, and does a great job of integrating a rock and punk sound with that eerie throat singing sound. If you think about it, throat singing and the traditional death metal scream aren't that different. Download the mp3s off the website: you won't be sorry.