Trip and Tales (Part 88)
T, the Mongolian guide is a demon at “ankle bone” or shagai, an ancient Mongolian set of games involving literally the ankle bones of sheep or goats. MA reports that there was much “flicking” of these playing pieces, in a similar manner to Subuteo men. I’ve read only a little about shagai and I’m guessing that this was probably the “Horse Race” variation. There are a surprising amount of different games to be played, much in the same way that we play cards or, perhaps to a much lesser extent, dice. I’ve seen around a dozen shagai games referred to, with names like Birthing Camels, Cat’s Game or Four Animals but there must be more. As with our cards or dice, shagai “playing” extends into fortune telling too.
The key to their use lies with the various distinct orientations that the bones settle in after being flicked, tossed, thrown, whatever. “Camel”, “Horse”, “Goat”, “Sheep” and “Cow” positions all take on various significance depending upon the game being played (or the fortune being told). Most of the games are simple in principle but demand a great deal of skill and accuracy to master, requiring pieces to land just so for maximum score, sometimes in the proximity of, or even displacing other bones. Fun for all the family, and (unless you are a sheep or goat) a good deal more civilised than a boozy night spent trawling the local meat market, followed by a punch-up outside the chip shop.
MA and Companion were treated to this Mongolian “boys night out” in the beautifully appointed “tourist” Ger, which he describes as the “fantasy version” of what would undoubtedly be a much more prosaic reality. It’s the beautiful Mongolian throat-singer girl regaling the guests with folk songs whilst her accompanying maidens wait upon them with ever-gracious service that betrayed the unreal (though lovely) nature of the experience. I can see that.
So having seen the charm of its rural surroundings, I’m curious to hear the verdict on Ulaanbaatar itself. I suppose I am expecting tales of the detritus of abandoned Soviet industry. Fortunately I am wrong. “Fantastic, absolutely lovely” is MA‘s verdict. He seems to have caught the city in a time of transition. Sure enough the poorer Soviet buildings are there, but increasingly so are modern high-rise structures; infrastructure for the mining companies, he tells me. Perhaps the scent of money is in the air?
Nothing can tell you better about the state of a nation or a city than the people within it. They also rate highly with MA too. “Gentle, welcoming, lovely people” is how he describes them, his attitude after the melon smuggling incident now completely switched through 180 degrees. Scratching a little deeper, he reveals the fierce pride in their independence from both Russia and China, a good sign that (hopefully) they “won’t get fooled again” to coin a phrase. I’m on the other side of the world here, but I really hope they make it. The machinery of change is visibly in motion. Having witnessed election time in Ulaanbaatar, the scenes of the various party supporters marching freely in their respectively coloured T-shirts, MA got the feeling that: “they are really going somewhere”. Let’s hope it’s somewhere good.
Oddly enough the overriding image that stays most prominent after talking with MA, is a decidedly understated one, though powerful in its simplicity and portent. In any other context it would be easy to miss, but it was amongst photographs depicting the “revolution”, that is the peaceful transition to democracy. Simply: a family proudly holding up some of the first Mongolian passports. After all that they had been through: at last, these badges of freedom. The future had finally arrived.
[Photo by Mark Fischer]