Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Following a dream: from Mongolian Siberia to the Mongolian Circus

Urangoo, center right, contorting on top of a reindeer


Urangoo was just six years old when she decided what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. One day at school, in a remote village in northern Mongolia, she watched a video of circus acts, and "just wanted to be exactly like them." The performers were contorting, twisting their bodies into completely unnatural states of pretzel. Right then and there, Urangoo knew: she too would be a contortionist. Not 'one day', but that very minute.

I probably don't need to tell you that the average human being has an approximately zero percent chance of succeeding in the field of contortion, but I may need to explain to you why young Urangoo had the already-stacked odds stacked against her. 

Urangoo is from East Taiga, a frigid and harsh region of northernmost Mongolia, near the Russian Siberian border. She grew up in a teepee made of reindeer skins. Her parents herded reindeer, rising every morning well before dawn to milk the deer, and then doing so again and again every two hours. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner consisted of hunted meat, reindeer meat, boiled reindeer milk curds, and maybe some potatoes come autumn. Water came from melted snow. Everything about this lifestyle is austere. It's not the sort of place where dreams are entertained.

But little Urangoo is nothing if not determined.

Urangoo and family in the Taiga


So, for hours and hours on end, by carefully watching the circus video that had inspired her, she taught herself to contort. To get an idea just how difficult this is, try balancing on nothing but your chin while wrapping the rest of your body into a C. 

Well, after just a week of this, Urangoo was ready to present her new skill to her parents. Who were frightened of what they saw. Wouldn't their daughter would hurt herself? Shouldn't this sort of livelihood be left to the professionals? But Urangoo pressed on for her parents' approval, learning more complicated contortion tricks until, finally, she was granted their blessing. "I saw in my daughter real ability and talent," her mother Oyunbadam, then 32, said.

So, the family did what nobody does in their difficult situation. They packed up the kids and moved to Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia. This was no small task. Not only did Oyunbadam and her husband have almost no money, but they didn't have any transportation either. But never mind. Gathering their belongings, they hopped on a reindeer and rode it to the nearest town, eventually making it four days later to the big city.

Once they did, they found themselves in a predicament. Not only is Ulaanbaatar expensive, but it is very, very cold, and this nomadic reindeer-herding family from the remote countryside could only afford to live in a traditional ger (or yurt). Gers don't have running water, and few have electricity. On top of that, Urangoo's parents could not find work. Back home in the Taiga countryside, Urangoo's mother had been the region's very last teacher of Tuva, the language of the Reindeer People. Tuva is a unique and dying language, which bears no resemblance whatsoever to the Mongolian language. For example, Oyunbadam proudly told me, "Sain bain uu" is 'hello' in Mongolian, while it is "Eghi" in Tuva. In other words, she'd given up her own dream in order to make her daughter's dream come true. And as for Urangoo's father, he was about to pay the ultimate price to help Urangoo; he would pay with his own life.

But, for a little while anyway, things were looking up. By 2007, Urangoo had been entered into circus school in Ulaanbaatar, where she was learning how to contort, trapeze, and acrobat. And by January 2008, she was competing in her first national contortion championship. One night that month, while temperatures dipped into the minus 30s, Urangoo performed inside while her parents waited outside for her, shivering. According to Oyunbadam, she and her husband were not permitted to attend Urangoo's competition because they looked too poor. But that didn't stop Urangoo's father from beaming tearfully with pride for his daughter. "She's performing in a big, glass building. I can hardly believe it," Oyunbadam recalls her husband saying that night. And that night, Urangoo won her first national gold medal.

video
Video of Urangoo contorting, with her mother watching on

Still though, Urangoo's father needed work. His daughter required a contortion costume that they simply could not afford on Oyunbadam's meager salary, even though she'd finally found a steady job. So, he made a difficult decision to work illegally in the mines. Illegal mining is common in Mongolia, and has become much more common in recent years with the arrival of mining companies and the wealth they promise. Because Urangoo's father wanted to make just a little bit of money, enough, say, to buy a contortion costume for his daughter, he snuck into the mines to pan just enough gold to pay the bills. Once he'd done so, he left the mines with his booty in hand. No sooner than he did, he was robbed and murdered.

When word of her husband's death reached her, Oyunbadam lost hope. Without him, and with three children to feed, she wanted to go home to the Taiga, to her people. "I was lost," she said. "I didn't know how to live anymore, so I gave up." But her new colleagues and boss urged her on, and she eventually decided to stay with her children in the capital so that Urangoo could continue to contort.

And this is where their story both ends and begins. Urangoo is 13 years old now, and her mother is 39. They still live in a ger in Ulaanbaatar. Oyunbadam has two other children, and a disabled niece whom she cares for. With five mouths to feed, money is very, very tight in their one-room home. Urangoo is now with the Mongolian National Circus, and she dreams of performing internationally. And Oyunbadam dreams of one day returning to the Taiga to teach the language that she so loves, the Tuva. The death of their husband and father is a burden to both of them, but also a reminder that they must carry on. 


Incredibly, Urangoo may be coming to the US to perform contortion! On Feb 28th and Mar 2nd, she's hoping to be at the Arlington Artisphere and the Kennedy Center as part of a film screening and a performance of Mongolian talent. In fact, the film is what's made all this possible. Santis Productions' coming "Mongolia: Mining Challenges a Civilization" is what brought together those of us interested in helping Urangoo. In the film, Executive Producer Ed Nef goes to Mongolia to seek greater understanding of the impact of the mining boom on Mongolia, as well as the dangers of gold-panning, which is how Urangoo's father died. 

Want to help Urangoo? Share this story. Right now, she needs all the publicity she can get. 

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