A Trip Back to the Mongolian Countryside

cheers

After meeting at nine in the morning, our small, but growing crew of students, teachers, and a few people just along for the ride finally left Ulaanbaatar’s city limits around eleven. We immediately pulled over and my advisor, who was orchestrating the whole trip, prepared some slices of Mongolian-style bologna and brought out a bottle of vodka. He blessed the day by making a circular motion around the rim of the cup, then gathering a drop of vodka on his ring finger and flicking it towards the sky. He then offered me the cup of vodka. My friend and translator explained, “Since it’s the first one you have to drink the whole thing”, which was followed by, “Since a woman is giving it to you, you have to drink the whole thing”, which was followed by a monk handing me another shot and, “He is thanking you for coming to his monastery and wishes you good luck”. You don’t turn down a drink from a monk. It was as if in writing, rewriting, and finally polishing my Fulbright essays over the course of two years, I had started to convince myself that I actually knew what I was doing. There was nothing like three consecutive shots of vodka to wipe an oversimplified “expect the unexpected” attitude from my mind. I was buzzed by 11:30 a.m.

As we finally arrived at our destination, I prepared my makeshift studio. It always comes back quick, that same feeling of nervous energy I used to get when I started recording music, welled up inside. I was taken by the moment and reminded that it had been over a year since my self-inflicted “break from recording music”.

While I’m glad to have made it back to the countryside, this recording and the other recordings I captured that day will not be included on my website. My advisor had organized a group of students from the school I am partnered with to come to the countryside and perform for me. While I appreciate the opportunity, I aim to capture the oral tradition of herders performing songs about actions they carry out and the spaces they inhabit. A student coming to the countryside, posing as a herder and singing the same songs a herder might sing is different. I have had a hard time communicating that here in Mongolia.

taking a sipDuring the recording process, I didn’t realize that part of the family had slaughtered and prepared an entire boiled sheep, khorkhog. I have thought about it and there simply is no American equivalent for showing such immense gratitude. I was told, “Now your work is over, don’t worry about recording anymore, relax and party”. I did as vodka, fermented mares mile and mutton were passed around freely. Our feast reached its climax as the entire ger, a traditional Mongolian, felt tent, burst into song. While these people had all been brought together because of me, they were no longer singing for me, but for themselves and for each other. The irony of the moment was apparent. This was the exact type of moment I had hoped to capture. Here was an example of herders, and non-herders, celebrating. Part of that celebration came in the form of music. Yet it didn’t feel appropriate to take my camera out.

As our feast of boiled mutton came to an end, the monk who had been with us all day finally took center stage. Deep chanting and dense smoke filled my ears and nostrils. My stomach was full of mutton, potatoes, vodka, and fermented mare’s milk. I was consumed by a feeling of overwhelming fullness with all my senses accounted for. With each crevice accounted, it felt as if maybe, for a moment, this one small ger had become a world of its own. There wasn’t room for anything else.

praying

~~~

What I want to capture will be difficult. I am asking to capture organic moments, but my very presence makes that organic process difficult and sometimes impossible. That being said, those moments still do happen while I’m there. I need to become more attuned to where and when they occur and be ready to capture them in an appropriate manner. I’m excited for the challenge and, realizing that I wasted an opportunity to a certain extent, remind myself that I’ve only been here for one week.

To see Dimitri’s project visit mongolmusicarchive.com. To get in touch with Dimitri, feel free to email him at dimitri.staszewski@fulbrightmail.org or visit his personal website itsdimitri.com. Get frequent updates about his project by following him on Instagram @dimitri.photo.

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