The next part of our trip was about experiencing Tsagaan Sar, “white moon,” the Mongolian celebration of the lunar new year. It’s a three-day holiday, this year falling on February 5, 6, and 7. The night before Tsagaan Sar is called Bituun, also a celebration. The point of Tsagaan Sar is to visit family and close friends, ideally within the three days, and to eat as much as possible. The main foods on offer are the roasted back of a sheep and buuz, or steamed dumplings, but there are loads of other specialties, as we were to learn. Of course, much of the food involved contains meat, but our hosts went far to accommodate our strange vegetarian diet.
After we left Kharkhorin, we drove back to Erdenesant, a small town of about 5,000 or so that we had passed on our way to Elsen Tasarkhai, on the first day of our trip. We were going to spend two nights there to participate in the Tsagaan Sar celebrations of Boogii’s relatives out in the countryside as well as in the town. We stayed in an apartment upstairs from Boogii’s younger sister, who invited us for Bituun. We had our first taste of what the holiday would be like, drinking and eating until we were fit to burst. What was striking about our holiday experience was the incredible generosity of the people that we met, how they invited us into their homes and fed us and even gave us gifts. We were treated to a total of eight feasts in all. It was a chance to see a side of life here that I hadn’t experienced before and to feel a greater connection to Mongolian people and culture.
As I said, Bituun was a prelude. We were invited down to Boogii’s younger sister’s apartment at around 8 pm. The table in the living room was laden with food, including a multi-layered mountain of ul boov, a kind of biscuit, topped with sweets and, to Emma’s delight, sugar cubes, which would become a familiar sight over the next three days. There were also plates of more recognizable hors d’oevres, a tray of candies, and a pitcher of homemade sea buckthorn juice, a Mongolian specialty. And, of course, the roasted back of a sheep, complete with tail, from which people cut slices to eat. We were first given the customary bowl of milk tea, and Emma got a bottle of fruit punch to drink. Emma and I were given bowls of rice and beans as well, and stacks of cucumber, tomato, and hard-boiled egg. I had several glasses of the sea buckthorn juice, which was slightly fermented. I also had the chance to sample some Mongolian wine, a sweet white variety, and some vodka, which is drunk plentifully throughout the holiday.
Boogii explained the ul boov to us; it is stacked in odd-numbered layers of either three, five, or seven biscuits (odd numbers are lucky). The ones we saw all were five layers, though younger couples should have three layers and older ones should have seven. Before taking a treat from the top of the mound, you touch the bottom layer to show respect to the family (though I didn’t often see this done in practice). It is the centerpiece of the table, along side the sheep’s back. Other dishes depended on what the family provided for guests.
The kids, led by Jagaa, started a board game based on The Secret History of the Mongols, a manuscript written sometime after Chinggis Khan’s death in 1227, recording his life and how the Mongol Empire came into being. They had just started the game, though, when we were served our food, and the game was forgotten after that. Sometime around 9:30 I started yawning (I am not very good at staying up late), and so we bid everyone good night and went upstairs to bed.
Typically, in the first morning of Tsagaan Sar, people get up early and hike the nearest hill to watch the sun rise. I didn’t manage to do that, but I did watch the sun rise from our second-floor window. Our first stop that morning would be Boogii’s parents’ ger, about a 15-minute drive outside of town, as it turned out. We had been there already on the first day of our travels, so it was nice to return and see her family again. This was the first time we would see the rituals that make up the celebration of Tsagaan Sar, as well.
I already knew that you don’t use the usual greeting, which sounds kind of like “sain bain oh,” and means “Are you fine?” Instead, you say “Amar bain oh.” Amar means peace or happiness. People greet each other in a special way as well, with the younger of the two supporting the upper arms of the older, and the older kissing or sniffing the cheeks of the younger. This is followed by gift-giving on the part of the visitors, usually giving some money, from 500 tugrug for small children to 10,000 or 20,000 for adults. People also wear their nicest clothes, colorful silk deel or robes with contrasting wide belts and fur or silk hats. Emma and I don’t have any traditional Mongolian clothes, nor did we bring any really nice clothes on this trip, but we wore our nicest sweaters, though I doubt anyone really noticed.
Once the initial greetings are done, people bring out their snuff bottles and exchange them. The ritual is to hand your bottle to someone with your right hand; they receive it with their right hand, supporting their right elbow with their left hand as a sign of respect. They say, “Sakhan sheenelj bain oh,” which translates to “Are you having a good New Year holiday?” You then sniff each other’s snuff bottle with each nostril and hand it back the same way that you received it. The snuff bottles get handed around until everyone has sniffed everyone else’s snuff bottles. You don’t necessarily take the snuff, but I saw a couple of people doing that as well, dabbing some onto a fingernail and sniffing it directly into their noses. After that, people pretty much relax, drink, and eat tremendous amounts of food. When people leave to go to the next visit, the hosts give them small gifts; Emma got some money and a Hello Kitty water bottle, and I got a zipper case with a nomadic image on it.
The first day, we were invited to five different homes. After visiting with Boogii’s parents, we went a couple of kilometers away to her uncle’s ger, and then his neighbor invited us as well. I began to see the importance of the social networks among nomadic families, and how holidays like Tsagann Sar reinforce these networks of mutual support, care, and reliance. Mongolia is the least densely populated country in the world, and nomadic families can find themselves very far-flung. Tsagaan Sar provides an important opportunity for people to reconnect, share news, and celebrate making it through the winter. In fact, many people told me, when I asked them when the weather would start to get warmer in Mongolia, that Tsagaan Sar marked the beginning of warmer weather. So far, that hasn’t really been true this year, but Tsagaan Sar also arrived earlier this year than it often does. Still, people see it as the time things start to get better.
After stopping back in at the parents’ ger one more time, we headed back to Erdenesant. At this point, I had had numerous cups of milk tea, as well as sea buckthorn juice airag or fermented mare’s milk, and “Mongolian vodka,” a not very strong alcohol made from cow milk. I’d had a couple of shots of regular vodka as well. In short, I really needed to pee. I had been planning to at the parents’ ger, but after Boogii pointed me to the open-air toilet area, she herded all the kids outside for a photo opportunity, and it felt a little to exposed to me, so I decided to wait. It was nearly a fatal error, but I made it. I’ve never been so happy to see a toilet in my life. Afterwards, I told Emma she had been wise to refuse all the liquids. She had had a molecule of sea buckthorn juice and another molecule of airag, and that completely shattered her willingness to try anything new for at least the next few years, I think. She is not very adventurous when it comes to food, so she had not eaten or drunk nearly as much as I had.
That afternoon, we tried to go to the small monastery in Erdenesant, but it was closed. Boogii said it usually should be open for prayers for the Year of the Pig, but it was locked and vacant. So we went to visit a couple more homes, including those of her aunt and her friend. The range of food was similar; by now it was nice to recognize everything and understand the rituals involved in the visits. And when we were leaving the aunt’s house, she gave us boxes of chocolates, and Emma got some cash as well. By the end of all our visits, Emma had managed to score a total of 18,000 tugrug ($7). Boogii told us that children used to go from house to house to get money, a Mongolian version of trick-or-treat, but it didn’t seem very common anymore in the town. We did see a group of children stop by the aunt’s house, and each received 500 tugrug. But Boogii said the town itself was very quiet, compared to what it was like when she grew up there.
Our last visit that day was very touching; it was a friend that Boogii had made when she taught Russian at the local school her first year out of university. She was also a teacher at the school but taught elementary school. She had a son and a daughter, and they had just lost her husband last year. He had been the most learned lama at the local temple. She was kind enough to let me see and photograph his prayer room. He had even made some of the images himself. I am not sure how he died, but it explained the feeling of sadness I felt when we came into the house. This was our last stop of the day, and she offered us bowls of rice with raisins, which were quite delicious, and I also sampled Mongolian beer for the first time.
The next day we also had the chance to visit a family in Ulaanbaatar on our way home. We were stopping at Boogii’s younger brother’s house on pretty much the opposite side of the city from where we live. We drove back to Ulaanbaatar along the same route we’d driving out on and stopped off at the same rest stop. This time, we just grabbed coffee and tea to go. Emma also made friends with a dog we saw outside the restrooms. He seemed to be a stray, but he was very friendly and licked Emma’s face. He had a rope around his neck that had been severed, and he also had a terrible injury on the back of his head, where the fur was rubbed off and part of his skull was visible. It wasn’t a new injury, though, and we wondered if the rope had been rubbing against him as well. There wasn’t much we could do for him, but I hope he does OK. I have a soft spot for strays, and this one surely must have come from a good home at some point because he was so friendly with strangers.
We got to see a new part of the city, a neighborhood we’d never been to before, on the northwest side (we live on the eastern end of town). It was fun to walk into Boogii’s brother’s apartment and see the rest of the family there—everyone we’d seen the day before, including some of the cousins Emma had made friends with. Everyone went through the greetings and snuff bottle exchange. The long table was laden with all the familiar foods, and we had another large meal. I had a large bowl of airag and this time got to try camel milk as well. The camel milk was intriguing, and I drank the whole bowl. But by then I had finally realized that people didn’t actually drink everything that came their way; they would often return the bowl to the host partly drunk, and then it would get topped off and handed to someone else. It made me hope everyone was healthy.
After we ate, the kids settled into the bedroom and played with ankle bones on the floor, while others sat or lay on the bed doing stuff on their phones. The adults sat around the table and talked and also sent messages and called other people on their cell phones. Another group of relatives showed up, and everyone put their hats back on, exchanged greetings and snuff bottles, and then settled down again for a family portrait around the table. Eventually, Emma came back out from the other room and told me that she was tired. Boogii and Jagaa took us home for the night.
Emma and I decided that we never needed to eat food again, but we still had one more day of our little adventure and of Tsagaan Sar. The next day, we were going to see the Manzushir monastery on the other side of the Bogd Khan Mountain from Ulaanbaatar, and also visit another home in the town of Zuunmod. But for now, it was nice to be back in our own bed for a night, and to have a chance to talk about our experiences so far. I realized Emma was getting a taste of what it was like to have a large extended family, with not only siblings and grandparents, but many aunts and uncles on both sides, and multiple layers of cousins. The closest we had ever come to that was visiting my uncle and cousins in Lexington, Kentucky, our usual Easter tradition, and having Easter dinner with them, my uncle’s wife and her daughter and (now) husband, and whichever friends my uncle would invite as well. Otherwise, ours is a small family, though we like it that way. But we were very glad Boogii had invited us along on her Tsagaan Sar family visits to give us a taste of what it was like to have a large extended family in Mongolia.