Yes, Tsagaan Sar was in February but better late than never, right? Tsagaan Sar is the Mongolian Lunar New Year and singularly most important holiday of the year. It completely overrides things like school and work of any kind; the whole country comes to a grinding halt. The markets close, children stop coming to class and people don't even bother to respond to text messages alerting them to things like Book Club. I learned later the reason for all the preparation is because culturally it's of the utmost importance to get good and ready for Tsagaan Sar. This is not only because 100 of your closest friends will be rolling through your ger, as it is a visiting holiday, but also because the way you start the new year will determine how the rest of the year goes. So people spend incredible amounts of hours and thousands of tugrogs on this holiday.
It's a three day affair but spills into the rest of the week and monopolizes much of the weeks previous. People out West always make bansh (mini meat dumplings- like ravioli but with mutton instead of cheese), while Mongolians in the rest of the country favors buuz (rather large mutton dumplings). Because of that, I sent a little thank you to the gods of love handles and cultural assimilation every time I was encouraged/forced to eat more bansh. In keeping with the theme of setting things off on a good foot for the next year, the more you eat during Tsagaan Sar, the more food you'll be able to have in the coming year. For a country that has seen 5 million livestock die in one winter, that's pretty important. Thus I was made to eat a lot of bansh. It is not uncommon for a family to make over 1,000 bansh for the holiday, which is admirable sticking power, as all those must be made by hand. Regardless, halfway through the second day, my super cheap and bling-y belt actually popped open an embarrassingly large amount of times. Hilarious? Yes. Sexy? Oh no.
The clothes are also super important on this holiday. Evidently, young Mongolians can wear whatever they want, however the older Mongolian and foreigners wear deels. The older Mongolians wear them because they're the traditional Mongolian dress, a long, double breasted coat with sash at the waist. The foreigners wear them because we get convinced that it's very important to wear them by our Mongolian friends and counterparts (who, as it turns out, don't even wear deels themselves). We then show up for visits and are the only ones under 65 wearing deels. And sadly the thick, shininess of the deel does nothing for the figure and on further examination I rather think I look like a large glow worm in the pictures. But they're super warm and it's nice to have one so it's not a big deal at all. It was also fun to play dress up for a week, too so it wasn't too bad.
Despite the some of the obstacles of clothes and food, it was really great to experience a holiday that so few people get to take part in. I'll give you a run down of the first family I visited and you can surmise the rest from there. All visits are basically the same in structure. The people change but the rituals, food and conversations are similar at every house. I went to about 12 different houses throughout the course of 4 days, so going through them all would fail to be interesting after a time. But I loved experiencing Tsagaan Sar with a variety of people. Sometimes I went with a group of foreigners, sometimes I went it alone; I visited single girls my age, a precious young family, elderly parents of friends and teachers I've come to love to among others. I visited apartments and gers and found gers truly superior. They are better in the way that they bring everyone together, forcing a community. And the way that the mothers and grandmothers spoon the milk tea high in the air, letting it pour back down into the wok as it froths in the sunlight is something that exists only in gers and is truly magical.
My first visit was to a ger and I think that spoiled me. The morning light was beautiful as it streamed in through the hole in the top of the ger, lighting the faces of children and the marigold lattice work that holds the structure in place. This visit was with my friend (see previous post) and Batsetseg to visit their department head. I wasn't sure of his name, now I think it might be Dawadorj. But to me he will always and forever be Fou Man Choo. When I ducked into the ger, after a brisk walk through the biting February air, he was there, sitting at the head of the ger. (Mongolians sit in order of seniority in gers, the most important in front of the door, those of least significance next to the door. Generally I find myself at 'the kids table' of ger spot, somewhere low on the totem.) He sat there, flanked by his cronies, legs spread, hands on knees and decked out in magnificent deel with the most phenomenal Fou Man Choo mustache I have ever laid eyes on. It was a thing of beauty. We were beckoned into ger and addressed everyone with the traditional Tsagaan Sar greeting. What happens is this: both people have their hands outstretched, elbows bent. As you near each other, the younger person takes the older person's elbows in his hands, a gesture of support. You then say amara bano and kiss or sniff the cheeks of the other person. You do this to everyone in the ger regardless if you know them or not. Shortly after everyone had finished this ritual and sat down, more people entered and after what seemed like ten minutes of sniffing and musical chairs I landed a little plastic stool and stayed there. We were served potato salad and a salad of shredded carrots and peppers in vinegar called simply salad on little communal plates in addition candy. And even though it was only about 11 am, the vodka was making its rounds as well. You don't have to drink the vodka, served strait up in a glass, when it's handed to you, but it's seen as rather rude if you don't and many hosts won't take the vessel back with anything more than a drop left. But thankfully there was also milk tea, tsutetse and no one wanted to pound the liquor too hard then. Batsetseg and I chatted pleasantly while my friend chummed around with Fou Man Choo, then I played with the kids running around the ger who were clutching their new Tsagaan Sar toys. After a while of pleasantries, as you're not allowed to talk about bad things on Tsagaan Sar, we were served heaping bowls of bansh by the young girl who had been bustling about, serving and cooking. (It's always young girl's jobs to serve, clean and cook. My 19 year old host sister cooked all the meals; she was the first child up and last person to bed. Many of my female students share the same family role.) At this point in my Tsagaan Sar experience I was fresh, not saturated in days and days of the same fatty dumplings. So tucking into the steaming bansh wasn't a problem then. It was rather precarious, as all the food perched on the narrow table on which also held a huge pile of cookies. These cookies aren't too sweet and are kind of shaped like an oblong pill, about as long as 2 hands though. They're about two inches thick and are piled very carefully like bricks on top of a bowl. Decorated with sugar cubes, dried milk products and candy, literally every home has one for Tsagaan Sar. It's just for decoration during the holiday and the layers of cookies are stacked in odd numbers of generally 5 or 7. The layers of 5 for example symbolize 'happy', 'sad', 'happy', 'sad', 'happy', a hopeful projection for the new year. We spent about an hour in Fou Man Choo's ger and by the time we left, rivers of sweat were pouring down my back. After making sure it was not in any way offensive, I had stripped off my deel. In gers it's easy to make a roaring fire that heats things up to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. In fact, the fire got so hot in my friend Laura's ger stove that her house lit on fire when I visited her recently! So in addition to the tea to drink, things get rather toasty. After we had finished eating bansh, chatting and had stayed the appropriate amount of time, my friend helped me do up the deel buttons under my arm and strapped me in with my belt. My friend and I had to suit each other up in our deels every time, somehow it proved impossible to do alone. Then we were on our way; it was time to go visit our friend Jhavlan's family. On the way out the door, we were presented with candy and 1,000 tugrogs (exchangeable for about 75 cents) each. The three of us bowed and pressed our gifts to our foreheads before leaving. We walked to the gate of the mud wall surrounding the compound with the mistress of the house, as only people from that family can quell the ornery, anti-social guard dog all Mongolian gers seem to have. But before we left, between putting on my deel and going outside to the fresh, cool air, which, wonder of wonders!, was no longer so cold after about 3 shots of vodka, Fou Man Choo's wife insisted we stay for a while longer. She had just made fresh tsutetse and insisted that we drink it. Already covered in a film of sweat I silently begged that she was kidding. But as soon as I sat back down, a scalding bowl of milk tea found its way to my hands. I sipped it gingerly, feeling the effects of the sauna close in around me. While I was trying to concentrate on not dripping my face sweat into my tea, she explained that it was very special, this tea. Because we were the first drinkers of a fresh batch, our wishes would come true in the new year; it would be a very special year. I smiled politely through my glasses, fogged from the tea's steam but was intrigued by this idea, hoping that perhaps she was right. I have yet to really experience this new year but I hope it will be a good one like she promised. Something tells me it will be.