Denver, CO, USA, May 2015
I’m learning to appreciate the smell of yak dung, which, evidently, is bluish in color and quite prevalent in Western Mongolia. After Baja encircles me with one of her arms and passes a receptacle of burning dung dust around my waist three times, she then waves toward my face wafts of the incense-like curling smoke, which actually smell more like pot than poop. It is all part of a Mongolian purifying ritual.
“We do this every morning,” says Tsogo, Baja’s artist husband whom I have come to interview for a story about his art and the burgeoning Mongolian community living in Denver, Colorado. “Before we go to work — just going to morning,” the affable artist says while gesturing widely with his arms outstretched. “Smile and the whole day is good.” He points to both corners of his broad grin that prompts his deep dimples.
The dung certainly stimulates one’s senses. I enlist my seven-year-old daughter, Kasey, for a cleansing. After all, I brought her along with me to meet the Majids and experience a taste of Mongolian culture in Colorado.
In fact, the Rocky Mountain state is home to more than 2,000 people of Mongolian heritage. Mongolian immigrants chose Denver as one of the first US destinations in which to settle in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It started with an engineering student who came to study at Colorado School of Mines in 1989 and now Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, is a sister city to Denver. The two, both classified as “mile high cities” due to their elevations at more than 5,000 ft., share many similarities, including climate and terrain.
It wasn’t until the late 1990s when Tsogo and his wife, Baja, decided to leave an economically depressed Mongolia that Colorado registered on their radar. First Tsogo checked out San Francisco, which he did not particularly like, “Too many people in one city,” he maintains. “Then my sister’s son was in Colorado and he said, ‘Tsogo, come to Denver — it’s just like Mongolia.’”
And it was for the Majids. They have been in Colorado since 1999 and consider the state to be their home. “Mongolians, we are very quiet people. We have a Big land. Now [in Colorado] we are listening to wind. We see blue sky and the birds. I like this.”
“We are close to nature.” Baja adds.
Over breakfast at the kitchen table in their Denver house, Baja offers Kasey juice, me coffee and both of us a delicate, buttery flaky bread that I can’t stop eating. Meanwhile, she sips her own serving of tea out of a Live Laugh Love mug and elaborates on how close to nature they are and the significance of dried dung or “argol” in Mongolia. Apparently, dried dung burns easily and works well as a fuel source. Since self-sufficient Mongolian nomads travel with herds of various livestock that can include camels, horses, goats, caribou, sheep, cattle and yak, dung is easy to find. However, explaining an affinity for argol is not always simple in the United States.
Baja relays a story about one of their first camping trips in Colorado when she and Tsogo hoped to find American animal offerings of dung. Later, they told a Denver friend about their quest.
“We did not know the word for ‘dung’ and so we told him we were looking for ‘poop’ and he said, ‘What? Are you guys crazy?’”
Although laughing at the cultural confusion, Baja clarifies that what Americans consider to be a moist, stinky, foul pile of feces is not what she is talking about. Dried dung is quite firm and does not have that gag-inducing putrid excrement essence. It’s more of a smoked wood aroma. I can attest, since the earlier direct whiffs are still fresh enough in my memory and olfactory glands.
“We are thinking and visualizing that it’s deer or horses’ poop,” Baja says referring to the American perception. “But the animals, they are always eating grass — very fresh, very healthy grass and they are drinking clean water. It’s natural,” she contends. “It’s a really nice smell.”
“It’s organic,” I suggest, thinking that Mongolians, along with Native Americans and so many other indigenous people, were the original promoters of environmentalism and, of course, sustainability, which is reaching its apex as a buzzword among aggro outdoor enthusiasts — at least in the US. In fact, I can imagine a few Colorado sustainability crazies who would probably convert to dog dung devotees just so they can post their allegiance on FB and add a bunch of hashtags like: #fecesfuel4ever #justdodogdung #propsforpoochpoop, #Xcrementfactordoggiestyle.
In the meantime, Tsogo has returned from the basement where he was checking on two young art students. Having a hard time just sitting, Tsogo is always on the move — it must be the nomadic tradition of his homeland in the blood. He invites Kasey to paint with his students who come to his house every Saturday.
“We do art from countries around the world,” Tsogo says. “Today, we work on Japan. Last week was Africa.” I’m loving that Kasey is getting multiple doses of different cultures.
Art dominates the Majid household, and it’s clearly Tsogo’s passion. In fact, a framed Denver Jazz Fest poster in the bathroom is one of the few items lining the interior that is not a Tsogo original. Otherwise, the prolific artist’s many creations, including watercolors, sculptures, paper machee “Tsam” masks and graphic art illustrations grace almost every space available. The most striking work, the Tsam masks, perch from spots on the stone fireplace. They stare out with angry, scary and maniacal expressions since the masks are meant to protect and ward off evil spirits in Mongolia.
Really, there are not enough surfaces or even rooms to house all the art Tsogo and his family create (both his daughters Erica and Jennifer are artists and Baja produces art, too.) Even the back outside deck serves as a showcase for wooden driftwood sculptures and the garage has art stashed alongside the Toyota Corolla.
In the Mongolian nomadic tradition of self-sufficiency, Tsogo mastered many skills and genres of art. He can do very traditional “Thangka,” pieces, which are Buddhist scroll paintings or he can paint an abstract expressionist watercolor. His art has been exhibited in Mongolia, Hungary, Germany, Russia and the US. One of his fans is Dalai Lama who has two of his Thangkas.
Upstairs, Tsosgo shows me his Thangka paintings. He trained with a revered Mongolian Lama in secret during the communist era.
Baja recalls living during the communist times. Not surprisingly, during the Cold War, information about their future home, the United States, was not exactly complimentary. “It was ‘Oh, America is the imperialist country; Oh they are always making those weapons and trying to get like Russia,’” she says, adding that they often saw images of homeless people in the streets of New York or Los Angeles. “They have too many homeless. Look at our country everybody has work.”
I immediately think about all the negative information circulating in the US during the Cold War regarding any communist country and how we saw footage of breadlines and heard about bare shops and rationing. It doesn’t seem to matter what the ideology — propaganda is propaganda.
However, Baja says that rationing, indeed, was a reality and described how they would have apples or other fruits only once a year. “When we smell the tangerines, you know it’s December.” She smiles as she says this, reminding me how powerful the connection between our sense of smell and memory.
The smell of snow and the wind makes Baja happy as well. “Having snow is like home. Snow has its own smell. Can you smell it? It smells like Mongolia,” Again she beams and pantomimes snow falling in her hands. She’s momentarily turning winter into a happy place for me. Yikes!
Tsogo brings the kids back up from the basement and they show us their art. Baja goes into the kitchen and comes back with a plastic bag.
“This is very Mongolian,” she says opening up the ziplock to reveal what appear to be Captain Crunch cereal nuggets. Picking up a few pieces, she places them in Kasey’s hands and then mine.
“These are yak cheese curds,” she informs us.
I smell the bits before tasting them. The curds have a semi-strong aroma — I’d say more potent than cheddar but not as assaulting as a Gorgonzola or Roquefort with regard to the cheese scent spectrum.
Glancing over at Kasey, I see she is trying hard not to make a face as she examines the curds. Time to be the role model, so I pop one in my mouth. Instantly, the back of my mouth, next to my tongue, tenses up. As a reflex to neutralize the fermented taste, my tongue flattens in my mouth. Definitely it’s as strong as blue cheese with regard to the pungent international cheese taste spectrum.
“What do you think?” Baja asks as Tsogo arrives just at that moment for my assessment. “Very rich, huh?”
“Wow…It definitely has a strong taste. I’ve never quite tasted anything quite like it.”
“You guys can eat that kind of product?” Tsogo asks. “Sometimes Mongolian food is very strong.”
“I think,” I begin, trying to choose words carefully, “this is the type of food that you get used to, and then you like it very much.”
Baja and Tsogo nod, which is a relief since I don’t want to insult them. Clearly they must get the yak cheese imported or friends bring it back as a special treat.
It is time for Baja to go to her yoga class. She will soon be a certified instructor — probably the first in the US to give instructions on the lotus position and the cat stretch pose in Mongolian.
Before we leave, she presents us with gifts: a box of Mongolian chocolates and a keychain with a woven leather emblem of a knot. It represents infinity.
“We are friends now,” Baja says while placing the gifs in my hands.
“You are always welcome,” Tsogo adds. “In my country we just knock on the door.”
Kasey and I say goodbye and we walk across the parking lot to our car. Feeling warm and fuzzy, like I might be part Mongolian, I’m already dreamweaving about a trip to Ulaanbaatar along with the smell of tangerines, snow and yak dung. As the plans percolate, I don’t notice that Kasey has grabbed my hand and turns it over. “Here mamma,” she says and dumps a handful of still firm yak cheese nuggets into my palm.
While I’m on board with the dung, I’m not quite there with the curds — yet.