Thursday, 30 September 2010

the shamen

I am living just outside Ulaanbaatar in a valley overlooking the city. There are a million walks from the apartment into the wilds and towards cultural allure. My favourite sojourn is a four kilometre run down the valley and along the river away from the city. Some two kilometres away is a major Shaman site. A large patch of land hosts a number of enormous timber posts. Each post is covered in predominantly blue cotton pendants that are tied to the wooden columns as offerings. It is a tranquil and mysterious place.
Shamanism believes that its practitioners, Shamen, are guides or messengers between the physical and spirit worlds. A Shaman seeking to help physical or mental illness or injury will seek to repair that persons soul. It is said that by alleviating pressure on the soul the physical body is healed. Shamen will also go into the spirit world to help communities and heal social problems. Shamanism has been practised for at least 12,000 years and is still practised widely today. It is the second religion of Mongolia after Buddhism.
Often when I pass through the site there are families of Mongolians camped near their offering. Such instances tend to signify the coming arrival of a Shaman. The Shamen seem to travel wildly as nomads. On arrival they will spend time with the families sharing food and discussing the issue at hand. The Shaman will use a rhythm, normally played on tambor, to start his journey to the spirit world. This is accompanied by chanting of the sort we grew up hearing red indians sing in coboy movies. It is a fascinating and captivating sound. I give families privacy at such times but as I walk on can hear the Shaman chanting wildly as the rhythm escalates. I am keen to know what happens during the trance; determined to know what is said; eager to unearth how it comes to pass. I may not have to wait too long. Today I was asked by a Mongolian friend whether I would like a visit with a Shaman, how can I possibly refuse...
Mongolian of the day:- good luck :: amjilt husey

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Hollywood comes to Ulaanbaatar

Today as I paid a visit to the Gandan Buddhist monastery in Ulaanbaatar I saw a crowd heading towards the main prayer temple. Being ever curious I followed. Drawing the throng a leading Buddhist monk from Tibet was giving prayers. I sat and began my first Buddhist experience. The congregation, if that's the correct term, were almost exclusively monks. I did notice another grey haired non-Asian. As I looked more closely I thought I recognised him, but that surely wasn't possible. His face did seem incredibly familiar though. I tried to move in closer. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that sitting near me in a Buddhist temple in the middle of Outer Mongolia was none other than Richard Gere.

Now I can candidly state that he really is as good looking in real life as he is in the movies. Be it American Gigolo, Pretty Woman, Mothman or playing Billy the Kid he is one cool bloke. He also seemed to have his feet on the ground. I suspect he enjoyed being here, I don't think that (m)any others knew who he was. I did though and was embarrassingly as excited as a Massai tribesman seeing his first snowfall.

I did some digging and it appears that Mr Gere, a long time Buddhist, was in Ulaanbaatar to both hear the esteemed Tibetan monk give prayer but also to attend an international Buddhist conference that was taking place in the monastery. I have had some interesting moments during my time in Mongolia but this was surely the most astonishing. I really do hope that when I am 61 I look as darned handsome as he does, perhaps I need to find Buddha...

Mongolian of the day:- goodbye :: bayartai
(more about the monastery itself another time)

Monday, 27 September 2010

the sole of Seoul has soul

Going to and from Ulaanbaatar I prefer taking the Seoul route (UB-Seoul-Paris/London-Biarritz). The main South Korean hub of Incheon is a real gem amongst international airports. There are usually some five or six hours to kill between flights but rarely is a moment dull. Upon arrival I head straight for a massage. Not one of those European strokey-strokey efforts, a good old-fashioned Asian pummeling. If it doesn't hurt I want my money back. After 90 minutes of healing torture I'm famished. Reluctantly I have use of the business lounge and therein a fabulous range of savouries, muffins and French wine. By now I am properly chilled out. Time to go exploring.
The airport is huge, not T5 huge, but bigger than most. The terminal is shaped like a huge banana. Both sides of the fruit are adorned by a plethora of upmarket clothing shops, electrical accessories of allsorts, smashing eateries and other retail oriented ventures. As I passed by Prada I heard a group of girls screaming. I guessed it wasn't for me so went to explore. Four young lads stood on a small stage. They broke into some seemingly very popular pop song. It transpires they were the Asian equivalent of Take That, only younger.
In the middle of the banana another avenue leads off so it looks like the banana is on a stand. Down this route is the Korean Cultural Centre. I had seen various interesting processions start from here. First impressions tend towards naff. A second walk past still feels risible but a third begs entry. In the centre you can partake in any number of Korean cultural pursuits: writing ancient scroll, painting historic scenes, making fans etc. It's not (just) for kids and is a great example of a country marketing itself. I wonder what Heathrow would have passengers do at a Great British Cultural Centre...?
Korean of the day:- hello :: ahn-nyeong

Friday, 10 September 2010

life's a beach

Ten days back in the Basque country and every one of them has presented a reminder why St Jean de Luz is such a special place to be:

1) ridiculously good weather

2) wonderful beach

3) no Brits

4) beautiful people

5) quality restaurants

6) walking the mountains

7) real culture and history

8) promenading

9) aperitifs

10) friends

Ten more days before heading back to Mongolia. It's a difficult see-saw but somebody has to balance it.

Basque of the day:- life :: bizi

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

back to Basque

After a ten day round-about trip I am finally home in St Jean de Luz. After two months in Mongolia it is a pleasant shock to the system. Little has changed, the Basque country remains in my mind the most beautiful place on the planet. The boulangerie still smells divine, the sun stills shines brightly, the people still smile enthusiastically and we even managed to miss the invading Parisian hordes during July and August. A better timed trip I have never had.

Thinking about what we have experienced in Mongolia I can see several similarities with Basque culture. Both are matriarchal societies, which means things actually get done, and in relative peace. Both cultures resonate with music, song and dance. A slower more social pace of life is preferred. There have been inumerable battles over the ages yet both cultures remain strong and intact adopting practices dating to before Christ. Even the languages, both of which are alien to European ears, seem to have similarities in syntax, pronunciation and meaning. Mongolia has the edge in terms of wildlife but the Basque country wins on matters culinary. Off to enjoy my first croissant since June...

Basque of the day:- home :: etxe