Woody Packard

Words + Pictures

First Light, Tsagaan Sar

Pilgrims, Bayan Zuurkh
Although it didn't feel like it on this particular morning, the end of winter is in sight with the arrival of Tsagaan Sar, Mongolians' White Month, the largest celebration of the year here. In the coming days, Mongolians will visit relatives and friends and they will also host them, sometimes feeding more than a hundred guests with large quantities of buuz, rice, dairy products, and a wide variety of other food. They will also provide their guests with a going-away present, just as they will receive a small gift from each guest who visits.

Sometime after all the shopping is done (the stores will be closed for several days) and the thousand or so buuz have been assembled, but before the first guests arrive on the first morning of Tsagaan Sar, some significant percentage of the population wakes up in the wee hours of the morning to drive to a sacred mountain, get as close to the top of it as possible in whatever vehicle they are driving, and hike the remaining distance to the top. The goal is to see the first light of the first sunrise of the new year, which is said to bring success in the year ahead.

Doug Lally, whose Nomadic Guardians project I have been volunteering at, had offered to take Sutei, his dogs' caretaker, to the mountain this morning, along with enough other people that it was uncertain if I'd be able to fit into the truck. But pre-dawn luck of my own and some last minute cancellations and plan changes left me riding with him out to the property where the dogs are kept at five in the morning. Sutei, who explained that he could not sleep for the excitement, was ready to go, as were his neighbor, (who would climb the mountain on crutches) two friends, and a young boy. Noticeably missing was Soyobold, who would have acted as a translator for us.

We were heading for Bayan Zuurkh, Rich Heart, one of four sacred mountains that surround Ulaanbaatar. At first we were the only car on the road, but as we approached the south side of the mountain traffic began to pick up. While the Mongolians in back chattered excitedly, Doug an I wondered what all the early traffic was about. We both still believed, from Soyobold's description and his desire to be the first to the top of the mountain, that there would just be a small group of hearty individuals there. But as so often happens here, we were soon forced to abandon our assumptions. As we approached the turnoff to the road up the mountain, the stream of tail lights ahead bent left. After a few hundred meters of pavement, the traffic spread out and up, each driver seeking what he believed to be the best route. Through the dust, pairs of red dots crawled across the rolling foothills, while above, like ants with flashlights, each illuminating a small patch of brown soil on a field of blackness, drivers struggled to discover a way to the next higher level. Along the way groups of cars called it quits, parking in groups segregated by vehicle type, the ever popular Prius being among the first groups to stop. A whine in the transmission of our 4WD Ford Ranger, which Doug and I both tried not to hear when we were on the pavement, became a harsh clunk, and we too stopped. As we got out, Land Cruisers continued up the steep slope, brute horsepower re-arranging the face of the sacred mountain as it propelled the other pilgrims closer to their destination.

I had overestimated the temperature and underestimated the wind, so the steep climb was welcome. On top several dozen people milled around in the dark, a few of them trying to start fires. Ulaanbaatar lay to the west. Connecting the bright lights of the city to the quiet mountain we were standing on was a long dotted line of slow-moving headlights. It would turn out that a fair number of those cars would eventually park on the slopes below and join us to see the sun rise. Although many came dressed as we were, in sports-utility clothes, close to half came in elaborate traditional clothing, which included hats made of sable or fox, and dress deels of silk, wool, or cashmere. One young man, an air traffic controller in Ulaanbaatar who had lived in Chicago for a year, told us that he had never seen someone with a caucasian face on top of this mountain before. He was dressed in a gray hooded parka.

As an offering to the mountain, or perhaps for insurance or extra luck, those making the climb brought food, incense, vodka, and most often milk, to make as an offering at the ovoo, the shrine on top built from the collective contributions of visitors, each of whom are obliged to circle three times, tossing a rock on the pile with each loop. Around the perimeter small displays of bread and dried curd have been set up by some, while trying to keep candles lit in the wind. Others climbed the ovoo to tie new khadags, pieces of colored cloth, to the wooden posts at its center. Closer to sunrise, activity moved away from the ovoo to the east-facing slope of the mountain, the large crowd now gathering in small groups, each individual shifting to get a better view. As the sun broke the horizon the last of the milk was thrown to the wind, covering everyone with white spots. Hands and arms raised, the crowd chanted—roared, actually. And then it was done.

Within minutes people were wandering down the mountain, getting in their cars, and careening down the slopes in a race for road position. Back on the two-lane main road traffic was slow. Drivers passed on the right shoulder, needing to squeeze back in when the road narrowed at a bridge, slowing traffic further. Drivers passed in the left lane, forcing oncoming traffic off the road when there was no space to pull back into the right lane. Moving at a crawl, our local passengers convinced Doug to pull off the road, well before the bridge that crossed the Tuul River. For a while, we meandered through the rough terrain beside the river before pulling onto its solid, smooth frozen surface, and gliding the last few miles back to Sutei's ger.

Close Story—Back to Pictures

First Light, Tsagaan Sar

Click below to page through enlarged images or read the story.

Early Birds


Warming Fire

Technical Moment

Light Side

Our Companions

Father and Son


Late Arrivals Pay Tribute

Sutei, with Doug

False Start


Milk Spatters


Last Look



Parking Lot