Saturday, February 21, 2015

Tsagaan Sar part 1

Tsagaan Sar (Mongolian Lunar New Year)
Day 1- Bituun (No moon day or Lunar New Year’s eve)

            Recently I had the pleasure of traveling to the Mongolian countryside or as the Mongolians call it suburbia, because you can still a macadam road, and your neighbors in the distance.  Not to mention civilization was only 120 km away.  Just in case you don’t believe me, here is the photo evidence.  The trip took close to four hours, two and half hours to get to the road leading to the site, and by road I mean a dirt path covered in snow.  Another hour trying to make it up the road, before giving up due to the snow.  However, the driver didn't give up easily.  He started with trying to slowly plow a path through by building up some speed to create a path a few inches at a time.  Second he got a local family to help out and tried to following in the path of their truck.  The last attempt was piling the family inside and hanging off the back to put more weight on the rear tires for extra traction.  The last thirty minutes was spent walking to the camp site.  You can see the van in the distance.

            This is the view from the campsite.  For reference purposes, the small buildings on the left in the distance opposite the large hill are the same buildings in the previous picture.  So yes I was in the middle of nowhere, but to the Mongolians this is still suburbia, because I can see my neighbors in the distance.  It’s not very clear right now, but at night you can see two other Gers in the distance, and the road as well.

            The reason for my little vacation was to celebrate one of the biggest Mongolian holidays in the traditional nomadic style.  The trip was run through the Mongolian Secret History company and the trip was called Nomadic New Year’s Celebration.  I cannot recommend this trip enough to anyone looking to experience the nomadic Mongolian lifestyle.  Everything about the trip from the guides to accommodations was top notch.  I would rate it five stars out of five.

            Tsagaan Sar or the Lunar New Year, not to be confused with the Chinese New year (Mongolians hate that) even if they happen at similar times, is one of the biggest Mongolian Holidays.  This holiday has its roots in the ancient nomads of Mongolia, but the modern incarnation of the celebration started with Ghengis Khan.  The holiday is tied to the lunar calendar, occurring one month after the first new moon following the winter solstice.  (In case you are wondering the winter solstice is the shortest day of the year, occurring in December 20-21 in the northern hemisphere and June 20-21 in the southern hemisphere).  So this year the holiday occurred on February 19th to the 21st.  The holiday is to celebrate the end of winter and welcome a prosperous new year.  To those of us living in the west it is like a combination of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s, all wrapped into one.



            The preparations for the Holiday begin weeks in advance with the making of Buutz (pronounced Botz Long O), a steamed meat bun, and I helped.

Flour based dough
Chopped meat (normally sheep or goat)

            My very important job, (well I thought it was important) was to roll the dough.  The dough is rolled out in a circle about the size of a pancake, and should be thin, but not as thin as a crepe.  A hearty tablespoon of meat is placed in the center and the bun is closed with a special crimping pattern.  The lucky buutz has a large piece of rock salt or a metal coin placed in in and whoever gets that one is said to have good luck for the next year.  The meat buns are then stored for later.  In the city this is easily done using a freezer, which is sorely lacking, in the countryside.  However, the nomadic herdsmen of Mongolia, are quite resourceful and place them outside.  Not let’s be honest even on a warm day your freezer is still warmer than the Mongolian countryside.  So there is no danger of the buutz going bad.  We made about 50 buutz during our stay there, which was about an hour, and the minimum requirement for Tsagaan Sar is 1,000.  Most families make around 4,000 to 5,000, no wonder they start weeks in advance and making them is a family event.  One of the other guests asked if you could buy store bought buutz and the response was……… Well let’s just say only the really old could get away with it, if there family is a bunch of jerks who won’t help them.  If you’re not elderly you should probably get on the next flight out of the country.


            In addition to buutz, the women make new clothing, each member of the family.  The item in question is called a Deel, and it is a traditional Mongolian jacket.  The jacket can be made out of cotton, silk, or wool.  A sash accompanies the jacket and is traditionally made out of silk, but it can be replaced with a leather belt.

Nomad's Deel

High class Deel

You can see how buttons on the upper right side of the coat hold it in place.

Children’s deel

More Food

            The center piece is also constructed at this time and I had the pleasure to watch this event take place.  The center piece is made with an unleavened bread, called boov.  These are ok to buy in the store and do not need to be made by the family.  The boov are arranged on a special platter with five boov to a level.  The total number of levels will always be an odd number, for good fortune, the older the family the higher the stack becomes.

             Boov- Don’t ask me the name of what goes in the middle.  I only know that it tastes pretty good and I think it will be perfect for dunking.

The completed stack

            Once the stack is completed lots of goodies are piled on top.  In the past cheese curd was used, but now dried fruit, and candy is used.  Personally I like this change as cheese curd is very much an acquired taste.

            A smaller version is made for Buddha, who sits facing the doorway, and the door must face either east or south, I don’t remember which.

            The last item of food prepared for Tsagaan sar is a whole sheep, preferably one with a large tail.  Since the family we were visiting with was a younger one, they only had a sheep back.


            Children also spend time playing games, such as the various ankle bone games.  However, as a sign of the times some kinds play video games.  We played several games, included flick, horse race, and cat’s paw.

           Horse Race- I’m the green piece and yes I sat there at the end coming in fourth overall.  The race was left to right.

            Don’t worry I was equally bad at flick, and cat’s paw.  Consult the previous post for explanations.  Now the next game is one that the in-laws use to see if the fiance is clever.

            The objective is simple get both of the ankle bones on the same string.  It took a little doing and I stink at it, but I managed to do it.

            The final step in preparing for the big day, is for the children to leave out three pieces of ice and hay in the doorway.  This is for Baldan Lham and her mule, who visits each family during the night and might leave a gift for the children.  Also any old debts need to be settled by the end of Bituun in order to start the new year with a fresh start.

Tsagaan Sar explanation over and it’s time for the food.

Beef and pepper salad

            Stir fried beef, peppers, and pickles in all its salty goodness.  This is another one of those foods that I could eat all day.


            Beef, noodles, peppers and some other stuff.  Very tasty though, and even better with soy sauce.

Mushroom and Mutton soup

            It’s pretty good, but I like my first two dishes better.

Mongolian Music

            After dinner we had a performance by a band playing traditional Mongolian folk music on horse fiddles.  The horse fiddle is a traditional Mongolian instrument made with horse hair, and is said to sound like a neighing horse.  Personally I don’t hear it but I still like the music.  The music typically has a stronger tempo, and may or may not include throat singing.  It would be the perfect accompaniment to any Conan the Barbarian movie.  A couple of pieces give you the feeling like you are riding with thousands of horses across the Steppe to invade Europe.  I’m going to be looking for a few CD’s before I leave Mongolia.

Horse Fiddle


My Ger

            I decided to be a little upscale and stay in a wooden Ger.  Fueled by a coal fired stove it turned out to be much warmer than expected.  If I had to compare it to anything I would say it was like a sauna, a very hot, very dry sauna.  The other issue was that the stove would die during the night and they would come to restart it around 4 am. 



Bed- Pretty comfortable once you take off the itchy wool blanket



Campsite Library, and yes it is inside a Ger.

            The library contained many books on Mongolia but their prized book is a copy of the Secret History of the Mongols.

            This book, which I have yet to read chronicles Mongolian history, and it was thought that every copy was destroyed by the communist government.  However an American professor found a copy buried in a Chinese library, and brought the book back from the depths of history.  The copy shown above is one of the few originals brought back to Mongolia.  One thing you quickly learn about Mongolian history is that the communist government tried to get rid of a great many things, but it usually didn't work.  Because either the government couldn't get all the copies or the Mongolian people just didn't listen and kept doing whatever it was the government told them not to do.

Mongolian Art

            The library had a unique form of Mongolian art, where the image is burned into a piece of felt.  The skill needed to create these works must be immense.

Night Sky

            The final sight I had on Bituun was that of the night sky.  I grew up, and lived in suburbia, and never saw a night sky like this.  The best I could manage was the North Star and even then sometimes it turned out to be a plane.  In the Mongolian countryside I could see the entire Milky Way, not that I could identify anything but it was still very cool.  I could have stayed out all night laying on the ground gazing at the sky except for the snow and it was too darn cold.

My attempt at pictures

                     Part two coming soon