Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Weekend Journeys, Monastery, Dream Camp, and UB--08/02/15

 It has been over two months since we first arrived in Mongolia. Sally and I are amazed at how fast the time has flown by. In one week, we will leave our host families and go to Darkhan for final center days. During this time, we will have the last of our global training seminars.

It has been a fun summer, one filled with adventure, mis-communications, new friends, and long days of language learning, but I am ready to make a home with my wife. I recognize the importance of our training, but am tired of it. During the first day of final-center days we will find out where in this vast country we will be serving for the next two years. At the conclusion of this last week of training, we will travel to our new site and home with our host country supervisor. The anticipation is brimming. Will we be in an Aimag Center? (Mongolia has 21 Aimags/States. Each Aimag has at least one large city that serves as its capital and center of commence. The population of these can range from 30,000 to a 100,000 like Darkhan. Darkhan is the Aimag Center for this province.) Will we be near the desert, the steppe, or mountains? Will we live in a ger or apartment?  In just one week our separation will be over and we will know where we are to go…

The past three weeks have sped by in a blur. To quote a PCV I met in UB, “The days are long, but the months are short.” Two weekends ago, Sally and I had our final visit for the summer. It was a fun weekend. We spent the Saturday with her language group in a very crowded meiker that took us to a popular monastery north of UB. Tibetan Buddhism in rooted in tradition and rituals that are not always apparent to westerners. At the monastery, we saw amazingly detailed religious tapestries, bizarre representations of demons, and carved stone statues.  It was hard to entirely understand the symbolism of the monastery, but it was still an incredibly enlightening experience. (This monastery is relatively new only a little over 20 years old. When Mongolia was a satellite of the USSR, almost all of the religious sites were destroyed to accommodate communist philosophy.) Behind the monastery was a trail leading up the mountain through a woods of symbolically carved stones. It is here that one can experience rebirth, after viewing large phallic symbols, by crawling through tight stone crevices. Along and at the end of the journey of spiritual rebirth one is able to see multiple detailed depictions of various spirits and Buddha.

The trip to the monastery took almost all day and we returned to Sally’s family home late in the evening. The next morning I returned to Darkhan initiating our final three weeks of training and separation.

That week, I and my fellow CYD trainees, left Darkhan to spend three days at a Mongolian Summer camp, “Dream Camp.” We traveled there by train for five hours and then via cars over bumpy roads for another hour. The total distance was in the neighborhood of 150-200 kilometers. Our journey took us into a scenic valley where the camp was nestled facing one of Mongolia’s sacred mountains. (Mongolia has 7 or 8 mountains that are deemed sacred by the government. The mountains are set aside because of holy significance or tradition. Following tradition sacred mountains can only be summited by men; a bummer to sexual equality. In addition to State sanctioned mountains sometimes communities we deem nearby mountains sacred or evil.)

It was a fun few days at camp, and a neat opportunity to connect with that summer camp feeling. Almost all of the CYD, trainees spent some amount of time either attending camps or working on staff at camps, so we slipped into the rolls of counselors with ease. We taught two sessions in small groups at camp: one on life skills, and another Basic English class.  We also participated in various games, “camp fire” performances, and even a hike/picnic. The campers almost all came from UB and many spoke fluent English.

On the second evening of camp, the guys and I found ourselves with some free time, so after getting permission from our trainer, we crossed the valley and ascended the sacred mountain. I do not support the gender inequality of the sacred mountain, but it was a really cool mountain and the hiking spirit in me could not say no. Our ascent was steep and in some places treacherous, but we knew what we were doing and were safe. The summit was a three hundred foot cliff that extended out into the valley offering a bird’s eye view of the world around us. It was awe-inspiring.

On the last day of camp, Jake, Theo, and I again found ourselves with some free time and ascended another nearby mountain that was taller than the sacred mountain. At the top of the mountain was a large wooden Owoo. It is customary to circuit these structures three times in a clock-wise manner. The purpose is for spiritual reflection and prayer to the creator. (Owoos are remnants of shamanism in Mongolian culture. Shamanism dates back thousands of years in a form of nature worship. In Chinggas Han’s time Mongolians would often ascend mountains in order to be closer to the creator Telori: god of the eternal blue sky.)

On the last dinner of camp, the campers were told the parable of spoons. In this story, God/Creator has given all of the people in heaven and hell spoons for arms. The people in Hell starve because they cannot bend their elbows and feed themselves, but the people in Heaven feast with joy as they feed each other. The camp director then instructed us to feed each other on this final feast. This is perhaps the first culture shock experience that was truly difficult for me. While the message was very neat, it was hard for me as an American to thrust food into other people’s mouths. I felt like I would be imposing on them. Nevertheless, I had a lot of food given to me as the campers gave to each other in earnest. A part of me also had difficulty with the concept of sharing silverware with so many people. I tried to feed some of my neighbors and then feeling like I had participated I attempted to eat just the food on my plate. I found myself wondering if children in America would participate in this giving activity with such earnestly and sincerity.

The summer camp was a really neat experience. It was great to hang out with teenagers and get an idea of what life was like for them. However, we went to a camp that was primarily for teens in UB who spoke English and were very westernized. My fellow trainees and I were ecstatic over running water and comfortable bunk beds, and the kids felt like they were roughing it in the country. There is a huge divide between the half of the population that lives in the capital city and the half that occupies the rest of the country. Ulaanbaatar feels almost like a different world in comparison.

Which brings me to the final weekend journey to talk about, after another week of classes the CYD trainees boarded a late train from Darkhan to UB.  The purpose of the trip was to familiarize us with UB and various landmarks that are important to us like the PC office. Sleeping on the train was an interesting experience. Theo and I took top adjacent berths and buckled ourselves in. I had seen other people sleep in these bunks on previous train rides, but I was unprepared for how tight the top bunk was. I did sleep well next to the open window where I could see the blurs of telephone poles.

At the crack of dawn, we found ourselves in UB. The day was spent visiting various sites, and the night in a hostel that seems to cater to PCVs. I have no doubt that Sally and I will visit UB together again and take better pictures, so I will leave much of the details for that trip. The highlight of the trip was going to Gandantegchinlen Monastery. Theo and I had broken away from the group in search of the cinema and “Mad Max.” Unfortunately American is offering another “Mission Impossible,” and “Terminator” to the people of Mongolia, so we decided to find our way to the monastery instead. We had no idea what to expect, and found ourselves before a massive ancient building.

Religious sights are very interesting to see, not just for the reverence and spirituality, but also because all of the area’s best craftsmen and artist come together to create something that is meaningful to the community. It is meant to show of the beauty of the culture in reverence to that cultures beliefs. This Monastery was one of the few that the USSR did not destroy. Inside was a space that I am still having trouble describing. I found myself speechless in awe of the sacred sight. A cavernous open room with deceptively high ceilings containing an enormous statue of AvalokiteĊ›vara. (Tibetan Buddhism believes that the current Dali Lama is the 14th reincarnation of this Bodhisattva of Compassion). The Statue was painted gold, and the space conveyed holiness. I hope to go back and take some pictures. On this visit I did not feel like that was the right thing to do. It was truly a sacred experience, and I am still digesting it to some degree. 


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