During the summer of 2019, I spent 10 days on the Mongolian steppe, sleeping in a ger camp (a ger is a Mongolian yurt), with no electricity or running water, many hours from the nearest road. It was an incredible adventure, much more than a typical vacation. I’m a different person because of the experience. I’m trying to document the things I found most interesting through a series of blog posts. Part 1 talked about venturing far away from our always-on Western world, land ownership, cultural norms, food and diet. In this piece, I’m writing about Buddhism and Naadam Festival.
Buddhism and a Lesson About Heart
The most memorable Buddhist experience during my trip was a visit to the Erdene Zuu Monastery, the oldest surviving monastery, built in the 16th century, located near Karakorum which Genghis Kaan established as a base in 1220.
After touring the grounds, we had an opportunity to meet with the head lama and speak with him through a translator. I didn’t write down his name but after some internet research, I found him as Baasansuren Khadsuren.
He spoke to us about Mongolia, Buddhism, Erdene Zuu and invited our group to ask him any questions.
I asked him what advice he had for westerners.
In his answer, he first spoke of his admiration for Westerners and praised our ability to use our brains. The Western world is a very productive and high achieving society because of our brains and intellect. As he spoke his hands were resting on the top of his head.
Then he paused, took a breath and moved his hands over his heart.
He continued to speak. After a child is conceived, he told us, the very first organ formed in utero is the heart. For a period of time, all that is there is a beating heart. If you’re a parent, you’ll probably never forget the experience of going for your first ultrasound at around 7 or 8 weeks and seeing a tiny fuzzy, pulsing speck — the first sign of life. As he looked around the room at all of us, he reminded us that we were all just a beating heart at the beginning of our life. The heart is the essence of humanity.
And then he said — and this is the one quote I did write down because it really hit home for me —
Our brains are useful, but our hearts are important.
He urged us — as productive, high achieving, wealthy Westerners — to lean into our hearts. He said we should continue to use our brains, but to listen to our hearts and let our hearts guide our lives. We should be more compassionate — with ourselves, our friends and family, our perceived enemies, strangers, and all living beings.
Nadaam festival is the biggest traditional Mongolian festival celebrating the three manly arts of horsemanship, archery and wrestling. There are many smaller local Naadam celebrations outside the main one in capital city Ulaanbaatar (aka UB). Our guides helped organize a local Naadam festival just for our group so we got a very close up and intimate look at the traditional festivities.
Kids Horse Race
The highlight of the day was a long-distance (I wish I wrote down the actual distance) horse race for the kids. We drove alongside the race in a jeep, taking shaky videos and photos while cheering them on. It was exhilarating to see young kids, many on bareback (!!), ride at high speed with such intensity over a long distance. It looked effortless, like the horse was simply an extension of their bodies.
The next part of the day was for traditional Mongolian wrestling. I don’t have much to say about this part — unlike horseback riding which I love, wrestling not really being my thing. But I could certainly appreciate the tradition of wrestling and loved seeing how grown men enjoyed it as much as children find natural joy in wrestling.
After wrestling the men put on quite a show of horsemanship. Breaking stallions, bucking horses, picking up long spears while at a gallop. So much drama and excitement. And talent and skill. It’s a beautiful thing to see this wisdom and knowledge passed through generations.
Some of my other favorite photos from the day, hanging around the festival, with both local kids and family members who live in the city who came to visit for the festival.
That’s all I have for part 2. Someday I’ll conclude with Part 3 about horse back riding and any final notes from my trip.