Monday, 21 August 2017

Genghis Khan’s Descendents Swap Central Asia’s Altay for Bulgaria’s Balkan Mountain

Text and photographs by Ekaterina Terzieva   
Picture this: In the foot of the Balkan Mountain, in Central Bulgaria, tourists gather for an authentic taste. But not of the quant villages scattered in the skirts of the mountain. Rather, for an authentic taste of Mongolia.
The recent move of six Mongolians who set up their yurts on a meadow near the town of Sopot created an exotic island where visitors can experience the tastes, smells and images of Mongolia, the land of Genghis Khan.

Such a visit does not only provide a glimpse into Mongolian culture, but also into the origins of Bulgarians themselves, who – according to historians, descend from Asian tribes who migrated and settled on the territory of modern Bulgaria during the sixth and seventh centuries. There, they mixed together with the Slavs who already inhabited these lands.

When I approach the newcomers, they initially refuse to speak to me until “the Commander” allows it. “The Commander” is a Russian businessman, who’s operating the lift near Sopot. He rented the meadow, property of the local monastery, and – with the support of the Mongolian ambassador in Bulgaria, brought over Mutarch, Polarma, Tohtoh, Ihtor and little Sudma with the idea of developing a new kind of exotic tourism.

But, since “the Commander” is not around on non-work days, I find out that the Mongolians came with the idea to live on the meadow and become a tourist attraction for visitors of nearby Sopot.

Lovers of exotic culture can visit the settlement and even rent and stay in one of the yurts. The biggest yurt, with all of eight walls, is furnished with brightly painted tables and chairs in a traditional Mongolian style. This is the restaurant, where curious tourists can sample meals prepared by Tohtoh and Polarma.

While Muhtarch is showing me around the exotic restaurant, Tohtoh is boiling fresh milk with tea on an improvised hot plate at the yurt’s entrance. In her feet plays the three-year old girl, Sudma, who came here with her older sister Polarma.

The young woman worked as a seamstress in Mongolia, where her specialty was making national costumes by hand. A woman’s outfit, known as dol, sells for over 200 euro in Ulan Bator, Mongolia’s capital.

Mongolian national dress is splendidly ornate and many women wear it daily. Their costumes are usually made of hand-woven satin in the colours of the sky, the moon, the sun, the grass and the lakes. According to Buddhism, in which one third of Mongolians believe, blue symbolises the iciness of the sky above and the water below, silver is the colour of the moon and the female beginning, gold fabrics are meant to represent the sun and god’s power. The clothes are embroidered with incredibly beautiful flowers and floral ornaments.

The women’s hats are made of red velvet and decorated with strings of pearls. The men wear a different type of hats, in yellow and red. While red symbolises the male beginning and fire, saffron yellow is the colour of the Buddhist monks’ clothing, and a symbol of giving up life’s pleasures. The men’s hats are topped by extensions reminiscent of the shape of Buddhist temples and symbolic of the earth’s axis.

Muturch, who, at 45, is the group’s senior, puts on his hat especially for the shoot, as well his traditional boots – hand-made of calf skin and silk embroidery.

It seems that Mongolians make everything by hand from natural materials. The yurts, for example, are constructed without a single nail. Different elements are connected by ropes made out of goat skin. The canvas, used to cover the top and the sides of the yurt is made from matted camel wool. It is tied with ropes made out of horse hair – in the winter, the cold tightens them and in the summer they become loose. At the very top of the yurt, there is an opening, also covered in the camel canvas. It functions like an air conditioner: when thrown open, the yurt fills with circulating fresh air in seconds.

The Mongolians say a yurt is constructed quite fast. If more people have a go, it could be done in one hour. The largest ones, those with the eight walls, can be constructed in a day. They are made out of hand-made wooden parts. In order for the yurt to be stable, a horse-hair rope is hung from the middle of the dome, serving as a vertical line to determine the centre of the weight. Another canvas is laid upon the camel one, to protect the yurt from rain. At the entrances doors, hand-painted with floral and geometrical elements, are installed.

Muhtarch explains all that to me. He came to Bulgaria from the northern part of Mongolia together with his wife, Tohtoh. The two live like nomads – moving around all the time, which seems typical of Mongolian culture.

A large part of the nearly three million Mongolians roam the country’s territory (over 1.5 million squared kilometres), raising cattle and living in different regions for a few months at a time. Cattle-breeding is the main livelihood means in the land of Genghis Khan. Mongolians raise all kinds of cattle – sheep, goats, cows, horses, camels, yaks, deer, pigs, birds and wild animals for their fur.

My communication with the group who came looking for their luck near Sopot is facilitated by the 16-year-old Ihtor who acts as a translator. He’s the only one who speaks Russian and seems to come from a prominent family – he says that “mom and dad work in Mongolia as directors.” The teenager plans on studying diplomacy in Sofia.

It turns out the six know very little about Bulgaria. They say it is nice, and they especially like the old forests, hanging over their yurts. “We don’t have so many trees, we live in the steppes,” they tell me.

Eventually, we start talking about Genghis Khan. Considered by them as a “national hero” and “a peaceful and wise man,” he managed to unite the Merkits, Naimans, Mongols, Uyghurs, Keraits, Tatars and other smaller tribes under his rule by 1206. This was considered as a monumental feat for the "Mongols," as the different tribes – which had a long history of intertribal disputes, became known collectively.

Tohtoh graciously offers me koshur, a Mongolian dough fried in oil, which is exactly the same as the Bulgarian mekitsi or Serbian and Bosnian uštipci, only sweeter. This is one of the few Mongolian vegetarian dishes, as Mongolians eat a lot of meat – usually mutton and veal. Even tomboza, dumpling-like bites, are stuffed with meat.

The favourite drink of Mongolians is called kumis. Some claim that this drink is the predecessor of yogurt, which Bulgarians proudly call their own invention. It was apparently made from fermented mare’s milk by the nomadic tribes who came from Asia, the ancestors of the modern Bulgarians.

Even though economic indicators show that the Mongolian economy is growing and despite the abundance of ore and mineral resources, more than one third of the population lives in poverty.

In 2001, the Bulgarian government ratified an agreement between Bulgaria and Mongolia for the mutual encouragement and the protection of investment. Maybe the exotic camp at the monastery’s meadow near Sopot will strike the interest of Bulgarian tourists towards destinations in Mongolia, where their ancestors originally came from.




Foreign Wines Outnumbered Bulgarian Ones on Vinaria 2014 Competition

11 March 2014 | National wine tastings, preceding Bulgaria’s biggest wine fair, Vinaria 2014, started today with a surprise: foreign wines exceeded in number Bulgarian ones first time in history of the competition. Full Story

Curiosity Chest

Dimitur, who visualisеd the Bulgarian expression “Pumpkin Head!”

26 February 2014 | He is 26 and he tried to enroll in the national Fine Arts academy. Academics, though, refused to recognize his talents, and this is how he searched for consolation in food carving. Full Story


Bansko Jazz Festival in Bulgaria: The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Music

Although Bankso is still best known as Bulgaria’s biggest and most modern winter resort and a skiing and snowboarding enthusiasts’ favourite, the town – nestled in the Pirin Mountain, has also established a reputation among music lovers as the host town of one of the country’s biggest jazz festivals. Full Story