Annyeonghaseyo, Sain Baina Uu and Hi! Part 1: Encountering Mongolia
Sena Park is a Paihia-based artist, whose sculptural works explores language through material relationships. Park was selected to take part in the 5th Land Art Mongolia 360o Biennial earlier this year, where she undertook a residency to develop new work. The 2018 edition, titled WHO ARE WE NOW?, and curated by Lewis Biggs, asks: how do we situate art, and specifically art made in the Mongolian context, in relation to Humanism and the Anthropocene Age?
In this two part account, Park reflects on her experiences and time in Ulaanbaatar, and the work she produced there.
Read the Korean version here.
In 1995, our family migrated to New Zealand. While I was living in Korea, I was very timid and afraid of speaking in front of people even when I spoke in Korean, my mother tongue. Once I arrived in New Zealand, I had to communicate and study in English, a language which I had never used before. I encountered even more scary and hopeless social situations.
It has now been 22 years since I migrated to New Zealand. I returned to Korea to work for few years and since then, I have visited to Korea only every few years. While I am there, I realise how easy it is to socialise in Korean. I feel like I can express anything. I understand people’s minds even though we don’t talk much – just with the same cultural sense.
I live and work in New Zealand now. I am still stressed by my lack of confidence caused by the language barriers. But I don’t want to go back to Korea for the sake of ease. I began wondering: if everyone used only their second language, could I become more confident? Such a silly and vain hope compelled me to move on. But I began to frame a hypothesis in my imagination. If I am in a non-English speaking country, if everyone communicated in their second language, it might feel like we were all standing on same start line. I started to search for artist residencies among non-English speaking countries for this stupid reason.
That was when I discovered Land Art Mongolia 360o (LAM 360o) was calling for proposal for their 5th Biennial. I had never thought about visiting Mongolia before.
It looked like an exciting challenge for me to work with land art. I thought it would be a great chance to meet with and learn from other international artists. Furthermore, it was located a non-English speaking country. It sounded a perfect place to me.
One early morning in March 2018, my phone pinged. Automatically, I opened the email with only half awake eyes. Perhaps, my desire for Mongolia was so strong that my wish must inevitably come true. I had received an acceptance email from LAM 360°.
It was my first official overseas invitation. Ridiculously, the first words from mouth were ‘What the XXXX!’ Then all my fantasies disappeared. My head became full of fear about the nomadic life style in such a remote place. What about toilets?
The next few months I passed in a state of baseless fantasy and hope. Then, non-figurative fears and pressure harassed me. My heart became aflutter.
Usually when I am planning to travel, I refer to the Korean online community. It is easier for me to understanding the Korean language. However, most of the subjects on these blogs don’t suit me. Definitely, there is an advantage for linguistic commonness, but I found there was now a cultural gap. I am not Korean but also not a New Zealander. I have an ambiguous identity.
I had been trying to find travel tips from the Korean online community for one month. I expected to find some common interests. I found many travel ideas which I had never thought of before. But it was interesting to see what we each valued based on our different perspectives.
Generally, legal and official holidays for workers in Korea are shorter than New Zealand. Furthermore, Koreans use a very complicated system to access their official holidays. Hence, Koreans focus on how they can efficiently manage their holidays in a short period while doing the maximum number of activities.
I found Korean tour groups were always the earliest group to depart in the morning. At the same time, they didn’t want to miss the opportunity to enjoy a rest in nature. I found so many articles asking to find a tour group which does nothing but watching starry skies in quiet natural environments at night within the Korean online community. Every time I read that, I thought ‘Oh, that’s what I am doing here, in Paihia.’
22 July 2018
My flight departed around 8am on July 21st and I transited twice in Sydney then Beijing. Finally, I arrived on July 22nd around 4:30am at Chinggis Khaan airport in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. The airport seemed smaller than I expected.
I came out through the arrival gate. I searched for my name among all the people. But I couldn’t find it. I began to panic. Luckily, my phone rang. It was Dolgor, the CEO of LAM 360°. She started to talk in Korean. I could see her about 5 metres away waving her hand next to another man. We hugged and started to talk like we knew each other from long ago.
The guy joined our conversation in Korean. What’s going on here? How come everyone could speak Korean? He was one of the Mongolian artist joining LAM 360° Festival. He wanted me to call him Bada. Bada had studied at university for two years in Korea. His Korean was great. I wondered, how are people so fluent while I am suffering at English. We compared many things about Mongolia to Korea. Sometimes, I changed the subject to New Zealand. But it felt like it just interrupted our conversation with no point of common interest. OK, I thought. No more New Zealand acting! Just act Korean!
The three of us spoke in Korean and Bada translated to Mongolian at the hostel. After a few hours rest, Bada came to take me to exchange money, buy a sim card etc. I met his wife seated in Bada’s car.
Annyeonghaseyo?, she said hello in Korean. She was not very good at Korean, but still I was surprised she could speak a little bit and she had visited Korea so many times.
When I researched LAM 360° before applying, I knew that New Zealanders had never participated before. Some Korean artists had already participated in the Biennial but not this time. I thought it would be an advantage to emphasis New Zealand’s unique culture as the first New Zealand artist. I never imagined I would be speaking Korean and talking more about Korea than New Zealand in Mongolia.
It was hard to see any relationship between New Zealand and Mongolia. We don’t have a Mongolian embassy, only a consulate. Compared to Korea, the New Zealand visa fee was almost 10 times expensive.
In contrast, Mongolia seems really close to Korea. The little I know about Mongolia is information I learnt during school history class in Korea. I had never seen or met a Mongolian and never heard much about Mongolia from anyone in Korea. Maybe the countries became close after I left? Mongolia still seems an unknown country for Korean travellers.
On the other hand, from the point of view of Mongolians, Korea is like a neighbour country. It was so easy to find Korean culture in Mongolia. Actually, I assume this is a one-sided engagement. Bada told me about his experience in Korea. During his first visit, his new friend bought him a can of coke and explained what it is, how you can open and drink it. He said he didn’t know how react for his friend’s strange kindness. Another day, an old Korean guy asked him whether Mongolians eat human meat or not. It revealed how little Koreans knows about Mongolia.
I didn’t use English much today except ‘hello’. I have communicated in Korea and it was totally ignored that I came from New Zealand. But I feel like I received a warmer welcome as a Korean. It was different from other times when I just travelled other countries neither as Korean nor New Zealander. Ironically, when I am in Mongolia, I really enjoy my multiple identities depending on the situation. It was such a wonderful asset. I find my dual cultural identity is starting to influence my research.
23 July 2018
I visited Dawa’s family today. I met Dawa through the Korean online community a month ago. Dawa introduced herself as an international student at a university in Korea. I arranged to visit her parents’ place in Mongolia. I arrived at the intercity bus terminal. I expected it to be more crowed but, it was just an empty ground with one mini bus in front of a ticket booth. I had to wait 40 minutes more sitting inside the mini bus to leave.
As I was sitting in the bus, people spoke in Mongolian as they passed by. As I recall, Korean and Mongolian people are descended from a similar bloodline. It isn’t an official theory with any scientific evidence. Nowadays, according to our life-style, culture, appearance and so on, people can easily tell Koreans or Mongolians apart. But this theory didn’t seem to apply to me at all. My ancestors must have strong genetic links to Mongolia. Many people approached me, wanting to verify that I was not really Mongolian even around real Mongolians. This was my normal situation during my stay in Mongolia.
It took about one hour to Zuunmod. It was the last station. Niamka, Dawa’s sister, was waiting for me with a white Japanese car. Dawa couldn’t be with me for some reason. So, her sister Niamka became my guide. She was the first young Mongolian I met who couldn’t speak Korean. She was a student of medicine. We started our tour walking around the small town. I imagined Zuunmod would have an open street market for some reason. But there were lots of modern concrete buildings and shops instead.
I walked around the streets and took photos of the buildings. Surprisingly, I found some Korean restaurants. In New Zealand, it is hard to find Korean restaurants in small towns like this. It is not as familiar as Chinese, Thai, Indian or other Asian food in New Zealand. It was quite an emotional moment to see Korean food in this small town.
Dawa was hopping to give people an authentic experience through her parent’s house which is called a ger, a Mongolian traditional house. Her parents still keep a traditional nomadic lifestyle. I was interested in Mongolian shamanism, their folk religion and Tibetan style Buddhist temples. Most of the facilities related to Buddhism were destroyed by Mongolian communists. But near the town, I found there was a famous monastery called Mañjuśrī Monastery. So I asked Dawa to take me there instead of spending all day at her parent house. Ulaanbaatar was not the same Mongolia as my fantasy. Suddenly, I was excited about going to the country side to escape the town. I could see endless land and I guessed the road would continue as long as that vast land.
While Niamka was driving, I was busy taking numerous photos of the scenery through the windows. Even the animals looked so relaxed. Getting far away from town, the roads ended and the off-road condition was seriously bad due to unusually heavy rain this year. There were lots of puddles and it was swampy. It looked impossible to drive in. I suggested walking from here. (It was lucky we didn’t walk. Mongolia is big.) Surprisingly, Niamka drove so well on such messy roads with no 4WD. I had nothing but respect for her amazing driving skill.
Finally, we arrived at the monastery. By the parking area, there was a tiny market selling snacks and souvenirs. Beyond that, I could see wide green grass-lands with lots of rocks. And I could hear water. It was a little stream. Across the stream, the ground got higher and I could see layers of hills. I thought Mongolia would be flat with no high mountains and yellow sand. But that moment, I felt like I was in the middle of Europe. During my staying in Mongolia, I found the country to be more similar to Europe than Asia. I walked up the hill and found traces of a number of ruined temples.
In the middle, there was a nicely rebuilt temple which was used as a museum. Walking up, I met an old gentleman. He was the guide and security man of this temple museum. He indicated how I was supposed to walk around the temple using body language. He pointed to the entrance of the museum. I understood it must be our meeting point. He waited in front of the main gate until I finished walking around the temple area.
The museum building was two storeys. It was dark inside but sun came inside through the windows. Many crafts, used goods and photographs of temples from the past were displayed. After 1990, only this museum building was rebuilt.
Guide grandfather and I communicated through body language and short words. But we could understand each other easily and kept laughing. I really concentrated on what he tried to explain with every single item. It was a very interesting body conversation.
In the middle of our tour, a group of Mongolian tourists came inside. Suddenly, he began speaking so loudly and quickly with long sentence to those tourists in Mongolian. I could see how relaxed he was. He had looked so laboured trying to convey all his knowledge to me.
After a while, he realised I was still standing next to him. He just laughed and came back to me giving excuses to the others. Everyone looked at me. He must have talked about me. He continued to complete his mission giving me a guided tour. I appreciated that he cared enough about a foreigner even when we couldn’t communicate in the same language. I asked him for his photo to remember him.
After the tour, Niamka and I departed to her parents’ house. I saw a group of people on the grass. Even though this place was not too far from town, the land looked absolutely untouched. There were four traditional ger. These were all for families and relatives. Niamka’s mother and a young girl were delivering horse dung and spread it out to dry out. The dried horse dung will be used for fire. Niamka took me to the ger where Korean guests were staying. And she went to another ger where her family was gathering.
In the Korean guests’ ger, there were three men sitting on the beds. I thought all of them were Korean because of their fluency. Actually, one of them was Mongolian. He was Dawa and Niamka’s brother. He had worked in Korea for a few years. I began to doubt where I was.
Dawa’s family tour was based on the Korean traveller’s wishes including activities such as horse riding and stars gazing with local food. I had expected to learn about the local culture communicating with a Mongolian family, but once the Korean group was established, the Mongolian family members didn’t really try talk with us.
For lunch, traditional Mongolian noodles were served and with Kimch pickle and chilli sauce like a Korean dish. After, they served us traditional yogurt and tea, suutei tsai. The tea was weird. It tasted like a mix of milk and meat soup with a bit of a sour taste. Actually, they had boiled milk and added tea powder and a bit of salt.
Dawa’s family was inside of next ger. I went in. They were cooking some food. They said it was khorkhog, their traditional BBQ meat dish. It was delicious. Everyone used their hands tearing the meat in one big bowl. In Mongolia, water is very precious. I saw the guy handing over meat grab other things with the same hand. I am a picky person in terms of food hygiene. But I threw that mindset away while I stayed in Mongolia. Otherwise, I could not survive here. I ate the khorkhog, each piece handed over by hand. It was still delicious.
It was time to experience a typical Mongolian toilet. ‘From here to there, that’s all our toilet’. I had read about the toilet experience in a review. And it happened to me for real. All around their house, you could use as your own toilet. There was lots of toilet paper everywhere like white flowers. The ground in Mongolian has a very interesting shape. It looks flat. But actually, there are many levels with varying heights and curves. So if you walk a little further out, it is hard to see others.
I was still shy to do it yet. So I asked a young girl to come with me. She said ok and we went together to find a nice spot. When we walked away from the ger, she asked me to go in the opposite direction to avoid to seeing each other.
Later, I asked how they can take showers. And Niamka’s brother gave me an unexpected answer. They take showers at their apartment in the town. Actually, Mongolia is urbanising rapidly. People are rushing to the cities for a convenient lifestyle. But sometimes they miss their nomadic life. So many urban citizens still build ger and stay there during the summer time like a holiday house. Ger are easy to build like a tent. Later, I also heard that this fast growth had negative impacts. Many of the nomadic people are not equipped to survive in the competitive urban environment and they become lost and homeless. But they don’t want to go back their nomadic life. It’s a growing social issue.
About 5pm, we left Dawa’s parents house and went back to Ulaanbaatar by bus. We arrived at rush hour. I couldn’t see any taxis in a sea full of cars. So, we had to use a Mongolian taxi. What is a Mongolian taxi? It is similar to Uber. There’s no sign, no system, no app required. You just raise your hand and wait until a car stops by you. You just tell them where you want to go, and if they say ok, then you get in. You pay how much they request when you get off. It is illegal. But it is the ordinary mode of transportation. It is simple and it looks easy. But, it has risks so it is not recommended for single or female tourists. If I was alone, I wouldn’t try it. I thanked the Korean student who came with me. I couldn’t get back to my hostel if he wasn’t with me. Since then, I have noticed we can’t find an official taxi unless we use the hotel’s phone.
24 July 2018
About 10am, I met Bada and Jurke to visit Mongolian artists’ studios. It wasn’t too far from the main city and it looked like a cultural park with three buildings. First, we went to the ceramic workshop to meet one of the participating Mongolian artists for LAM 360°. Her name was Odmma. She took us into her studio and served tea in her handmade ceramics. And she started to talk about Korea.
She visits almost every year and she has already completed many exhibitions and residencies there. She knew more artists and art communities than I did in Korea. Daejeon is her main place to work in Korea. My last visit to Korea was already 4 years ago to attend a family event and meet my friends. I don’t really have any connection with the Korean art community. It was so embarrassing to talk about.
We moved to Bada’s studio after the short tour. Their studio was far from the city. I loved their place. Their studio was still in Ulaanbaatar, but it seemed like a different place. It was located in one of the lower buildings on the outskirts of the city. Here, there were many businesses selling wood, plastics, and hardware which are necessary materials for artists.
Bada’s studio was a two story building. The ground floor used to be a gallery space for resident artists. There were 50 artists before but due to flood water, the power was cut off for a month and many of the artists left. They were not sure when things could be fixed, so their studio time was very limited. They could work only during the daytime.
Bada and his wife started to work and I started to write my travel stories. Jurke worked with super concentration. Her teacher, who we met in the other studio, he said so many good things about her. He said she was one of his best students.
I can only concentrate for a short time. I normally have more break time than actual work hours. I decided to go out so as not to disrupt her. I walked along the main street and arrived at the wood market we passed by car. Shop owners displayed their goods in the back and waited for customers sitting on a stool in front of the shop. They talked to me when I stood and looked at their wood. I just pointed with my finger and showed them my calculator app on my phone. Then they realised I am not Mongolian and typed a price. Communication made so easy! Once a customer purchases wood, a truck or van comes by to collect and deliver the goods. So the road between shops was wider than the walking area.
When I returned to Bada and Jurke’s studio, she was still drawing in the sunset. Bada and I chatted until she finished.
25 July 2018
Today I went to the National Museum of Mongolia. Mongolia has a long history. The museum was not big but it was had displays from the stone ages to recent history.
In Korea, we learn about Mongolian history and Chinese history. Korean history is often related to both. Genghis Khan’s Mongol Empire was once a vast and powerful empire in history. Russia was colonised by the Mongol Empire. Ironically, in modern history, Mongolia was occupied by the Soviet Union. Mongolia was a Communist country until the 1980’s. No wonder why Mongolian culture is more like Europe than Asia. It was easy to find many Russian influences around. I thought it was just because of their geographic position. Later, I learnt that Russian language was a compulsory subject at school until recently. Older and middle generation Mongolians can speak Russian and now the younger generation can speak English. Unfortunately, during the Soviet occupation, many lost their knowledge of Mongolian script. They still speak their own language but writing uses the Cyrillic alphabet. Original characters still exists. But it is not much used in their life anymore. I felt like the spoken language even sounded like Russian. But they emphasised that only characters were borrowed from Russia.
After visiting museums, I always feel like my sprit has been flattened. Suddenly, I was so hungry. I ordered khuushur, a big flat fried dumpling. The meat filling inside contains a juicy soup. It was as big as a palm and served in four pieces. I finished half only.
At night, I was invited for dinner at Bada’s house. I bought a bottle of wine. Bada invited two other artists as well. One was Ronald who is also participating in LAM 360° with us. Ronald had been driving from the Netherlands to Mongolia by Jeep since June. The whole journey was a part of his project for LAM 360°. He had already researched and collected many materials. He had hoped to travel with his partner. But she refused to accompany him for the few months on the road. I could understand her. It wouldn’t be easy. So instead, he started his journey with another male artist. He was photographer who had visited Mongolia about 20 years ago and during this trip he made records compared to 20 years ago.
So far, we hadn’t received much information on where we were going to for LAM 360°. It seemed to be in a rural area in the middle of vast Mongolia. Luckily, we could get some information from Bada who did an artist residency at same place. Bada showed us some images which he had taken last year. It was different to what I had expected. It has all hills with rough rocks on dried ground. Bada said it would be more green than this due to recent rainfall. But when we arrived there later, it was just a vast green grass field with green trees. It was full of green!
While staying in Mongolia, one of difficulties was pronouncing Mongolian names. They are long and complicated. Bada’s full name is Soyolsaikhan Batsaikhan. Jurke also has a long name. She tried to teach me several times and I gave up. She made her nickname Jurke for us when we had dinner together. Jurke means heart in Mongolian. Her grandparents used to call her that. I can feel how she was an adorable and lovely granddaughter. Bada said there is a new trend for making names these days. They use names from great ancestor who lived about 200 years ago. For example, Bada’s son’s name is Chingun. It comes from a great general who lived in the 1860’s. It sounds like a great idea which I want to copy.
It was a great dinner getting to know the general culture of modern families in Mongolia. A funny thing was that I was now a translator for Bada from English to Korean, and Korean to English.
26 July 2018
I planned to visit the National Park near Ulaanbaatar, but I realised their public transportation is so complicated. I gave up. My next plan was to visit Naran Tuul which is a ‘black market’. It is one of the most popular places for travellers and a popular shopping place for locals.
The market was surrounded by a high wall. Inside the wall, it was different world. It was a massive heaven for shoppers. It was like a maze. If I just came here for one day of shopping, I would be in a panic. Naran Tuul became my favourite place to visit in Mongolia.
The place where I was staying was recommended by LAM 360°. Many of the artists who arrived a few days in advance stayed this hotel or hostel. Dogor said one of the artist from Hong Kong would arrive tonight. She suggested we might catch up to say hello.
When I went to the lobby, there were two other artists, Michele from Italy and Jette from Denmark. Anyway, we couldn’t meet the Hong Kong artist that night because her luggage didn’t arrived with her flight. Even her assistant’s luggage had gone missing. I thought how lucky I was.
Later, Michele said he had also lost his parcel. He had sent materials from Italy to here a long time ago. He confirmed his parcel had arrived in Mongolia. But he hadn’t communicated well with the receiver on his behalf. He knew that it was missing once he arrived and it would be impossible to find his parcel in just a few days. Everyone suggested finding alternative materials instead. He looked panicked. I suggested a visit to Naran Tuul market together.
27 July 2018
We went to Naran Tuul with Bada and Jurke. They came with us to be a translator and guide for us. And of course, I became the English translator. Everything was so easy by virtue of Bada and Jurke’s help. The only problem was finding Michele’s main material, golf balls.
In Mongolia, golf is very luxury sport. There are no golf clubs in the city. Bada offered to take us to the closest golf club. It was far from the city. But it was an excuse to see other places.
I saw luxurious buildings lining the hills backing onto green mountains. The place looked like a nicely maintained resort. It was the golf club. I could feel the gap between working class citizens and the wealthy. We entered the golf club house. It had wide windows beautifully framing the picturesque nature. There was a shop selling golf gear. Golf balls are really expensive, even second hand.
Once Michele finished, we decided to have lunch at the luxury restaurant in the golf club. The price was quite reasonable. We agreed the portion of food will be tiny. But it was an unfounded worry. I have never been disappointed with the food portions in Mongolia.
28 July 2018
I needed to exchange money today to use cash in the market. The Mongolian consulate in New Zealand suggested not taking New Zealand currency. So I was going to take US dollars. But my sister recommended taking Singaporean dollars which she had remaining from a previous trip. She said Singaporean dollars are always good value in Asia. I agreed with her idea. But most of the banks and exchange shop in Mongolia don’t take it – I only found a place the next day. It was raining heavily. I had spent too much time and energy finding a bank. I just got cash out from an ATM.
I couldn’t trust Google Maps in Mongolia. It doesn’t update quickly. I thought I would have enough time today but there wasn’t. Naran Tuul looked different from other days. It rained too much and it was full of puddles everywhere. There were so many cars in the parking area, I wasn’t sure how I could find our delivery van by the plate number only. I had to buy AstroTurf as my main material. It wasn’t cheap compared to NZ. But I had no other choice. I tried to negotiate but it didn’t work and I was running out of time. I changed my plans and bought 15 meters only. It was a large amount of money in their sense.
One of the workers helped me deliver it to our van. But I couldn’t find it and was feeling so nervous about his help. I ran everywhere. I don’t remember how long I ran. When I finally found the white van with the correct plate number in among the thousands of cars, I was fully soaked and exhausted. Finally, I was finished gathering materials.
29 July 2018
Our official visit to the venue for LAM 360° will be happened tonight. Before then, I planned to visit Choijin Lama Temple in the middle of city. I had passed it a few times without noticing before. It was hidden by buildings and hard to see from the street side.
Already, a few artists described how the temple was nicely contrasted to the contemporary buildings around it. Once I saw the actual thing, I could understand it. Modern buildings towered over the old temple’s roof against the beautiful blue sky, each element harmonising well together. The Choijin Temple consisted of several smaller temples designed using a unique concept each. One of the temples had a round shape differing from the usual square shape. This round shape was inspired by their traditional ger.
Outside of the main gate of the Choijin Temple, a massive wall was standing. It looked like an ancient treasure with beautiful carvings from the past. When I arrive here, the place was busy with a wedding photography group. Actually, it was common to see these groups around the city every day. Especially, Sükhbaatar Square seems most popular for wedding photos.
In Mongolia there is special rule. We say there is ‘Mongolian time’.
Mongolia is a really huge land. People living on this land must feel themselves as just a small thing in nature. Human daily activity is nothing compared to nature. For this reason, I heard Mongolians never hurry or worry about unexpected situations. They are very flexible with their time promises. They just accept all situations that happen. They let nature run its course.
For the next 3 weeks, I think there will be lots of unexpected variables and I will try to adapt like nature.
To be continued…
This writing was made possible with the support of