An Experiment in Living—in Mongolia by Honora Finkelsein (This article was originally published in the “Network of Light News” column in the September 2010 edition of Pathways Magazine, published in Washington, D.C.) Alysha Alloway, a sophomore in the fall of 2010 at Walt Whitman High School in Cabin John, Maryland, participated the previous summer in a special program for high school students called “The Experiment in International Living.” With this program she had the opportunity to spend a month offering community service and learning about all aspects of the culture of Mongolia. Said Alloway, “I chose this trip so I could get out of my comfort zone. I had never been out of the country, so I thought Mongolia would be a change for the better for me.” In the Gobi, her group worked with children, reading books to them and teaching them about the internet. The visiting students even painted a school. “We also spent time in the capital city, Ulaanbatar,” said Alloway, “learning the language and customs, before we left for our homestay in Delgerkhan, which is in the east—the steppes. We spent a week with our different families, who were mostly nomadic herders, and when we reconvened we left for Lake Huvsgul, located in the north, very close to the Russian border.” In Huvsgul, the group learned some things about shamanism and visited the Reindeer People, a tribe that follows the reindeer in the area and who live very close to nature. Alloway said, “One night, from my ger [a kind of tent], I saw them on a neighboring mountain performing a fire ritual, and I heard them singing. It's not something an outsider should observe, but it felt very powerful, even a mountain away.” Alloway said she had several encounters in which she learned about Mongolian religion and spirituality. “We were off-roading in Russian vans for about an hour across the Gobi Desert, when suddenly on the horizon appeared two Buddhist temples, one a red hat and the other a yellow hat. They appeared just like other buildings in the Gobi from the outside, with sand-colored walls and roofs. But once inside I was washed by color—intricately hand-painted tiles made up the floor and the ceiling, pillars painted with red and green designs enclosed the center of the temple. Blue and white prayer scarves were tied to nearly every surface—some that appeared new, and some that looked like rags, barely holding onto the chair legs or altars. “The temple was teeming with people, talking to monks or walking clockwise around the perimeter, spinning the prayer wheels. Walking clockwise around a place of religion in Mongolia not only shows respect of their tradition, but also ensures good fortune.” Alloway said that a monk at the temple would tell people’s fortunes as long as he was provided with the person’s name, birth date, and sign.  “As I watched my friends go ahead of me,” she said, “I saw their faces change. They became more serious, more thoughtful, and some looked as if they had forgotten where they were. They took prayers from him and followed his instructions—to burn a bone, or to purify themselves with incense. And as I knelt before the monk, looking at him, I understood that he knew more than I did, more than anyone I had ever met. He smiled at me, just as he had smiled at all those before me. I felt inside of me that he spoke the truth.” Alloway had another spiritual experience in Chambalaland, a holy land in the Gobi Desert, where her group climbed a hill and sang a song to clean themselves of all the bad energy they might have picked up in their lives. She said it was a ritual many Mongolians perform, and the song is one everyone knows, whether they practice Buddhism or Shamanism. She said, “There is a large circle on the ground of Chambalaland outlined in white rocks that you cannot step on or move because they are the property of the Buddha. The circle has an entrance large enough for one person to walk through at a time. Inside the circle, you lie down and meditate, or take time to speak with your ancestors.” Alloway said Chambalaland is considered to be a place where it is bad fortune to act disrespectfully toward anyone or anything, since it is believed that everything is connected. She said that for the Mongolian people, even the ground there should be respected. Alloway said she also learned something about the small rules and spiritual traditions of the nomadic Mongolian family she lived with for a week while she was away from her group. “In every family ger, there is an altar in the back with pictures of the family and their ancestors. Every altar is different, but most have these pictures, along with prayer wheels. Feet should never be pointed directly toward the altar, because that shows disrespect toward the ancestors who are depicted. When crossing the ger, never cross between the two stability poles in the center—they are lined up directly with the altar and the door, and crossing between them would bring bad luck. Also, when kneeling with one leg up, the leg up should always be the one closest to the door. This way, you protect everyone inside from bad spirits who would like to enter. Conversely, if you kneel and the leg raised is the one farther from the door, you are welcoming bad spirits inside.” Alloway said her experience taught her that a common language isn’t needed to make close connections, and that respect, which is highly valued by Mongolians, is the highest honor one person can give another. She says she learned that many of the items we live with in America—such as a computer, a toilet, clean water, and plenty of food—are things no one should take for granted. “I’m not saying that a nomadic life is something to be looked down on,” she said finally. “I envy the ability of these people to pack up everything their family owns, including their house, and fit it into the back of a pickup truck. They are aware of what is truly important!” All photos by Alysha Alloway. Click on any of the pictures for a larger image and more information.