Life has picked up since the beginning of the school year. This is partly because of work — I’ve been adding a new class or commitment every week — but also because this September, there have been a LOT of events in my community.
“How do you celebrate your school’s 20th anniversary in America?”
It was the week before school started, and my teachers were writing their annual plan of action. They had been speaking in Kazakh, and I’d tuned out, bored.
“Er…” I said, wracking my brain. An assembly with a (usually rather boring) speaker? Maybe some decorations in the halls? “We don’t, really.”
In Mongolia, they do. And they do it with style.
Class was canceled two Fridays ago for our 20th anniversary celebration. Instead, we had an awards ceremony/concert at noon. The school director (the Mongolian version of a principal) gave a presentation on the school’s major works and legacy. Then the director, distinguished teachers, and high-achieving students were given awards and gifts, though I only caught a few words of rapid Mongolian to guess what the awards were about. At last, after about an hour of speechmaking, students and teachers collaborated on about a dozen acts of dombra, singing and dancing.
In the evening, we had a banquet. We snacked and chatted during another awards ceremony, and then danced. I am a TERRIBLE dancer, but I like Kazakh dancing! Everyone stands in a circle and sort of shuffles from foot to foot. The more enthusiastic dancers take turns in the center. After the dancing — just when I had concluded that this was, very strangely, a party in Mongolia that didn’t have a meal — we received dinners and a meat plate at our table.
Then, on Saturday, all of the school’s teachers went on a picnic. We left the town center around 8 or 9 for a sparse forest by the river. When I say “by the river”, I mean “somewhere in the middle of a bunch of islands formed by the branching of the river and reached by fording river branches until one of the mikrs breaks down in the water and everyone has to go back to drag the broken mikr out and then decide to stop right there and picnic.” We broke up into groups of 10 or 20 and made separate cooking fires; ate breakfast (veggies, oranges, cold pasta salad, and hot milk tea); and then regrouped to dance. Repeat for lunch (meat stew and kumuz) and dinner (soup, black tea, and a bottle of wine), but with a small contingent of increasingly drunk male teachers. We went home around 8pm, which my teachers tell me is a very early end to such a day.
Most Kazakh people are Muslim and celebrate Islamic holidays. This past Thursday, Friday and Saturday were Kurban Ait, which takes place 70 days after the end of Ramadan. Observers who keep livestock sacrifice one of their animals, eat a portion, give a portion to family and friends, and donate a portion to the poor. I tried to ask a little bit about the meaning behind the holiday — “Why do you celebrate? Why now and not some other day?” — but was told only, “Because it’s 70 days after the end of Ramadan.” Instead of rambling on something I don’t really know about, I will direct you to the Wikipedia page for further detail.
One of my CPs generously invited me home on Friday. I practiced a few stumbling Kazakh sentences with her father-in-law, who carved the meat. In Kazakh culture, everyone eats from a common plate. I definitely prefer this to the eternal Mongolian battle between I should finish my plate according to politeness and Honored Guest gets as much food to eat alone as the rest of the entire family eats together.
This weekend, October 3-4, is the Eagle Festival in Bayan Ulgii! This is Bayan Ulgii’s main call to fame.
In my first week at site, I noticed a lot of raptors hanging out by the river. They’re a golden-brown color and about twice the size of the redtailed hawks I know in the States. I commented to one of my CPs that people weren’t kidding when they said there were eagles here.
“They aren’t eagles,” she said dismissively. “The eagles are bigger.”
The “small” bird seems to resemble the lowly black kite. The Eagle Festival bird is the golden eagle. Kazakh eagle-hunters use these birds to catch fur-bearing animals, and then sell the pelts — as I learned this past week when I helped one of my CPs, who’ll be acting as a tour guide, with falconry vocab.
I plan to attend the festival this weekend, and will be putting up a report next week!
October 5th is Mongolia’s national Teacher’s Day. Our school is celebrating it on Monday — I think — one of the teachers said we would be celebrating Friday, but the other teacher sounded more sure of herself — we’ll see — and it sounds like a silly, fun sort of day. Topsy-turvy. The teachers sit back and relax while their students teach the classes, and we have another banquet over the weekend. I’m not sure how this holiday will work for me, since I don’t have homeroom students or a stable schedule, but I think I’ll have fun, whatever happens.
 Fermented mare’s milk, known by Mongolians and most PCVs as airag (айраг); қымыз (kumuz) is the Kazakh word.
 A small contigent for two reasons: One, there are only maybe two dozen male teachers at my school; two, possibly because of the predominantly Muslim population, Bayan-Ulgii parties are a little bit more sober than other Mongolian parties. Alcohol at picnics is a thing.
 Why do I know any falconry vocab? Goodness knows, but I managed to pull words like “hood” and “jesses” out of somewhere when my CP asked for them. And why is falconer the only common-use word for people who hunt with raptors?
 Edit 10/8/15: I am informed by a visiting PCV that these birds are kites, not steppe eagles — and migratory, which explains why I haven’t seen any in weeks.