Wednesday, October 24, 2012

China | Beijing | Ms. R’s Dumplings

On my first free evening in town Ms. R invited me to her apartment to sample her legendary dumplings.
Ms. R demonstrating her formidable cleaver skills
Ms. R preparing her fabled dumplings
Ms. R presiding over her dinner table. Dumplings on the left.
We were joined for dinner by Ms. W, a friend of Ms. R’s from Urumqi, in Xinjiang, the westernmost province of China and home of the Uighur people. Like many educated Uighurs Ms. W speaks almost perfect, unaccented English, even though she had never been to an English speaking country. Ms. R herself speaks Uighur, Uzbek, Chinese, English, and Spanish.
Ms R’s friend Ms. W
Ms. R and Ms W displaying sisterly affection
Over dinner we had a scintillating conversation, to say the least. After exhausting the subject of perfumes—Deep Six is now the scent of choice for Ms. R and her friends, I am told—we moved on to a discussion of Chagatai Turk, the language which was once spoken in the Chagatai Khanate. Chagatai was of course the second son of Chingis Khan and upon Chingis’s death he was awarded as his inheritance much of what is now Uzbekistan, Kazakstan, and Kyrgzstan, including the fabled cities of Bukhara and Samarkhand. The Chagatai Turk language developed about 1400 AD but is now considered extinct. One of the more notable literary productions in Chagatai Turk was Babur’s autobiography, the Baburnama.

Babur, who as you know founded the Moghul Empire in India, was the great-great-great grandson of Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World. Although not of royal blood himself, Tamurlane married Mulk-khanum, the daughter of Qaram, who was descended from Chagatai and thus from Chingis himself. Babur was apparently the fruit of this coupling, and thus a Chingisid-Chagataid himself, although given the fact that Tamurlane had dozens of wives the exact bloodlines must remain obscure. In addition to founding the Moghul Empire, Babur was a legendary party animal, as he fully recounts in his memoirs. When he wasn’t sacking cities he was getting high on wine and hashish and amusing himself with his considerable harem, with the occasional handsome young man thrown in for added titillation. Babur’s son Humayun became emperor of India in 1530. He died on January 19, 1556, after a fall on the steps of his library. Humayun’s Tomb can now be seen in New Delhi.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Mongolia | Life of Dambijantsan | Among the Dörvöds

The Life of Dambijantsan continued:

In the early Spring of 1912 Dambijantsan and his disciple Jimbe left his Headquarters on the Dund Tsenkher Gol and traveled north to the Dörvöd Dalai Khan and the Dörvöd Zorigt Khan aimags in the the border region to the west  of the four Khalkh aimags. As their names implies, these aimags, located in what is now Uvs Aimag and northern Khovd Aimag, were in large part inhabited by Dörböd, the tribe Dambijantsan supposed belonged to back in Kalmykia. While in Dörvöd Dalai Khan Aimag Dambijantsan first meet with A. V. Burdukov, the Russian trader who would become his close friend and who would write at length about him in his book Old and New Mongolia. Burdukov at time had a homestead and trading post at Khangeltsyk, near the town Tsagaan Khairkhan in current-day Uvs Aimag, northeast  of Khyargas Nuur.  Burdukov visited Dambijantsan in a ger where he was staying:
At first we thought that they [Dambijantsan and Jimbe] were just two   badarchin, but people said no, they are very significant people. He was about 40–45 years old, stout, strongly built, with a round, purposeful face. He had a high forehead and bright, shining eyes. Although he was dressed as a Tibetan lama in a maroon gown with broad cuffless sleeves, he wore a well-made pair of Russian boots, and peeping out from under the gown was the collar of an old Russian military uniform. His accent was neither Khalkh nor Oirat but a mixture. Mausers were hung on the wall of the yurt. He knew much about events in Mongolia, Russia, and China. He inspired belief in him by others to an extraordinary degree. People came into his yurt and asked his blessing, which he always gave. He looked like someone born on the steppe and at the same time as an experienced agitator.
In the course of his conversations with Burdukov Dambijantsan spoke about India and Tibet, where he claimed to have traveled extensively. “There could be little doubt as to the man’s wide experiences and travel,” Burdukov noted, “his information about the countries he mentioned was remarkably precise and detailed . . . Ja Lama had a command not only of the Mongolian language, but of Chinese, Tibetan, and Sanskrit as well, and he also knew a bit of Russian.” (Oddly, the Diluv Khutagt claimed that Dambijantsan, despite the years he had supposedly lived in Tibet, could not speak Tibetan at all.) Maisky, traveling through the region a few years later when stories about Dambijantsan’s first appearance there were still in circulation, also commented on Dambijantsan’s extensive travels in India, Tibet and elsewhere: “A man who had gone through this kind of schooling [his various travels] and acquired some smattering of European culture would under any circumstances greatly impress the simple-minded Mongols . . .” 

But not only was he well-traveled and supposedly well-educated, he was also the successor to Amarsanaa, a claim which he never tired of repeating. Maisky’s comments on the effects this assertion had on the locals:
One can . . . easily imagine the sensation Ja Lama created among the Durbets [Dörböds] when he let them in on the “secret” that he was none other than a descendent and reincarnation of the renowned Amursana and that the last hero of Mongolian independence had become incarnated in him so that he, Ja Lama, might lift the Chinese yoke from his native land. There was great excitement among the tribes of the Khovd region. The name of Ja Lama was on all tongues. Everyone saw him as the savior of the fatherland. Princes, lamas and plain folk came flocking to the newly-risen leader and donated livestock, silver, cloth, etc. In a short time, the bold monk became in fact the ruler of the Kobdo Mongols. He now began his activities in earnest.
Dambijantsan’s prestige in Dörvöd Dalai Khan Aimag was enhanced by all kinds of magical acts which were attributed to him. He seemed to know all the life-stories and even the most intimate secrets of all the important people in the area. People put this down to his supernatural powers of cognition and mind reading, but  as Burdukov pointed out he might well have gotten this information from the gossip of the many people who were constantly coming to him for blessings. Burdukov also mentioned that at one point he took some photographs of Dambijantan. He later inadvertently re-exposed the negative containing Dambijantsan’s image when he was taking a photo of local Mongolian noblemen. When the negative was printed the faces of the Mongol princes showed up on Dambijantsan’s sleeve. Despite Burdukov’s explanations of what had happened, the Mongols who saw this photograph insisted that this was further proof of Dambijantsan’s magical powers. HIs every act took on a special significance. He frequently gave his disciple Jimbe  severe beatings, but witnesses took this to mean that Jimbe was a great sinner and that Dambijantsan was performing a virtuous act by punishing him. In the eyes of many Dambijantsan could do no wrong.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Mongolia | USA | Gunj and Friends

Just had an interesting video chat with International Adventuress Gunj and her friend Denise Zabalaga, a photo-journalist who has Worked in Afghanistan and many other places. They were in Gunj’s luxurious penthouse apartment near Union Square in downtown Manhattan, just a stone’s throw from the Strand Bookstore, and I was in my hovel in Zaisan Tolgoi. Talk about inequality! Anyhow, Denise related how she had been searching on the internet for information about Central Asia and came across my blog, which she had never seen before. Checking a few posts she was flabbergasted to see a photo of her friend, who we know of as Gunj, but who she knows of under a different alias. She contacted Gunj and confirmed that it was indeed her in the photos on my blog.  Now Denise was staying in Gunj’s apartment during a whirlwind visit to NYC and I was able to link up with both of them via video-chat. Small world! 
Gunj and Denise via Video-Chat

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Tibet | Mindroling | Dorje Drak

Wandered down to Tibet and visited Mindroling, the monastery which had been heavily damaged by the Zungarian Mongols who invaded Tibet in 1718 under the leadership of Tseveen Ravdan, the nephew of Galdan Bolshigt, who in the 1680s had led the Zungarian Mongols against the Khalkh Mongols, at that time headed by Zanabazar, the First Bogd Gegen of Mongolia, who was the great grandson of Avtai, the founder of Erdene Zuu. The Zungarians were hacked off that the Khoshot Mongol Khan Lhazang had effectively removed the 6th Dalai Lama from power and replaced him with what many Tibetans felt was a pretender 6th Dalai Lama. The Zungarians invaded Tibet with the idea of removing the pretender and installing Kalsang Gyatso, then a boy monk at Kumbum Monastery near current day Xining in Qinghai Province, China, as the Seventh Dalai Lama. As staunch supporters of the Dalai Lama’s Gelug sect they had a particular beef with the Nyingma sect and set about trashing and looting Nyingma monasteries. Thus Mindroling, a Nyingma stronghold, was heavily damaged. It was later rebuilt or at least refurbished using the distinctive local stone. Mindroling escaped destruction by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and thus survives as an unusual example of the fine stone work used in early Tibetan monasteries.

Building at Mindroling showing distinctive stonework
From Mindroling we took the ferry across the Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) River.
Ferry across the Tsangpo
Passengers on the ferry
On the north side of the river we visited the tomb of Yeshe Tsogyel, the consort of Padmasambhava, who in the eight century had founded Samye Monastery.
Stupa of Yeshe Tsogyel

Then we continued on to the village of Dratang, where we spent New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day at the Dratang Guest House, locally famous for its excellent dumpling soup.

Dratang Guest House
Then back across the Tsangpo by ferry and down the valley to yet another ferry across the Tsangpo to Dorje Drak Monastery.
Ferry to Dorje Drak
Dorje Drak
Like Mindroling, Dorje Drak was a Nyingma Monastery and was almost totally destroyed by the Zungarian Mongols in 1718. It was rebuilt, only to be destroyed again during the Cultural Revolution. It has now been rebuilt yet again.
Dorje Drak

We arrived just in time to see the completion of a sand mandala dedicated to Yama, the Lord of Death.


Sand Mandala
The monks conducted ceremonies connected with the mandala from about five to ten o’clock in the in the morning, then in the late afternoon they did a ceremonial dance in the courtyard, and then more chanting from about seven to ten in the evening.
Ceremonial Dance
We stayed in a guest room at the monastery and were very well treated by the monks, who plied us continually with butter tea.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

USA | Dalai Lama

It turns out that the Dalai Lama was not summoned to the White House to make a Solomonic judgment about the Paternity of Conan O’Brien’s Baby, as I previously believed. For an intriguing account of what did go down see How to Greet the Dalai Lama.
Dalai Lama leaving the White House. It’s a shame the White House doesn’t have a better garbage collection service.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Mongolia | Non-Human Origins of Dambijantsan

Given the mystery surrounding his birthplace, his age, and many of the subsequent events of his life it is perhaps to be expected that in Mongolia a supernatural version of Dambijantsan Mythologem would eventually arise. This tale was told to me by a well-known and highly respected lama in Ulaan Baatar. When this lama’s teacher was a young man he had as his own teacher a lama who as a boy had lived with his parents at Dambijantsan’s Final Stronghold in the Black Gobi Desert in what is now Gansu Province, China. This lama related that Dambijantsan, despite his ferocious demeanor, liked to play with children. On sunny afternoons he would sit down outside, take off his shirt, and let a whole passel of small children climb over his body and hang on his neck. One day while horsing around in this manner our informant noticed that Dambijantsan had no belly button. He did not realize the significance at this at the time, but later he heard stories about beings who did not have belly buttons because they had not been born to a human mother and were not human beings themselves. Later in life this man came to  believe that Dambijantsan was not actually a human being.
Ja Lama: Human or not?
My own informant explained to me that this belief in entities who only appear to be human beings is fairly widespread in Mongolia. The telltale sign is the lack of a belly-button and the inevitable uncertainty surrounding the being’s family and origins. In the past such appearances were uncommon, but they did happen, he claimed. According to persistent rumors, Dondovdulam, the first wife of the Eighth Bogd Gegeen, was one of these non-human entities (this is of course hotly disputed by those who claim she came from an ordinary family at Baldan Bereeven Khiid).
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Dondovdulam: Belly Button or not?
So what are these entities, and from where do they originate? As best my informant could explain, they are thought forms which have been manifested as material objects in the three-dimensional world by some power or force, the exact nature of which is unknown to us. They are created to accomplish some specific task, the ultimate goal of which is not always clear to human beings. As manifested entities, these beings lack the life story of a human being.

Thus the tales about Dambijantsan’s birth in Kalmykia, Inner Mongolia, Outer Mongolia, China, or elsewhere were blinds, perhaps created by in part Dambijantsan himself, to hide his true, non-human origins. The uncertainly over his birth date; the observation by some that he did not appear to age over time; the magical acts for which he later became famous, his alleged immunity to bullets and the belief, widespread during his lifetime, that he could never be killed by ordinary means were all a result of his non-human origins. Even the fact that he was eventually killed is tempered by the belief on the part of some that his material body was allowed to be destroyed because it was no longer of use to its creators but that his thought form continues to exist into the present. It might be added in conclusion that these entities no longer appear in material form in Mongolian today, mainly because the powers which produce them have disappeared or are at least in abeyance, but that in the future they may well occur again.

I do not present this theory here necessarily because I believe it; I do so only to demonstrate the incredible breadth of the tales which have accrued around the life of Dambijantan and which continue to be believed by at least some people down to the present day. But when these tales, bizarre as they may seem, are told by the light of a campfire at One of Dambijantsan’s Former Haunts, deep in the Gobi Desert eighty miles from any other human beings, they are not so easily dismissed. 

Mongolia | Zaisan Tolgoi | Ninth of the Nine Nines | Ерийн дулаан болно

The ninth and last of the Nine-Nines—nine periods of nine days each, each period marked by some description of winter weather—began on March 3. This last Nine is Ерийн дулаан болно: the time when warm weather starts, signaling the end of winter. We did have a warm spell, with temperatures up in the mid 20sºF / –6ºC in the afternoon, but this morning it was back down to Minus 30ºF / –34ºC and more cold weather is expected over the weekend. But in the afternoons my finely tuned olfactory organs detect a whiff of spring in the air, so we can start looking forward to the next big event in Zaisan Tolgoi, the Appearance of the First Wild Flower. 

And speaking of big events, in case you have not noticed the Earth Has Been Rocked Off Its Axis by the earthquake in Chile. This happens to coincide with the book I am now reading:


It cannot be said we are not living in exciting times!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Mongolia | UFO Crash Lands

A UFO has Crashed near Ulaan Baatar:
Two objects reportedly crashed to the ground near Ulaan Baatar, the capital of Mongolia on Feb. 19, 2010. The first object, according to the report on the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) Witness Database, weighed 10 kg, while the second larger object weighed approximately 2 tons. Other than that, there's not a lot of information available about the objects. But of course, UFOers are having a field day, calling the image, above, that accompanied the report a "leaked UFO crash" picture. But the object looks suspiciously like a rocket or jet engine, or perhaps a rocket nose cone. Objects that crash to Earth likely have a very terrestrial origin.  
Alien spaceship
or Mongolian “Balloon Boy” stunt gone awry?
One thing for sure: if this object, whatever its origins, had pancaked a ger or plowed into the side of an apartment building the results would not have been pretty. Keep in mind, too, that Unidentified Flying Objects are just that: objects moving through space which cannot readily be identified. That  does not necessarily mean that they are extraterrestrial.