Wichita State News

History professor's research took her to Mongolia, Siberia

Monday, May 13, 2013

Wichita State Russian history professor Helen Hundley spent last summer in the highlands of Mongolia and Siberia. Hundley's latest research trip took her from the plains and prairies of Kansas to the steppes and mountains of northern Mongolia and Siberia.

Since she returned, Hundley has been working on two books detailing her research, and will soon start looking for funding for her next trip.

Landing at Genghis Khan International airport in Mongolia's capital city of Ulan Batar, Hundley began a month-long study of the resurgence of Buddhism and Buddhist imagery and symbols in the former Soviet Union.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, a "Buddhist explosion," as Hundley described it, has spread across the region in much the same way as it did originally from China. This new form of "public Buddhism," Hundley said, has changed the physical and cultural landscape of Mongolia and Siberia alike.

One of the principal reasons for Hundley's trip was the study of roadside prayer shrines called oovoos. These structures, to a casual observer, might look like a pile of stones and wood covered in strips of brightly colored fabric. In actuality, oovoos are a tangible symbol of the resurgence of Buddhism in the region and are found on the side of roads all over Mongolia.

"The interesting thing is that none of these shrines existed 30 years ago," Hundley said. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, perhaps thousands of them have been built.

"There's a sense that the Soviets destroyed everyone's history here," Hundley said, and these shrines are just one way of getting it back.

"We can explain all of our art," Hundley said. "They can't do that there."

On a closer look, Hundley said, the stones of the shrines would be covered in prayers for everything from a good harvest, to hopes that a relative's chemotherapy treatments go well.

New signs

In a country where practicing Buddhism openly was once illegal, now signs and images of its practice are everywhere, Hundley said. From roadside oovoos to Buddhist prayer wheels for sale on street corners.

Even solar powered prayer wheels, Hundley said, can be found on the dashboards of almost any car, highlighting the fusion of ancient Buddhist traditions and the modern culture of Ulan Bataar.

Leaving Ulan Bataar, Hundley traveled north to Amarbayasgalant monastery. While Mongolia was under Communist rule, thousands of Buddhist monasteries were destroyed or converted to other uses. Amarbayasgalant was one of the few to survive and was a major stop on Hundley's trip.

While visiting the monastery, where Hundley said it wasn't uncommon to see a shaven-headed monk tapping away on his iPad, Hundley stayed in a ger camp— a collection of traditional circular wooden latticework buildings covered in layers of felt and painted in bright colors.

Ger camps are usually powered by gasoline generators, but being out in the country are prone to frequent power outages. Hundley fondly remembers one particular incident where, during a power outage, she and her hosts sat around the dinner table telling stories by candlelight and the light from smartphones.

Hospitality and thousands of years of history aside, there's another reason Hundley has been traveling to Mongolia whenever she could since 1992.

"I can't describe how beautiful it is there," Hundley said.

Such a captivating country is always hard for Hundley to leave, she said. The prospect of coming home again she likened to Cinderella's coach turning into a pumpkin at midnight.

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Created on Monday, May 13, 2013; Last modified on Thursday, May 30, 2013