My trip to the hudoo was quite an adventure, and it’s going to take some time to chronicle it. So let’s make sure we’ve got the basics down before the tale begins.
Cast: Four Fulbright ETAs (me, Joe, Lisa B, and Lisa D); Amraa, a Mongolian alumnus of an Embassy-run intensive English program in the States; Uyanga E and Uyanga A, our main contacts at the Embassy; Uyanga E’s seeing-eye dog Gladys; Phil, a retired member of the Foreign Service, who’s been acting as Public Affairs Officer for the past four months, since Allyson’s on maternity leave; Phil’s girlfriend Polly, a fellow member of the Foreign Service on vacation from her placement in Hong Kong; Dashaa, Otgoo, and a third driver whose name I never learned.
Setting: Arkhangai and Zavkhan aimags, notably Tsetserleg and Uliastai, their respective aimag centers, and Tariat and Tosontsengel soums, as well as innumerable stops along the way.
Purpose: To give presentations about life and the college experience in America to Mongolian schoolchildren, in hopes of inspiring them to travel there. Also for Phil to meet with members of the local governments to do whatever the PAO does. And, of course, to get the ETAs out of our respective cities in order to see the countryside.
All clear? Excellent! Let the story begin!
Our journey began more smoothly than I’d anticipated, since we were on paved roads the whole first day. I knew that ended at Tsetserleg, though, and I wasn’t looking forward to rough “roads” for the rest of the week without the benefit of motion sickness medications.
While the ETAs in UB had met with the Embassy workers the previous week to discuss the trip specifics, I had only ever received a vague schedule. As such, I knew what presentations we’d be giving and when, but not what else was on our agenda. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn that we’d be stopping at Хархорин en route to Tsetserleg.
Хархорин, known to the western world as Kharkhorum, was Chinggis Khaan’s capital and the first city to be built in Mongolia. There’s not much left to look at now; the palace and anything else he built are long since gone. But there is a museum (alas, closed during our visit) and a monastery, and plenty of gift shops and guanzes (the Mongolian equivalent of fast-food restaurants) to service both the tourist industry and the nearby sum.
I doubt sincerely that the monastery dates all the way back to the great Khaan, but it was still pretty cool. The tall white walls encircled a rectangular compound containing a number of buildings. We passed a ger from which we heard the low-pitched, sing-song sound of chanting and ran our hands along a line of prayer wheels that creaked as they spun. Some were bronze-colored, and some silver, but all were emblazoned with Tibetan characters and the соёмбо.
At the center of the compound stood a white stupa – one far less elaborate than the photos I’ve seen from Thailand, but impressive nonetheless. We paused to take photos of it before circling a small wooden structure covered with khadags. At Uyanga’s instruction, we we each took hold of a length of the blue fabric and whispered our wishes.
A column of young monks streamed by us in their flame-colored robes – not changing solemnly, as might be expected, but laughing as they passed a soccer ball between them. I ought not to have been surprised; becoming a lam here does not consign one to a life of somber meditation. One of our Mongolian friends in Erdenet is not only a monk, but a model as well.
Once we’d bypassed the young monks, none of whom could have been more than fifteen, we headed into the temple itself. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust from the bright sunlight outside, so the first thing to strike me was the smell: the sharp sweetness of burning cedar incense, shadowed by a century of dust and faintly outlined by the musty tang of old dairy products. I inhaled deeply and gradually began to pick out the sources of these scents.
The large golden Buddha along the back wall I had expected, as well as the candles that flickered before it. Their smoke mingled with that of the incense as it swirled upwards. But the large racks we had to pass in order to reach the altar were less familiar, as were the wrapped rectangular packages they bore. it was from these that the must, milky smell seemed to emanate; had I to venture a guess, I’d say they were blocks of cheese. Such an inclusion in a temple would have perplexed me when first I arrived here, but I have since observed that a number of Mongolian religious rituals involve the use of milk. Why not cheese too? It does, after all, have the unquestionable advantage of keeping longer.
Uyanga E had dutifully answered all of our questions thus far, and though she could not actually see the temple, she ventured explanations when we described what we were looking at. Of particular interest to us were the wooden structures along each side wall, close the altar. They contained a hundred wooden cubbies, each about four inches square and arranged in a ten by ten grid. A bundle of orange silk fitted neatly inside each cavity, leaving a tongue of red, yellow, green, and blue silk sticking out. Uyanga told us that these contained prayers and chants, which the monks would read on the appropriate occasions.
For a small fee, you can get the monks to chant on your behalf. Wouldn’t that be an experience, to have the monks of Kharkhorin praying for you? But none of us coughed up the fee. I offered my own silent prayers instead, on behalf of a friend whose grandmother recently passed away. A Christian praying on behalf of a Jewish friend in a Buddhist temple – quite the combination!
Eventually, we all had to end our wanderings and head back to the cars. The road had been kind to us so far, but our final destination for the day was still a long way off.