Friday, September 25, 2015

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Mongolian Word of the Week #67: Хэнз

Since it's autumn now, today's Mongolian word of the week is хэнз. Хэнз (henz) means “late-born” and refers to late animals, children, and even plants. It may not be a particularly common word - as a matter of fact, I found it by randomly flipping through a dictionary - but, it is useful for people who herd animals.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Mongolian Word of the Week #66: Сургууль

In honor of the start of school in September, today's Mongolian word of the week is сургууль (surguuli) "school," with a guest appearance by school's root word, сурах (surah), "study, learn."

Cyrillic сургууль

Transcription surguuli
IPA [sʊr.ˈɢʊɬʲ]
Translation school
In Genghis Khan’s time it was surγaγuli.
Plural: сургуулиуд; Genitive: сургуулийн.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Mongolian Word of the Week #65: Тарвага

How much wood can a wood chuck chuck? Mongolians ask a different question

Since marmot-hunting season is underway, today's Mongolian word of the week is тарвага (tarvaga) "marmot." If you know what a groundhog or woodchuck is, you're familiar with marmots - all of them belong to the genus Marmota. In fact, In Mongolian, the groundhog or woodchuck (Marmota monax) is called хойд америкийн ойн тарвага "North American forest marmot." Two species of marmots have long been ubiquitous residents of the Mongolian steppe. One is Marmota baibacina, the gray (Altai) marmot. The other, more common one, is Marmota sibirica, also known as the Siberian, Mongolian or tarbagan marmot. (Obviously, the designation "tarbagan marmot" is from the Mongolian word for marmot.) Keep reading for more about marmot hunting, the plague, and Mongolia's equivalent of English's famous tongue-twister about a woodchuck.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

A Near Miss While Job-Seeking in Mongolia: Part II

The school didn't trust the teachers. I couldn't trust them. That would not change even if the contract did.

Previous: the application process for KUDS and the Russian School

Before I could really celebrate, I needed to get all the necessary materials together, and quickly: they needed my passport, diploma, physical exam, and negative HIV test by August 15, so they could get me to Ulaanbaatar by August 25th. (Mongolian schools usually start on September 1.) When I went to Mongolia the first time, I knew by the end of February that I was leaving in early June, but now I had under two weeks. Is it even possible to get a visa in such a short time? Just in case something went wrong, I held off on my public announcement that I was going to Mongolia. But the timeline was so short I announced my new job a few days later anyway; it wouldn't do to call my friends as I was getting on the plane!

The days after my acceptance were rushed and emotional as I got my passport, diploma, Peace Corps documents, and medical tests in order. This itself was eventful, although outside the scope of this story. I was so busy on my end that I didn't care much that KUDS had not sent me any more definite material yet. Finally on Saturday, four days after being notified of acceptance, I got my official acceptance letters from both schools, and a contract. The contract was remarkable, first of all, because it was so short - barely two pages. It also bore the signature of J. Soronzon (Ж.Соронзон), the principal of the Russian Joint School, but not J. Solongo (Ж.Солонго), who heads the university. This was done for some unexplained "administrative purposes" although it was assured my relationship would be with both schools. I quickly checked and saw that the three main points from the ESL information packet - apartment, salary, and round-trip air transport - were there. The minor points, like taxi fare, were not though. In fact, the "Employer's Obligations" section was remarkably undeveloped - consisting of only those three points mentioned.

Page one of my contract from the Mongolian University of Film and the Mongolian-Russian Joint School.

Page one of my contract from the Mongolian University of Film and the Mongolian-Russian Joint School. The Russian School's principal J. Soronzon's signature and stamp is on the bottom.

I had to acknowledge I'd gotten the contract but declined to say anything else about it until I could look at it closely. Meanwhile, I called off a shopping trip with my mom to get winter clothes in order to type up the entire contract and post it to the teacher's forum. Trudging through it in such detail, I could tell that it was poorly written, by someone who was obviously not a lawyer (or a native English speaker). On the surface it guaranteed what was in the packet, but seemed to undermine them through a litany of "duties" for me and "rights" for the employer it undermined them. The fantastic job offer I'd gotten suddenly sounded sloppy, and stingy, and completely different from what I had been led to expect.

I went to a poolside barbecue that night, but I might as well not have gone. I was so obsessed with the status of my Mongolian job - if I had one - that I couldn't appreciate the moment. I jumped in the pool but swam among salary deductions, bit into a hot dog and tasted visa processing fees.

The tide of opinion on the ESL cafe forum shifted after I posted the contract terms. Originally teachers commended the job based on the terms in the info packet, but now they uniformly agreed it was a bad deal. I had known something was wrong, and now I realized what kind of "something" it was as the teachers singled out a number of other slippery points for individual criticism.

Sunday I wrote back to the representative with some of my concerns, noting that several teachers concurred with my opinion, and asked again to speak to some teachers from the school. His response is below:
In some places here there is a lack of detail, which you certainly have noted. Part of the reason for that is that this is uncharted ground, unprecedented in the history of either school. There has never been a foreign instructor at KUDS, and I understand that the same is true of the Mongolian-Russian Joint School. The ESL program at KUDS is doubling in duration. The upshot is that the program is being developed even as it is being delivered. You, and the other American ESL teachers, have the unique opportunity to help shape the future for these students, and the future of the program.

This is why there is not a full hour by hour breakdown at this point. We wanted to be fair, and to set reasonable expectations for all, and used the base of a 38 hour work week to set that expectation. It is a salary, rather than an hourly wage. It is, especially given that the salary is post-tax net, a good one.

The staff at both schools are experienced, knowledgeable and professionals in their field. The students are also among the finest in the country, driven and passionate about learning, especially in the arts. In the info document, you can see a few photos of the classrooms and lecture halls at KUDS and the Mongolian-Russian Joint School. There are computer networks throughout the building, the class rooms are consistent with schools I attended (I don't want to say how long ago Smile ). KUDS is located in a historic building; it was originally built to house the government offices. It was one of the first "skyscrapers" in UB (a skyscraper at that time was 3 stories tall).

I believe the visa that is being processed will be the HG visa, though I do not know that for certain. They are processing a long term work visa for you, and in researching that it would seem that the HG is the appropriate one. The HG visa can be renewed yearly. Mongolian visa restrictions have eased considerably in recent years. However, I will seek clarity on that for you. The visa will be completed prior to your departure, of course, and the visa itself issued at the airport in Ulaanbaatar (this is not an unusual situation, that is their protocol). I have not been told the cost of the visa, so I will find that out for you.

You make a very good point about the deductions. I will seek clarity on that question as well.

And you asked a couple of questions about prior foreign teachers, which I am afraid I cannot answer, as there haven't been any. Smile You are the first in what will be a long list of distinguished teachers. You will set the bar for those to follow.
I was utterly confused by his remark that there were no teachers I could contact and the we would be "the first." I mean, hadn't he taught at the film school? Furthermore you can clearly see foreigners teaching English in the promotional video at the Russian Joint School'swebsite:

He responded to that that he hadn't actually been a teacher at KUDS, but had had some sort of consultant role. I was apparently mistaken about his role. But now it threw some other things he said into doubt. As a consultant he no doubt met a few students, but likely didn't have any idea what it was like teaching them in a classroom. It could also explain why I had been asked fewer teaching-related questions than at other interviews I'd had. He didn't address the teachers in the Russian School video, but suggested I arrange a call with Consul Carmen B. Cabell tomorrow, as he might be able to allay some of my concerns. I did not know what the consul was supposed to do, as he obviously did not work at the school, but I agreed anyway.

The Mongolian-Russian joint school allegedly uses cameras to monitor teachers and enforce heavy salary deductions for offenses ranging from damaging school property to filling out rollbooks in the wrong color of ink.

Big Sister is Watching You

The next morning, on Monday, I posted the contract terms on Facebook too, and my friends who are more experienced teachers, or live in Mongolia, all offered pretty much the same criticism as on here. In fact, one of them called four particular provisions of the contract "bullshit." Also fortuitously, another friend reminded me that I had in fact met a woman who worked at the Russian School and could ask her. This teacher reported that the school did deduct from salary, like stated in the contract. I was actually lucky that the deductions were provided in my contract in English - when she started there, they only provided the school rules in Russian, which she didn’t speak. But most notable was her claim that the Russian Joint School installed cameras in the classrooms to monitor teacher behavior - and enforce deductions for mistakes - a situation she compared to Orwell's 1984. Big Sister Soronzon is watching you!

Given this, I began to doubt whether I would want to work for the Russian School even if they changed the whole contract.

That afternoon, I got a call from Consul Cabell, the Foreign Missions Head of Post at the American official at the Mongolian consulate in the U.S., asking if he could allay my concerns. I was surprised to be called by a consul official, who I assumed would be quite busy. Since he works at the consulate, not the schools, I asked how he could know much about the schools’ workings. He said he’s known the principals for many years and can vouch for their character. This actually did the opposite of reassure me: I do not want my bosses to be friends with a consulate official.

Since he asked what my concerns were, I expressed the major ones as politely as I could, and listened to his explanations, summarized below:
  • The teaching hours and duties are poorly defined: “This is a new enterprise” and they didn’t want to “fit it into a square box”
  • The pay is potentially much less than what is stated: They hire “enthusiastic” teachers and aren’t just in it for the money
  • Litany of penalties give the impression the school does not trust teachers: Said he wasn’t aware of the deductions. Also, everyone absolutely trusts everyone else.
  • Retroactive rent penalty: Also said he wasn’t aware of it
  • A teacher at the school said there were cameras in the classroom: “Well, cameras in classrooms aren’t uncommon nowadays.” And then he wanted to know how well I knew her, said that since I didn’t know her that well I should take her statements with a grain of salt, and she probably was just a very unhappy person and I can’t make a judgment based on one person’s opinion, against all the other teachers who love working ther.
Mr. Cabell sounded friendly and enthusiastic and concerned, which must do well for a job that requires acting as a go-between, but on reflection the answers were very hollow. You can be flexible without being vague; define some hours that sound reasonable, and if the breakdown of duties and workload seems off, adjust them later to suit the teacher's and school's needs. Enthusiasm and money are not mutually exclusive; I can get paid to do something and still have fun doing it. I would certainly not be enthusiastic if I had to wonder how much of my next paycheck I would actually get. And although I did not know the one teacher who complained very well, I did know her, which is more than I can say for Mr. Cabell. I had not myself heard from the supposedly numerous teachers who love working at the school. (Actually, had I really dealed with the school? I'd only dealt with their American proxies.) So yes, I do trust the disgruntled teacher more than you.

Longtime friends: J. Solongo of the Mongolian University of Film, and Carmen B. Cabell, Foreign Missions Head of Post at the Mongolian Consulate in the U.S.

I visited the website of the Consulate of Mongolia in the United States, at, and Mr. Cabell IS an official. It also has a biography of him here: Even so, according to Wikipedia's entry for consul, a consul is an "official representative of the government of one state in the territory of another, normally acting to assist and protect the citizens of the consul's own country, and to facilitate trade and friendship between the peoples of the two countries." If so, I am suspicious of this consul's ability to assist citizens of his own country, such as me, if he is friends with my boss.

The consul website also has a section on visa requirements, so I checked them. I had completely forgotten about passport photos! All my previous visas - to Mongolia, Japan, China, and Korea - required 2 3x4cm photos. The consulate page about visas lists these as a requirement. The school had never asked for them, so they couldn’t possibly be processing a work visa. As one of the posters on Dave's ESL cafe noted, in all likelihood they were planning to get me a tourist visa instead, which is easier and cheaper for the school. Work visas require the employer to pay extra fees on the foreign worker, so some places don't like them. However, working on a tourist visa is illegal and puts the worker in a precarious position. One of my friends once got a job at a private corporation in Mongolia, which did not get him a work visa and instead gave him only a tourist visa. After 90 days he had to leave the country and reapply for a new tourist visa to reenter, and in the process perjure himself about his reasons for visiting Mongolia.

That night I revised their contract with provisions I wanted (no deductions, no retroactive rent charge, clearly defined hours and duties) and emailed that to the rep too. I also said that I was curious if the other hirees had any experience in Mongolia and would like to talk to them. I admit that this was a front on my part - I wanted to let them know what I had found out that casts doubt on the schools' trustworthiness.

Meanwhile, my friends in Mongolia also referred me to more teachers - foreign teachers - at the Russian Joint School. In fact I had a lengthy chat with one of them. He seemed to have done better than the other teachers, but still gave a very negative assessment of the school. He did aver that he liked some of the students, but otherwise had nothing good to say. According to him, the school had had many foreigners over a period of 15 years. There was a camera in the restroom as well as the classroom. Many teachers had their salary cut in half for infractions. Few teachers renewed their contracts and some couldn't wait that long and bailed out despite the retroactive rent penalty. A German teacher was hit with heavy rent payments last year because of the policy. The apartment was only about $250 a month, so it was actually double rent.

On Wednesday, I heard from another applicant for the position, so I conveyed what I had found out. Already suspicious, she asked tougher questions at her interview than I had, which Greg didn't seem able to answer. She seemed to have had a variety of teaching experience already, and told me it was not good that the recruiter had not been a teacher, had not worked at one of the schools (the Russian school) he was recruiting for, and had no continuing relationship with the applicant so there was no one to appeal to if the relationship with the school went bad. Those considerations undermine the credibility of recruiters.

The punitive tone of the contract already suggested that the Russian School did not trust its teachers. The installation of cameras confirmed that. And since they had lied to me about the other foreign teachers, it seemed I couldn't trust them either. Such an atmosphere of mistrust is a fundamental problem, an issue of morality and personality, which would not change even if the contract did. I realized that even if they approved a change in terms I should decline acceptance of the contract. With that realization, I felt a great sense of relief after days of continual stress.

Before I got the chance to reject them though, they rejected me. Thursday afternoon, Greg emailed me and said the schools had considered my revisions to the contract, rejected them, and were withdrawing the job offer.

The strangest twist was yet to come though. I also heard from the other applicant, and she said she had been offered a job. She emailed me the contract terms they gave her. To my surprise, this new contract was actually incorporated some of the changes I requested! In light of this, I don't know why they were unwilling to negotiate with me. I think she still won't take the job, because she'd already heard enough bad things about them. But it is a good sign that maybe the schools realize they need to offer teachers better terms.

So, I'm not going to Mongolia.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

A Near Miss While Job-Seeking in Mongolia: Part I

A few days ago I had a close encounter with a job. I was tantalizingly, perilously close to working for the Mongolian University of Film and the Russian Joint School (in fact I would have been in Mongolia already), but it didn't work out, and now here I am writing about what went wrong. Schools, jobs, and people vary widely, so my adventure here is just one possible story, but it is a possibility. I hope it will be of interest to other people looking for work in Mongolia, and might even prove useful.

Eternal Blue Sky

Anyone who reads this blog knows about my fascination with Mongolia. Hopeful of going back there, several months ago I began looking for teaching positions in Ulaanbaatar. Among the listings I found, was one from the end of April 2015, which had few details - not even the institution's name. It directed the curious to contact someone with the decidedly English-sounding name Greg. I figured I might as well find out what it was about so I emailed him and attached my resume. His brief response acknowledged receipt of my resume and assured me they would review all the candidates but did not give much more information. Greg was associated with the "Eternal Blue Sky" company - the hiring institution's name, perhaps? I didn't find anything about it, but many Mongolian schools have no web presence. I  supposed I would have to wait until I  got further in the hiring process to find out more.

Two months went by, and I assumed Eternal Blue Sky had chosen another candidate. Then one sunny morning in July - the morning of our Los Angeles Naadam, in fact - I received another email from Greg, apologizing for the delay and making up for the lack of information. Greg told me the opening was for a position with KUDS (КУДС). KUDS is short for Кино Урлагийн Дээд Сургууль (Kino Urlagiin Deed Surguuli), which means "University of Film," "University of Cinematography," or something: it does not appear to have an official English name.

The email also came with a large and colorful information packet, which explained the school's missions and benefits for teachers, although most of its bulk was general information about Mongolia. KUDS is an arts school, with several programs besides film, and as an artist that immediately attracted my interest. But the benefits also sounded very good: $2200 a month for 38 hours a week (22 of them teaching), my own rent-free apartment next to campus, and round-trip airfare! I know people teaching in Mongolia for much less. Heck, I know people working in America for less. There were a number of minor benefits too: eating at the school, an grocery supplement, reimbursement for  transportation, etc. The only thing that seemed to be missing was health insurance, but if I was getting paid that much, I shouldn't have trouble arranging my own.

A page from the Mongolian Film School's ESL information packet, describing some of the benefits

The other thing I remember was mention of a "long-standing, warm and professional relationship with the Mongolian - Russian Joint School." Now, while I wasn't familiar with KUDS, I knew the Russian Joint School, and had seen it once before. It is Secondary School #3 in Ulaanbaatar (Mongolian schools are numbered), often called simply "The Joint School" or "The Russian School." Its official Mongolian name is Монгол Оросын хамтарсан сургууль (Mongol Orosyn hamtarsan surguuli). It is one of several nation / language-themed schools in the capital; others include the British School, the American School, the Chinese School, the Turkish school, etc. They apparently shared a faculty but I wasn't sure what else. But I knew that the Russian School was far from the apartment, and I'd rather not commute there. If I haven't mentioned it before, I'll mention it now: Ulaanbaatar traffic is the worst traffic I've seen anywhere.

The next step, in mid-July, was writing an essay about why I would like to work at the film school and why I would be a good fit - easy given my prior experience with Mongolia, teaching, and art. It must have pleased the hiring committee, because we arranged an interview for Saturday, August 1. In the meantime I researched KUDS. I had heard plenty about some other universities, like the National University of Mongolia and the Mongolian National University of Education, and knew people who had attended there or worked there. The film school had completely escaped my attention during my three years in Mongolia though. I didn't know any students or teachers there. KUDS and the Russian School had websites in Mongolian but not English, but at least they had websites: some schools only have Facebook pages, and some have zero web presence. What little I understood certainly sounded good. A couple of Mongolians assured me that KUDS was a respectable school, so it would be to my advantage to have taught there, although none of them knew any of the teachers. I posted to Dave's ESL cafe too. No one there had heard of the place, unfortunately, but they did agree that the terms I quoted from the promotional packet were quite generous. I asked Greg if I could speak to some teachers at the school. I didn't get a reply, but it was quite possible that the question had gotten lost among the many others he was undoubtedly getting from multiple applicants.

When I finally talked to Greg on Skype, he assured me it was good that I was nervous - if I wasn't nervous, I probably didn't care. I relaxed and by the end it had turned into a friendly conversation, as I talked about my time in Mongolia and he told me about how how eager the students were to learn English and participate in the international film scene. It turned out Greg, a filmmaker from Canada, hadn't taught English there, but came as a specialist in film production. I was genuinely interested KUDS's goals and didn't want to ask too many "selfish" questions about benefits, but I wanted the relationship between the university and the high school clarified. I was informed I would teach at both schools. The Russian Joint School also focused a lot on the arts, and students hoping to get into KUDS would typically go to that high school. Although the class schedule was unknown now, I hoped I would be teaching on alternate days - switching between them would be a commuting nightmare.

Greg admitted that he did not know exactly when the KUDS hiring committee would make a decision. He would forward his recommendations to the university, but once he did, it was back to waiting. I tried to get back to my normal routines of writing, drawing, and living and not think too much about what will be. But, it was already August, and school starts in September. There would be a hurry later on, I just knew it.

I was correct. Over a week later on Tuesday, August 11, I got a surprise call from an unknown number. KUDS had only contacted me by email before, so I didn't initially suspect, but this time they found it necessary to reach me by phone: I was accepted to teach English at the Mongolian University of Film and the Mongolian-Russian Joint School #3. I was going to Mongolia!

Keep Reading: The School Isn't What It Seemed

Friday, August 7, 2015

Архангайн Ирээдүйн Төлөө Хөдөлгөөн: Хашаат сум

Reblogged from a Mongolian blog - Information about Khashaat

Архангайн Ирээдүйн Төлөө Хөдөлгөөн: Хашаат сум: Хашаат сум Хашаат сум нь Архангай аймгийн сум юм. Хуучнаар Түшээт хан аймгийн Түшээ гүний хошуунд харьяалагддаг байжээ. Сумын төв нь Ба...

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Mongolian Word of the Week #64: Цаг

Mongolian script clock: "Hour" and "minute" hands on a clockface marked with the traditional shapes of the numbers one to twelve.

Cyrillic цаг

Transcription tsag
IPA [tsʰak]
Translation time, hour, watch, clock, tense
In Genghis Khan’s time it was caγ.

Today's Mongolian Word of the Week (#64) is цаг (tsag), which means "hour," or "time," or a variety of other related things such as "watch," "clock," or "tense." Most generally, цаг means "time," as in илүү цаг (ilüü tsag) "extra time," чөлөөт цаг (chölööt tsag) "free time," and цайны цаг (tsainy tsag), "tea time" (see my post about цай). There are several other Mongolian words that can also mean “time,” such as үе (üye) and хугацаа (hugatsaa). Цаг is often paired with them to refer to time in a very general sense as цаг үе and цаг хугацаа. Both үе (üye) and хугацаа (hugatsaa) refer to durations of time, so when contrasted with them, цаг refers to a point in time. Цаг is also often paired with мөч (möch) as цаг мөч; both mean "instant, moment."

Possibly Fun Fact: In addition to time, both үе and мөч also name parts of the body. Үе means "joint" and мөч means "limb."


In a more specific sense, цаг means one hour - 60 minutes. When you ask a Mongolian what time it is, they will give the answer in цаг. (Notice that Mongolians use the verb болох (boloh) "become" when talking about time!)
Одоо хэдэн цаг болжийн? - Odoo heden tsag boljiin? - What time is it becoming?
Гурван цаг болжийн. - Gurvan tsag boljiin. - It's becoming three.


Цаг also means "clock" or "watch," the devices used to measure the hour:

  • бугуйн цаг (buguin tsag) - wristwatch
  • ханын цаг (hanyn tsag) - wall clock
  • элсэн цаг (elsen tsag) - hourglass (“sand clock,” элс = "sand")
  • нарны цаг (narny tsag) - sundial (нар = "sun")
  • сэрүүлэгтэй цаг (serüülegtei tsag) - alarm clock (сэрүүлэх = "wake someone up")

The "hand" of a clock in Mongolian is literally known as the Needle of Time (цагийн зүү () - зүү züü = needle), as in the opening words of this poem about New Year's:
Цагийн зүү зүрхний хэмнэлээр цохилж...
Tsagiin züü zürhnii hemneleer tsohilj...
The hour hand, beating to the heart's rhythm..
....which you can hear set to music in this video from Шанз 3, Mongolia's all-female shanz-strumming folk pop group:


Tense is time marked on verbs, so Mongolian also uses цаг to name verb tenses - both its own, and the ones they learn in English class.
  • өнгөрсөн цаг (öngörsön tsag) - past tense (өнгөрөх = "to pass")
  • одоо цаг (odoo tsag) - present tense (одоо = "now")
  • ирээдүй цаг (ireedüi tsag) - future tense
  • энгийн одоо цаг (engiin odoo tsag) - present simple tense
  • төгс одоо цаг (tögs odoo tsag) - present perfect tense
  • одоо үргэлжилж байгаа цаг (odoo ürgeljilj baigaa tsag) - present continuous / progressive tense ("the time that is continuing now" - үргэлжлэх = "to continue")

How's the Time Air Today?

However, the most unusual of the extended senses of цаг for English speakers occurs in the compound word цаг агаар "weather," with агаар (agaar) "air." This sense is also found in the word for climate, цаг уур, with уур (uur) "steam." Such an association is actually not unusual: the Spanish word tiempo means both "weather" and "time." And after all, what is weather but changes in air over time?

More Examples

Цаг бол алт.
Tsag bol alt.
"Time is gold." (The Mongolian equivalent to "Time is money.")
Би цаг барьдаггүй хүнд дургүй.
Bi tsag baridaggüi hünd durgüi.
"I don't like people who aren't punctual."
(цаг барих = "keep the time." See my other post about барих.)

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Eye of Tengri Elsewhere on the Web

Just so you know...

I also share drawings and photos of Mongolia on Tumblr under the name Eye of Tengri:

I post my artwork - usually related to Mongolia, or stuff I drew for lessons in Mongolia - on DeviantArt as well, also under the name Eye of Tengri:

I have an Etsy shop too, where I sell some of the drawings I've done. (I'm willing to do commissions too!) The shop name is EyeofTengri.

I practice my Mongolian (and occasionally Japanese) and write on the language-learning site Lang-8 as well. Ok, all my handles are "Eye of Tengri."

If you use those sites, follow me there too!

Monday, July 20, 2015

Mongolian Word of the Week #63: Бурхан

Layman’s Pronunciation
god, buddha, boddhisattva
In Genghis Khan’s time it was burqan.

Бурхан is what most religious Mongolians worship. You could call it God, although it’s not really the same. And of course, I mentioned before in my first entry that Тэнгэр meant God, right? Well, kind of. Mongolian traditional religion is a melding of elements from Tibetan Buddhism and native, pre-Buddhist shamanic traditions, each with their own objects of worship. To understand  Бурхан and Тэнгэр, let’s talk about five kinds of entities that could be called “gods,” although none of them are quite what Westerners usually think of as “God.”

  1. Тэнгэр (Tenger)
  2. Онгод (Ongod)
  3. Devas
  4. Buddhas
  5. Boddhisattvas

Тэнгэр (Tenger - also encountered as Tengri) is a concept stretching back as far as we can see into the past. Тэнгэр can refer both to the physical sky, and also to Heaven, the manifestation of divine will in the cosmos. In this second sense, Тэнгэр is the closest native Mongolian thing to the Christian God. Тэнгэр is the creator and sustainer of the world. Humans, animals, and plants all depend on Him/Her/It. (I can’t say what pronoun is appropriate; Mongolian doesn’t have grammatical gender.) Earthly governments derive their right to rule from Heaven’s will, similar to the Chinese concept of the "Mandate of Heaven." Тэнгэр maintains the balance of nature and moral order. It punishes illegitimate regimes by making them collapse and will even smite much less significant individuals as well. It seems that it’s also possible to have a direct personal relationship with Тэнгэр. Тэнгэр was the only authority acknowledged by Chinggis Khaan, and he prayed to it every morning.

Онгод (ongod), singular онгон (ongon), are also ancient Mongolian. [1] Онгод are local deities of nature and may best be compared to Greek nymphs. These are the spirits that shamans usually interact with. Ongod can be divided into the broad categories лус (lus, water spirits) and савдаг (savdag, earth spirits). [2]

A poster advertising a sale on divine postage stamps

The next three categories came with Buddhism. Deva is the Sanskrit term for god, cognate with the Latin word for god, deus (hence also the English word divine). [3] The devas include all the gods inherited from Hinduism, e.g. Brahma and Indra, and other kinds of powerful beings as well. In Hinduism they are gods. But Buddhism denies that the devas are immortal, that they created the world, or that they can save human beings from their karma - in other words, the Hindu gods don't sound very godlike. But Buddhism never got rid of them, and in Mongolian they are also called by the word тэнгэр, or the Tibetan loanword лха (lha, prounced la).

Painting of a бурхан.

A Buddha [4] is anyone who has become enlightened and thus gained freedom from karma and the cycle of birth, death and rebirth (samsara), and supposedly lots of other powers as well. When a Buddha dies, he enters a state called nirvana and is never born again. The historical Siddhartha Gautama is one example, but there is theoretically an infinite number of Buddhas. Like devas, they didn’t create the universe. But being a Buddha is actually better than being a deva, because devas, no matter how powerful, are still bound by the chains of karma. In fact, Buddhas are known as the teachers of gods, as well as men. Thus in Mongolian the Buddha is also called Бурхан багш (Burhan bagsh), "God-teacher."

Bodhisattvas are Buddhas-to-be. In Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, Bodhisattvas have become as important as Buddhas, because of their special dedication to enlightening other beings. They take a vow to postpone their own entrance into Nirvana in order to help others find enlightenment too.

Another бурхан at Tsonjin Boldog

Today most Mongolians follow the Gelugpa "Yellow Hat" branch of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism, which is headed by the Dalai Lama. Both Buddhas and Boddhisattvas are commonly referred to as Бурхан, and Buddhism itself is usually called Бурханы Шашин (Burhany Shashin), "God's Religion." Technically, they aren’t gods in the western sense. The historical Buddha never asked anyone to worship him and denied that he was a god. But in practice, most Buddhists around the world pray to Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in a way that people from any religion would recognize. Mongolians keep icons of Buddhas in a гүнгэрваа (güngervaa) on the хоймор (hoimor) in their gers, light зул (zul) in front of them, and make offerings of food to them.

One more thing. What do you call the Christian God? Mongolian Christians call Him Бурхан. They also use the word Эзэн, meaning “Lord.” Referring to the three persons, the Father is Эцэг (Etseg), the Son is Есүс Христ (Yesüs Hrist) or Бурханы Хүү (Burhany Hüü, "God's son"), and the Holy Spirit is Ариун Сүнс (Ariun Süns). However, the naming is apparently controversial. For more, I recommend this interesting little article: "Case Study: Translating God in Mongolia."


  1. From Otgony PUREV's Mongolian Shamanism, fifth edition (ISBN 99929-0-239-6).
  2. Also from Mongolian Shamanism, specifically page 82.
  3. Watkins, Calvert, The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, second edition. These words are also related to the names Zeus (king of the Greek gods), *Tiwwaz (the Germanic god who gave his name to Tuesday), and daevas (the demons of Zoroastrianism). All of these words go back to a reconstructed Indo-European root *dyeu- "sky, heaven, god." There is a lot of information and theorizing about this word.
  4. Buddha and Bodhisattva, both Sanskrit words, also go back to an Indo-European root - in this case *bheudh- "to be aware, make aware." Same source as Note #3.