Mongolia Monday- Explorers and Travelers: Excerpt From A Great Book About Mongolia, “Mongol Journeys” And A Reminder

Done for the Day  17x30" oil-domestic bactrian camels.
Done for the Day 17×30″ oil- domestic bactrian camels.

Don’t forget to check out my 2013 calendar filled with images of my paintings of Mongolia! It includes “Done for the Day”, which was accepted into the Society of Animal Artists prestigious juried show “Art and the Animal” in 2009.


River valley, Hangai mountains north of Bayanhongor
River valley, Hangai mountains north of Bayanhongor

Owen Lattimore was, in his time, considered one of the greatest western experts on Mongolia. He traveled extensively in what were then called Inner and Outer Mongolia in the 1930s. The former is now an autonomous region of China and the latter is the independent country of Mongolia. He revisited Mongolia in the early 1960s. I just finished his book “Mongol Journeys” and would have to say that it is one of the best books on Mongolia that I have read yet. It’s not easy to find, but you can currently get it here for a reasonable price.

I’d like to quote from it today about the traditional Mongol view of names for things. It’s a pretty good example of how untrue and simplistic the overgeneralizing statement is that “people are all alike”. In fact, people in different parts of the world operate from very different cultural assumptions which can, in equal parts, trip up, amuse or, with luck, enlighten a visitor and give them an insight into a different way of seeing the world.

For example, the exploration of America often consisted in being first to a place and then giving your name to it. If the name stuck, then it was the one that appeared on all maps henceforth down to today. We even get a kick out of places that have had the same place name for a very long time. For many Americans (I can speak only to my country, others may be the same though), the first thing they ask when arriving at a sight like a mountain or river or waterfall is to ask what it’s called.

But for the Mongols:

“Another very interesting thing about nomad life is the balance between the specific and the vague. In the Mongol vocabulary, for instance, the age, colour and individual characteristics of a horse or a camel or any other animal can be told with the most minute precision. There is also such an accurate terminology for different kinds of hills, ridges, plains, lakes, pools, streams and springs that you can get directions taking you across many miles of vague country without a mistake. On the other hand, it is often difficult to get a precise place name. A hill or a spring may have several names, of which some are descriptive and others honorific or propitiatory. The “real” name is likely to be taboo, so that if you ever hear it at all you are more likely to hear it when you are far away than when you are near it.

Why such taboos? Well, to begin with, if you are at a certain place you are obviously in some ways dependent on that place – for a safe camp, for good pasture and so on. It is better, therefore, to talk about that place vaguely in a ‘respectful’ way than exactly in a ‘familiar’ way. Even more important, perhaps, is that fact that, being a nomad, you do not want to be tied to any one place even by verbal associations. It is true that neither the Mongols nor any nomads are unlimited wanderers; you move in a framework which is partly the social frame of your tribe and partly the geographical frame of your tribe’s territory….the fact that you are a herder means that you always long for fluidity of movement. The Mongols, as nomads, call themselves nutel ulus, moving people….Your “homeland” is your nutuk (today this is spelled “nutag”)…your nutag is not only ‘the territory within which you move’ but ‘territory in which you are always moving about’.

Within this territory you do not want to be pinned down to any one place, nor do you want to be easily traced or spotted by an enemy (Note from Susan: this was written in the 1930s when there was still intertribal conflict and banditry in both Inner and Outer Mongolia). At the same time you do want your friends to be able to find you and you must be traceable by the authorities…..All of this explains why, when you are travelling and either asking your way or being asked from where you have come and where you are going, there are two extreme answers and any number of gradations in between; the vague answer and the exact answer. It all depends on the authority of the questioner and the degree to which the man questioned recognizes that authority and the necessity of being indentified or the desire to be traced. When, in short, you sometimes find yourself thinking that the nomad is frank and honest and at other times that he is evasive and a liar you must remember that this is as much a social convention as it is of personal veracity.”

My own personal experience with this whole cultural issue of place names was on my 2009 trip to Mongolia, heading south to Baga Gazriin Chuluu Nature Reserve. We stopped for lunch on a hillside with a view to an amazing mountain that rose out of the steppe. Naturally I asked what it was called. My guide/driver said “Hairhan”, which means “sacred”. Then he explained how the Mongols do not, out of respect, say the name of a mountain while in its presence. They are all called “Hairhan”. I observed that it got around the question like the one I had asked, that a visitor could ask the name, get an answer and be content, while the Mongol had preserved the correct cultural practice. And, in fact, I follow it myself now. If someone asks me the name of a mountain (they are all sacred since the top of a mountain is the closest one can get to Tenger, the Eternal Blue Sky), I say “Hairhan”, but also explain what that means and that I will tell them the “real name” once we are out of the mountain’s presence. It just feels like the right thing to do.

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