Here is how you throw a party in Mongolia: Give your tourists a couple of bottles of vodka so that they can entertain themselves while you get together with other guides and drivers, jump in a couple of jeeps and go visit friends in the area. Drink copious amounts of airaag, and just when the tourists are ready to retire, drive back to the campsite, barge in the communal yurt, bring more vodka (the good stuff as well as the distilled horse milk) and summon them to stay for the party.
Explain that everyone is expected to sing a song from their country and start passing the distilled milk around. Do not forget to hang to dry the horse meat; it will be nice and crunchy tomorrow for the tourists. Start singing a song about horses. Clap enthusiastically when the other guides sing longer versions of the same song. Insist that X sings the Mongolian national anthem, it's so beautiful and so appropriate for a party. Get some good old national pride and sing the really long version of the anthem. Nod approvingly when one tourist sings Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star and secretly wonder why tourists always sing that song. Drink more airaag. Get all sentimental when your friend sings about the three beautiful Mongolian mountains and insist that she sings the really, really long version of it. Don't feel insulted when Mr. Hotshot from Europe, who is drunk and thinks himself hilarious, does a terrible throat singing meant to mock your culture. Stomp your feet along and tell him that he sounds like a true Mongolian.
And when this Colombian tourist and her Scottish husband sing Yesterday, join in. Sing along, all of you. "All my troubles seemed so Far Awayyyyy," pull out your iPhone and show them how much you love The Beatles. Ringo Star? The best! Paul McCartney? Number One! John Lennon? Nice, nice! Sure, everybody knows Yesterday, but do they know A Hard Day's Night? huh? and how about Helter Skelter, In My Life, Help and Julia? You downloaded all the videos from YouTube and have been saving them for a special occasion like tonight. Yes, sure you also love Michael Jackson and ok. Jennifer Lopez too (chuckle, chuckle), but The Beatles? Everybody knows this in Mongolia: The Beatles are the best. They are Number One!
Besides being a cook and a guide, Mooggie was also our DJ, a job he took very seriously, withdrawing, turning over, and pushing back into the stereo slot the only cassette they brought for our cross country trip. With such limited selection of music (no radio stations out in the country) we expected long periods of silence. But as I said, Mooggie was a diligent DJ and he kept playing that cassette as if his life depended on hearing the same songs over and over again.
Every waking minute.
Every driven mile.
About ten times a day.
Side A and side B.
No skipping songs, because apparently they were all really good. The fifteen of them. The cassette was by a Mongolian singer by the name of Boldbaatar, a mixture of Pavarotti, Freddy Mercury, and Michael Jackson, with bits of good old throat singing and something close to yodeling. Fantastic!
Faced with the impossibility of ever finding out the names of the songs or their lyrics, I contented myself with reading Mooggie and Bata-So’s reactions every time a song came on. There was a funny one. And I know it was a funny song because every single time the song was played, they looked at each other and burst out laughing.
“What’s the song about?” I asked Mooggie after hearing the song for the umpteenth time.
“Love,” he said.
“Why is it funny?”
“Because man love girl, but girl funny.”
There were also songs praising the beauty of Mongolian landscapes, especially the three major mountain ranges.
“Which mountains are those?” I asked Mooggie. He looked around and pointed at the first thing that looked like three hills.
“Those over there. Left, Right and Middle Mongolian mountains.”
I suspected foul play when later on, my husband asked Mooggie the same question.
“Three beautiful mountains,” he said. “Big mountain, little mountain and middle mountain.”
Many of the songs were about horses—they had introductory galloping sounds and background neighing noises that were half endearing and half puzzling.
This incessant repetition of music made me move through phases very quickly: from amused, to annoyed, to curious, back to annoyed, back to amused, to thoroughly excited every time I predicted correctly what the next song was. The funny one. The one about three beautiful mountains. The bluegrass-sounding one about horses, etc.
Anyway, long story short, I fell in love with Boldbaatar’s songs (the only 15 I knew) and as soon as we went back to Ulan Bataar, we went looking for his music. It was easy to find. Apparently many of his songs were in the coveted Top 20 in Mongolia. Here is my favorite by Boldbaatar and the not-so spectacular Mooggie’s renditions of it after too many bowls of distilled horse milk (very shaky, shaky).
Hint: Climax at the 55th second.
Title: Uguilj yaviya negniigee