Mongolia Monday- Explorers and Travelers: Henning Haslund on Mongol Horses

Haslund-500If all Henning Haslund had ever accomplished was to survive an expedition with Sven Hedin, that would have made him notable (Hedin’s expeditions are remarkable for the body count of both men and animals). But he is also one of the “must read” writers for anyone interested in Mongolia.

I’ve only read one so far, “In Secret Mongolia”, but the second one “Men and Gods in Mongolia” is sitting on the shelf waiting for me. I’ll be getting a copy of “Tents in Mongolia”, the third of what is really a series, also.

“In Secret Mongolia” (published in 1934) is the story of Haslund’s participation in a Danish project to establish a farm in northern Mongolia (which lasted from 1923 to 1926). Along the way he meets most of the major characters who were also in Mongolia at the time or hears tales of others, like the Bloody White Baron, Roman von Ungern-Sternberg.

He also wrote eloquently and with affection about the Mongols. Absent is the thinly veiled attitude of inherent white superiority present in many other accounts.

Here is Haslund writing about the Mongols and their horses (Note: when Haslund refers to “wild” horses, he is talking about the domestic Mongol horses, which run “wild” when not in use, not the genetically wild takhi/Przewalski’s horse):

herder JM“It is a pleasure to see the Mongols in association with their horses, and to see them on horseback is a joy. If one of the wild or half-wild horses of the herd is to be caught, the Mongol rides on a specially trained catching-horse, holding in his hands an urga, a very long pole with a noose at the end. The catching-horse soon understands which horse his rider wants to get hold of, and follows it until it is cut out of the herd. Then the pursuit goes at a flying gallop over the steppe, until the Mongol gets his lasso over the pursued horse’s neck, when the catching-horse slowly but surely holds back till the wild horse is tired out, and the Mongols hurry up to saddle it. The wild horse is not let go until is has a rider in the saddle, and then it gallops, buckjumps and throws itself on the ground in the attempt to get rid of its rider. But the Mongol sits fast and the horse is soon broken.

herder 4 JM

herder 2 JMSuch horse-breaking is admirable, and the strength, swiftness and elegance of the Mongol surpass those of any ballet dancer. I once saw a Mongol ungirth and throw off the saddle from under him and continue to ride the horse bareback, bucking wildly all the time, till it was broken.

herder 6 JMHorses are the Mongol’s chief investment. He knows nothing of banks and silver does not interest him beyond the quantity that he and his women can use for ornament. But if he has many horses on the steppe, then he is a well-to-do man. Then he sits on a hillock looking out over his wealth, and counts up the many-coloured multitude of splendid animals grazing on the steppe with slim necks and flowing manes, just as a man in the west counts his notes, and when the neighing of the stallions rings bell-like over the grass lands, his eyes shine with greater pride than the ring of minted silver can call forth in us.”

Note: the horse photos in this post were taken by me last year near the Jalman Meadows eco-ger camp run by Nomadic Journeys, who does all my in-country travel arrangements. It is located in the Strictly Protected Area of the Han Hentii Mountains a few hours northeast of Ulaanbaatar. The local family who helps run the camp lives nearby and demonstrates Mongol practices and horsemanship for visitors, including riding a couple of two-year olds for the first time when I was there. They also provide horses for trekking trips.

Monday Mongolia- Ravens, from “Tents In Mongolia”

It's a draw. A herder's Tibetan mastiff dog "trees" a raven. Near Hustai National Park, Sept. 2006

I just finished Henning Haslund’s marvelous book “Tents In Mongolia”. As mentioned in a previous post, he was a keen observer who was fascinated by everything about the Mongols and their culture. He also seemed to be able to put aside his cultural biases much better than many of his contemporaries and describe what he saw with no moralizing and a minimum of judgment and off-the-cuff interpretation. For example (his spelling of Mongol words was clearly his best guess and was not consistent, which is why the word for “raven” is spelled two different ways):

“A pair of screaming ravens sailed over our heads towards the valley in the south, and this had an encouraging effect on Batar (his Mongol traveling companion), since the black khiltai shobo , “talking birds”, as the Mongols call them, conducted themselves in a manner which satisfied him.

The ravens play for the Mongols a like important role as they did in the ancient north of Odin. The black widely-traveled birds are equipped with keen intelligence and are able to understand human speech. It is vouchsafed to certain favoured human beings to understand the ravens’ language, for ravens have a language, and these favoured human beings can acquire unbelievable wisdom and learning by listening to the communications of the sagacious birds.”

There are also a few pages of interesting notes in the back of the book:

Kiltai shobo, “the talking bird”, as the Mongols call the raven, may bring the traveller good or ill omen. Some of the auguries attributed to the bird are:

If a raven crosses you in its flight from left to right, the omen is good; if from right to left, it is evil.

If a raven croaks behind you when you are on your way, the omen is good.

If it flaps its wings and croaks, you are approaching great danger.

If it pecks at its feathers with its beak and croaks, it signifies death.

If it pecks food and croaks at the same time, you will find food for yourself and your horse on the journey.

If many ravens gather at sunrise, it signifies difficulties on the journey.

If a raven croaks at sunrise it foretells a fortunate journey during the day and that you are about to reach your goal.

Mongolia Mongolia Monday- An Encounter With A Mongol Princess (From “Tents In Mongolia” by Henning Haslund)

Khalkh Mongol women

I’m currently about 60 pages into what is already one of the best travel books on Mongolia that I’ve read. Henning Haslund went to Mongolia with a number of fellow Danes in the early 1920s to establish a farming and mining colony in the north not far from Khosvol Nuur. “Tents In Mongolia” is his account of that journey. It was re-printed by Adventures Unlimited Press in 1995 and retitled “Secret Mongolia”.

Henning has already demonstrated a flair for observation, so I thought that I would share this wonderful description of his and the party’s first personal contact with a Mongol in Mongolia. I really wish I had been there.

“Suddenly the caravan dogs gave tongue….Down a long slope to the eastward, a billowing cloud of dust was rolling towards us…..One, two, three,  four, five riders galloped out of the dust and- we were completely disarmed.

“A sunburnt girl with a smile as fresh as a steppe morning reined in her fiery steed before our shamefacedly lowered rifle barrels. Her teeth were pearly white, her eyes as clear as day, her smile disarming, her grip on the reins strong and her movements in the saddle full of grace. She was a daughter of Mongolia, she was herself the free, wild, captivating steppe.

“She was dressed in bright-colored silks, and when she moved there was a ringing of silver and a rattling of precious stones. She shone with the joy of living, and her demeanor bore witness to pride and noble birth. Over her forehead she wore a wide, massive silver band in which were set five large pale red corals. From this diadem half a dozen small chains of coral hung down to the boldly curved and sharply drawn black eyebrows that marked her race. From the sides of the diadem and from her ears hung chains of silver ornaments and strings of corals, pearls and turquoises which fell jingling over her small strong shoulders. Her hair was kept in check by a coral-studded black veil, fastened behind by a jewelled sliver diadem.

Coral necklace, Museum of National History, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

“Her long robe was of pale blue silk, and over it she wore a short, sleeveless waistcoat of crimson brocade in which were interwoven dim symbols of fortune and long life. The waistcoat was fastened in front with golden laces attached to buttons of chased silver.

“Her cloak reached to her knees where it met her long black velvet riding boots. Her small, neat feet were shod in boots whose elegance was enhanced by the sharply unturned toes. Her hands were strong, but small and shapely. Her fingers were studded with coral ornaments and heavy silver rings, and thick bracelets clashed upon her wrists.”

Mongol noble women