23 February 2011

Mongolian Legends - Tales From Khongoryn Els - The Singing Sands

Mongolian legends and stories still remain an important part of everyday life in Mongolia

‘The Gobi Desert seems like earth reduced to its most basic elements: rock, sky, glaring sunlight and little else. The apparent emptiness is both compelling and intimidating. But the Gobi is not empty, it is filled with space, sky, history and landscapes.'
Conservation Ink (an American NGO whose mission is to support conservation and environmental awareness in natural and cultural areas through the production and distribution of educational materials. Look out for their excellent maps covering the Gobi, Lake Khovsgol and the Altai).
 If you have been to Mongolia then there is a chance that you visited Khongoryn Els - the singing sands dunes of the southern Gobi. On some of our itineraries we include a visit to Baasankhuur and Maam whose home is located next to Khongoryn Els. A majority of their livestock are camels and Baasankhuur and Maam mainly use them for a supply of wool and milk.  Most people have heard of the infamous airag - the fermented mare's milk. However, camel milk is rich in vitamin C and  herders in the desert make a similar product with camel’s milk known as khoormag. It is even more unpalatable than the airag!
Clothes drying at Khongoryn Els sand dunes, Gobi Desert
Washing day at our rural Gobi  homestay
 Baasankhuur is an incredible guitar player and nothing beats sitting up on the dunes, under the stars listening to his interpretation of traditional Mongolian songs.One of the first times that I visited, I noticed in one of the ger camps that we passed a statue of a camel wearing antlers. I mentioned this to Baasankhuur and this is the legend he told - sitting up there on the sand dunes, the river glowing in the last of the evening light and with Maam on her motorbike attempting to round up her widely spread herd of camels. 
Camel, Gobi Desert, Mongolia
A Bactrian Camel of the Gobi Desert
The Camel's Tale - as told by Baasankhuur
Believe it or not, the camel was once the most magnificent of all the animals! It’s true! He had beautiful big antlers and a long, thick, bushy tail. Day after day the camel used to stand beside the river, admiring his reflection in the water.One day while he was standing there, down from the hills came the Siberian stag.
‘Hi camel!’ said the stag. ‘My brother’, he went on, ‘you have the most magnificent antlers I have ever seen. Won’t you lend them to me? I’m going to a party and I’d like to get dressed up.' 'My antlers?’ said the camel. ‘I’d hate to give away my antlers.' ‘Don’t worry’, said the stag, ‘I’ll bring them right back tomorrow.'
‘Tomorrow? All right’, said the camel, ‘But make sure that you do’.
And so the camel took off his magnificent antlers and lent them to the stag. And the stag ran off into the mountains.The camel stood beside the river, admiring what was left of his reflection. Pretty soon along came a horse.
‘Hello camel’, said the horse. ‘My brother, you have the most beautiful tail that I have ever seen. Won’t you lend it to me? I’m on my way to a horse-race, and I’m sure I’d win if I had your tail.'‘No’, said the camel. ‘I have already lent out my antlers and I just can’t loan out my tail as well’.'‘Don’t worry brother. I will bring it right back after the race is over.'‘You’re sure?’ said the camel. ‘Alright, but make sure you bring it right back.'
The camel took off his long, bushy tail and gave it to the horse. The horse galloped away across the steppe.
The camel stood there beside the river, peering off into distance, looking for his friends. He waited all day. He waited the next day, and the day after that. Neither the stag nor the horse ever came back. The stag stayed far away in the mountains and forests. As for the horse, whenever he meets a camel, he shies away.
And from that day to this, the camel remains waiting by the river, having quenched his thirst just incase either the deer or the horse return. Some people also say that this is the reason the camel can be as 'grumpy' as they are!

If you're interested in experiencing Mongolia the Eternal Landscapes way, who not have a look at my Mongolia holidays and tours page on the EL website?
Bactrian camel. Sunrise. Gobi Desert

10 February 2011

Mongolia's Morin Khuur - The tale of the Horse Head Fiddle

My brief guide to Mongolia's Morin Khuur - Horse Head Fiddle. One of the most traditional of Mongolia's musical instruments

I was trying to think of suitable music to put to a video slideshow that would be the start of a talk on Mongolia. It was a hard decision to make - visit Mongolia and music is all around you. Visit Ulaanbaatar and you will hear the beats of urban hip-hop. Spend time out in rural Mongolia and you will hear a herder singing or whistling with gusto as an accompaniment to their lonely work. Travel during the Naadam Festival and you will come across groups of friends (whether from the city or the countryside) celebrating being Mongolian with a rousing late night tune. I have also yet to find a Mongolian that does not like karaoke.

Horse Head Fiddle statue, Gobi Desert, Mongolia
The Horse Head Fiddle statue in Mandalgov, Middle Gobi
Within Mongolia, music remains an integral part of their culture with the nomadic culture, shamanism and the landscapes all heavily represented. One of the most traditional instruments in Mongolia is the Morin Khuur or the Horse Head Fiddle. 

The fiddle’s significance extends beyond its function as a musical instrument - it was traditionally used as an integral part of rituals and everyday activities of nomadic Mongolians. The design of the Morin Khuur is closely linked to the all-important cult of the horse and when played, it can produce sounds similar to the noises that a horse makes.The Morin Khuur is a beautiful instrument - not just in sound and design but in the legends surrounding its origin.

The Legend of the Morin Khuur (one of the many legends)

Once upon a time, a horseman rode through the night sky and spotted the ger of a beautiful herdswoman. He stayed with her for one night and at dawn he rode away. The second night he returned to the woman's delight, but at dawn again he disappeared.

After several nights the woman decided to keep the horseman by her side. While he slept she crept out to his horse and noticed that the animal had little wings above its hooves. In a drastic moment she cut off the horse's wings. When her lover left the following morning his mount fell to the earth and died.

Despairing over the loss of his horse the man grieved night and day. To sooth his sorrow he carved the horse's head from a piece of wood and transformed it into a two-string instrument, using the bone, hair and the hide of the dead horse.

The Mongolian horse head fiddle is played to this day in celebration of the spirit of all horses.

If you are interested in learning more about Mongolia, why not take a quick look at the Mongolia country profile on my Eternal Landscapes website?