Just Me Travel

Just Me Travel

Solo Travel Blogger

Month: February 2019

HOW TO PREVENT CULTURAL ERRORS IN MONGOLIA

Cultural insensitivity is, in my opinion, a sign of deep disrespect. I leant this the hard way in Varanasi (India) when I “innocently” took a photo of the cremation pyres…

Cultural insensitivity is, in my opinion, a sign of deep disrespect. I leant this the hard way in Varanasi (India) when I “innocently” took a photo of the cremation pyres on the banks of the Ganges River. It took my guide a lot of talking, much apologising and a payment of money to appease the men who supply wood for the pyres. In my defence (but no excuse), I had not been informed not to take photos of the cremations.

I was mortified by my wrongdoing. Even though this occurred a number of years ago, I still beat myself up about it. I was not new to international travel and would have described myself as culturally sensitive. To this day, I cannot explain what made me think it was okay to take such a photo.

So, when our guide in Mongolia advised us on local customs before our 2-night stay with a nomadic family, I felt a deep sense of appreciation. And that of relief; that I was not going to commit any social or cultural faux pas through ignorance. I have a strong belief that knowledge is power, and I was about to meet this family in a “powerful” (culturally knowledgeable) position.

So, what lessons did I learn from my Mongolian guide?

First up, our guide requested we not immediately take photos of the family but to get to know them a little first. This, I felt, was a more than reasonable request and one I knew I would have no trouble complying with because I often feel uncomfortable photographing people. However, given this was a photography tour I was on, the family expected photos to be taken of them as they knew this was a part of our learning.

We were then informed that we can ask any questions we want, with the guide translating for us as the family doesn’t speak any English. I suspect this also gave the guide the inadvertent opportunity to ‘censor’ any inappropriate questions – a good filtering system.

And…

  • When you enter a ger, you must always go to the left. Don’t circle the interior of the ger. If you need to go to the right once inside the ger, go back to the door and then go to the right.
  • Do not touch a person’s head or shoulder as to do so is taking that person’s luck away.
  • Touching a person’s feet (with your feet) signifies you want to challenge that person to a fight. If you do touch a person’s feet unintentionally, shake hands with that person or touch their arm. By doing this you are saying, “I didn’t mean that” (to challenge to a fight); it removes the challenge.
  • Do not throw tissues in the fire. The fire is a holy thing and throwing a tissue in the fire is contaminating the fire. This was important to know as one by one we were coming down with colds.
  • Whatever is offered (that is, food or drink) must be accepted and you must taste whatever is offered or, at least pretend to taste it by putting the food or drink to your lips. There is another alternative if offered a glass of vodka. You can put your ring finger in the vodka, remove your finger from the vodka and flick your ring finger into the air. Thereby, flicking drops of vodka in the air.
  • Don’t step on the threshold of the ger. You must always step over it.
  • When offered something, before taking it, touch it with your right hand while supporting the elbow with the left hand. This is also followed when giving something. The exception to this is when offered or giving a meal.
  • When exiting religious buildings, eg temples, step out backwards so that you do not show your back to the interior. To show your back is to show disrespect to the gods.

The children in Mongolia don’t get their hair cut until between 2 and 5 years of age. For girls, this is usually between the ages of 2 and 4 years. Whereas boys will have their first hair cut at 3 to 5 years of age. The reason for leaving the first cutting of children’s hair until this age is because it is believed they are born with their mother’s hair. The cutting (more like shaving) of the hair signifies the child becoming their own person and is celebrated with a hair cutting ceremony.

The khadag is a long piece of silk cloth (like a scarf). It comes in 5 different colours – blue, white, yellow, green and red – with each colour having its own unique significance:

  • Blue is the most sacred colour in Mongolian culture; representing Mongolia’s eternal blue sky. The blue khadag is the most common and can be given to anyone, regardless of age, to show respect.
  • White represents milk and is the symbol of purity. It is often given to mothers.
  • Yellow represents the sun and is the symbol of wisdom. It is given when you greet monks.
  • Green represents earth; being in tune with nature. It is the colour of inner peace and is only used in religious rituals.
  • Red represents fire and blood (as in circulation). It is the colour of life; of prosperity. As with the green khadag, it is not used to greet people but is only used in religious ceremonies.

To give or offer a khadag to someone or something is to show respect; the ultimate offering. To give a blue khadag to a person or animal is the highest form of respect. Driving through Mongolia, I would often see sheep and horses with a blue khadag tied around their neck. Our guide explained this is showing respect for the animal and it can’t be killed/eaten.

 

Mongolian cairn with blue khadags

The cairns (shrines) throughout Mongolia are mounds of rocks and stones for offerings.
Photograph by Speak Photography

 

The cairns (stone shrines known as ovoos) that dot Mongolia are festooned with khadags, primarily blue ones. Most Mongolians are Buddhist, but Shamanism still remains an integral part of Mongolian life. The cairns are erected by locals and travellers as a means of providing offerings to the local spirits; thus, showing their respect and honouring the spirits of the surrounding land. When you come across a cairn, you should always stop and show your respect by making an offering. The ritual entails walking around the cairn three times in a clockwise direction. As you do so, you make an offering while making a prayer or wish. This might be for a safe journey, good health, good fortune or for much needed rain. The offering can be a khadag, food, money, vodka, etc or a small stone. If you are in a hurry and don’t have time to stop at a cairn, the driver will honk the horn three times. At one cairn, our driver offered a blue khadag. We settled for a small stone each time we stopped at a cairn – and there were many.

My conclusion? Don’t forget to know before you go.

 

For more about Mongolia:

Unique Horsemanship Skills on Show at a Mongolian Horse Festival

Fossil Hunting at the Flaming Cliffs in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert

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FOSSIL HUNTING AT THE FLAMING CLIFFS IN MONGOLIA’S GOBI DESERT

Dear Pip, Deep in the middle of nowhere are Mongolia’s Flaming Cliffs. At approximately 100 kms northwest of Dalanzadgad in the southern part of the Gobi Desert, they are utterly…

Meg at Flaming Cliffs

Mongolia’s Flaming Cliffs are in the middle of nowhere in the Gobi Desert

Dear Pip,

Deep in the middle of nowhere are Mongolia’s Flaming Cliffs.

At approximately 100 kms northwest of Dalanzadgad in the southern part of the Gobi Desert, they are utterly remote.

I don’t know how our driver found his way through the desert because there are no signs or landmarks that I could discern to guide the way. When I asked (as translated by our guide) how he knows the way, he shrugged his shoulders saying (as translated) he just knows. Beats me!

However, find the way he did.

The Flaming Cliffs, so named because of their ochre and red colour, are famous for the discovery of dinosaur eggs by the American palaeontologist, Roy Chapman Andrews in 1922.

According to our guide, the eggs were discovered when one of Andrews’ crew fell down the cliff into a nest full of dinosaur eggs.

Also known as one of the world’s greatest dinosaur fossil sites, more and more bones are exposed through erosion. This excited Meg who scrambled over the cliffs (in thongs!) fossicking for dinosaur bones.

Nearing the end of our cliff walk and exploration, we came across what could be a large bone – possibly a dinosaur thigh bone. Our guide suggested licking the ‘bone’ to test if it is bone or stone. Apparently, when you lick bone your tongue sticks to it but not to stone when licked. Of course, Meg had to have a lick. Her tongue stuck to it – bone!

A bit of trivia for you…

It is said that Roy Chapman Andrews was a bit of a daredevil; a swashbuckler. It is believed he was the inspiration behind the film character Indiana Jones.

Love,

Joanna

Meg licking dinosaur bone

Bone or stone? The lick test!

 

Wanting to learn more about Mongolia? Click on the links to read about:

Unique Horsemanship Skills on Show at a Mongolian Horse Festival

How to Prevent Cultural Errors in Mongolia

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A PHOTOGRAPHIC TOUR OF GEOFFREY BAWA’S GARDEN

With Sri Lanka being named the destination for 2019, tourism will only increase in this teardrop shaped nation. Finding places to visit away from the maddening crowds is a very good…

With Sri Lanka being named the destination for 2019, tourism will only increase in this teardrop shaped nation.

Finding places to visit away from the maddening crowds is a very good reason to visit Geoffrey Bawa’s garden as it is largely undiscovered by tourists, being something different from the ‘usual’ tourist attraction.

Not to be confused with Brief Garden – the former estate of Geoffrey’s older brother, Bevis.

Who was Geoffrey Bawa you say? He was Sri Lanka’s most well-known architect. In fact, he is deemed to be the most influential Asian architect of his time (dying in 2003). For those architect enthusiasts out there, he was one of the founding fathers of the architectural style known as, “tropical modernism”. Bawa is probably best known for designing Sri Lanka’s Houses of Parliament.

Living permanently in Colombo, Lunuganga Estate, situated on the banks of Dedduwa Lake in Bentota (midway between Colombo and Galle), was Geoffrey Bawa’s country retreat. Here, on 23 acres, he spent 50 years turning this abandoned rubber plantation (and prior to that, a cinnamon plantation) into gardens of multiple shades of green.

We explored the gardens with the Head Curator on a 2-hour private tour.

Don’t expect to find manicured gardens of colourful flowers, neat borders and gurgling fountains. But do expect a tamed, tropical wilderness of sudden vistas, intimate groves, sculptures and wide landscapes. I found Bawa’s garden to be a place of peace, tranquillity and restfulness.

Come take a stroll with me on a visual tour of Geoffrey Bawa’s garden.

Hen House

Hen house

The Hen House – in the same style as Sri Lanka’s Parliament House

Bawa designed Sri Lanka’s Parliament House and then designed his hen house (chicken coup) on the estate in the same style. Take from that what you will!

Sandela Pavilion

Sandela Pavilion

Sandela Pavilion where Bawa had his office

Sandela Pavilion is an open, airy space and served as Bawa’s office. From here he had a lovely view of the lake and could see anyone who arrived at the main gate.

The Red Terrace

Red Terrace

The Red Terrace

The Red Terrace derives its name from the red laterite ground surface, produced by the decomposition of the underlying rocks.

The Water Garden

Water garden

Water Garden where Bawa would sit

The water garden pond is shaped like a butterfly and covered with water lilies. The area has a number of sculptures and a bench seat beside the pond in the shade of trees. Here Bawa would sit and ring the garden bell for his gin and tonic to be brought to him.

Sculptures

There are a number of sculptures around the garden.

Sundial sculpture

Sundial sculpture in the water garden

'Hindu' Pan

Sculpture of the pagan god, Pan

 

 

The sundial sculpture (above left) in the water garden has an air of decline and abandonment. While the sculpture of the pagan god, Pan (above right) was called “Hindu” Pan by Bawa. No reason was given as to why he called it such.

The Plain of Jars

The Plain of Jars

Ming jars dot the landscape in an area know as “The Plain of Jars”

In a setting of sloping grassy plains with the occasional tall tree, the Ming jars that dot this part of the landscape were added here by Bawa.

Jack Fruit

Jack fruit

Jack Fruit – a tropical fruit growing on the Estate

 

The estate is set in Sri Lanka’s wet tropical zone.

So tropical fruits, like the Jack Fruit, are not unknown and grow to large proportions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cinnamon Hill House

Bawa's studio

Cinnamon Hill House

Cinnamon Hill House was used by Bawa as a studio from where he created his architectural designs. It was the last addition to the Garden.

Geoffrey Bawa’s Home

Bawa's former home

Geoffrey Bawa’s former home on the Estate

 

On Cinnamon Hill sits Geoffrey Bawa’s former home on the estate.

Lunch on the wide veranda of Bawa’s former home, with its views over the lake and a set menu of traditional Sri Lankan curries, was a visual and gastronomic pleasure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The gardens are open to the public and the buildings on the estate are run as a country house hotel. Should you like to have lunch whilst visiting the estate, a reservation is essential. For more information, go to the Geoffrey Bawa Trust website and click on “Lunuganga Country Estate”.

Wanting to know more on what to do in Sri Lanka? Click on the link to read about my walk along the railway line: Walking the Line in Sri Lanka from Ella to Demodara.

Related Post: First 24 Hours in Galle Fort, Sri Lanka

 

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