Thursday, February 25, 2016

Climbing Ondorkhaan Mountain (Өндөрхаан Уул Авираж Байна)

            Monday marked the 15th day after Цагаан Сар and is considered to be a lucky/special day. For this reason, a number of my male teachers and I left school in the early afternoon to climb to the top of Ondorkhaan Mountain to seek a blessing for the coming school year. Like most things in Mongolia, I was not aware of this until about 5 minutes after they left, but luckily I was still able to catch a ride in one of the two cars going out to the mountain.

            The mountain is situated about 20 miles to the north east of Chinggis Town, and it takes about 30-40 minutes to get there over dirt roads through empty valleys. (If you look on Google maps it is the green area north of town.) Mongolians are masters of trailblazing with their small cars, and one can reach the “parking area” through a number of rutted roads. From the parking area, it is a short 1.5 miles to the top with about 500 ft of elevation change. Unfortunately, women are not allowed to summit this mountain because it is considered sacred.
            This tradition of men climbing mountains to be closer to God goes back thousands of years in Mongolian history to nomadic times. In the time of Chinggis Khan, men would remove their belts and hats as they summited the mountains in respect of the god of eternal blue sky. Nowadays it is still common for Mongolian men to make pilgrimages to various sacred mountains throughout the year. While I do not support the gender inequality of this tradition, it still is a powerful experience. I have always found mountain tops to be one of the few places where I feel any spiritual connection with the world, so it is neat to celebrate this with people in a completely different country.
            We made the climb, rather quickly in the usual testosterone filled way, and summited near the sacred Овоо. ( Овоо—Awaah—refers to a pile of sacred stones usually placed on mountain tops) This particular овоо was larger than most I have seen and domed with sacred scripts and stones. It is hard to date овооs. The Russians made a mess of destroying most of the scared sites in Mongolia during the cold war, but they may not have bothered with piles of rocks on tops of mountains being more focused on annihilating traditional monasteries and monks. It is possible that the older Овоо on sacred mountains date back hundreds of years.

            Once we reached the Овоо, an offering was made to ancestors and the earth. We presented food on an altar, and sprinkled vodka and milk around the овоо. Rice and bread were also shared and distributed around the sacred site. (This sharing of food is a tradition in a number of religions and simply celebrates thankfulness with god/ancestors/the earth.) Each one of us journeyed around the Овоо three times in a clockwise manner saying prayers or meditating on the beauty of the world.

            The wind blew fiercely from the northeast and the back side of the Овоо. On this side, one’s hands seemed to freeze in a matter of seconds, and the camera really didn’t work. Other than the wind, the day was a pleasant 15 degrees Fahrenheit.
            Once all of the offerings were made, the teachers felt that they had represented our school well on the sacred mountain. We retired behind a clump of boulders and finished off the rest of the vodka and snacks we had.  Snuff bottles were passed and toasts were made to a successful school year. I had a couple of Hot Hands in my pockets which I distributed to some of the colder teachers. PCVs in Mongolia have learned never to go into the country with a group of Mongolians without a firm return date and time established. I knew we could not stay on the mountain for long since everyone was eager to return to town to receive blessings from their local monk on this lucky day, so after a hasty decent we returned to the cars. (Most Mongolians practice a combination of Tibetan Buddhism and Shamanism. This practice of lucky days seems to be an example of this. Think of holy days of obligation with Catholics or Easter with most other Christians.)

            It took me a few days to recover from this hike. I have been walking on flat ground with the occasional climb of three stories to Kyra’s office for four months, so while my mind was ecstatic about climbing Ondorkhaan Mountain, my body was/is hurting.


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