Linda Nordin is fellow at our Mongolian learning centers. In her blog posts she writes about how it is to live in Mongolia for several months. In today’s post she covers the most important event in Mongolia: Tsagaan Sar.
Mongolia during the month I have now done more than half of my stay in Mongolia, 6 months in total and less than 5 months until I’m back home. Since we already are in March I can also say that I have survived the Mongolian winter. The coldest temperature this far has been -38°C on a cold wind free night in the capital and -55°C real feel on a windy morning in the desert. The spring has now arrived to the desert which means wind and sandstorms so to not get stuck in a sandstorm I have now moved to my next BOOKBRIDGE learning center which is located in Murun, Khuvsgul province which is the most northern province of Mongolia. The result of the move is that I’m back at minus degrees again but surrounded by beautiful hills where the top of the hills are covered in snow.
Tsagaan Sar, Mongolia new year
In February the main event in Mongolia is Tsagaan Sar, also called Mongolian Lunar New Year. This is the biggest national celebration in Mongolia and it’s celebrated for a minimum of 3 days, I ended up celebrating it for 7 days. Before Tsagaan Sar there is a lot of preparation. A couple of weeks before people are travelling to their nearest bigger city to buy all the foods and gifts that is needed. Mandalgovi is usually a quiet town but since it’s the province center it felt like the amount of people doubled in the city during the weekends before Tsagaan Sar. A week before all Mongolian families are very busy with cleaning their homes and cooking sometimes up to 3,000 numbers of buuz, Mongolian dumplings. Since I weren’t hosting any dinners my preparations were a lot easier, I just needed to figure out good gifts to buy to the families we were going to visit and pack by backpack.
I celebrated the main part of Tsagaan Sar with Nangaa (the community hero in Mandalgovi) and her family visiting her relatives on her mothers side. Since Nangaa’s family is very big we spent 5 days visiting her mother’s side, and then her family spent another 4 days visiting her father’s side. Tsagaan Sar is definitely a family holiday, the main difference between a family holiday in Sweden compared to a family holiday in Mongolia is that in Sweden we would have one big dinner at one place with the full family, in Mongolia you should visit all your older relatives in their homes. This leads to several dinners all in different homes or with different relatives. I counted my Tsagaan Sar dinners to a minimum of twenty.
New year celebrations on the countryside
I was very lucky and got the great opportunity to celebrate Tsagaan Sar on the Mongolian country side, I had two nights in a small village and two nights with herder families living the traditional nomadic life in the Gobi desert. We started our celebrations on Tsagaan Sar evening (the night before Tsagaan Sar). First thing we did was to set up the traditional dinner table. First step is to build a cake out of different type of dairy products. Next to the dairy products you put a big piece of meat, usually the full back of a goat or a sheep. You would have a big bowl of Airag. Airag is a traditional milk drink which contains 7-8% alcohol. On the Tsagaan Sar tables you will also find bowls of candies, many different type of salads, bowls of fruits, a pitcher of sea buckthorn juice, a thermos of milk tea, bottles of vodka, homemade vodka made on different types of milk, wine and different type of liqueurs. After eating we finished the first evening with playing Mongolian card games and Mongolian traditional ankle bone games. In the ankle bone games you are using real ankle bones from sheep and goats almost as dices. When you role an ankle bone you can either get a sheep, a goat, a camel or a horse. What I heard there is hundreds of different games you can play with the ankle bones and ankle bones has been used for games and also fortune telling throughout the history.
On the first morning of the Lunar New Year we drove out to the Mongolian steps and with the hills in the background we greeted the first sunrise of the New Year. The scenery was breath taking and it felt like a great way to start the New Year. When the sun raised we also did wishes for the New Year. While doing these wishes you should have a cup of milk or a cup of vodka that you throw out in the air to honor the spirits and the gods of Mongolia. After greeting the sun we continued our journey out to the herder families, we started our first Tsagaan Sar dinner at 10.30 in the morning and I believe I had my first vodka shot of the day before 11 o’clock. A visit starts with that everyone greet each other. You greet each other in pairs where the older person holds his or hers hands towards you with a blue scarf across his or hers hands. The younger person support the older persons hands, the older person then smell the younger person’s cheeks, a Mongolian version of a kiss on the cheek.
After the greetings when everyone is sitting down and drinking their milk tea is time for the Mongolian tobacco snuff. Snuff is being send around in personal snuff bottles. The snuff is a fine powder that you sniff up in your nose. Most of the older persons have their own snuff bottles and they exchange snuff with each other at Tsagaan Sar but also any other time when they meet each other. After the snuff is time to eat and drink as much as you can fit, but not too much since you will probably eat dinner again in just an hour or two when you are at the next visit, or when you have new guests. During 7 days I ate at least 80 buuz which in Mongolian eyes aren’t that many but I was so full all the time. At the end of the visits the older give gifts to the younger guests however gifts is also given to the host family. Common gift are bars of chocolate, candies, socks and for the adults vodka.
As a summary of my Tsagaan Sar, first of all I ate so much food, food I never thought I would be eating such as big pieces of sheep fat. I’ve had loads of different alcoholic drink, the only non-alcoholic drink I could find was the water that I brought myself. I spent four nights on the countryside which means no running water, no indoor toilets and with the herders no toilets at all but amazing star skies and amazing views over the Gobi. I played Mongolian games and meet many new friends, one of the herders even offered to be my Mongolian husband however since he had a wife already I kindly said no. I’ve seen lambs, calves, sheep, goats, cows and camels. I’ve seen the Mongolian herder boys travelling through the desert on horseback just like Genghis Khan used to do. When returning to Mandalgovi I also had three other Tsagaan dinners with my students and with friends.
I count myself as very lucky to being able to celebrate Tsagaan Sar in true Mongolian style. I’m very thankful to all the families welcoming me to their home and sharing their homes with me, the strange Swedish girl whom don’t understand any Mongolian but whom drinks and eat almost everything they give to her. Tsagann Sar was a great experience and as an end I want to wish all of you a Happy New Mongolian Lunar Year!