Lindsay Myron
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Nomads Give New Meaning to the Cuckoo Clock

September 26, 2009 @ 9:19 AM | Permalink

It took me awhile to adjust to the 24-hour clock that Mongolians typically use to tell time.  I wasn’t raised an army brat and I happen to love the a.m.-p.m. system.  My mental conversion time is finally on par, but when I found out that nomadic communities have another system for measuring the hour I questioned my adaptation abilities.

Mongolians use a twelve creature circle similar to the Chinese calendar I had learned as a kid from the New Garden Chinese restaurant.  But rather than representing years each animal designates a three hour block.  From 1:40 to 3:40 it’s the cow, between 7:40 and 9:40 it’s the dragon and between 15:40 and 17:40 it’s the monkey hour.

I first learned about these hour designations during my countryside excursion to the Darkhaad Depression in Huvsgul province. After a long afternoon of herding goats, making aaruul, and collecting water I sat quietly at our family’s fold out table with a new list of Mongolian vocabulary.   My host father, Tsogtbayar, knelt down beside me in his worn, orange velvet deel (traditional calf-length robe) to see what I was studying.  When he spotted the section on Nomad Time a light twinkle filled his eyes and he excitedly searched the ger for some teaching materials. 

Tsogtbayar pulled out our family’s one and only clock from the North-facing alter, a crinkled advertisement for Gobi cashmere from under a pole in the ger’s ceiling, and a pencil from my sister’s schoolbag.  He spoke not a word of English and my Mongolian, while improving, is not yet conversant, so to help me learn the hours we resorted to pictures. Pointing to the eleventh tick he said “Twenty-three forty, twenty-four forty, one forty is…” and proceeded to sketch his best adaptation of a Mongolian mouse on the scrap piece of paper.  I was impressed by his mouse, but as the hours went on my lesson became more and more humorous.

His dragon had no legs, the dog had square eyes, the tiger was toothless and to acknowledge his poor artistic abilities he let out a chuckle after each sketch.  Our side-ger snickering intrigued my two younger sisters and they quickly abandoned their game of ankle bones to join in on the madness.   My ten year old sister, Hulan, yelled out in disapproval at my father’s rabbit sketch, snatched the pencil from his hands, and drew a plump floppy-ear overtop his anemic looking jackrabbit.  By we reached the last three hour block my entire family was stooped over the foot-tall table pointing and laughing at our progress. 

I may never use the zoological clock outside of the countryside, but at least now I know that if a nomad invites me over for tea it’ll be when the clock strikes ‘baaaaa.’


Posted on 11/03/2009 by

Tim Matthews

Tim Matthews

Lindsay, Enjoyed the woven threads of humanity in the family lesson on telling time. Thanks for sharing. TIm

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Lindsay, Enjoyed the woven threads of humanity in the family lesson on telling time. Thanks for sharing. TIm

Tim Matthews on Nomads Give New Meaning to the Cuckoo Clock 2009-11-03

Ouch. Not a fun way to finish off the semester. Get well soon and safe travels; look forward to seeing you back on the hill next month!

Matthew Hintsa on I've Never Been More Afraid of Pigs 2009-12-06

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