by Guido Verboom
It is yet another cold day in Ulaanbaatar. I am sitting on
a small stool, drinking boiled water in a home in a ger district
in the West of the city. We are waiting for the last person
to close her suitcase before heading for Ondorkhaan to celebrate
Tsagaan sar, the white month or moon, which starts off the Mongolian
New Year. We are invited to join Erdenebat, a young monk from
Gandan who has just received his Gevj degree to celebrate this
festival of kinship with his family in Khentii.
At last Erdenebat gets up and signals everybody
is ready. A little later we head of in a van filled with family
members, presents and warm clothes.
There are hardly any cars on the road, and with reason. Today
is a bad day for travelling. It is not only a Tuesday but also
Bituun, the final day of the year, and we should have already
been at the place of celebration, preparing the festivities.
But all this doesn’t keep us from starting the journey
full of good hopes.
We drive through a landscape that pretty much resembles what
we are about to celebrate: a white moon. The bleached scenery
is speckled with scarce and hardly visible gers only to be cut
through by one black vain: the recently completed part of the
After we have passed the border with Khentii, the car is suddenly
stopped by a woman that is walking all by herself in the middle
of the snow covered steppes. She asks if she can have a ride,
while tears are rolling from her eyes. But our car is already
cramped and we have to leave her by herself. When we drive away
Erdenebat turns off the radio and puts his hands together for
a moment. Then while circling the beads of his rosary he says:
“Please pray for this woman, pray to the Tara god.”
And after a short silence: “Even if you think she is stupid
for walking here on her own”
overcome some car trouble we arrive at Erdenebat’s family
when its already dark, but still well in time to celebrate Bituuleg.
The sheep is already cut and laid on a platter, crowned by a
couple of buuz and a knife. The ceremonial breads brought from
Ulaanbaatar are now piled up in five layers to make the Ul Boov.
We eat our first buuz and drink the first sips of vodka, enough
to secure a prosperous coming year, but little enough to be
able to continue celebrating for the coming days.
While excitedly exchanging news twelve o’clock passes
unnoticed. Here a year is not counted in hours or minutes. And
after a small prayer, we call it a day. With many layers of
clothing and as many blankets we survive the night and get up
on this new years first bright morning. When we arrive at Erdenebat’s
home, ,it is time for one of the highlights of Tsagaan Sar:
The Zolgokh, ritual of greeting the elderly and respected and
wish them all the best for the coming year. Anthropologists
see Tsagaan Sar as a festival not only to celebrate but also
to define kinship. When asked who his family was, a Buryat simply
answered all the people he visited on Tsagaan Sar. Apart from
kinship, the Zolgokh also defines hierarchy. On the television
the Speaker of Parliament is greeted by the Prime Minister,
and Erdenebat is greeted by his older brothers and sisters because
he is a monk, and thus highly respected. Also I put on my hat,
get out my khadag and come to him, supporting his arms, bringing
my face close to his and say the special New Year greeting “Amar
Then we indulge in the perfect combination
of vodka that helps us digest the many buuz which in turn help
us to keep at least slightly sober. On top of that the snuff
keeps us awake and again only slightly alert. Tsagaan Sar in
the country seems to be a much more relaxed affair than in the
capital. Less people to visit and less available transport,
makes for a laid-back holiday. The family takes their time to
tell stories of the past. They remember how they until fifteen
years ago celebrated Tsagaan Sar secretly. For those with regulated
jobs, meetings would be called on the first day of the New Year
to check on everybody presence. Absentees were severely punished.
the evening we join Erdenebat to visit one of the old monks
of the area. Venerable Gendenjamts is 88 years old and while
a monk before socialist time, he has had many professions in
the course of the years. Proudly his daughter shows his small
biography in a local history book. With a smile on his face
Venerable Gendenjamts tells how he used to be a wrestling champion.
When we leave he gives us the regular gifts – a pack of
cookies and a piece of aarool, but this time wrapped in a yellow
khadag. To reflect his religion, the yellow faith, he says.
The rest of the evening is filled with more family visits, including
solo concerts by small children, endless horse race videos and
all the copious consumption.
The next morning we, again, challenge tradition by travelling
within the first three days of the New Year, as we head home
to Ulaanbaatar. But not before we pay respect at the small shrine
in Erdenbat’s home to secure a save journey. And down
just one more bowl of vodka for the road.
is a consultant working since 2000 on different cultural and
Buddhist projects in Mongolia.
Edited by U. Herold