Music: How it has saved me in Mongolia

It is no secret that I LOVE music.  I love it in all of its genres:  classical, pop, rock, indie etc.  It is a part of my daily life.  I was a bit worried when coming to Mongolia that I wouldn't have access to making music or musicians.  Boy was I wrong!  I am so lucky that I was placed in UB.  UB has a thriving classical music scene.

There is an opera house on the east side of Sukhbaatar square.  It is a stately pink building that has been dwarfed by surround buildings but provides amazing music.  During my time in Mongolia I have visited it to see the following performances:

  • Scheherazade  [ballet by Rimsky-Korsakov]
  • The Nutcracker [ballet by Tchaikovsky]
  • Aida [opera by Verdi]
  • Requiem [Verdi]
  • Madama Butterfly  [opera by Puccini]
  • Swan Lake   [ballet by Tchaikovsky]
  • La Bohème  [Opera by Puccini]
  • A concert of various Mozart works
  • numerous Mongolian operas and ballets
Each of these performances was really well done.  I am still in awe of Madama Butterfly and Verdi's Requiem.  Stunning!

I also came to Mongolia with an interest in throat singing (хөөмий in Mongolian).  This was at the prompt of my organ instructor who introduced me to the documentary "Genghis Blues."  I was able to study хархираа (harhiraa) for a few months with a student from my university.  We didn't get very far but I can do it!  Harhiraa is the really deep undertone style of throat singing.  It produces a note that is an octave below the note sung.  Quite fun . . . but hurts your voice.  Thank heavens I'm not a singer!

In November of 2011 I bought a morin khuur (horse headed fiddle) and took lessons from a professor at the College of Dance and Music.  Mind you . . . I had never played a string instrument before and learning from a professor at this college is like studying at the Juilliard Institute of Mongolia.  My teacher, Ganbold, was great.  He was quite expensive from a volunteer's point of view but he taught me a lot about the instrument and the basics of it.  He taught me the Mongolian proverb эзэн хичээвэл заяа хичээнэ which, when roughly translated, means: If you endeavor to do something, fate will be with you.  He told me to never forget it so I had it tattooed on my left arm.

I was only able to study with him for one month but I learned a lot and am eager to study again once I get back to the states and have more money and some time to devote to it.

 Being surrounded by new musical experiences was exhilarating to me.  I learned so much about Mongolian culture through its music.  Mongolians love to sing and they taught me many of their traditional songs which I now sing in karaoke to their great delight!

One of the greatest points in my Mongolian musical career began in December of 2012.  I saw a Mongolian friend on facebook talk about a choir concert in Mongolia.  Aside from Verdi's Requiem I hadn't heard of a choir in Mongolia so I was really eager to see and hear it.  I asked him about it and he invited me to attend the rehearsal that night.  The choir was part of the Church of Latter-Day Saints in Mongolia. I attended the rehearsal and met the director, Unurjargal.  She is a famous opera singer in Mongolia and is very kind, generous, and caring.  That night their pianist wasn't able to make it so my friend volunteered me to sight read their Christmas program.  It was such a treat for me to sight read excerpts from "The Messiah" and play hymns and carols that were so familiar to me (although the hymns and carols were sung in Mongolian).

From that day forward until May 2013 I worked with the choir at every rehearsal.  They rehearsed twice a week (Thursday and Sunday evenings) for about 90 minutes.  It was a lot of work having to do it all in Mongolian but I was allowed to be their rehearsal pianist, assistant conductor and I helped them with their English diction.  Being around choral music again was such a needed activity for me!  When I would have a bad day in Mongolia I could always turn on my ipod and listen to a bunch of choral music which was great but being able to perform it and help shape musicians was beyond amazing.

In February 2013 I had a nasty safety and security incident that really rattled me.  It made me question why I was in Mongolia, did Mongolians even care about me, and what was keeping me here.  After weeks of contemplating leaving Mongolia the answers to some of those questions became clear.  My teachers and students at my school needed and wanted me, they and all my new friends in the Mormon choir cared about me, and music and English was keeping me in Mongolia.

I continued to stay with the choir and helped them prepare for an Easter concert held on March 31, an anniversary festival held in April and I was able to play with them for the 8th annual Mongolian Choir Festival held on May 1.  They are a great group of musicians and it was an honor to work with them.

They may not ever know it but the friends I made in the choir saved me from myself.  They pulled me out of a really dark place and surrounded me with love, music and so many smiles.  I am so grateful to them for their musicianship, eagerness to learn and grow in music and for their friendship.  Unurjargal, their director,  Buted, their artistic director (who is a VERY famous Opera Singer) and Otgonchimeg, their pianist, allowed me to express myself in music and share my love of music with everyone.  In January Buted went to America to sing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  Hearing her stories about the music, the pipe organ and American culture was fascinating.  She is so talented!

I am lucky that my Mongolian was good enough to communicate my ideas in music but even if I didn't have the language skills required, music would communicate for me.  It has a way of combining and blending two very different cultures, people and ideas into an amazing musical experience.

To all of the musicians in Mongolia who have guided me, taught me and become my dear friends I say THANK YOU!  Маш их баярлалаа!  You are amazing people and I will cherish every memory and every moment spent with all of you.  Thank you for adding such gorgeous music to my Mongolian life.

The Opera House of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.  Such gorgeous music is made there!

Me and Unurjargal.  She is such a kind and fabulous person!

A. Buted (famous opera singer) Unurjargal and Me after the Christmas Concert December 2012

A. Buted, Unurjargal and choir members

They look great at their Christmas Concert!

Ankhaa and me.  He introduced me to the choir.  

A. Buted and me taking the reigns of the rehearsal.  Their "fearless" leader?!

What fun to conduct and lead in a foreign language!

Easter Concert March 2013

Look at them boys!  Easter Concert March 2013
Ulzii and me.  He has become a dear friend of mine.
Ulzii and Zuluu

Dancers from the April Church Festival Concert

The Morin Khuur player at the concert.  Great player and great guy!


Going to the Gobi Take 2

Well around the first part of February yours truly went back to the Gobi.  I know what you are thinking . . . how could I possibly top last year's trip in April with such high lights as: Desert drinking, drag queen camels, monasteries and a monk?  Easy . . . my friend Alyse lives right on the border with China.  I HAD to go visit her in her ger.

Alyse is a Community and Youth Development Volunteer in a public school in Zamiin Uud.  When I visited her she lived in a small ger in a yard with two other gers.  I forgot how difficult ger life can be and it gets even more difficult when you live alone and have to go through two FRIGID Mongolian winters.  Alyse handles it all with grace and ease.  She truly deserves a "Suck It, Apartment Dwellers" Peace Corps badge.  I complain about having no hot water . . . she has NO running water!

Here is how to survive in a ger (as seen by an outsider)

6:00 AM
Get your ass up and out of bed!  Mind you, your bed is warm from the cocoon of blankets and the toasty, Peace Corps issued sleeping bag.  Gotta start that fire.

-Alyse proceeds to beat the smoke pipe to knock all the ash into the stove.  Then she exits the ger (in frigid temps!) to dump the ash.  Next she begins her magic making fire technique.  It involves expertly stack wood and alternating with paper to make the perfect fire.

-I wouldn't stand for this crap . . . I would probably just pay someone to make my fire.  Alyse is too amazing for that!

After you have started your fire, get back in bed and wait for exactly one hour.

7:00 AM
Your ger is now warm enough that you can walk around and be quite warm.

-Make your breakfast (yogurt and granola!), get dressed, wash your face and brush your teeth.  But . . be careful with water consumption because there is no running water.  Conserve that H2O!

After this time we would just hang out, browse the interwebs, listen to her amazing music selection and as Alyse put it . "occasionally talk" which works perfectly for us.

Before Alyse would leave her ger to go out for the day, she would throw a huge piece of coal on the fire.  This piece of coal would make the ger uncomfortably hot if you were to stay in but when going out it will serve to keep the ger warm until you come back.

If we stayed in her ger for the day, she would have to constantly shovel more coal and wood on the fire to keep it going.  Her day revolves around that fire.  Without it, you just can't function.

Other thoughts on ger life:

  • Going to the bathroom is always an ordeal.  You have to gauge how badly you have to go . . . if the urge isn't that strong, wait a bit.  Then when the time comes, put on your shoes, put on your coat, grab some toilet paper, and head out to the outhouse.  Mind you, it gets really cold in Mongolia at night (-40 F/C) and you notice it on your bare skin!
  • Speaking of cold, at night your water will freeze and if you are gone for more than a day the things in your refrigerator will freeze along with everything else in your ger.
  • Everything can be burned.  Traditionally, Mongolians don't burn trash in their ger stoves but Alyse would burn anything papery as it made good kindling.

To all my friends who live in gers . . . you effing rock!!  You have survived two really hard and difficult winters in Mongolia and you have thrived.  Well done!

And to Alyse, you are an amazing person, a true friend and a great example of a Peace Corps Volunteer.  Check out her blog: Words Not Made With Lungs

Here are some pictures of her ger
The ger stove 

Shovel that coal!

Speaking of coal . . . 
The large pieces used to keep it hot during the day

Looking amazing while keeping me warm!

Notice how I am only taking pictures and not assisting in any way.

Her perfectly made and maintained fire

Her beautiful ger poles.  I love this look!
Her khadag (traditional blue scarf)
The support post of the ger.  So beautifully decorated!

Her home!

The other gers in the yard.

The throne . . .aka outhouse.