Friday, October 23, 2020

So Your Character is From Mongolia ... Featuring Jenny Sandiford


So Your Character is ... is back for a time after a long hiatus! In this series, I interview lovely volunteers from around the world to give you a firsthand account of being a citizen of their respective country or having a disability. I'm hoping to encourage international diversity, break stereotypes, and give writers a crash course on how to write a character from these different places on our planet. If you haven't checked out last time's So Your Character is from Latvia ... be sure to hop on over there and give it a read!

Disclaimer: The content below may be culturally shocking to some. Each of these posts is as uncensored as possible to preserve the authenticity of the cultures of each of the interviewees.

(None of the Images are Mine)

Hi, I’m Jenny. I’m from New Zealand but have lived in Mongolia since 2012. I live in an apartment in Ulaanbaatar, the coldest capital city in the world, with my husband Michael and our two cats. I started writing in the summer of 2018 when Michael and I were living and working at a remote mining camp on the edge of the Gobi Desert in Mongolia. I have a travel blog focused around Mongolia, I also write book reviews and am working on editing my first novel, a YA contemporary fantasy which I hope to publish next year.


What do you feel is unique to your country? Landmarks? Celebrations?

Mongolia is a unique country in so many ways. You can see traditional nomadic life, animals roaming free, throat singing, shamans, huge national parks with rare animals, unique instruments like horse head fiddles, and ice festivals, and eagle festivals. Plus many interesting traditions around Buddhism, Shamanism and everyday life.

One of the biggest celebrations of the year is the Naadam Festival. This is held between the 11th-13th of July every year and is a huge attraction. Naadam is a celebration of the three manly sports; wrestling, archery, and horse riding. There is an elaborate opening ceremony in Ulaanbaatar every year before festivities start. Then all over the country, smaller festivals are held in every town.

The Big Chinggis statue is a sight not to be missed. About an hour out of Ulaanbaatar, this huge shining monument stands out in the grassy steppe. Chinggis Khan is celebrated everywhere in Mongolia. He is the national hero and is still a huge part of life in Mongolia. Everything is named after Chinggis Khan; roads, hotels, beer, vodka, camps, rock bands, a city, an energy drink, and even businesses. 

In Mongolia, you can experience developing urban life, or disappear into some of the most remote places on earth. 

Eagle Festival in Ulaanbaatar, featuring the Eagle Huntress Aisholpan. 

Big Chinggis Statue Mongolia

Traditional Mongolia performance 

Eagle Festival Ulaanbaatar

Chinggis Vodka

Tell me about your country's environment. What are some of your favorite places?

My favourite place is out in the Mongolian countryside in summer. There are so many national parks and amazing places to explore. There are few fences in Mongolia, animals roam free and you can camp anywhere. 

Bogd Khan Mountain is a range of mountains that borders Ulaanbaatar city. This is my favourite place to go hiking on weekends. It is only 15mins drive from my apartment and has several hiking trails with forests, wildflowers, and wildlife.

Going further afield, Lake Khovsgol is my favourite travel destination. This is in Northern Mongolia, near the Russian border. Known as the Blue Pearl of Mongolia, Lake Khovsgol is surrounded by Taiga forest and is home to the Tsaatan people (Reindeer people) and shamans. Check out my blog post on Hiking at Lake Khovsgol

Most of Mongolia is vast open spaces of grassy steppes or the great Gobi desert. In the west are huge mountains and the famous eagle hunters.

But Mongolia is also a harsh land, in summer it is easy to forget how extreme the winter is. It is winter for around seven months of the year and it is brutal! It becomes a land of ice, dust, and pollution with temperatures down to -40 at times. 

Bogd Khan Mountain

Terelj National Park 

Camping in the Gobi Desert

A camel herding families ger in the Gobi Desert

Horses in the forest at Lake Khovsgol

Yak at Lake Khovsgol

Tell me about your country's food. What are some of your favorite dishes?

I have to say, I’m not a fan of most Mongolian food. It is all we ate out at the mining camps and I got sick of it quickly! 

The diet remains very traditional. Mongolians love meat. The staple meals for dinner revolve around boiled mutton, mostly. There is a range of traditional soups, but most have mutton, some have small dumplings called bansh (банш) sometimes there are vegetables (carrots, onions), or wheat-flour noodles. Rice is another staple. 

Khuushuur, a deep-fried meat pastry

There is a Mongolian dumpling called buuz (бууз), this is mutton in a wheat-flour dough and steamed. It is a staple during the Tsagaan sar, the Mongolia New Year celebrations. Families will visit each other’s homes and eat endless plates of buuz.

A favourite beverage among Mongolians is Suutei tsai (сүүтэй цай), a salty milk tea. Another traditional beverage is airag, this is mildly alcoholic and is made of fermented mare’s milk. It is very much an acquired taste!

One Mongolian food I do like is khuushuur. This is a deep-fried pastry pocket filled with meat, often beef. In July, for the Naadam festival, there is a special Naadam Khuushur you can only get at that time of the year and it’s delicious! 

Naadam Khuushuur (наадмын хуушуур)

Soup (шөл) with mutton and vegetables 

Mutton and with carrot and potato

Tell me about any different speech patterns in your country. Slang? Idioms? Words for things such as “biscuits” instead of “cookies”?

The national language is Mongolian, which is a very difficult language to learn. Most people over thirty also speak Russian fluently, and now many people speak English as well. It is normal to come across Mongolians who can speak four or five languages. Its pretty amazing! 

The alphabet is a version of Cyrillic introduced by the Russians. But there has been a recent push to bring back the traditional Mongolian script, which is a beautiful, vertical text script. 

Words you will commonly hear

  • Hello (polite) - Sain baina uu? (Сайн байна уу?)- use it like hello, but it actually means ‘are you good?’
  • Hello (to friends)- Sain uu? (Сайн уу?)
  • Thank you- Bayarllaa (Баярлалаа) – a tricky one to say, the ‘L’ sound differs greatly from English ‘L’
  • Goodbye-Bayartai (Баяртай)
  • Rest well- Saikhan amraarai (Сайхан амраарай)
  • Sorry- Uuchlaarai (Уучлаарай)  
  • Okay- Za (за) – a good response to anything. Nod your head and agree with people. Za za za.
  • Don’t have- baikhgüi (байхгүй) – you will hear this a lot in restaurants when they don’t have your food! 

Describe briefly a regular day in your country.

I work from home on my writing, so a lot of the time I don’t go anywhere. Our apartment is centrally located in the middle of UB (Ulaanbaatar) so it is very convenient to get to all the shops and restaurants in the city center. When I go out, it’s easy to walk most places and it’s nice to make the most of this in the warmer seasons.

Traffic in UB can be terrible, and drivers are crazy, so I avoid going in cars as much as possible. In winter during December, January and February, the daytime temperatures are consistently around -20 degrees Celsius (-4 f). The footpaths are slick with ice and the city pollution is more than ten times higher than World Health Organization standard. I will only walk somewhere if it’s close or I’ll get a taxi. But I tend to go into hibernation mode in winter and get a lot of writing done. In summer I spend more time travelling and doing outdoor activities like hiking.

Everything in Mongolia is dictated by the seasons so our lives change depending what time of year it is. 

Ulaanbaatar City- view over Sukhbaatar Square

Ulaanbaatar street in winter

Ulaanbaatar in winter

How does your country compare to others, especially the States since my audience is primarily American? Environmentally? Politically? Culturally?

Mongolia has a small population of around 3.2million people and is still a baby in terms of democracy. With this comes a lot of growing pains, and there is still a lot of high-level corruption. But since I have been here, things have improved dramatically. 

Urban life is now heavily influenced by American culture and many Mongolians travel to the United States to go to College. But most of the products and large chain stores popping up everywhere are from Korea. There is still no McDonalds here! 

There is a stark contrast between traditional Mongolian life and modern city life. Both can be seen right next to each other. Huge new skyscraper buildings are right next to a small piece of land with gers (a ger is the traditional felt tent). It is still common to see gers in the city, there are whole districts of them. 

You will see people walking down the street wearing vibrant deels, a traditional outfit like a caftan. I once saw a man at the bus stop waiting for his bus with a huge eagle on his arm!

A quarter of the population is still nomadic. They change locations seasonally with their herds of goats, sheep, horses, yaks or camels. These herders still live much like their ancestors in traditional gers. The only difference is they all have TVs and satellite internet! 

Ulaanbaatar City- Old Choijin  Lama Temple with new buildings popping up around it

Herd of sheep and goats

Mongolian ger- traditional felt tent

Briefly describe three of your country’s historical events that you feel are important.

1.     Chinggis Khan uniting the tribes of Mongolia

In 1206 a Chinggis Khan became the first Great Khan of Mongolia. He was the first person to unite the Mongol tribes and was the founder of the Great Mongol Empire, the largest Empire in history.  He is still the national hero of Mongolia, and his birthday is still celebrated every year in Mongolia with a public holiday. 

2.     Stalinist Purges

1937 was a dark time for Mongolia, but an important part of history. Mongolia was a satellite state of the Soviet Union and heavily influenced by the Soviet Union and communism. In 1937 the Stalinist Purges spread to Mongolia, set to wipe religion and culture from the country. More than 18,000 Monks were rounded up and executed and 764 monasteries destroyed. Thousands of people were conscripted to the army. Even military leaders, members of the Central Committee and a Prime Minister were purged. 

A blogpost on one of the Monasteries destroyed

Ruins of Manzushir Monastery

3.     Collapse of the Soviet Union

In 1990, a lot changed in Mongolia with the fall of the Soviet Union. A democratic revolution took place as Mongolia rejected communism and became a multi-party democratic country. This was a huge turning point for the country. Now Mongolia has a growing economy and in the last few years started welcoming tourists in larger numbers. 

Abandoned Soviet airbase 

What are some stereotypes about your country that irk you? What media portrays your country badly be it a movie, a book, or a TV show?

A big one is calling Chinggis Khan, Genghis Khan. I’m not sure how this incorrect wording spread to the rest of the world, but the correct name is Chinggis Khan (Чингис хаан). He is the most important historic figure in Mongolian history and it’s sad the whole world is getting his name wrong.

Another misbelief I’ve surprisingly come across a lot, is people thinking Mongolia is part of China. Mongolia, also sometimes referred to as Outer Mongolia, is an independent country in between China and Russia. There is also a region in China called Inner Mongolia, this is not to be confused with the country Mongolia.

What media portrays your country well be it a movie, a book, or a TV show?

The movie the Eagle Huntress captures the beautiful scenery in Western Mongolia and the traditional Kazakh eagle hunting. I was lucky enough to see the Eagle Huntress, Aisholpan, hunting with her eagle White Wings at an eagle festival in Ulaanbaatar.

A book I read recently and would recommend is The Tiger Queens: The Women of Genghis Khan by Stephanie Thornton. This book portrays ancient Mongolian life in great detail and covers a large time frame during Chinggis Khans life, but from the perspective of the women in his life. 

I’ve heard people recommend the docudrama, The Weeping Camel, and also the book, On the Trail of Genghis Khan: An Epic Journey Through the Land of the Nomads, by Tim Cope. 

The Eagle Huntress Aisholpan at the Eagle Festival in Ulaanbaatar

Who are your top three favorite fictional characters native to your country in books, movies, or shows?

I’m not familiar with many Mongolian produced works, but I enjoy the folklore and mythology from Mongolia’s history. It’s hard to find anything that has been translated into English. I’m sure there is a lot of great work out there, but much of it is in Mongolian. Thank you, Jenny, for this very informative post!

Are you interested in participating in this project? Check out the tips archive to see which countries have been filled and if you're from a different country, shoot me an email at howellvictoriagrace(a)gmail(dot)com. I'm especially looking for Cuba, Venezuela, Belarus, Zimbabwe, and Iraq.

Do you have any characters from Mongolia? Did this inspire you to write a Mongolian character or set a book in Mongolia? Are from this or been to this country and you have further input? Feel free to share! Do you have any questions for Jenny? Be sure to thank her!

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