Everywhere But Home

News and musings from wherever my crazy life takes me. My body may be back in Illinois, but at least for now, my mind is still in Mongolia.


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Zuds and their Ghosts

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The only post-2000 grave I recall seeing.

We stood at the base of the hill, considering how best to satisfy the needs of both curiosity and decorum. The gloriously blue sky overhead was a brilliant lie, giving the impression that this wasn’t a brief break between the downpours that had predominated our time here in Khatgal, and throwing the engravings on the headstones at our feet into garish relief.

I’d seen ovoos and stupas aplenty in the past ten months, but a cemetery was a new sight. I’d been told at some point that Buddhists usually burned their dead and accepted without question that Mongolians, even the ones who weren’t Buddhist, would do the same for pure practicality’s sake. Mongolia is a country of permafrost, where lakes freeze solid to a depth of four feet or more in winter and don’t thaw completely until June, and the snows that fall in late October have no chance to dissipate until February, when the temperature finally edges above freezing once more.

It doesn’t stay there, either, but flirts with both sides of the divide for the next three months. The first rain of the year fell on April 20th, but the snow continued intermittently until May 27th (when we got nearly a foot of it). Even in April, workers wishing to dig so much as foot-deep trench to lay cable were first obliged to literally set the ground on fire in order to soften it. Digging deep enough to lay a grave would be possible for a few months of the year, no more.

So it was with great curiosity that I moved about the remains of Khatgal’s dead, noting the differences between these graves and those I’d seen elsewhere. They lacked the space-efficient grid pattern that makes it impossible to walk through an American cemetery without stepping on someone’s grave, sprawling haphazardly in every direction. No marble angels here, either, nor a single imposing obelisk, though one solitary cross sat surrounded by its mostly-rectangular brethren. Some markers were of stone, others of a metal that, though tawdry in appearance, bore better witness to the lifetimes it marked than did its more traditional weatherworn counterpart.

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Not enough Cyrillic for me to read the name, and I can’t read the Tibetan.

It was fairly recent, this graveyard, with only a few birthdates predating 1900 and at least one resident who’d not moved there until the turn of the millennium. A few stones bore inscriptions in Tibetan, but all the names we found had been engraved after Mongolia adopted the Cyrillic alphabet in the 1940’s. The dates bespoke the same communist era as the cemetery’s Spartan sensibilities: most of them marked lives lived in the sixties, seventies, and eighties.

After only a few minutes of wandering, I noticed that one date was starting to sound awfully familiar. The birthdates differed, of course, but surely the last grave I’d looked at also marked a life ended in 1983 – and for that matter, so did at least four of the last ten. In fact, nearly half the stones in this section of the graveyard dated from that year, many of those from its first few months. Assessing each marker with new purpose, now, I noticed another pattern as well: a disproportionate number of the 1983 graves were heartbreakingly small.

What happened in 1983? I wondered aloud, and my companions murmured their mutual curiosity. And then someone made the inevitable suggestion: Maybe there was a zud.

None of us had witnessed one of these devastating winters, the last having occurred in 2010, but I’d learned the term within a week of arriving in the country. Tornados, earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions – most of the natural disasters familiar to us are (almost) completely absent in Mongolia[i]. But they do have winters so cold the livestock freeze to death, or so snowy they starve for lack of forage. A zud is not measured in degrees below zero or centimeters of snow, but in cost: I’ve heard it defined as a winter in which over a million head of livestock are lost to the elements. The zud of 2010 took over eight million, more than 17% of the country’s livestock population.

For the many urban residents of developed countries (as I assume most of my readers are), it might be hard to translate that number into more understandable terms. Yes, that’s an awful lot of dead animals, but what exactly does that mean in terms of human suffering?

A lot. In a country largely populated with subsistence herders, that’s a catastrophic loss. It means that at least one animal corpse for every three people lies frozen on the steppe, to rot there in the coming summer. It means that thousands of herders and their families will have to move to the city, having lost their livelihoods with the death of all or most of their livestock. It means that eight million animals will not contribute their monetary value to Mongolia’s economy, nor their meat to its people: Mongolians will eat no animal that died of natural causes, not even hypothermia. The fattest cow, once dead at hands not human, will feed only the varmints. Some herders will slaughter their animals themselves in the face of insurmountable cold, that their flesh might still be fit for human consumption – but once wiped out in this matter, neither herd nor livelihood will regenerate.

Even now, for most Mongolians outside the three largest cities, meat is the primary source of sustenance during the long months of winter. Permafrost is not particularly conducive to agriculture, so the few vegetables widely available in this country (potatoes, carrots, cabbage, onions, beets) are recent, mostly imported, additions to the Mongolian diet. Mongolia’s three “national foods[ii]” require only meat, fat, flour, and salt; anything else is a recent addition, and in the most isolated parts of the country (a phrase akin to ‘the hottest parts of the Sahara,’ perhaps, or ‘the wettest parts of the ocean’), those additions often remain unavailable. Take the meat and animal fat out of the equation, and you’re left trying to survive the winter on flour, rice, and little else.

That might not mean complete starvation, but in my mind it certainly constitutes famine, and that level of malnutrition would also leave people vulnerable to the first spark of contagion to come wandering through the community. People compromised by malnutrition, its accompanying ailments (scurvy, rickets, and so forth), and exhaustion are also more prone to accidents. A zud doesn’t result in the sudden, large-scale loss of human life that we associate with most natural disasters; its toll is slow and insidious, taking months instead of minutes to end or alter lives.

We did not ask our hosts, nor anyone else in Khatgal, what had happened in 1983 to end so many lives; by the time we made it back to our lodgings, we were more concerned with not getting struck by lightning than unraveling the mysteries of years past. But I wish now that we had. Excepting its major interactions with the rest of the world, Mongolia is not a country whose historical events may be uncovered by a casual perusal of the Internet, particularly if the peruser doesn’t speak Mongolian. The story of Khatgal’s difficult winter of 1983 most likely exists only in the memories of those who survived it.

It might not have been something so widespread as a zud, after all. Perhaps that specific part of northern Mongolia was particularly cold or snowy that winter, and the local livestock populations were devastated, or the roads (such as they are) did not permit the transportation of food. Perhaps the soum was struck by disease, and the residents of the nearby aimag center preferred to watch their neighbors waste away rather than risk infection themselves. Perhaps a spark from someone’s stove caught in the felt or floorboards of a ger and the fire leapt from khashaa  (yard) to khashaa, the smoke inhalation taking its toll on even those whose homes survived the blaze.

I wondered, as I wandered amongst the thirty-year-old graves, what it had been like for those who dug them. How many infants went into the ground that winter, before their first haircuts or even their first steps? How many children were left to those grieving mothers, and for how many was the loss of a hungry mouth a terrible sort of blessing?

What did they do for those who passed in March and April, that time of transition when the ground remains frozen, but the air is not? Did they cremate them, as they must have cremated those who died in the months so cold that one might freeze or burn without knowing which was which? Or did they strew smoking coals along the ground, chipping desperately at the half-frozen earth in order to carve out a space large enough to lay the dead to rest?

Did they curse that brilliant blue sky for its ghastly cheerfulness, wishing that it would weep, as they did, while they watched their loved ones fade away?

I don’t know; in all likelihood, I never will. Perhaps the people of Khatgal would prefer that I didn’t go digging about in their graveyard, uncovering old grief to satisfy my curiosity. But I can’t help but believe that some of those ghosts might want their stories told.

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[i] The few volcanoes are long dead, and the earthquakes too weak to do much damage.

[ii] The term mostly annoys me, since the standard textbooks would appear to conflate national and traditional, but as what Mongolians call their “national foods” do not include the milk products that compose most of the traditional summer diet, the term is useful here. The “national foods,” for those interested, are бууз (buuz), хуушуур (khuushuur), and цуйван (tsuivan).


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October 13

October 13, 2012

If you follow my blog to hear about my life in Mongolia, I apologize for the continued interruptions; your scheduled programming should resume on a more regular basis next month. Bear with me, and you will understand why this month in general, and today in particular, have made that difficult.

Fall has always been my favorite season. It’s the season of sweaters and mulled cider, of apple picking and pumpkin pie, of crisp, sunny days and cold, clear nights. It’s when the trees dress up in their best and brightest in preparation for Halloween, my favorite holiday. It’s the season of my birthday, and also those of an aunt and three cousins – all within the space of a week! Every romantic relationship I’ve ever had has begun in the fall, and a great many friendships have started then too, as I meet new people with the start of each school year.

But it’s also a season of loss and death, and not just the metaphorical everything-dies-down-for-the-winter kind. October in particular is littered with dates of loss and unhappy memories, though they just barely stretch back into September as well. My paternal grandfather died on October 24, 2008; my maternal grandmother, on September 22, 2009; and this year, my paternal grandmother, on October 1. That’s a lot of loss in only a few years, and it makes each October more bittersweet than the last.

October 13 epitomizes that feeling for me. I’ve celebrated it one anniversary, and October 12 as another. But before it ever marked a beginning, it marked an ending. October 13, 2006 was the Friday before homecoming my junior year. That particular Friday the 13th delivered on its promised misfortune when two teenagers from my home town – one a high school senior, the other a graduate of the year before – got drunk and wrapped their car around a tree. The other passengers survived, but Ross Trace and Danny Bell did not.

We lost other current and former students in the next year, an alarming number of them, but none of those dates are imprinted on my psyche in quite the same this way. I know without consulting a calendar that October 13th fell on a Friday in 2006, a Monday in 2008, and a Thursday in 2011. I didn’t know Ross or Danny, had never even met them, but their loss affected me all the same. It was a wake-up call for all of us, the first time many of us had experienced the death, not of an elderly grandparent with a long life full of stories, but of someone just entering adulthood.

It was the reason that the following Monday was the quietest school day I’ve ever experienced, as we all stumbled in shock from one class to the next, too solemn and shaken to make the halls ring with the usual talk and laughter. It was why we had no homecoming parade that year, out of respect for the dead. And it was when the orchestra director’s usual pre-dance pep talk – “the most important thing is that you come back on Monday, and that you remember what happened” – stopped being funny. Two students didn’t come back that year, but the rest of us will always remember.


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Rest in Peace

October hath struck again. My grandmother had a stroke last night and died in her sleep. A peaceful way to go, at least, so I’m grateful for that. But she is the third grandparent I’ve lost in five years, all of them in late September or October. She was also the last grandparent I had still living. And of those three, she is the first whose funeral I won’t be able to attend.

I wish more than anything that I could be there right now. Funerals are important. Grandpa’s wake was an all-day affair; it was a party, a celebration of his life that helped to balance the bitterness of the actual burial.  A gust of wind blew the picture board right off its stand at Gram’s funeral. I only ever knew her as a snowbird, but she had lived in many places earlier in her life, including Germany, Japan, and I don’t even know how many states. Now, we knew, she was off on her next adventure. I won’t have those kinds of memories this time. I won’t have a rose from the funeral, to dry and keep on my desk.

Nor will I return to my room to find that my roommate and friends have covered my wall with notecards and my desk with colored pumpkins, as I did freshman year. The pumpkins are long gone, of course, but the notecards have gone on the wall of every dorm and apartment I have lived in since then, including this one. I am immensely glad to have them now. Thank you, Kristin, and Corry, for love that I can hang on my walls no matter where I go.

I never really contemplated this possibility, when I decided to leave the country for a year – that my grandmother might not be there when I got back. Given the number of doctors she’s had for the last few years, I probably should have. There’s a reason I don’t throw away her cards – haven’t for the last few years, in fact. But it never really occurred to me that our hug a few days before I left was the last I’d ever give her.

I don’t even fully remember where we were, either, whether we went back to Granny’s after dinner that night or just said goodbye in the parking lot. But if it’s the latter, it’s still a fitting place for a last goodbye. My last memory of my grandfather is at Riggio’s, too; he was hitting on the waitress, much to the amusement of everyone (including Granny). After four years apart, they’ve been reunited.

During my junior year of college, I contemplated doing a writing project on my grandmother’s life. I had realized that I knew next to nothing about it. I don’t know any stories about her childhood, or even most of her adult life. The patitsa we’ve had at a couple of family gatherings and the accent my aunts and uncles adopt when imitating Granny’s mother are the only traces left of her Slovenian ancestry. In the end, I decided against that project, consolidating my work so that I could use the same book for projects in three different classes at once. I Put aside my questions about my grandmother’s life, figuring that I would ask them later.

But I never did, and I guess now I never will.


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A Poem (Not Mine)

More not-written-by-me filler, I’m afraid. But I’ll post again this weekend, promise!

In the meantime, a poem of which I was recently reminded. Love this one.

A Brief for the Defense

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

– Jack Gilbert