Talking about Mongolian Violins (Morin khuur)

Morin Khuur - Click for closer viewThursday 8 June 2006 has become a special day for me. Remember way back in July last year (31 July I think it was) I mentioned the Morin Khuur or Mongolian Horse-Head Violin?

So on Thursday night my favourite Mongolian family presented me with a Morin Khuur. It is such a beautiful instrument. The photos are of some parts of it. The instrument has 39 horse heads on it. The bridge is carved horse bone. The strings are held to the end of the instrument by a carved piece of wood, carved to look like a horse’s skull.Morin Khuur - Click for closer view

The horse’s skull is revered in Mongolia and many are taken to the top of ovoo as a sign of respect, or piety.

The strings in the Morin Khuur and on the bow are horse’s hair as well.

Morin Khuur - Click for closer viewReally, this is one of the nicest gifts I have ever been given and I feel kind of special to have received this.

8 horses in different positions/stances are important in Mongolia as well, for good fortune. Funnily enough, a number of years ago I bought 8 carved horses in the Chinese style, partly as I was born in the Year of the Horse.

Morin Khuur - Click for closer viewTo my favourite Mongolian family, all I can say is bayarlalaa.

To the reader, all I can say is that there’ll be more about the Morin khuur later.


Mongolian Violins (Morin khuur)


As part of the entertainment for the evening, one of the better Morin khuur players in Mongolia, Tserendorj, was there, along with his son, Soyol-Erdene


Soyol-Erdene played on another Morin khuur. This is the first time I have heard this instrument played live and with it playing a lively piece. The sound that issues from it is magnificent and unique. It really is a wonderful instrument and when in the hands of an expert, as it was, the instrument lives, as does the music he plays.

The Morin khuur itself is a wooden violin type instrument with a horse head carved and added to the top of it.

Ulaanbaatar Then and Now – Part 13

A Ger in the Countryside - Click for closer viewScott Notes in 2000: Being inside the nomad’s house (ger) was interesting. The outer & innermost material of the ger is canvas, with an insulating layer of felt sandwiched in between, all supported by a collapsible wooden frame. They appear flimsy, but apparently they hold up amazingly well to Mongolia’s fierce winds. The door of a ger always faces south and there is a stove in the middle. On the east side is a small bed/couch and on the south east a small cupboard for storing cooking utensils, jugs, bowls etc.

On the west side are small stools or another bed/couch and on the south west a saddle bag and an airag bag on a wooden frame. On the north side is a storage chest with a Buddah on top. The makeup of the ger as described above is, I have been told, standard for every ger. The stove fire is fed with dung, and the dung appears to be quite effective.

Thomo Notes in 2006: Scott doesn’t mention the two supporting poles in the centre of the ger. These are used to support the roof (there are 81 large rods that form the roof support – again, I am not sure why 81 – 9 times 9 – the Buddha’s age at death or when he found enlightenment, I don’t know).

It is bad form to pass anything between the two poles, cups, plates of food, anything must be passed around the poles.

When entering the ger, traditionally, men move to the western end of the ger whilst women move to the eastern end, although I believe this practice is now slowly changing.

Scott Notes in 2000: The weight of a ger is approx 250kg and during summer the nomads would move approx 4 times and during winter about 8 to 12 times, or is it the other way around – I cant remember (too much vodka I think). Most Mongolians still live in gers, even in the suburbs of Ulaanbaatar. It’s not hard to understand to understand why. Average income per capita is below US35 per month. Wood & bricks are scarce and expensive while out in the country they call the steppes, animal hides are cheap & readily available. Most Mongolians remain nomadic and gers can be moved easily with assembly taking between 2 to 3 hours.

Thomo Notes in 2006: I have watched a ger being erected and it really is done very quickly. The picture attached to this blog entry shows a partly erected ger.

On the northern side of Ulaanbaatar is an area known as the ger district. Here folks can grab a piece of land, put their ger up and have somewhere to live in Ulaanbaatar. Unfortunately, in the winter time, the ger district is a large contributor to the pollution in Ulaanbaatar as all those stoves are fueled by wood or coal, creating great clouds of smoke at the time of the year that the wind does not blow much.

Scott Notes in 2000: We eventually said farewell to our hosts before taking the long trek home. The drive itself was rather boring as the countryside remains monotonously the same – very, very barren with no trees whatsoever. In some regards it reminded me a lot of certain parts of the Australian outback.

Thomo Notes in 2006: There is such a difference in the appearance of the countryside, depending on whether you travel north, south, east or west from Ulaanbaatar. No matter which way you travel, the countryside is just beautiful.

Farewell Gifts

Mongolian Landscape Painting - Click for Closer ViewI finished working at the bank a little while ago now … back in April. My! Doesn’t time fly? I’ve been looking for further work and I am torn between remaining in Mongolia or working outside of the country.

It is summertime after all and time to start taking trips into the countryside – a countryside that I have come to love. But then there is the cold morning light as well – and that cold morning says “permanent job Thomo”.


There are some other considerations as well but they are not for here.

However, the really nice thing was that when I left the bank, the folks that I worked with chipped in and bought me a going away present. A painting from and of Mongolia – so no matter where I am it will be easy to remember the endless blue sky.

Thanks guys – it really is a lovely, lovely gift.

Ulaanbaatar Then and Now – Part 12

Scott Notes in 2000: Had an interesting day last Sunday. Client picked us up at 9:00am in his 4 wheel drive to take us out for a drive to see some of the countryside. After about 15 minutes we were into the countryside and after about another 15 minutes we left the bitumen road for a dirt track. After about 2.5 hours we arrived at the Gobi countryside (not desert but adjoining it). The client apparently makes an annual trip to this area each summer in order to collect a special type of beetle, which when eaten, is apparently very good for you health wise.

After seeking help from some local nomads and being taken to a particular site by the nomads, they all began searching under rocks in order to locate & capture these beetles. After a sufficient number were collected we all traveled back to the nomads house called a ger (pronounced gair) which is a large white felt tent. We were all ushered inside where we sat either on the floor or on small stools. The client came in with about 1 dozen bottles of vodka and he, his wife & our nomad hosts immediately started drinking neat vodka out of plastic cups, but with the extra delicacy of a live beetle in the cup. I initially refused to drink the vodka with a live beetle, but after a few rounds I gained sufficient nerve to try it. Fortunately it didn’t catch in my throat and went done OK, much to my relief, and much to the joy of the others. Ah well, another experience, although I doubt very much if I will add it to my list of favorite culinary delicacies.

The next hour or so was spent drinking vodka, with live beetles, and talking. During this time the client opened up all of the vodka bottles he had brought inside and into each put about 6 live beetles before re-closing the bottle for later consumption at home.

Thomo Notes in 2006: Fortunately I have been spared the beetles in Mongolia. There are one or two odd foods here or rather odd customs. Again, see the blog entry here from July (I think) last year about the live small river fish.

There is a lot of vodka drunk in Mongolia, and this, rather than being traditional as some folks would say, is a product of the Russian influence for so many years. As the vodka is so cheap here too it is one of the major causes of social problems around town.

Scott Notes in 2000: The client also offered fermented horse’s milk called airag. For those of you of my generation or older the taste reminded me very strongly of eating sour sob weeds when I was very young. One taste of it was enough. Airag was apparently first drunk in Mongolia over 1000 years ago and is still very revered & enjoyed throughout the country. The method of collecting milk in huge leather bags & churning it has apparently not changed in all that time. It normally has an alcohol content of 3% however many Mongolians, including the client, distil it further to boost the alcohol content to about 12%. The Mongolians believe that airag is good for your health, where have I heard that one before, because it helps clean out your liver system. In fact the client says that towards the end of each summer he & his family & friends go to the country for about a week and drink nothing but airag. I don’t think I will be joining them.

Thomo Notes in 2006: I spent a lot of time last summer in the countryside drinking Airag with my favourite Mongolian family. One member in particular really, really likes Airag so even driving back to Ulaanbaatar late at night, we would be sitting in the back of the car still drinking Airag. For further comments on Airag, see Airag.

Ulaanbaatar Then and Now – Part 11

Scott Notes in 2000: Well here we are again, the weekly review of the trials & tribulations of living in Outer Mongolia. Before I forget the water score for the week was cold 4, hot 3. Just as well it is only a 2 horse race at this stage as hate to think what it would be like if the 3rd option of no water was a contender.

Thomo Notes in 2006: This is normal. Pretty much ALL hot water in Ulaanbaatar comes from a big central boiler. This boiler provides hot water as well as the water for the central heating system. Mongolia has the largest central heating system in the world.

As such and given the bitter cold of winter, over the summer months, the government takes the opportunity to recondition the water pipes and the boilers. They are checked, cleaned, repaired where necessary. This usually means that hot water is turned off for an average of 10 days each summer in each area of Ulaanbaatar. See Talking About My Kingdom for a Shower for my 2005 summer woes 🙂

Talking about Thomo gets Burgled …. Bloody TWICE!!

Just for the record, it happened again. This time was the office though and we know who did it. Luckily all I had stolen was my PC bag (the guy left my PC and stole Bayarmaa’s instead). Mind you, in the bag was a book (yes, Ulaanbaatar’s thieves are now becoming very well read) a couple of USB cables (including the one that allows me to download music to my mp3 player), 19,000 tugrig or so, my apartment key (but no address fortunately) and a packet of peppermints impossible to get in Mongolia.

Sigh – my apartment twice, Beijing and now the office.

At least the security cameras were working here and the police know who did it. They are looking for him now.


Thomo gets Burgled …. Bloody TWICE!!
Last Friday I moved house. I moved out of the hotel and into an apartment. Apartment is good, new, has 24×7 security. Because of functions on Friday afternoon and night, I grabbed my bags in the afternoon, and my laptop, and moved them into the apartment. Left them overnight (came back and slept) and unpacked everything in the morning. The office mobile phone, which I was not using because mine is better, was left here along with battery chargers for both phones, phone pouch for my good phone and the rest of my cables and such. I went into the office with the good phone and the laptop. That was about 11:00 am (I had gone to the office and had to come back as I had left my glasses here).


Well, I guess I just need to wait and see whether Mongolia gets better or worse. Buying a small island off the coast of Thailand is seeming more appealing by the day.

Ulaanbaatar Then And Now – Part 10

Scott Notes in 2000: I left the stadium after about an hour there and wandered around outside looking at the people etc. The outside of the stadium was ringed in by all sorts of stalls selling anything from Mongolian food, 2nd hand shoes, cigarettes & drinks to cheap plastic toys. One circuit of the stadium was enough before I headed home.

The following day the client took us to the horse racing. Mongolian horse racing is just open countryside racing with no tracks or courses. Depending upon the age of the horse it can be in a 15K race or a 30K race. We arrived at a site which was about 1K from the actual finish line. The crowd barrier was about 150 metres from where the horses actually passed by. The client timed it very well as we were only there for about 5 minutes when the first of the horses appeared in the horizon. We could tell from the cloud of dust. Eventually the leading horses passed us by but from a great distance. For the next 5 minutes about 100 or more horses went by. And that was that! The client then took us back to UB where we had a few beers and lunch. I decided not to go to the closing ceremony. The client told me that day that he hasn’t attended any Nadaam festivities for quite some years and I now understand why. Apparently it is widely promoted for those intrepid traveller who like to visit places like Mongolia but in essence it is a big let down.

Thomo Notes in 2006: Scott has missed the importance of Naadam for the Mongolian population as a whole. Apart from it being a reminder and celebration for independence from China early in the 20th Century, it is a festival that the country folks prepare for for a long time. For the weeks preceding Naadam the countryside around Ulaanbaatar has folks moving in from the countryside with their horses and what have you. At the same time, the big owners and trainers are all exerting great efforts to give their horse the best possible outcome.

And the significance of the wrestling cannot be underestimated as well. A great deal of interest is shown by the Mongolians over the wrestling. National TV coverage is given to all the main wrestling tournaments and the Naadam one is no different. Actually, coverage is also given to the Sumo tournaments in Japan as well, given the number of Mongolians that are wrestling there.

Ulaanbaatar Then And Now – Part 9

Continuing on from early pieces:

Scott Notes in 2000: Had the opportunity to attend some of the annual Nadaam festivities during the week. It is the biggest event in UB being held from 11/7 to 13/7 each year, the anniversary of the 1912 Mongolian Revolution.

Thomo Notes in 2006: Er, that was either 1911 (the first independence from China after the Bogd Khan was proclaimed or 1921 Scott (I think). 1921 was when the Mongolians emphatically exercised their independence from the Chinese after the Chinese had reneged on an agreement signed in 1915 between China, Russia and Mongolia guaranteeing Mongolian Independence or autonomy. The Chinese were defeated by Sukhbaatar in 1921 and on 11 and 12 July 1921 Ulaanbaatar was liberated by the Mongolians along with soldiers from the Russian Red Army. A visit to Sukhbaatar and Altan Bulag in Selenge Aimag is worthwhile for a visit to the Sukhbaatar Museum there.

Scott Notes in 2000: It supposedly showcases Mongolia’s finest in the three sport of wrestling, archery & horse riding.

Thomo Notes in 2006: They are known as the “three manly sports”.

Scott Notes in 2000: The 1st 2 days are when the events are held with the 3rd being a day of rest. The client took us to the opening ceremony which started at 11AM at the Nadaam Stadium (also in a state of disrepair). The opening ceremony comprised of some good body stirring military music with the drums being very prominent. Remember the opening ceremony at the Seoul Olympics with the drums. Unfortunately the rest of the ceremony was a bit of a bore, some military people on horses rode around the stadium, the wrestlers paid their respect to Buddah, and the archers just stood their until it was time for them to depart. Oh by the way during the whole of the ceremony parachute jumpers kept landing in the Stadium – some even managed to land where they were supposed to.

Thomo Notes in 2006: Sometimes having a good interpreter with you helps at events like this as they can explain what is happening and its significance. Trouble is that sometimes the interpreter gets so interested or involved in what is happening that they forget to interpret for you. 🙂

Scott Notes in 2000: The client left after about 30 minutes however I stayed on. The wrestling was, well different. There were about 100 plus wrestlers in the stadium contesting an elimination contest. The highest rank wrestler cn choose any opponent, the 2nd higfhest cn then choose his opponent and so it goes on. There are no weight divisions, so the biggest wrestlers (and they are big! Or appeared to be from distance Iwas from them) are often the best. Mongolian wrestling has no time limit with the bout continuing until one wrestler’s upper body from the knee up, apart from the palms, touches the ground. The wrestling comprises of a lot of staring & posturing at each other, and in fact the closing ceremony the other year, normally held at 7pm on the 2nd day. was apparently cancelled because the final bout took over 4 hrs to complete. There is also a lot dancing, supposedly an eagle dance but looked more like a stork flapping it wings, by both opponents before the start of the bout and by the winner at the end of the bout. The winners are bestowed glorious titles depending on how many rounds they win: Falcon (5 rounds), Elephant (7 rounds) & Lion for winning the tournament. One renowned wrestler was given the most prestigious, and legthy, title of the “Eye Pleasing Nationally Famous Mighty & Invincible Giant”. Must admit not very appealing or interesting to watch but the Mongolians seem to enjoy it. Having said that most Mongolians left after the opening ceremony and only return the next day to watch the final bouts.

Thomo Notes in 2006: I have started to enjoy the wresting more and more since being in Mongolia and now understand it better. Mongolian wrestling has similarities with Korean wrestling and, indeed, with Japanese Sumo. The top wrestler here is big, really big. Mongolian wrestlers are also doing well in Japanese Sumo with the top wrestler in Japan at the moment being a Mongolian. Er, and when I find out the significance of the Eagle Dance, I’ll post details of it here as well.

Talking about Springtime in UB

OK, it is now 1 week on from last Monday … that is, it is now next Monday.

Sun is shining, birds are singing, folks are happy, temperature in Ulaanbaatar at 6:00pm is 28 degrees Celsius.

Sigh. It is really summerish.

Now, anybody want to place bets on the weather tomorrow, next Tuesday? Stay tuned for the blizzard (yes Baggy, last Tuesday was a blizzard and you missed it).


Springtime in UB
Monday was glorious. Sun shining, warm, nice still air. I walked out in shorts and t-shirt and felt comfortable.


Tuesday morning I looked out the apartment window and could not see the next apartment block due to falling snow. And the wind was so strong flights out of Ulaanbaatar (and in as well I guess) were cancelled.

Springtime in UB

Monday was glorious. Sun shining, warm, nice still air. I walked out in shorts and t-shirt and felt comfortable.

Monday night, about midnight, I looked out the apartment window at the Peace Bridge and could not see it for dust.

Tuesday morning I looked out the apartment window and could not see the next apartment block due to falling snow. And the wind was so strong flights out of Ulaanbaatar (and in as well I guess) were cancelled.

Must be springtime.