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chris in the land of pom

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Friday, July 18, 2003
One man hits a ball across Mongolia

MONGOLIA SEEMS to attract a certain breed of foreigner, and those who love the country share certain characteristics - a pioneer attitude, a lot of patience, a tough posterior, a love of spontaneity and an appreciation for the absurd. Summer has brought many tourists and travelers to the country, among them some interesting individuals on interesting missions.

One such man is Andre Tolme, who has decided to turn Mongolia into a giant 18-hole golf course, the distance between each hole measuring 140km. The Mongolian steppe may seem perfect for golf, but when you consider the clumps of grass, the marmot holes, the hidden rocks and ditches, the idea of going for a quiet Sunday game of golf doesn't seem quite so simple. Apart from those factors, consider the size of the country and the inaccessibility of most areas. Tolme's idea of hitting a golf ball from the eastern side of the country to the west begins to sound like some extended form of torture. Either that, or a huge physical challenge. Golfers are not particularly renowned for their adventurous spirit, so Tolme obviously has a pioneering attitude and hopefully, a large reserve of patience.

Tolme first came to Mongolia in September 2001, and has been travelling almost continuously through Asia and Australasia since then. He started playing golf at the age of ten, and although he is not a professional golfer, he says he loves the game because it is mixture of technique and concentration, and that 'no matter how good you are, you can always get better'. His trip across Mongolia combines his two great loves - golf and travel.

Ulaanbaatar is hole number six on the trip, and it took Tolme five weeks to reach the capital, coming on foot from Choibalsan. He walked the first three holes, carrying his own clubs, balls, water and tent. After enduring this trek, he bought a metal cart, which he dragged all the way to UB. He spontaneously donated the cart to a family on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, no doubt sick of the sight of it. He is now looking for a Mongolian traveling companion with a horse and cart, a camel or a jeep.

Through this trip to Mongolia, Tolme hopes to raise international awareness about Mongolia and the problems faced by the country. He will be updating his website - - from aimag centres, keeping readers up to date with how many balls he has lost (186 so far - donations welcome) and describing his encounters with wolves, electric storms and country veterinarians. Individual and private company sponsors from the US are supporting the first-ever 'adventure golf' expedition in Mongolia.

Tolme plans to reach the final hole in Dund-Us in October. His handicap is 15.


Inner Visions

NEXT WEDNESDAY, June 11th, 2003, the Union of Mongolian Artists Art Gallery will be opening its doors to celebrate the show called 3 Perspectives on Botany & Medicine. The show will feature over 45 pieces and is the product of a collaboration between American and Mongolian artists. Modernist painter, S. Sarantsatsralt (known as Tsatsa), commercial graphic designer, Alan Lapp, and scientific illustrator, Zina Deretsky are exhibiting works that all share the common themes of botany and medicine. Each artist brings a unique vision, approach and medium to his or her work.

Ms. Deretsky and Mr. Lapp are a husband-and-wife team and have been in Mongolia for nearly a year on a scholarship from the Luce Foundation. Ms. Deretsky has collaborated with the Botanical Institute of the
Mongolian Academy of Sciences on a calendar featuring plants of the Eastern Steppe. On display will also be medical pieces she is contributing to the First Hospital and other hospitals around the city through collaboration with an American doctor.

During their stay in Ulaanbaatar, Mr. Lapp has had a chance to explore making artwork for himself, and not just as a commercial endeavor. His botanical images are based on photographs he has taken here and in his travels through Asia. His medical pieces relate to his position on the receiving end of the Western medical industry.

Prominent and energetic UB artist, Tsatsa, has always been fascinated with surgery. In this show, she expresses her feeling about discovering the inside of a human being. Her botanical pieces play along and against the plant themes chosen by Zina and Alan.

The exhibit will be of particular interest not only to the art community, but also to members of the science and medical communities of Ulaanbaatar. Support for the exhibit was granted by the US Embassy.
Doors are open to everyone. Union of Mongolian Artists Art Gallery (across from the Central Post Office, on 2nd floor next to Sapphire Thai Restaurant). Show opening: Wednesday, June 11th,2003; 6:00pm. Show runs June 11th through 13th. Gallery is open 10 to 5 daily.


Posted by christiane at 3:24 PM.

Wednesday, June 25, 2003
Roaring through the Gobi
Music and landscape and the people in between
By Christiane Ayling

Sound is information to be described and experienced. The whole gamut of sound, both natural and man-made and varying from place to place, constitutes what might be called the music of geography.
- D. Pocock

Even without the chapter headings which Beethoven put over his movements, we should have been able to discover that this was an impression of country sights and sounds ... The realism resides not in the very slight allusions to natural phenomena but in the simple acceptance of a common emotional experience.
- A. K. Holland

LAST WEEK I was standing somewhere in the Gobi desert with Ulla Suokko, a Finnish flautist who is based in New York. We were standing in a crowd of people, waiting for ten children to come thundering over the hill on their horses, participants in a race organised for the 5th Roaring Hooves Festival of Actual Music. It was hot, and we were talking about music and landscape. I asked Ulla how it is that so many different types of music can fit into a landscape, any landscape. I had spent two days driving from Ulaanabaatar to Dalanzadgad in a minibus with five Mongolian models, five child contortionists, and assorted Mongolian journalists and hangers-on. Along the way, I had listened to music, discovering that punk rock, Boney M and trance techno are as relevant to the Mongolian landscape as country music. Ulla told me that the reason is that music is an internal thing, something we carry with us, and can thus be made to fit any landscape into which we ourselves can fit.

Making music is one of humanity's primal urges, and music and art are the only truly international languages. Bringing people together to share music and art, in a landscape unlike any other, is the premise behind the Roaring Hooves festival, organised by the New Music Association of Mongolia, the Ministry of Infrastructure, the Mongolian Tourism Board, and the Arts Council of Mongolia. Artistic Director Prof. Bernhard Wulff each year brings together a diverse group of foreign and Mongolian performers, who play concerts for audiences in both Ulaanbaatar and the Gobi. During their stay in the Gobi, festival participants collaborate as part of the Gobi Summer Academy. Young Mongolian performers and students have the opportunity to exchange ideas with foreign musicians, and locals the opportunity to see music and art they may not otherwise have the chance to witness, along with traditional Mongolian music. Along the way everyone is immersed in the surrounds of the incomparable Gobi desert.

This year was the second time a concert has been held in the Dalanzadgad stadium. The audience was made up of at least half of the town's population, and a festive atmosphere prevailed with icecream sellers and children playing in the long grass. The Sarnii Chuluu morin khoor ensemble from UB kicked off the show and impressed with their original compositions and skilled playing. All of the performers displayed flexibility in their use of the space - Japanese singer Miyaoka Yoriko ran through the grass and stretched her voice out to the spectators, performance group Red Earth utilised the track, and singers and musicians overcame technical problems with good humour and professionalism. Most of the foreign performers had never been to Mongolia before, so their reaction to the situation was encouraging, as were the responses of the audience.

We were all under the spell of the landscape immediately. The region had recently had rain for the first time in six years, and the Gobi was unexpectedly green. Our base was the Tuuvshin Tour ger camp, and we settled in that afternoon, getting to know each other and wandering out into the plain in various directions. In the evening our hosts organised a concert of wind instruments, which included performances by the Stockholm Saxophone Quartet, three Armenians playing their apricot wood pipes called duduk, and the wind moving across the desert. Later I drank thick black Armenian coffee and sat outside in the grass when it finally got dark, listening to people all over the camp playing drums, guitars, and morin khoor.

The caffeine injection kept me awake and thinking, and next morning I talked to Ulla about music and landscape. Her theory seemed sensible, but the question was really whether the musicians and artists would succeed in communicating with each other through their creations and collaborations. The next two days were crammed with sightseeing and concerts and events. A concert was performed on the Moltsog Els sand dunes for locals (and with them, in the case of Dutch performance artist Martien Groeneveld), we witnessed a short wrestling performance and had a traditional Mongolian stone barbecue, a khoorhog. In the evening a shaman performed a fire ceremony at the ger camp, more a demonstration of religion public relations than a true ritual. We were all exhausted from the tight schedule, but managed to find time for drinking and conversation.

The final Gobi concert was held in the Yolyn Am ice gorge on Thursday 19 June, after a whirlwind visit to the beautiful area around Bayanzag, the Flaming Cliffs. Locals and foreigners watched the concert from the hills surrounding the stage on ice. In a way, this performance was the culmination of the days in the desert. The sheer rock walls enclosing us reflected the music back to us, and gave us all the feeling of a tenuous community formed over the previous days. Physical and emotional exhaustion was manifest in some of the performances and reactions to them. There was controversy over the Red Earth performers smashing pieces of ice against the cliff wall, some feeling that the action showed disrespect for Mongolian traditions in regards to the earth and sacred sites such as this. However, the Mongolian members of the audience reacted positively to the performance, displaying an openness to new ideas and a critical faculty that many would perhaps not credit them with.

During the final moments of the Yolyn Am concert, the sky let loose with cracks of thunder and soon enough the sky opened, giving us all a thorough drenching as we wound back out through the gorge on foot and horseback. The resulting storm was a release - a release from the heat of the desert, and a signal that the end of the trip was near. On our return to the camp, the rain lifted, leaving a double rainbow curving away into the distance. It was a true Mongolian blessing, another sign of good fortune. That night we sampled food from all over the world, brought by the performers and guests from their home countries. Afterwards we drank together until dawn in the camp bar, discussing the week and sharing the various impressions Mongolia had left on us all. The Azerbaijanis and Armenians fetched their pipes and delicate stringed instruments, played endless twisting songs and taught us how to dance.

At the closing Ulaanbaatar concert, the foreign musicians had a chance to perform the results of their collaborations with the Mongolian performers. The chance to see a Turkish drummer play with a traditional morin khoor ensemble surely does not come along every day, and the audience in the Cultural Centre of Mongolian Trade Unions appreciated the diversity of the concert performances. But particularly fitting for those of us who had been fortunate enough to spend the week in the desert was Red Earth's tribute to the landscape. The trio stood in silence for five minutes, and reminded us that a landscape can silence everything and that it has a melody all of its own. We carried our own music with us, and the Gobi desert brought it out, played it through, and gave it back to us.

My thanks and admiration go to the organisers of the festival, particularly S. Badamkhorol from the New Music Association and Dr Wulff, for facilitating the fun. But the trip could not have been what it was without the people present, all of whom showed me that music may be internal and landscape external, but it is people who bring the two together. In the end it was the landscape that provided the shared experience, and the music that expressed the response.

Posted by christiane at 11:49 PM.

Tuesday, June 03, 2003
Taxi adventures

Mongolian taxis are one of my dangerous indulgences. I don't often take taxis, especially now that it's warmer, and the city is so small anyway, but I do almost get run down by them at least once a day. It isn't much safer on the inside .. but always excellent fun.

Ulaanbaatar taxis only cost about twenty cents a kilometre and are worth every togrog. There are green taxis, yellow taxis, red taxis, and then there are just cars that stop for anyone who puts their hand out or even walks slowly by the curb. Late at night if you even look slightly indecisive (or western) you'll get cars slowing down beside you.

When I first got here, I assumed that all the cars with tatty red flags on their bonnets were for politicians or VIPs, but now I know they're just all-purpose transport. If you get in one of these at night the driver usually has his girlfriend in the front seat, along for the ride.

Politicians and VIPs have policemen hold up the traffic for twenty minutes before and after they've passed through the intersection in their black mercs.

At Christmas all the taxis had tinsel wrapped around their aerials, fairy lights on the dashboards. Unfortunately they also had that god-awful George Michael Christmas song on high rotation.

The first, and often the only, Mongolian expatriates in Ulaanbaatar learn is how to give directions to the taxi driver - chigeeree (straight ahead), zuun tiish (turn left) and baruun tiish (turn right). Occasionally problems arise, because in Mongolian zuun also means east and baruun west.

Ulaanbaatar taxi drivers are some of the most interesting people around, and I usually have amusing conversations with them, using bits of whatever languages we both know. They are also some of the kindest people in town - if I get a taxi home late at night, the driver almost always watches to see I get into my building safely. If you find a reliable driver, you can get his mobile number and have him take you to the train station at 6am on a Sunday, for no extra charge.

But they are total maniacs on the roads, no doubt about it. The roads themselves are horrific, obstacle courses of open manholes, potholes that grow while you watch, and random pieces of metal sticking up out of the ground (all of which were covered over by snow in winter). And then there are the pedestrians. I honestly can't tell who are more kamikaze, the drivers or the pedestrians. People here just saunter out into the middle of the street - little old ladies link arms, hold up their hands and step into the vortex - and they don't wait until there's a gap in the traffic, they just stand in the middle of lanes and dodge between cars. Traffic lights, lane markings, one-way streets - these ideas seem not to fit into the Mongol way of thinking. Having lived in Europe, I was used to looking left instead of right when stepping off the curb, but here you have to look in every direction, including down and behind you. Inherent trust in traffic lights takes a long time to overcome, believe me.

I am now an expert in that potentially gruesome 3D dodgem game of crossing the street, although I'm trying to maintain a certain level of fear. The other day I watched a guy on a dusty brown horse weave through four lanes of screaming metal, his horse more chilled out than I could ever be. Old ladies and brown horses, they've got guts here in UB.

My favourite thing about taxis here is the amazing mechanical skills of the drivers. At least four times, I've been in a taxi when a strange noise is heard coming from the engine. The driver gets out, walks around to the front of the car, and kicks the front right-hand tyre a couple of times, gets back in and voila. No more strange noises, problem solved. Seriously - it's always the front right-hand tyre and the kicking method always works.

But the only time I've really been scared in a taxi here was last week, after I got in and for the first time in history, the driver put on his seatbelt.


Review of the Camel Room

The Ulaanbaatar Natural History Museum is one of the city's highlights, and one of its most unique features is the small Camel Museum, which celebrates Mongolia's population of wild and domestic Bactrian camels.
The Camel Museum was set up by Sumyagiin Jambaldorj, a professor, writer and journalist. S. Jambaldorj was awarded an award "For Outstanding Service as a Hearst Visiting Professor" by the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida in 1997. He is the author of books such as "The Chain of Mongolian Secrets", "The Camel is an Animal of the Sky" and "Winged Trip" and has translated works by the Finnish writer M. Larin, Danish writer M. A. Neksen and Russian writer G. Markov. Professor Jambaldorj has also conducted research into the Bactrian camel and Mongolian philosophies concerning the number nine, and is currently engaged in working in the field of "MonoEcoHomology".

The habitat of wild and domesticated Bactrian camels ranges between southwest Mongolia and northwest China, throughout the Gobi Desert. In October 2002 the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), a non-profit conservation organization based in Cambridge, UK, reclassified the status of wild Bactrian camels to "critically endangered". There are approximately 950 wild camels in their natural habitat and 15 in captivity in Mongolia and China. Domestic Bactrian camels live all over Mongolia, even as far north as Khuvsgul Lake.

Wild Bactrian camels are quite different to their domestic counterparts. There is evidence that the two varieties are different species, as their DNA differs significantly. The unique adaptation of wild Bactrian camels to their harsh environment means that they are able to drink a saltwater slush, often the only water available in the Gobi, which averages 100mm of precipitation a year. Domestic and wild camels in the Gobi compete for grazing grounds and wild camels are sometimes targeted by hunters for food or sport.

The Camel Museum has a small but diverse collection of Bactrian-related items, which celebrate the camel's role in Mongolian culture and history. There are artworks depicting camels, including thankas, sculptures and erotic art.


Daytripping in the Steppe

I AM LYING on the roof rack of a Land Cruiser, driving through the steppe in the sunshine. I am holding on with my toes and savouring the unusual joy of getting sunburnt in Mongolia. Lying to my right, eyes closed, is Petr Zelenka, a film director from Prague. As far as I can tell, he's also enjoying the sun and steppe. I do not have much experience in reading Czech faces, but this is all about to change. I am heading into the plains in the company of four Czechs, a Slovak and a Czech-speaking Mongolian - the justification for our five-day jaunt is the presence of Zelenka and the opportunity to show his films to Mongolian audiences.

Despite my relative ignorance of all things Czech, I think Zelenka is going to like Mongolia. From his two films "Buttoners" and the more recent "Year of the Devil", I sense that he appreciates unpredictability, chance encounters, a sense of being helpless, along for the ride, living on the edge. The characters in the two films are people with odd habits, underdogs, people fighting losing battles against the system. Zelenka's technique of using a documentary style for fictional stories, and real people playing themselves in fictional stories, supports his comment that the characters in his films are the sort of people who act no differently in front of the camera. And Mongolia has no shortage of 'characters' - nor of absurdity, incomprehension and undercurrents of danger and death.

Our diverse little party gets into the swing of the countryside immediately. On the way to Kharkhorin, we stop for picnics by streams, climbs in sand dunes and tsuivan in roadside gers. Cranes dance after insects and three vultures hop into the air on short fat legs. The geography professor from Brno keeps us amused with his photographing of sheep and girls in gers transfixed by blowing his nose into a hankerchief. After dark we roll into Kharkhorin and follow distant lights and instructions from a trusty GPS to our destination, the Kharkhorum Tourist Base. That night the Mongolian sky pulls out some tricks and our gers are buffeted all night long by wind and snow.

The next day we bump along to Hashaat, a small soum northeast of Kharkhorin, for the first screening. The governor greets us and we are shown into the cultural centre, a typically dilapidated and beautiful building. It is white and slowly cracking apart, with a green roof and blue windowsills. The wooden yellow floorboards of the hall slope down to a tiny stage, framed by ratty curtains and painted decorative boards. We pull out rows of broken fold-up seats and watch with admiration as three young Mongolian men acrobatically rig up the screen. Outside a crowd of fascinated children gathers, and at the appointed time what seems like the whole population of the town under thirty years of age piles into the hall. We unleash "Year of the Devil" on the viewers, who seem to be more interested in the images than reading the subtitles. By the end of the film, most of the children have wandered out into the dust, leaving young adults and a couple of old men in deels. I sit with a few warm children around me and wonder what they see in the film and hear in the Cezch folk music.

We have the obligatory tour of the hospital and kindergarten, and a solemn meeting in the governor's cold office. The Czechs and Mongols express their wishes for continuing friendship and cooperation in such cultural exchanges. We are shown to the local delguur and buy vodka, which is kept in a safe with a broken lock in a back room. The governor takes us out to the nearby excavation site of a Turkic city and together we drink by a monolithic stele. In the evening we drive to the gers of a family of herders for more vodka, chunks of meat and conversation.

I watch Zelenka watch Mongolians. His observations, and the screenings, are both an exercise in bilateral relations and a renewed introduction to Mongolia. Simultaneously I see from my view, and from that of a tall European filmmaker. He accepts the rowdiness and youth of his audience with good humour, and takes to the soum diplomacy, vodka and mutton meals like a natural.

The slapstick continues the next day back in Kharkhorin. In the morning we spend an hour or two sourcing extension cords, only to then discover that the electricity has gone out all over town. The wind rips all the fliers from the walls and blows them into the beyond. We decide to wait down by the river, where we throw scraps of meat to circling kites and watch horses come down from the mountain to water. Word eventually arrives that the power may soon be sorted, so we bump back to town to watch three men precariously balance on a tower, touching transformers with their bare hands. Despite the posters blowing around in the dust, they haven't heard about the screening, so we invite them along. That night three films are shown - two shorts, "Powers" (2000) and "Mnaga - Happy End" (1996), and "Buttoners".

"Powers" is a sweet story of a small-time magician who one day acquires real magical powers. The watching children are highly amused by the unexpected appearances of white doves in the magician's hands. During the sex scenes, the girls in the audience (there despite a request that children under 12 leave the screening) cover their faces with their school books. By the end of "Buttoners" there remains only a small group of adults and students from the university, who react well to the jokes and dialogue. I doubt that they have seen similar films, like Jarmusch's "Mystery Train" or even "Pulp Fiction", but they watch with a concentration that indicates that the story appeals to the Mongolian sense of destiny, of being part of something larger.

Outside, Mongolia calls, and renders any social experiment that takes place in a dark room with a screen slightly irrelevant. Zelenka tells me about searching for inspiration, spending long periods simply meeting people and doing things, which is really what we are here for. And so we spend the last days of the trip soaking up the sunshine and sights. We visit Erdene Zuu, where the tour guide insists that everything, including a wooden fence, was built in the 17th century. The excavation site of Ogedei's palace is littered with pieces of green-glazed and black-striped ceramics, and it isn't hard to imagine how the surrounds looked when William of Rubruck arrived here after his long journey from Europe. We spend the night by Lake Ogiy, and next day climb an ancient volcano, and eat lunch by the ruins of Tsogt Khun Taij's 16th century castle. Outside the jeep, countless marmots run for their holes, horses and camels move with their young, and we pass a place where a whole herd of sheep lay down and died sometime in winter.

Driving back into Ulaanbaatar late at night, Zelenka says that he had a great trip. He is as sunburnt, exhausted and content as the rest of us are, but I know he's looking forward to getting back to the staid civilisation of Prague and to gaining enough distance from Mongolia to sift out inspiration from pure holiday fun. In the works are performances of his stage play "Tales of Common Insanity" (see and a possible project in the United States. Meanwhile, we who remain in Mongolia look forward to seeing how or if any influence of his short stay in Mongolia manifests itself onscreen. Personally I am holding out for a diplomat-turned-herder character, or at least a plague-ridden marmot.

My thanks and gratitude go to Adam Pinos of the Czech Embassy and his incomparably lovely family for making the trip so special, and to Petr for making me laugh.


Beginnings of Contemporary Mongolian Art

- Our ancestors were sensitive to large spaces. This is a powerful and unique way of thinking.
- This way of thinking has led us to reconsider our homeland, customs, mentality and thoughts through symbolism.
- Having opened our world and thoughts, we became self-aware. This forced us to recreate ourselves and to negate the system of education under which we grew up.
- Art must be free-thinking and open-minded, and not governed by any one theory or view.
- Any body or thought is part of a continuing process.
- Desire, confidence and negation formed us.
- Art is happiness, sadness, regret and magic belief.
- Our art is easy to understand if explained in terms of humanity and thought, not in terms of medium and material.
- Art is common to all mankind.

So reads the manifesto of the Green Horse Modern Art Society, which was formed in 1992 when the City Art, Sky and Green Horse groups joined forces to introduce modernism to Mongolia. The group was formed as a reaction against the social realism which was the prevalent style at the time in the Mongolian Artists' Union (MAU). Five of the founding members of the group issued a statement that said, "we will oppose the stagnant form of one model and one conception in Mongolian fine arts, and will approach fine art from the view of development and prosperity". Their original State Registration Certificate (#224), dated 14 November 1990, listed the group's main activity as "the creation of art", and from this simple intention, and the will to break free of imposed constraints, grew a dynamic and vibrant movement in Mongolian modern art.

Any major social upheaval leads to the formation of an avant-garde, and the Green Horse Society had major obstacles to overcome at its inception. The Mongolian Artists' Union refused to include works by some of the group's founding members in its 1989 Autumn exhibition, and works by members were again rejected by the MAU in 1990. In that year the Green Horse Society decided to hold their first group show, titled Action-1. They were assisted by curator and art researcher Tseren Enkhbold, who was working at the Mongolian Modern Art Gallery. The exhibition was held at the Central Cultural Palace and electrified critics and audiences in the capital, showing young artists that there were alternatives to indoctrinated styles and attitudes to art. A year later, after another group show at the Lenin Museum, the Literature newspaper reported that "the tie of political pressure and control which existed over art in former times has been lost and a door of reform and change in art has been opened" (Literature newspaper, N10/1796, 2 March 1991).

The Green Horse Society was named for the horse ridden by the god Maidar, who brought peace and did good deeds. The horse symbolises the future, and the naming of the group reflected the desire and hope for a bright future by Mongolian society, a desire which continues today. Group artists mostly worked within expressionism, branching into installation and land art, styles and mediums which can be considered to have particular relevance in Mongolia. German Expressionism emerged before the Second World War, with artists reacting to the frightening changes in the country, and their art was also suppressed by the authorities, often violently.

The Green Horse Society has held 44 exhibitions since those first shows, the most recent of which was in 2000, although members participate in other Mongolian Association of New Art group shows each year as well as various exhibitions within Mongolia and overseas. The next group exhibition is currently being organised for the next few months.


Posted by christiane at 6:13 PM.