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Remote’ areas and minoritized spatial orders at the Russia – Mongolia border

Régions ‘reculées’ et ordres spatiaux minorisés à la frontière Russie - Mongolie
Caroline Humphrey


L’article décrit d’abord comment « l’éloignement » a été conçu et construit pendant les périodes soviétique et post-soviétique en Russie. En utilisant les idées du géographe social Boris Rodoman, il fait valoir que les structures centralisées du pouvoir, les communications et l’approvisionnement d’Etat créent des zones scalaires de sous-développement et d’isolement aux limites des régions administratives internes. Bien que cette structure se soit maintenue au cours de la période post-soviétique, elle a, selon Vladimir Kagansky, été remise en cause par les récentes « transformations spontanées » par lesquelles les frontières internationales deviennent des zones de contact et d’entreprise, plutôt que d’isolement. L’article suggère au contraire que, avec la centralisation croissante de l’ère Poutine, la théorie de Kagansky ne s’est pas vérifiée sur la frontière Russie-Mongolie-Chine, et que la réduction du nombre de points de passage de la frontière a en réalité contribué à approfondir le sentiment des habitants de se trouver dans une « impasse ». Cependant, les populations autochtones vivant dans les zones frontalières, notamment les Bouriates, utilisent non seulement ces géographies construites par l’État, mais aussi leurs propres concepts spatiaux, très différents. Ces derniers sont si opposés aux concepts russes, qu’ils peuvent être considérés comme une vision minorisée spécifique. Les idées bouriates et les pratiques rituelles dépassent les frontières politiques. De fait, elles opposent un défi subtil à la spatialité de l’État russe. Dans cette situation, les routes deviennent des vecteurs particulièrement concentrés de valeurs contradictoires.

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1Any state, when constructing a central location of power and wealth, at the same time also creates other areas that are seen from the centre as ‘remote’. The Russian state in its Tsarist, Soviet and post-Soviet variants is no exception ; indeed the geographer Boris Rodoman has argued (2004) that Russia provides an extreme example of centricity. It concentrates all lines of power, infrastructure, and communications towards the metropolis and this has generated a particular pattern of ‘remoteness’ across provincial regions. The spatial pattern identified by Rodoman locates such remote areas especially at administrative boundaries, as will be discussed below. This paper will discuss the consequences of such a pattern in relation to the Russian-Mongolian border. This is a sparsely inhabited region where, broadly speaking, the border coincides with an ecological frontier : the mountainous taiga forests of Siberia with well-watered valleys give way here to the dry and open grasslands of Mongolia. However, the argument made by the geographers is not about ecology but essentially about political structures. It is inattention from the state administration that produces undeveloped and cut off places. The perception that such an area is ‘remote’ comes from outside, from people located in cities. With the dramatic shifts in the meaning attributed to such places in the post-Soviet era, urban residents now often see these places as somehow culturally authentic, to be ‘rediscovered’ and their secrets opened up (Humphrey in press). But such an external perspective leaves almost unexamined the real lives of the people living in remote frontier zones, in particular their experience and concepts of space and borders. In this paper I shall argue that the Buryats of the borderlands have an alternative vision of social space, and that this is not simply a different autochthonous register but rather a profound otherness that has to be seen as ‘minoritarian’ and hence related to the hierarchical state order of Russia. The Buryat spatial-social form is in many ways the converse of that of the state. This could be seen conceptually as a Lévi-Straussian ‘structural opposition’ against the state order, but in this paper I shall take a different approach to show how it is the outcome of an ethnically specific way of inhabiting, and orienting to external spaces, in newly isolated lands.

2There is now an extensive anthropological literature on life in contemporary rural Siberia (see Donahoe et al. 2008) and especially on Buryatia (Gomboev 2006 ; Nanzatov et al. 2008 ; Skrynnikova ed. 2009 ; Popkov ed. 2009 ; Rinchinova 2011 ; Shaglanova 2010, 2011). This paper frames its study in a particular way, by focusing on the rural lacunae in areas between administrative entities, zones from which the tentacles of the state have been almost completely withdrawn, and where a literally de-modernised life is going on. In these places Buryat ideas of boundaries have been revitalised in recent years. Although the Buryat concepts refer to their own history and legends, because these people have always lived in the interstices of alien state structures (Russian, Mongolian, Manchu, Chinese) in practice some of the Buryat boundaries coincide with recent (Soviet) and contemporary borders ; but they are conceptualised in quite different ways. Thus for these rural Buryats ‘the same’ border or boundary may have several overlaid meanings. Let me explain the specific sense in which I shall examine this phenomenon. As Nadya Nartova has rightly observed all state borders are seen differently by the various actors engaged with them, such as customs officials, migrants, tourists, smugglers, or lorry drivers, and she suggests the engaging idea of the hologram as a way to conceptualise the concentration of different perspectives on one object (Nartova 2010, pp. 268-73). I wish, however, to focus not on individual perceptions of borders but the way they appear in common Buryat understandings of landscape, relatedness, and extra-local geo-political articulations. It will be suggested that just as the hierarchical ‘vertical’ structure of the Russian state produces ‘remoteness’, a ‘horizontal’ idea that in Slavic culture also corresponds with depth (glub’, glubinka), it happens that the Buryats’ notions concerning borders also relate verticality with expanse. Their ideas, however, are the reverse of the Russian, since in the Buryat case the distant edge (boundary, border) is identified with height and sacredness, and also paradoxical as it might seem with centricity.

3Ultimately I aim to relate the boundary consciousness of rural Buryats living in the border zone to their contemporary historical-geographical situation, namely their positioning both within a modern state as stranded within ‘remoteness’ and beyond it as a historically mobile minority that uses its own ideas to give this placing a different meaning.

The spatial order of the Russian state

4For an analysis of how remoteness has been produced in Russia I turn to the work of Boris Rodoman. By the 2000s, aghast at urban sprawls, reckless agricultural expansion and industrial destruction of wild lands Rodoman argued (2004) that Russia had developed an ‘anisotropic’ society, one in which vertical links are very strong, while horizontal ones are weak. The administrative-territorial division of Russia, especially under the Soviet government, was a demonstration of this. The state amalgamated all vital activities (political, social, economic, ethnic) into one uniform system. The transport system became the reflection of the administrative divisions, and vice versa, and the radial roads that connected the centre with the periphery were a manifestation of the power vertical. The lines of communication prioritised were those that connected the capital with the regional centres, the provincial party leader with the district subordinates, and the raion (district) bosses with the directors of enterprises. Today also, in rural areas the only roads kept in good repair are those used by the authorities (nachal’stvo). Other side roads die out. The absence of lateral connections is the weak aspect of the anisotropic society : many roads, bridges, public transport, and more generally the social links, that in pre-Soviet times used to connect settlements with one another, no longer exist.

5Rodoman argues that this structure operates on different scales in the same way. Thus, the same centre-focused organisation is found in Russia as a whole, in each Republic and Oblast, and in districts (raion) and down to the lowest level. Because this order applies not only to roads, but also to public transport, communications, distribution of supplies, and allocation of funds, it creates enormous inequalities, which people feel very strongly at each level. If we apply his idea to Buryatia, there is a huge difference in prosperity between life in the capital Ulan-Ude and some outlying district centre of the same Republic, and a similarly great one between the district centre and the poverty-stricken villages in its peripheries. The acute experience of this inequality, combined with the ability to compare one’s own with other places, is central to post-Soviet experience. The centric structure also provides a mode of geographical orientation. In Russia, Rodoman writes, ‘I can always sense where the centre is and where is the periphery, in any village, in any forest I can feel it, where is our centre and our edge (okraina), which is the direction of Moscow’ (2004, p. 3).

6Rodoman continues that what is significant about this pattern is that a decaying zone (upadochnaya zona) tends to occur on the edges of each Oblast, even Moscow Oblast. Since this is true for each administrative unit the borders between them turned into a kind of vacuum. ‘Where three boundaries meet in one place, real godforsaken pockets (‘bear corners’ medvezhie ugly) result’ (2004, p. 5). Today, these border zones are where depopulation is strongest, where there are fewest villages and those that exist are decaying.

7Note that the adjective upadochnaya, which could be translated as ‘falling’, refers to a vertical drop ; in other words, the zones at the edge are also the ones ‘below’. Russian vocabulary referring to remote places includes the idea of distance or farness (udalennost’), but also in everyday speech to depth. Thus the rural hinterlands are commonly known as glubinka (from glubina, depth, deep places, also heart or interior) and such places in an abandoned, overgrown state are known as glush’ (roughly translatable as ‘backwoods’).

Living in ‘remoteness’

8The Buryat villages along the Russian border with Mongolia would no doubt be described by urban dwellers in exactly these terms. Indeed they are triply subject to the spatial order described by Rodoman, since they are located at the peripheries of the Russian state, of the Buryat Republic and the Zabaikal’skii Krai, and also of the districts that lie along the border (Oka, Tunka, Zakamna, Dzhida, Kyakhta, etc.). In addition to languishing in neglected ‘remoteness’ as Rodoman would have predicted, they are also enclosed and cut off by the international frontier from the countries on the other side. The border districts were given the special administrative status of a border zone (pogranichanaya zona) with specific legislation related to security (Nanzatov & Sodnompilova 2012a, p. 165). A large military force is maintained at Kyakhta, which is now the only crossing point for road traffic still open to Mongolia from Buryatia (a nearby crossing for rail traffic is nearby at Naushki). The Buryat-Mongolian border is 1,213 km long, and a number of other crossing points used to exist ; but in the last twenty years many of them became inactive and in 2010 all were closed ‘for security reasons’. This means that to go to Mongolia the inhabitants along the frontier have to travel inwards to a local centre and then out again to the crossing points at Naushki / Kyakhta.

9Formerly, the Buryats used to cross the border in many places in the course of their normal economic activity. Their main livelihood was based on nomadic livestock herding and the summer pastures of some communities were located in Mongolia. In Soviet times Buryat collective farms, including some located at distance from the border, took their sheep to Mongolia and mowed hay there annually (Humphrey 1986), and people often crossed the border for hunting and gathering. Many Buryats visited relatives in northern Mongolia and attended family festivals, etc. without hindrance. Now, with the post-Soviet tightening of the border regime, maintaining relations with kin in Mongolia has become difficult and more intimidating ; people do still make the journey but ‘secretly’ according to Nanzatov and Sodnompilova (2012a, p. 165), which probably means that they cross the border illegally. One of the legislative differences applying to inhabitants of the border zone is that they are allowed (as are Mongols on the other side) to travel to nearby districts of Mongolia without a visa. But the number of vehicles that can cross at Kyakhta is limited by a slow, restrictive regime at the crossing point. A further hindrance is that the settlements immediately adjacent to the border on the Russian side, such as the entire town of Kyakhta, are subject to additional frontier security limitation ; they are ‘closed zones’, accessible only to those with residence documents or special permits granted by the FSB, and this deflects private investment in such zones. So for all these reasons the cross-border contacts and visa-free travel, that might in principle have alleviated the boundary torpor pointed to by Rodoman, does not in fact result in economic development or a thriving border trade.

10Buryats and in fact anyone living in the border zone thus find themselves more ‘remote’, in the sense of cut off, than they were in Soviet days. Each district has its own small and generally sleepy town as administrative centre ; and then spread out over a vast area are villages separated by mostly unused grasslands, forests and mountains. Characteristically the Buryat settlements are not built directly on main roads, but a few kilometres off to the side, reachable by uneven sandy tracks. In summer 2013, I met Buryat villagers of Yonkhor, who were trying to make a success of horse herding for meat production, but they bemoaned the difficulties of life when their long access road regularly became impassable during the year. The collective and state farms of the region have long since closed down, leaving ruins in each village. Institutions that used to connect the villages with towns, such as schools, post-offices, medical and children’s centres, and culture clubs, have disappeared (see picture 1). Public transport services have been reduced or shut, and those that exist are expensive. In most large villages there are a few larger private farms, the so-called ‘peasant enterprises’ (krestyanskoe khozyaistvo), but these tend to employ outside workers and the proceeds are generally set aside for the owners to purchase accommodation in the city and leave the village (Skrynnikova ed. 2009, p. 108). Many other residents have already left, and their houses are now boarded up.

Picture 1. Shrine on the road between Chita and Ulan-Ude at the pass over the Yablonevyi Mountain range (July 2007)

Picture 1. Shrine on the road between Chita and Ulan-Ude at the pass over the Yablonevyi Mountain range (July 2007)

Sayana Namsaraeva

  • 1 Some more hard-working folk produce a little extra for exchange. This done through barter, notably (...)

11The remaining villagers produce their own subsistence on small plots. As there is so little paid employment money reaches most households regularly only from state pensions and allowances. It is uneconomical to sell meat, milk, butter or vegetables in distant towns because of lack of transport and market fees. Credit and new agricultural technology are unavailable. The result of all this is that the ordinary villagers are economically unambitious and generally produce only what they need for apared down existence.1 Skrynnikova ed. 2009, p. 76) note, In conditions of chronic absence of money, making use of nature has become the only way to survive…in fact, there has been a return to the traditions of natural appropriative economy.’

12In fact, there is no question of a ‘return’, as Buryats never used to live in this way in the past. In the pre-Soviet period they did not live year round in close-packed villages and did not depend on hunting and potato production. They moved seasonally between winter and summer pasture areas with herds of cattle, sheep, goats and horses, and sometimes did some agriculture on the side. Their settlements (ulus) varied in size, the winter being larger than the summer ones, and the houses or yurts were widely dispersed. The current compact village pattern arranged around communal facilities, such as the collective farm office, the shop, the well, and the club, was inherited from the Soviet era. But now, because they no longer have a collective farm or local industry to unite them, these villages are isolated from one another. The memory of the former Soviet organisation makes the large empty intervals between them seem bleak. When I once mentioned the beauty of the empty grasslands stretching up to the hills and dotted with groves of pine and cedar trees, a woman exclaimed, ‘I hate those trees! They just sow themselves anywhere and no one does anything. I cannot forget that that land used to be productive fields.’

13The administrative and physical isolation of ‘remoteness’ is tempered by modern technology. Many households have cars, though they often cannot afford to run them. More important are TVs, radios, computers and mobile phones. These, especially phones, have become central to managing daily life, and everyone is aware of the areas where the signal is strong and where it is weak. In describing the life in these places it is necessary to remind readers that most of the people I have been calling ‘villagers’ are well educated and many have held responsible positions or been trained for specific work (librarian, accountant, mechanic, medical assistant, etc.) that no longer exists. Now, perforce confined to the village for long periods, they turn their attention to the village as a society. Each settlement I visited seemed to contain at least one person who was devoted to chronicling the history of that place, its ancestors, notable inhabitants, and the elaborate genealogies of the kinship groups living there. In summer sporting events, the competitors’ village origin is always mentioned, so it is as though the villages are teams challenging one another.

14If all this suggests a village-focused sociality, there are nodes where the localised economy links to the greater economy of the country. Traders, who as in Mongolia are often women (Pedersen 2006), sell village produced meat, potatoes, furs, etc. in the capital of Ulan-Ude. Timber logged nearby is transported to the nearest railway head. The business-people / mediators in such transactions, at least in my experience, are usually outsiders. Meanwhile all the villagers can calibrate their position, and one simple way this is done is by comparing and lamenting prices. For them the locality is thus not only laden with a multiplicity of inward meanings and feelings, but is also a place understood as a model that articulates with, and can be compared with, large extra-local geopolitical entities (see Stasch 2013). They often look outwards to the great Russia in which they are situated. Their gaze tends to follow the trajectory of those who have left the village for the towns, often their own departed children, the vertical hierarchy mentioned by Rodoman ; they do not compare the locality with any ‘sideways’ place, some Sretensk or Orel, but look directly ‘upwards’ first to the nearby town, then to the Republic capital, and most of all to distant Moscow, the centre of power, wealth and prosperity. People thus have an acute sense that they live in remote obscurity in Moscow’s terms, and yet, as I shall describe the Federal hierarchical is not the only, or even the primary, sense they make of the geography of their situation.

The international border : looking over to the other side as a citizen of Russia

  • 2 See forum entitled ‘Dalekaya blizkaya Mongoliya’, accessed January 2013.
  • 3 In 2010 along the Buryat part of the Russian-Mongolian border 130 people were arrested for illegal (...)

15Rodoman’s argument concerned primarily borderlands between internal administrative entities and the international border presents a somewhat different, more complex situation. Other Russian geographers have expressed the hopeful view that international borders are areas of contact rather zones of closure ; they have become ‘nodes of growth’ where people learn new ideas and technologies not from the inaccessible centre but from their foreign neighbours (Kagansky 2010, p. 36). This idea has limited applicability to Russian-Mongolian border. On Buryat websites the impending massive growth of the Mongolian economy is discussed with a mixture of amazement and envy, but there is little mention of learning from there.2 At the border itself, Russian citizens seem to have rather negative opinions of the ‘mentality’ of the Mongols. One resident of Kyakhta, combining ethnic stereotyping with a feat of self-Orientalisation, described the Mongols as cunning, unreliable, and ‘born traders’, who ‘unlike us get up early at four in the morning with only one thought in their heads, “How can I make money today”, and they do everything to achieve their goal. But our people sleep in ; they come to work (if there is work) and do it just somehow, or they simply spend time there and that’s all, with no idea of working to earn. The idea doesn’t even come into their heads.’ He accused Mongols of using the local visa regime to come over to Kyakhta, impudently ignoring the travel restrictions and taking multiple jobs, while Russian citizens who go to Mongolia are constantly afraid of the authorities (Nanzatov & Sodnompilova 2012b, pp. 60-61). In practice quite a few Buryats from the town do engage in various small schemes with partners across the border buying petrol to re-sell, exchange of meat for potatoes, currency speculation, day-work as ‘camels’ (transporters) for traders, and so forth. Elsewhere, some smuggling takes place across the border via obscure paths in the forests known to locals.3 One Buryat from Kyakhta, a driver and minor entrepreneur, said to me, ‘The border will always feed you.’ But he also grumbled at the restrictions ; and said that of course the closure of the entire length of the border (apart from Kyakhta and Naushki) renders traffic in any other place strictly illegal.

  • 4, forum entitled ‘Skotokrady’ p. 3, accessed December 2013.
  • 5 Zhadkha khayana  : literally ‘to throw magic.’

16The international border is a highly complex and densely over-layered interface between different kinds of social agency and spatial perception. It encodes, for example, a social fault line, which can be seen in hostilities such as cross-border cattle raiding. This is in fact a ‘scalar’ phenomenon, mirroring administrative divisions, since livestock theft is reported to be particularly prevalent inside Russia on the borders between the districts, and between the villages within one district (Nanzatov et al. 2008, p. 200). The crucial moral injunction is that one should not steal from one’s own people but ‘one’s own’ may be defined more widely, or more narrowly. Such relative, or scalar, fault lines appear also in perception of occult social realms, which also sometimes coincide with administrative and/or socio-economic divisions. An example of this way of thinking can be seen from the following contribution to a Buryat online forum : ‘There was such a ‘meat king’ in our village that’s what they called him after he was revealed to have been a cattle thief. No one would talk to him. And after a while his daughter died ; she burnt out from cancer in just six months.4 It was left for forum participants to understand that this illness was not an accident ; it was a punishment by the spirits. The spirits are territorial beings, attached to areas with boundaries marked by barisa shrines, and this also applies to the shamans, who master their own spirits but not those from neighbouring lands. Thus, in the case of the international border, it is not surprising to learn that Zakamensk Buryats say of their Mongol neighbours, ‘They have very strong shamans ; they can send very powerful curses zhadkha khayana5 — which can bring harm to more than one generation of our people.’ Meanwhile, on the other side of the international border the same kind of threat is seen as coming from the Buryats. Nanzatov and Sodnompilova conclude, ‘So this is how they live, afraid of one another on each side of the border, people who have kinship links and common ancestors, yet they have already become “Mongols” and “Buryats” to one another’ (2012b, p. 60).

17However, politico-administrative and occult divisions do not always coincide. Ethnography from a more eastern section of the border presents a different picture, where the more mobile Buryats of the Khori-Aga group of clans live on both sides of the Russian-Mongol and the Russian-Chinese frontiers. In these regions shamanism unites more than divides people : the Russia-based Buryat shamans travel to their kin in Mongolia and China to learn ‘authentic traditions’ lost during the Soviet period, while the Buryats living in China and Mongolia travel to Russia to visit their homeland (nyutag) and the places of their ancestral spirits (Namsaraeva 2010, 2012 ; Shimamura 2004). This case shows that there are registers of ideas of space and place that override, or exist in a different mode from, the divisions created by centralised states. Indeed, I shall argue in the next section that there is a Buryat geography whose structure is the converse of that of the hierarchical state.

An alternative sacred geography

18Buryats prefer to live in the open, treeless grasslands of wide valleys (see picture 2). Their villages are not usually located beside the rivers (gol), which may flood, but some distance away, often nestled in a sheltered area at the foot of hills. A large valley system, such as that of the Dzhida, Barguzin or Chikoi Rivers, has a number of branch valleys that are separated from one another by forests and low-rising hills. These hills, as well as the high mountains on the periphery, are studded with sacred sites of various kinds : notably, the oboo (a cairn of stones), the shandan (a shaman’s grave), the barisa (a tree or pole on which people tie ribbons, zalama), and the arshaan (a sacred spring) (Galdanova 1992 ; Gomboev 2006).

Picture 2. Climbing to the Alkhanai mountain oboo (Duldurginskii district, Zabaikalsk Region, July 2008)

Picture 2. Climbing to the Alkhanai mountain oboo (Duldurginskii district, Zabaikal’sk Region, July 2008)

Sayana Namsaraeva

19On the ground the topography of these sacred sites is not random, and yet nor is it simply a ‘cultural construction of nature’, for Buryats like other Mongolic people have an acute awareness of the inherent capacity for meaning of mountains, cliffs, rivers, or prominent rocks or trees their shapes, orientation, reflection of sunlight, and likeness to human or animal images (Humphrey 1996, p. 86 ; Pedersen 2011, p. 14). Since the Buryats prefer a pattern of habitation in a valley-plain surrounded by mountains, their ideal landscape has the form of a broad bowl.

  • 6 ‘A significant proportion of the cult sites of Zakamna are for the worship of real ancestors buried (...)
  • 7 Among Ekhirit people in the border region, Baitag Mountain is the cult centre for all lineages of t (...)

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    1 Some more hard-working folk produce a little extra for exchange. This done through barter, notably the exchange of home grown potatoes or meat for sacks of sugar, cans of oil, and clothing brought to the villages by local traders. Most households keep 2 – 3 cows for milk and a few sheep for festivals and ceremonies, and more rarely chickens and pigs. In this situation, hunting and gathering have become important resources. Hunting is a very widespread occupation, not only for furs, which can be sold, but also for meat. For Buryats meat is the central element of the diet, and it is estimated that half of the meat consumed by villagers is now game from hunting. In summer, women and children forage in the woods for pine nuts, berries, and mushrooms, which are prepared for storage and consumption through the year, and also sold or exchanged when possible. In these hunting and foraging activities, the laws concerning land property and hunting seasons are widely ignored (Skrynnikova ed. 2009, p. 76).

    2 See forum entitled ‘Dalekaya blizkaya Mongoliya’, accessed January 2013.

    3 In 2010 along the Buryat part of the Russian-Mongolian border 130 people were arrested for illegal crossing of the border and 360 for infringing the ‘border regime’ (i.e. traveling beyond the permitted zone without a visa). The guards confiscated from the arrested 30 guns, 2,000 rounds of ammunition, and narcotics (Nanzatov and & Sodnompilova 2012b, p. 50).

    4, forum entitled ‘Skotokrady’ p. 3, accessed December 2013.

    5 Zhadkha khayana  : literally ‘to throw magic.’

    6 ‘A significant proportion of the cult sites of Zakamna are for the worship of real ancestors buried on the slopes of the highest mountain of the valley’ (Galdanova 1992, p. 109).

    7 Among Ekhirit people in the border region, Baitag Mountain is the cult centre for all lineages of the clan. The lower mountains surrounding it are attached to individual lineages and small patri-focused groups. ‘Informants link a specific mountain with a concrete group  : “Our Markuseevs and Altaev have the Uuta Khada hill, but the Khushkheev have Malaan Khada hill” (Nanzatov et. al. 2008). In other areas along the border, the basis for oboo worship may be territorial, i.e. nearby villages and hamlets, rather than kin-based. The same principle still obtains however  : smaller groups worship the lower mountains and they join together in wider, more inclusive assembly to pay respects at the highest mountain (Galdanova 1992, pp. 109-110  ; Abaeva 1992, p. 64  ; Natsagdorj, personal communication).

    8 Female ancestors (ütöödeinüüd lit. ‘respected old women’) are often linked to waters and lakes.

    9 At the end of the oboo rites competitive games were held to entertain and honour the spirits. In tales of the Zakamensk Buryats it was recounted that these used to set clan again clan, or even the whole ‘western seven’ (baruun doloon) versus the ‘eastern eight’ (züün naiman). When the western side won in the wrestling or horse races, shamans from the eastern side would complain that of course they had prevailed, since their most powerful and first ancestor, Bukha Noyon, had intervened to help his team, upending and tripping eastern competitors with his horns (Galdanova 1992, p. 110).

    10 This is encoded in the roles of patron and leading officiant, and it is made evident by seating patterns and the demeanour of elders at the ritual (Pedersen 2006, pp. 94-95).

    11 In an illuminating earlier paper Pedersen argues that the Darkhad Mongols know two kinds of centre, an intrinsic ‘absolute’ one represented by oboo and household hearths, and an extrinsic ‘relative’ one manifested in the District Centre and the state hierarchy. Different kinds of social leadership are associated with the contrasting types of centre (2006, pp. 95-98). I would query here only the adjective ‘absolute’, since it seems to me that the intrinsic form is also scalar and relative.

    12 To support this argument, Pedersen cites the (now-abandoned) Zhargalant Oboo, located on a hilltop close to the geographical centre of Shishged, which ‘played the role of a spatial technology’ that organised places and divinities around a central point in the form of a Buddhist mandala (2011, p. 137). It should be noted, however, even these notional mandala patterns, i.e. those read into the lands surrounding a monastery with its protective oboo, were not necessarily imposed at geographically or administratively central locations. Monasteries as places of ascetic retreat were ideally located at a distance from clusters of lay population.

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