Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Tyler interview

published July 31, 2012 in the UB Post

Tyler Davis-Mayo, a Sarah Lawrence College graduate, originally came to Mongolia to continue his study of Shamanism, a path which started in Nepal. The UB Post sat down with Mayo recently to discuss his path to Shamanism and any Shamanic activities he has participated in since arriving in Ulaanbaatar.

When did your path to Shamanism begin?
It’s hard to say exactly when it began, but there are a few turning points that stand out, the most notable of which was a long psychological illness. Many Shamans are called through an illness, either physical or psychological or both, and this is sometimes identified by another shaman as a calling. As shamanism in the Western World has been pushed underground and become less prominent, the calling is rarely identified as such. I was guided by the spirits through a kind of intuitive call and response to where I am now.
What do you mean by intuitive call and response?
The spirit world, or most worlds that are not physical, do not have as strong of a duality as the physical world does. In the physical world, we can kind of map cause and effect to a certain degree. In the realms of spirit, it doesn’t quite work the same way. In fact, being unsure, not knowing, doubting, in some way is the access to these realms. You’re never “sure” in the way that you’re sure that if you have a fire in front of you you’ll be hot; you can’t be certain  in the same way that a spirit or a deity is communicating with you because it’s exactly in this space of unknowing that these sort of entities live.  It takes a lot of intuition and trust as well as trial and error to understand this space.
Tell us about what happened to you in Nepal.
I was never sure why I was so drawn to Nepal. As I was living there, it became clear that the Goddess Kali had called me there and brought me there. Through listening to her, in this kind of intuitive way, I was led to meet a few Nepali Shamans and through them I also met a good English friend who was also a practicing shaman. We met in the same shaman’s house on the same day asking the same questions. He also has a strong relationship with Kali so we figured it wasn’t just chance. Together, we took the initiation into the Nepali shamanic tradition.
Tell us about teaching Shamanism at the Krishnamurti School, Brockwood Park, in England over the past year.
I wasn’t teaching Shamanism, I was teaching about what Shamanism is. I think Shamanism is something that people are drawn to by another force and it takes a lot of questioning of one’s self to see if it’s the right path for them. But it’s important in the Western World to revitalize this way of seeing the world and interacting with the world in our cultures. One of the ways in which I began the class was by explaining that from my experience, Shamanism exists in a space that has an emphasis on the relationship to what we normally see as separate objects. Whereas our culture, modern culture, puts an emphasis on the individual and their conflict with the environment, emphasizing the perception of seperate objects such as the cup on the table, shamanism puts an emphasis on the relationship between the cup and the table. So the cup is on the table, and in their relationship is a type of reality.  This way of perceiving things reveals the interconnectedness of our world. That is something that we have lost in modern society and it’s part of why we have such violence between each other as humans and lack of respect for nature.
Tell us about your first visit to a Mongolian shaman.
My first visit with a Mongolian shaman was very strong. From what I’ve seen now, it seems to be true that most Mongolian Shamans, including this one, can bring through the spirit of ancestors quite powerfully. You can feel the energy of the room change even before the spirit was completely brought through. In Shamanism, it’s necessary to manipulate the space where the ritual takes place. The shaman definitely had created a sacred space. When the spirit was brought through you could also feel the heat radiating off the shaman and the shift in energy.
One thing that was interesting to me is the emphasis on ancestor spirits. While this is common in many forms of shamanism, it’s not always emphasized as much as it is in Mongolia. This particular spirit (which the shaman channeled) was very wise and was willing to pose hard questions to the person they were healing, which is in my opinion an essential part of the healing process. This allows the person being healed to look at their own problems and affect their own healing. Also, the spirits are a lot of fun as long as you’re respectful. They can joke with you a bit and invite you into a very friendly atmosphere. The Shamans themselves are also very friendly. At the beginning of this first visit, the shaman invited me to a big shamanic ritual the following weekend where three Shamans were taking on new spirits. This kind of invitation was very sacred and gracious of him – and the timing was also quite serendipitous.
What was your purpose in visiting the shaman?
I’m still at an early stage in learning to be a shaman and I’m sure I’ll always be learning. I visited because I needed some help from the spirit in clearing some blockages that I became aware of in my own practice not too long ago. In traveling to Mongolia it became clear that one of the reasons I’m here is to engage myself with the Shamans and spirits here and obtain their help in my ongoing learning and development.
What happened at the Shaman initiation?
There were seven Mongolian Shamans in all, three of which were taking on new spirits and about thirty to forty friends and family members. The Shamans set up the ritual space by creating a circle of protection and power around the whole camp. In the main ritual ger, they all set up their alters and opened up the spirit world, or as they called it, the Heavens, which serves to create a direct link between the physical realm and the realm of spirits.
There were various other rituals, many Shamans calling in their own spirits. The rituals to call in the new spirits were quite strong and the main teacher as well as the other Shamans had to be careful as it can be dangerous when first calling on the new spirit. They did this in a well-practiced manner, even as it went on almost all night. In one of the last rituals, five shaman set up around an oboo, which had a string tied to the top of it and had been brought down to the center of the ritual ger, connecting the Heavens to the earth. These five Shamans brought their spirits all at the same time, which was extremely powerful.
Did they tell you which tradition they were practicing?
Yes, their tradition was the Buriyat tradition which has a big emphasis on the costumes the Shamans wear. It’s quite elaborate and while most forms of shamanism have some forms of attire, the Buriyat tradition seems to be one of the most elaborate, and it’s essential to their shamanic practice.
Did you take your spirit?
The Mongolian Shamans were very open and gracious, and asked me if I wanted to bring through my spirit, which I did. It was a big opening for me.  My spirit doesn’t always come through so strong since I’m still learning. In this space, with all the energy there, my spirit came through very strongly and there was an interesting healing and communication between my spirit and the Mongolian Shamans. I was very grateful for that opportunity.
How did the Mongolians respond once you took your spirit?
Well I think it was unusual for them to see this type of spirit come through because at least in the Buriyat tradition, the Shaman’s face is covered when the spirit comes through. When my spirit comes through, there’s no face covering. My spirit, who is a female spirit, likes to look around and move more than the spirits in the Buriyat tradition.  Also, my spirit is a deity, whereas Buriyat Shamans are ancestor spirits, so there is a different energy coming through, which I feel is a little different from what they’re used to. So the space was unfamiliar to them, But it seemed that the Shamans and the Mongolians there appreciated the experience and were grateful for the spirit to come through.
This might be an obvious question, but did anything weird happen at the Mongolian Shaman gathering?
Weird things always happen in Shaman gatherings. One funny thing that happened was about midnight, in between rituals, a van showed up with a small movie crew. They filmed a short scene that appeared to be in a film taking place sometime in Mongolia’s past with the actors in traditional Mongolian clothes. It seemed quite random, but it had obviously been set up beforehand. We found out later that it was for a hip-hop music video.  Another interesting thing was the hawks that were swooping down quite close to the ritual ger during key moments. The shamans explained that in their beliefs, this was the spirits coming down to watch the proceedings and to accept offerings.
What are traditional Mongolian offerings?
Vodka of course, as well as different types of food and sweets. In larger rituals like this, animals are sacrificed. Things like food and alcohol and fire are common offerings in most Shamanic rituals.
You said that the first Shaman you visited removed a blockage. How did he go about doing this?
After the first time that he brought the spirit through and agreed to remove the block, we were told to return in five days. We were to bring with us many offerings and tools for the ceremony such as vodka, katag, silk, black and red string and a white sheet. When the spirit was called through, he directed the ceremony and the translators, or the spirit’s helpers, who in this case were the Shaman’s sister and a family friend, carried out the remainder of the ritual. First I offered katag, silk, vodka and tea to the spirit. Then, he directed the vodka to be arranged on a tray and for me to be covered with the white sheet and the red and black string to be wrapped around me.  I’m not sure exactly what was going on, of course, because the spirits have their own language that they operate with in the ceremony and of course everything was in Mongolian. What I felt at this point was the blanket and the string were isolating the blockage.
The spirit asked me to sing my power song and drummed along to it. Then he had some red and black string tied around my right angle and told me to focus my awareness there, as if my spirit was present there. He drummed again and at this point, he was bringing my spirit through the block. In doing so, the energy of the spirit moving through the block dissipates it, and that dissipation and movement through the block is the removal of the block. The spirit said he would leave and come back; the spirit left the space and the Shaman returned (through him) and after a few minutes the Shaman drummed in the spirit again. The spirit said that the ceremony had been successful.
Did you feel anything when he was removing the blockage?
There were a couple times when a very strong energy was moving through my body. When they removed the sheet and the string, I could feel myself opening up, as if there were more space in my body.
What are your next plans while in Mongolia?
Next I’m traveling to Khovd. There is a woman considered to be a Green Tara living there. I work with Green Tara’s spirit, and before I knew about this particular woman, I felt she was drawing me to Mongolia. When I found out about this Green Tara, I felt it was obvious that I should go and visit her.
What have you learned thus far from Mongolian Shamans?
Well the learning is still going on and in that state, things are very much in flux. I’m seeing something about the complexity about the Shamanic world, the difference between ancestor spirits and deities. Something is starting to become clear about the interaction between the deities and the ancestors and also about the roots of Shamanism and how this tradition emerged in Mongolia. Also the Shamans have been extremely proficient in what they do, and have imparted a lot of wisdom about how to move forward and create a closer relationship with my spirit, and the realms of spirit at large.
Anything else you’d like say?
I’d like to thank the UB Post’s Cooper and Khash for making contact and translating, which isn’t easy. I’d also like to thank Oliver Claycamp for putting us in contact with a very good shaman. Also, I want to express my gratitude to the Shaman’s and their translators for their openness and willingness to bring me into their space and teach me about their tradition. And of course, the deepest reverence for the spirits, for their healing and guidance. 

Sheer violence and hollow revelations: the legacy of the Mad Baron

Published July 28 in the UB Post 

It’s no stretch to say that the Mongolia we see today, the world’s fastest growing economy, has had a powerful and interesting past. With its colorful cast of historical figures and conquerors, none are more puzzling than psychopathic warlord Freiherr Roman Nikolai Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg, or, as many called him, the “Mad Baron.”

The self-proclaimed last Khan of Mongolia, the Baron played an important role in deciding the twentieth century fate of Mongolia. Without the Baron’s interventions, antagonization, sheer violence, and hollow revelations, twentieth century might never have matured in the way it did.

Worshiped by many as a demon and by others as a living God, the Baron was born to a Baltic-Russian aristocratic family in Graz, Austria sometime in the mid-1880s. Adding to his tyrannical enigma, the Baron’s birthdate is difficult to pin down because of two reports that separate his birth by over a year. More puzzling is his last name, Sternberg, a traditional Jewish last name that means “star mounted,” especially when prefaced with Ungern, which means “unwilling.” Unwillingly star-mounted. Not a great fan of his own name, especially when taken into account with his anti-Semitism, the Baron would later have his name translated as “Great Star Mountain” during his reign in Mongolia.

His sadistic tendencies, which would later show up in the ways he punished his enemies and those around him, were seldom reported while the Baron was a child. He grew up during a trying time in Eastern Europe but had a more privileged childhood than most. The Baron claimed his lineage could be traced all the way back to Attila the Hun and that his family had always been “warlike and given to mysticism and asceticism.” He was fond of detailing his family lineage and their carnage, including his great uncle Baron Wilhelm Ungern, who had been known as “brother of Satan” due to his alchemical inclinations and general insanity.

Various descriptions of the Baron only add to his intrigue. Some described him as tall, others as short; some said he had green eyes, others blue. He’s been depicted as a raving lunatic and as a pseudo-philosopher of history and esoteric concepts. One of the few existing pictures of him depicts him in a shiny Mongolian deel adorned with the Russian Order of St. George lapel. Perhaps the best description of him comes from Ferdinand Ossendowski’s  Beasts, Men and Gods as a man with “a small head on wide shoulders; blonde hair in disorder; a reddish bristling moustache; a skinny, exhausted face, like those on the old Byzantine icons. Then everything else faded from view save a big, protruding forehead overhanging steely sharp eyes. These eyes were fixed upon me like those of an animal from a cave.”

The Baron’s philosophy was also baffling. “I have spent all my life in war or in the study and learning of Buddhism,” he once said, when asked about his religious preference. Practicing what he deemed “Military Buddhism,” the Baron took it upon himself to kill or punish as many as he could to help speed up their Buddhist rebirths. His admiration for Buddhism grew with his disgust for the Bolshevik revolution happening in Russia. The Baron claimed that Military Buddhism protected the processes of humanity by steering it towards evolution; this as opposed to revolution, which only led humanity “to bestiality” and same sword different leader mentalities.

His path of carnage began after the Baron volunteered as a soldier in the Russo-Japanese War, a war fought entirely on the collapsing Chinese Empire. By the time he had arrived at the front, the war had all but dissipated, leaving the Baron to gain his first appreciation of the Central Asian landscape. He continued his military service after his first taste of Asia by serving as an officer in East Siberia. While in Siberia, he became obsessed with the nomadic culture of passing Mongolians. In 1913, he was transferred to a small Russian consulate in Khovd, a small western city in Mongolia. At the start of the First World War, he joined the Austrian Front. As the war concluded and the Boleshevik Revolution began, he backed the Romanovs and earned the “Mad Baron” moniker which would stick with him in various forms until his death.

Believing himself to be a reincarnation of Chinggis Khan, the Baron rode with a horde of renegade soldiers to Mongolia on October 1, 1920. His goal was to establish a pan-Asiatic state founded on Buddhism, or more appropriately, Military Buddhism. He made plans to free the Bogd Khan, the emperor of Mongolia who had been imprisoned by the Manchu.  After three days of drunken horsemen galloping the streets shooting, raping, pillaging, and killing indiscriminately, the Baron successfully sieged Ulaanbaatar in February of 1921. Two weeks later, he freed the Bodg Khan, and was given the high title darkhan khoshoi chin wang. He began promoting order and cleanliness in Urga, forcing the citizens to clean the town, thread lights along the streets from the newly built electricity plant, build bridges, and set up schools and hospitals. He also protected trade by publicly hanging Russian and Mongolians guilty of stealing from Chinese merchants.

The violent nature of the Baron bloomed during his short reign over the now semi-sovereign nation of Mongolia. A fan of alcohol himself, he savagely tortured any soldiers found drunk or hung over by forcing them to camp naked on frozen rivers. Everyone was a suspect to the baron, who favored lashings by stick until flesh separated from the bone. He pooled many of his torture methods from Buddhist concepts of hell, such as burning in fire pots. His collection of soldiers, a group of about six thousand composed mostly of Cossacks and Mongolians, would flee like mice when the Baron stumbled around his encampments looking for someone to discipline.

As his rule continued, the Baron grew increasingly eccentric, and took to riding around shirtless and growing out his beard. He surrounded himself with shamans and fortune tellers, and grew increasingly bold on the battlefield. There are eye witness accounts of him taking tea breaks and smoking cigarettes during the heat of battle. Other accounts see him galloping blindly into seas of bullets with little or no armor. People around him started to grow frightened of the Baron, especially as his close circle began to question his stability and vision. Meanwhile, D. Sukhbaatar, the future Mongolian revolutionary leader, was bringing his Bolshevik-backed forces from Russian to Mongolia.

Several fights ensued in the summer of 1921, eventually leaving the Baron to retreat towards Tuva to prepare for an escape to Tibet. His soldiers—outnumbered, outgunned and frightened by their leader—mutinied and planned to kill the Baron and his inner circle. Days later, after an unsuccessful assassination attempt, the Baron was captured by a Soviet detachment. En route to his trial in Moscow, The Times reported in September 13, 1921 that the Baron was being publicly exhibited as a monster. He denied all charges levied against him, defending himself to the end by saying that all those who died because of him died because they were “too red.”  He was executed by a firing squad on September 15, 1921.

“My name is surrounded with such hate and fear that no one can judge what is the truth and what is false, what is history and what myth,” the Baron said in 1921. A special sort of crazy, the Baron lived according to his own truth but unfortunately for others, they too fell prey to his brutal madness. He was a sad man, filled with carnage, blood lust and burdens. “I am not a simply a man, I am a leader of great forces and have in my head so much care, sorrow and woes!” he once said to travel writer Ossendowski. While the change to Communism may very well had happened with or without the Baron, he played an important part in sparking the national grasp for Communism through his outlandish ideologies and wild abandon.  By inspiring fear in those who met him, the Baron created an opening and some would argue, necessity, for outside forces to swoop into Mongolia. 

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Texas, the Mongolia of America

Texas, the Mongolia of America

Published July 16th in the UB Post

            There are more similarities between Mongolia and Texas than one would think. They both contain vast stretches of land that host everything from empty steppes to gorgeous mountains. Both have large livestock and mineral industries, and share a sense of pride attached to hailing from the region. Both are patriotic, sometimes kitschy and above all, solipsistic. Even more interesting, some of the hats and boots Mongolian men wear resemble Texas attire. The landscapes are harsh in their own right, one hotter than sin and the other colder than hell. There’s even a Texas Pub in Mongolia, a popular restaurant with burgers and steaks. Mongolia seems to know some about Texas, but how much does Texas know about Mongolia?
While visiting my family in Texas over the summer, I decided to take it upon myself to find the answer to this question and introduce a key point of Mongolian culture to a few of my Texan friends. My first stop was a Mexican food restaurant the morning following my arrival. After ordering some tacos, I explained to the waitress at the restaurant that I hadn’t eaten Mexican food in nearly year.
            “Where did you live, dear?” she asked, putting her order pad into her front apron.
            “I still live there. Mongolia. I live in Outer Mongolia.”
            A look of confusion spread across her face as she tried to place Mongolia.
            “You know,” I said. “Genghis Khan? Mongolian empire? Between Russia and China?”
            She shook her head slightly.
            “It’s far away. In Asia,” I said, giving up.
            “Really? Do they have Mexican food there?”
            “They have one place that mixes Mexican food with Indian food.”
            She laughed. “Is it cold there?”
            “Very cold.”
            “How long is winter?”
            “It depends on your definition of winter. If your definition of winter begins at 32 degrees, then it is cold about seven months out of the year.”
            “If your definition begins at negative ten degrees and below, then winter lasts about four months.”
She shivered. “And the food?”
            “Mutton, mutton and more mutton, except for the capital city,” I said, loading a chip with salsa. “There’s lots of international restaurants there.”
            “What’s mutton?”
            “Old sheep.”
            “Do they know about Texas there?”
            “Actually, they called Texas Tejas…” I said with a smile. Originally, Texas was pronounced Tejas, which happened to be the same way Mongolians pronounced the name.
            “How funny…”
            After quenching my year long craving for Mexican food, I headed over to the Starbucks nearby with a full stomach.
            “Hey, I know you. You used to come in here,” the Starbucks barista said, pouring my coffee. “Didn’t you go somewhere or something?”
            “Yea, I’ve been in Mongolia the last year.”
            “Mongolia? Isn’t that where nomads live?”
            “It sure is. They live in the countryside.”
            “Well, what’s it like there?” she asked, handing me my copy of coffee.
            The inevitable question. How should one describe Mongolia to a Texan? Cold? Full of tradition? A budding democracy? A former Communist country? The pollution? The tradition? The Soviet Blocs? It’s a warranted question that any expat will tell you they have trouble answering.
I went with the easiest answer: “It’s like anywhere else. Sometimes good, sometimes bad.”
            “I saw something about Mongolia on the National Geographic channel,” she said. “They live in, oh what are they called?”
            “Yurts, but Mongolians call them gers.”
            “Yea those tent things. Have you stayed in one of those?”
            “I stayed in a ger last year with a Mongolian family. They had a baby who I thought was a girl but turned out later to be a boy.”
            “That’s nice. How big is Mongolia?”
            “It’s twice the size of Texas with less than half the population of Houston.”
            A few days after my arrival in Texas, I was invited to a birthday party on the outskirts of the city. Knowing that I needed to represent Mongolia and my travels somehow, and secretly hoping to rile some Texans into starting an old fashioned shoot-out, I brought a liter bottle of Chinggis Gold Vodka to the party. I vowed to teach the Texans to drink the Mongolian way, and for the most part, besides the fact that I wasn’t able to get them to finish the bottle completely – I succeeded.
            “Mongolia?” one woman with blonde streaks in her hair and a chest tattoo asked, “Does that place still exist?”
            “I’m living proof that it does,” I replied, as we lounged in wooden chairs around a homemade picnic table. Beers sat on the table, beads of sweat on their necks and ours. “So are about ten million other people. It’s been a bit under the radar the last one hundred years.”
            Another guy asked: “One in six people or something are related to Genghis Khan? It’s something like that, right?”
            “Yea, he was a busy man,” I replied, blocking the unforgiving Texas sun with my forearm.
            “I heard he had like 1,000 babies. That’s a busy man!”
            “I don’t wish it upon anyone.”
            “I’ll be honest with you,” he said, leveling a beer-filled gaze at me, “About the only thing I know about Mongolia is the historical stuff. You know, Genghis Khan and all that. Taking over everything. The rest is a mystery. What’s it like there now?”
            “Its growing in every way imaginable. Who knows how much it will grow over the next ten years.”
            A former co-worker of mine wearing a fifteen gallon cowboy hat knew a bit more about Mongolia than the other party members. As it turned out, her father had been dating a Mongolian woman for some time, which was something of a contention for her.  
“What’s it like there? I mean, what’s it really like?” she asked, after explaining to me how the Mongolian woman had sent her a book on shamanism and how her father had survived a car accident with the woman recently.
            “It’s really cold.”
            “How cold?”
            “Cold enough that your eyelashes freeze.”
            “That’s really cold.”
            Gathering a few of my friends in a walled-in patio built off the backside of the house, I did my best to explain to them how Mongolians make a toast.
            “It usually begins with a Mongolian guy saying ‘za,’” I said, holding up the shot glass. I had brought a shot glass made out of an antler especially for the toast. I explained that Mongolians didn’t normally drink of shot glasses-cum-antlers but I don’t think anyone heard me.
            One of my friends, a hearty Texan in a vanilla cowboy hat held up his beer and said, “Za.”
            “Yea, za,” I said, keeping my shot glass in the air. “So someone holds up the glass, says some nice words about fate, destiny and then they finish the bottle. The youngest one technically needs to fill the shots.”
            “Finish it?” someone asked.
            “Finish it,” I said, pouring the first shot and handing it to my friend.
            “Za,” he said, taking the shot.
            “You only say ‘za’ right before you give a toast,” I explained to him later. “I mean, it’s not a tradition or anything, it’s just someone saying ‘ok.’ Like, ‘Ok, I am toasting to blah blah blah…”
            “So what should I say if someone hands me a shot?” he asked, as I handed him another.
            “You should say bayarlaa,” I said.
            He snorted. “What that’s mean?”
            “Thank you.”
            Later I handed him a shot and he said “borscht,” which is pretty close only having heard the word one time. He claimed that the Mongolian vodka had loosened up the party and set a nice vibe for an evening full of live bluegrass and wide brimmed hats. He also told me to keep the spare room at my apartment open in Mongolia. Apparently, I’d sold him on the country.
            As I walked around handing out shots, I heard various comments regarding Mongolian vodka:
            “It’s like a shot of water with a dash of cayenne pepper. Wonderful.”
            “It’s so smooth.”
            “If I lived there I would drink this every day.”
            “It’s so tasty.”
            “How many bottles did you bring?”
            “Is this really from Mongolia?”
            “Where is that again? This is delicious!”
            “I don’t normally drink vodka but I’ll make an exception seeing as how you brought this all the way from Mongolia.”
            The vodka was a hit at the party, and I left early, after playing devil’s advocate and giving everyone as much as they could take. I even tossed a shot into the wind, thanking the Gods for their blessings, good Texas friends, and the cool breeze that had blown up over the nearby hill, rustling the leaves in the trees and stirring joy in our souls.
My next stop: a Mongolian stir-fry restaurant.
            The following day, I arrived at Genghis Grill in South Austin after a hearty rebound from my night of Texas/Mongolia drinking introductions. The restaurant was nearly covered by the wild foliage outside its dark tinted windows. It sat in the far corner of a shopping complex adorned by a red sign that Genghis Khan might or might not have approved of.
            Walking inside, I asked the host if it was ok if I took a few photos. I explained to him that I lived in Mongolia, something he didn’t seem too impressed about, and looked around the seating area until I found an item actually from Mongolia. Someone, he didn’t know who, had left one of the leather wrapped souvenir bottles of Mongolian vodka on the wooden counter that surrounded the host’s station. I explained to him that the bottle was actually from Mongolia, again he wasn’t impressed, and pointed at the alcohol tax sticker on the label.
            “So, are there lots of these Genghis Grill restaurants?” I asked him, as he continued to stare at me wearily.
            “There are at least twenty-five in Texas,” he said.
            “Yes. Genghis Grill is a franchise food chain headquartered in Dallas,” he said. “There are lots in Houston.”
            “Has anyone here ever been to Mongolia?”
            “You said it was a franchise, has the owner ever been to Mongolia?”
            “No, I mean I don’t think so. Maybe someone at corporate headquarters went.”
            “Well, this is definitely from there,” I said, turning towards the emptied bottle of Mongolian vodka.
            “That was here before I got job,” he said, turning and walking towards the bar on the far side of the restaurant.
            I looked up at the restaurant’s motto which had been written on the wall opposite the host’s station:
“Genghis Khan and his Mongol warriors heated their shields over open fires to grill food in the heat of battle. Likewise, our Grill Masters take the fresh ingredients you choose to build your bowl, then stir fry them to perfection on our sizzling hot grill.”
            As I sat myself in the far corner of the restaurant, under a pair of black and red flags tied to the ends of fake spears, I wondered if the restaurant’s motto was true. Did Mongolian soldiers really use shields as giant woks or was it another fictitious account of the famed warriors? With so many rumors, tall tales and sentences that began with, “I heard Genghis Khan,” followed by some strange exaggeration, it was hard to tell what was true about classic Mongolia these days and what was false. One thing was for certain, the Mongols conquered more than they knew what to do with and if they are anything like the Mongolians today: they ate meat and lots of it.
The food items on the menu might have shamed a current day Mongolian. Edamame? Summer rolls? Stir fry? Your average Mongolian would have never tasted any of the dishes. My favorite concoction? Khan’s roasted apple pie: a pastry shell with Fuji apples baked inside and glazed with sticky globs of Mexican caramel. Think a desert version of Mongolian huushur and you have about the closest thing on the menu to actual Mongolian food.
            The drinks were a different story: Khan’s Mojito, the Mongolian mudslide (PatrĂ³n, vanilla Smirnoff, Baileys and cream), the Mongolian martini, Khan’s kamakazi and the Warriorita all would have quenched the palate of any thirsty Mongol today or 800 years ago. The best named drink items? The Khangarita and my personal favorite, the trademarked Mongorita, a blue margarita in a giant fishbowl shaped glass with thick shards of salt affixed to the rim.
            Maybe Genghis Grill, while ripe with stereotypes, actually captured somewhat of the essence of the thirteenth century Mongolians. I looked around at the restaurant, hoping to validate my sudden epiphany. There were gongs hanging from the tops of the booths, more flag clad spears, a picture of some guys with mustaches on horses that looked like something out of Medieval Times, wood stools with GG (Genghis Grill) burnt into their backsides, track lighting, red walls with black air conditioning piping on the ceilings and the restaurant’s other motto painted on the wall that flanked the bar: “They ate well. Really well.”
            Maybe not.
            The host came back around to take my order. I ordered a green tea and offered him the Mongolian flag that I had purchased at the Chinggis Khan Airport. I won’t say he took the flag reluctantly, but he seemed more or less enthused that I had given it to him.
            “That’s the actual Mongolian flag,” I told him, handing it to him before leaving the restaurant thirty minutes later.
            “Nice,” he said, waving it around like a sleepy man at a Fourth of July parade.
             While they may be worlds away, Texas and Mongolia have more in common than they think. Most importantly, they could also learn things from each other. For Mongolians, Texans could teach them quite a bit about extracting resources efficiently and navigating the fine line between maintaining one’s landscape and reaping the benefits from one’s resources. For Texans, Mongolians could share insight regarding globalization and the importance of culture. Most Mongolians speak more than one language, something that many Texans could benefit from, especially considering their proximity to Mexico.
            Mongolia has been called the Texas of Asia, referring to its vast resources and size. While there is a sister city relation between Darkhan-Uul and Irving, Texas, it seems the only other connections between the two places is a few dinosaur bones that have made their way from Mongolia to Texas. Both share a horse culture and admiration for rebels, conquerors and outlaws. About the only thing separating Mongolia and Texas are a few oceans, a few ideologies, a few nomads, a few countries, and about 11,406 kilometers.