Hello, you. I'm now in Olgii city of Bayan-Olgii ("Rich-Cradle") province after much ado. It is the western most province of Mongolia and 90% Muslim Kazakh. Mongolian is their second language, so that puts us in the same boat. Being here is like being in a new country all over again. The people are lovely, but very surprised to see me here and alone.
Olgii is a small town replete with concrete, nestled among the Altai mountains and sprawling along the luscious Hovd river. I've come to collect poems, meet poets and to see the tallest mountain in Mongolia, the Altai's Tavan Bogd (Five Holy). Yesterday I met with the main Kazakh poet, also the director of the Bayan-Olgii branch of the Union of Mongolian Writers, R. Suragan, that I had meant to meet with in Bayan-Olgii and we had a good talk. He told me I must see Tavan Bogd and write poems while I'm there. Thus I leave for the mountain tomorrow after lunch with warm clothes, food, a national park permit and a border permit as the mountain lies on the borders of Mongolia, Russia and China.
I also realized, though I should have known before, that all the poems the poets here write are in the Kazakh language, one that I don't know. While I go to Tavan Bogd, Suragan is going to collect the poems that have been translated into Mongolian so I can read them. Then, I may translate two or three of the poems into English for him. I don't know how that will work since I'm translating from Mongolian and not the original language but I will do it because I've heard he's a really great poet and I'm interested in what he's writing.
Actually, today I found an anthology with three of his poems in it at the province library where I had to 1) pay 100 togrog per book just to look at them, 2) leave the library while the librarians went out to lunch, and 3) wait outside the library for 45 minutes when the librarians returned late from lunch. Suragan knows Mongolian very well and I hope he'll be able to comment on the quality of the Kazakh-to-Mongolian translations.
It's fantastic how everyone here knows the name of their country's poets and how they hold them in such esteem. I was in the middle of nowhere in the countryside of Bayan-Olgii and said I was going to meet Suragan and all the people knew who he is. Once I mention that I too am a poet, they softly exhale, "Oh," and look at me a little differently.
Now for the "much ado" and "the middle of nowhere in the countryside" to which referred earlier. Well, I had a new experience in Mongolia on my way to Olgii from Hovd: a car accident. At about 10 PM on Monday night the Russian jeep (a "жаран ес" for those of you who know what that is) I was riding in with one young Kazakh driver went off the road and landed upside down in a dry river bed. Actually we were about halfway down into the river bed when the car first stopped. I opened my door to try to get out at the driver's suggestion and then we flipped over. My door was open so I scuttled out quickly.
We both walked away physically unscathed. I felt strangely calm; however, the driver was freaking out because he was a student, only 22 year old, and it was his parent's jeep. Let's just say I could relate to what he was going through from past experience.
It was dark so I suggested we set up my tent, try to sleep and go look for help in the morning light. I hardly slept, but at some point Boldoo, the driver, went off to find help before I woke up. Thus when I awoke he was gone and I went about packing up the camp, taking pictures of the accident scene (which I'll post when I get back to UB) and eating some breakfast. Boldoo returned on a motorcycle with another Kazakh man and said more were coming.
Eventually about 12 more Kazakh men came, righted the jeep with another jeep and got it started again. Since the jeep I originally left Hovd in was now a mess (no windshield, no passenger side door, etc.) I rode with some other folks to their camp and Boldoo arranged for a couple of them to take me on to Olgii so he could return to his parent's home in Hovd.
The Kazakh people were very, very nice, especially when they found out what had happened, and had me drink a lot of Kazakh tea, eat homemade cheese and bread and hold their eagle. (Kazakhs are eagle hunters and are very proud of their birds.) After stopping at many, many homes along the way and after many, many bowls of tea, two Kazakh men of my age, though seeming much older, eventually ferried me to Olgii and helped me find a place to stay when we discovered that all the hotels were full.
Thus far I've spent my evenings in Hovd translating additional poems by poet L. Olziitogs. I post here one of my favorites from her book The Practice of Loneliness (Ганцаардлын Дасгал / Gantsaardaliin Dasgal) in its original and first draft English versions.
Уулыг хараад би уул гэдгээ мэддэг
Униар мананг ажаад үүл гэдгээ мэдэрдэг
Бороо шивэрсний дараа өвс гэдгээ сэрдэг
Богширгоны жиргээ эхэлмэгц өглөө гэдгээ санадаг
Би хүн л биш
Од дүрэлзэхийн цагт харанхүй гэдгээ мэддэг
Охид нимгэлээд эхэлмэгц хавар гэдгээ санадаг
Ертөнцийн хүн бүрээс гагц хүсэл л үнэртэхэд
Ерөөс амгалан зүрх минь загасных болохыг ойлгодог
Би хүн л биш
Өнгө өнгийн тэнгэр дор аугаа их ХООСОН,
Өнөөдрөөс эхлээд би, зөвхөн...
I look at a mountain and know that I am mountain
I observe mist and perceive that I am cloud
After rain sprinkles I sense that I am grass
As soon as the sparrow's twittering begins, I remember
that I am morning
I am not merely human
When a star flares up I know that I am darkness
As soon as girls shed their thick winter clothes, I remember
that I am spring
When I smell only longing from every person in the universe
My ever more tranquil heart understands that it is a fish's
I am not merely human
Under a multi-colored sky the immense VOID,
From today on I, only…
© Lisa Fink, 16 August 2007
This week three of the people who have made the past six months of my life a little more bearable are leaving Mongolia to return to their homelands: Elodie to Paris, Chris to Maine and Allison to Pittsburg. The poems below are posted to honor them and the beauty, surprise and compassion they have brought to my life.
by Sylvia Plath
This is the city where men are mended.
I lie on a great anvil.
The flat blue sky-circle
Flew off like the hat of a doll.
When I fell out of the light, I entered
The stomach of indifference, the wordless cupboard.
The mother of pestles diminished me.
I became a still pebble.
The stones of the belly were peaceable,
The head-stone quiet, jostled by nothing.
Only the mouth-hole piped out,
In a quarry of silences.
The people of the city heard it.
They hunted the stones, taciturn and separate,
The mouth-hole crying their locations.
Drunk as a fetus
I suck at the paps of darkness.
The food tubes embrace me. Sponges kiss my lichens
The jewelmaster drives his chisel to pry
Open one stone eye.
This is the after-hell: I see the light.
A wind unstoppers the chamber
Of the ear, old worrier.
Water mollifies the flint lip,
And daylight lays its sameness on the wall.
The grafters are cheerful,
Heating the pincers, hoisting the delicate hammers.
A current agitates the wires
Volt upon volt. Catgut stitches my fissures.
A workman walks by carrying a pink torso.
The storerooms are full of hearts.
This is the city of spare parts.
My swaddled legs and arms smell sweet as rubber.
Here they can doctor heads, or any limb.
On Fridays the little children come
To trade their hooks for hands.
Dead men leave eyes for others.
Love is the uniform of my bald nurse.
Love is the bone and sinew of my curse.
The vase, reconstructed, houses
The elusive rose.
Ten fingers shape a bowl for shadows.
My mendings itch. There is nothing to do.
I shall be good as new.
from The Colossus and Other Poems, 1962
by Paul Celan
Together with me recall: the sky of
We went shopping for hearts at the flower girl’s booth:
they were blue and they opened up in the water.
It began to rain in our room,
and our neighbor came in, Monsieur Le Songe, a lean little
We played cards, I lost the irises of my eyes;
you lent me your hair, I lost it, he struck us down.
He left by the door, the rain followed him out.
We were dead and were able to breathe.
from Poems of Paul Celan, translated by Michael Hamburger, 2001
Last week I had an illuminating conversation with an American teacher here named George Economides. He has lived in Mongolia for five years. The first three he spent as a Peace Corps volunteer. Now he teaches at the American School of Ulaanbaatar and volunteers for Friends of Mongolia. We were talking about Mongolia's seasons and how to accurately translate хавар, өвөл, etc. (spring, winter, etc.) into English.
You see, the seasons as we know them do not exist in Mongolia. Using his words, we might describe winter with the following words and phrase: dry, sunny, beautiful skies. This is not generally how I think of winter. Likewise, spring in Mongolia is cold, brown, windy and dusty. That's not what I see when I envision spring. So how to translate a poem about winter into English?
In some places they refer to rainy and dry seasons. Perhaps this is a better way to translate Mongolian seasons because хавар (khawar) doesn't equate to what we know of spring. Perhaps we could call it the dusty, windy season.
Then again, maybe this only means that we ought to expand our definition of spring. We could be rigid and define the seasons on a scale of time by the stars: spring is March 21-June 21; summer is June 22-September 21, etc. Or we accept that spring can be different things at different times and still employ use of the word spring.
In this poem the point is to know that winter is dreary and spring is something we look forward to, though it sometimes may seem as if spring will never come:
Өмнөх зам бодолд дарагдан атирна.
Үнэн сэтгэлээсээ инээх минь цөөрнө.
Хүйтэн агаарт цойлох
«Хавар айсүй» гэсэн гэнэн итгэлийнхээ араас
Хүүхэд шиг инээтсэглэвч,
Тэр инээд биш, шоочхон мушийлт
Тэнгэрийн эгдүүг хүргэнэ.
Ömnökh zam bodold daragdang atirn.
Üneng setgeleesee ineekh min tsöörn.
Khüiteng agaart tsoilokh
“Khawar aisüi” reseng reneng itgeliinkhee araas
Khüükhed shig ineetseglewch
Ter ineed bish, shoochkhong mushiilt
Tengeriing egdüüg khürgen.
The path ahead is weighted down and wrinkled
Laughter from my true soul diminishes.
Even though I follow my naïve hope,
“Spring’s coming,” that flies up into the cold air
And smile like a child
That is not laughter, but a mocking smirk
That stimulates heaven’s irritation.
Excerpt from “Намраас намар, өвлөөс өвөл ургана” (Fall grows from fall, winter from
winter) by G. Ayurzana; translation from Mongolian by Lisa Fink, 2006
George would assert that spring is more difficult than winter, especially for folks in the countryside. However, this poem implies the opposite. Of course the poet lives in UB and has for at least fifteen years. Perhaps he has forgotten that for herders winter is a season they sadly leave behind as they face the wind, dust and cold of spring.
I'm finally getting some tangible results for all the language study I've been doing. I have several poems at different stages of translation by poet and novelist G. Ayurzana. The one closest to finished is "Үхлийн Цэцэгс" (Ükhliing Tsetsegc), or "Flowers of Death." Ayur, short for Ayurzana, is a very interesting poet. His themes are very divergent from traditional Mongolian poems, which are centered in the landscape of Mongolia, the nation itself and its greatness. His recurring themes include death, desire, dreams and lost love. Suitable for winter, yes?
Ayur's poems continue to surprise me and deeply question some of my own cultural assumptions. They are also, as most Mongolian poems, rooted in a sense of place, which is one of the characteristics that first drew me to Mongolian poetry.
Үс сэрвэлзэх ч салхин үгүй талд
Үнэр, өнгөгүй түмэн цэцэг найгана.
Үл мэдэгхэн санаа алдахын цуурайг
Үүрдийн тайвшрал, мөнхийн зүүд залгана.
Excerpt from "Үхлийн Цэцэгс" by Г. Аюурзана
My rough translation thus far:
On a steppe without even a wind that would move a hair
Thousands of flowers without scent or color sway.
The smallest sigh's echo
Is followed by eternal calm and an infinite dream.
Next, I will give the entire translation of the poem to several native speakers for their review.
P.S. I won't be publishing any of the poems in their entirety here as I hope to publish them in literary magazines in the U.S. in the coming months. However, I will have audio of the Mongolian versions up soon. Don't forget to check back!
Last weekend I went to Sainshand/Сайншанд (which means "good pond"), a small town of around 50,000 people. It is the homeland of Mongolia's so-called greatest mystical poet, Danzanravjaa (1803-1856). My friend Allison and I took the train from UB. It was my first ever train ride and I thought it quite wonderful.
We arrived in Sainshand around 8 p.m. on Saturday and since it was dark we decided to stay in and read. I watched television as I always do at night in hotels. (Although I don't watch television at home, one of my guilty pleasures is to channel surf all night on hotel televisions. This usually occurs the first night I'm in the hotel; after that, I get bored with it. However, in general, Mongolian television is more interesting to me than television in the U.S. Last night I saw a cooking show on television. It was really great because it was so real. The cameras were just in some guy's apartment, not some glossy and sterile studio.)
Back to Danzanravjaa.
Heaven is complete.
Let's hold and enjoy eight magic feasts.
When clouds appear and the time of rain comes,
What is the difference between the altar and the door?
When the activities cease and the time of death comes,
What is the difference between old and young?
When you plant a moiler tree,
A snake and poison will come from the tree.
When you make friends with a bad person,
You will learn bad things from them.
When you plant a spreading tree,
From each branch the fruits will come.
When you have friendship with a good person,
Brightness and wisdom will appear.
Even though there are many heavenly stars,
The brightest ones are only one or two.
Even though there are many earthly creatures,
The wisest ones are only one or two.
They say that cold weather brings a chilly wind,
And that the ravine plant will revive
When you are happy.
Talk about unhappiness produces unhappiness.
Zee zee hoo, zen vaiduu ze, (have mercy,) three saints.
This is "The Heavenly Sky," a song by Danzanravjaa, who is officially known as the Fifth Noyon Incarnate Lama of the Gobi Desert. He was a poet, writer, composer, educator, artist and founder of Mongolian theatre. The first two stanzas of the song were, as legend would tell us, composed by Danzanravjaa around age five. He was identified as the Fifth Noyon Khutagt when he was seven years old.
Sainshand is also the home of the Danzanravjaa museum, which holds thousands of the saint's relics such as poetry books, music scores, theatre costumes, textbooks, gifts by foreign statespeople to Danzanravjaa, his childhood clothes and toys, etc. It also contains his remains.
Among the many important projects that the Arts Council of Mongolia has undertaken, their Cultural Heritage Program recently completed a 16-month project to create two new storage rooms for the museum, train museum staff (and staff from other small museums) on international preservation standards and obtain locally produced supplies that can meet these standards.
The reason for the new storage rooms is an interesting story. In 1938, all of the relics from Danzanravjaa's monastery, Khamariin Khiid, including his remains, were in danger of being destroyed in the Communist purge. A man named Tudev who was born of a long line of men who were given the task of caring for the relics foresaw the coming destruction and each night carried one large wooden box of relics into the Gobi desert and buried it. There were 150 boxes to begin with; he was only able to get 64 of them buried before soldiers were ordered to destroy the monastery and everything it contained.
Fast forward twenty years or so. In great secrecy, Tudev began to show his grandson, Altangerel, the location of the boxes and to educate him in detail about each of the objects. Tudev would take Altangerel into the desert and unearth one box at a time and go through each item in great detail. Altangerel's family thought Tudev had plans to make Altangerel a monk because they spent so much time together. The family had no idea about the boxes. Not even Tudev's wife knew.
Fast forward forty years or so. Only after Mongolia's democratic transition in the early 90s were the boxes able to be unearthed. Altangerel, pictured here with some of the boxes, brought out 34 or so of them and founded the Danzanravjaa Museum.
30 more boxes remain under the sands of the Gobi, primarily because there has been nowhere to put the objects they contain. Still, only Altangerel knows the location of the boxes. With the two new rooms the ACM has helped to construct and bring up to international standards for preservation, the remaining boxes will be dug up very soon.
I wrote a story about this for the UB Post last week. Check it out. And, in case you've got extra time on your hands, check out this worthy blog on religion, culture, history and birdlife in Mongolia. You won't be disappointed.
Today I visited the very first public library in the city of Ulaanbaatar. It is named the Natsagdorj City Public Library and is now just one branch of the Metropolitan Library System of Ulaanbaatar, which was established in 1986.
D. Natsagdorj, after whom the library was named, is credited as the founder of modern Mongolian literature. He was a poet, playwright and fiction writer, among other things, and he wrote the famous Mongolian poem My Native Land, an excerpt of I've included below. Apparently, one of Natsagdorj's plays is going to be produced in the upcoming season at the Mongolian Academic Theatre of Drama and Ballet. I couldn't find any information online, but I hope to catch this show.
While I was at the library, I met the director Mijiddorj. He is an older man with greying hair and a wise face. Though he didn't speak English--an officer from the US Embassy translated--he seemed very kind and offered to introduce me to many Mongolian poets. And he gave me a book about Natsagdorj.
I've never met so many people who upon my first meeting gave me books of poetry or books about poets. Nor I have I met so many non-poets who are so well-acquainted with their country's poets and have a sense of pride in their country's literary tradition.
From My Native Land by D. Natsagdorj
The virgin-lands between Altai and Khangai
Lands of our eternal destiny where ancestors lie
Land grown mellow under the golden rays of the sun
Land grown eternal under the silver moon
(Disclaimer: The translator of this excerpt is unknown. I cannot vouch for its quality.)
I've done my first round of hand washed laundry. It's really a pain in the ass. Or maybe it just takes longer than what I think it should. From now on, I'm going to try to appreciate the time it takes to accomplish small tasks as an exercise in slowing down my life, which often seems to be moving too quickly.
Yesterday, after my Mongolian lesson and a trip to the US Embassy to check in, I went with Ganaa to the countryside to see the family I might stay with for two weeks. We went first to the home of her father-in-law's sister. This older woman, her husband and their grandson live in a small ger about an hour south of UB. We went in to the ger and it was very warm and cozy. They served us суутай цай (suutai tsai), a salty tea with milk, and борцог (bortsog), a type of sweet, fried bread. The older woman's husband expressed his surprise to see me in the Mongolian countryside. He had a very beautiful face, but I repressed the urge to ask if I could take a picture of him, thinking it might not be appropriate at that time.
Then, they started to prepare food. The husband cut up the meat and onions. The wife put a large round pot/pan that was similar to a wok on their wood stove. When he was done preparing the raw ingredients, she put them in the pot/pan with some salt and seasonings and let it all cook for a while. Later she added water and rice. We ate and it was very tasty, except for the chunks of fat, which I decided not to eat.
I've learned that it is best to accept anything that is given to you, but you don't have to eat all of it or necessarily even try it--though I am trying mostly everything at least once. Yes, you must at least accept what has been given to you, even if you just hand it back a while later.
So we ate at this ger. Then, about 45 minutes later, we (Ganaa, one of Ganaa's high school friends, the older woman and I) piled back in to the SUV--Mongolia is one of the few places where an SUV is actually practical--to go to the home where I might be living for two weeks later this month to get a better taste of life in the countryside.
At this small house, we again had суутай цай as well as some kind of fried flat bread. We talked, or, actually, they talked and I made sense of what I could. This was the home of one of Ganaa's patients, the pateint's husband and their three children. However, the children currently live in UB during the week, so they can go to school. Soon after we arrived, the father came home with the kids--he picks them up each Friday. The kids were very shy, but sweet.
Then, we went over to visit his brother's family, where we were given арих (arikh), fermented mare's milk. This is where I learned the trick of receiving the bowl, and then handing it back. Actually, I took one sip of the арих, which tasted very sour, before I realized what it was. I'm quite used to being handed a bowl of milk, so that's what I expected. Upon my first sip, I was pretty sure it wasn't regular milk. Then, they told me it was "арих" and "horse's milk". I'd heard that арих was an alcoholic beverage, but when I asked Ganaa if there was alcohol in it she said, "Well, it's not really alcohol." It was close enough for me, so I quickly declined the rest.
Then, we had more суутай цай--this is a very common Mongolian beverage if you hadn't guessed that by now--and more хоол (khol), food. This time it was гурилтай шул (goriltai shul), a soup with flour noodles, meat, onions and potatoes. We sat, chatted and watched the baby drool.
Then, we went back to the first little house where they wanted us to eat again. I was so full I don't know how I put more food in my mouth. But I did. The patient/wife had made бууз (bohz), a steamed dumpling with meat in it. I ate three, but refused the bowl of суутай цай that came next.
Finally, after a quick look at the ger I might live in that's near the family's house (with the father and their youngest child, a girl, who is just beginning to learn English and is very cute*), we headed back to the original ger to drop off the old woman and then back to UB. We got to the city around 10:30 PM, and тэгээд (teged) ["then"] I went dancing with the other Fulbrighters. It was a very full day!
Meanwhile, I'm reading Rainer Maria Rilke's Duino Elegies. I've only just begun, so perhaps later I will have more to say about it.
*When we were walking to the ger and inside it, her father would point to objects and tell me the Mongolian word. If she knew the word in English, she'd translate it to me. She looked very pleased about this. When we were leaving, she waved to me for a long time as we drove away.
If my little body is tired~
Then let it be tired.
But my great government~~
Let it not unravel.
A mighty body can win one victory.
A might spirit can win many!
Do not despair that the way is long;
If you go on, you can reach it.
Do not despair that the load is heavy;
If you lift it, you can carry it.
From A Pair Melody of the Stone Monument: An Anthology of Mongolian Poets with selections by G. Ayurzana and translations and commentary by M. Saruul-Erdene.