The North Star Project, 2013-2014 Report Number Twenty-One — Erdenet, Mongolia by Gina Sterk

The North Star Project, 2013-2014 Report Number Twenty-One — Erdenet, Mongolia by Gina Sterk

A few weekends ago I took a trip to Erdenet, Mongolia’s second-largest city.  While there, we did some hiking around and came across a number of ovoos, which is what you see pictured below.  While I don’t know a lot about ovoos, I do know that they are a part of shamanism, the belief system that has traditionally been most prevalent in Mongolia.

gina 3

An ovoo is a pile of rocks, or cairn, which marks a religious site.  In Mongolia, you often come across them at high places, like mountaintops.  When you come across an ovoo, it is customary to circle it clockwise three times, then pick up a rock and add it to the pile, so the ovoos are continually growing.  Ovoos are also often drapped with hadag – blue, silk scarves used for ceremonial greetings, especially during Tsagaan Sar, the Mongolian Lunar New Year (but which you also see everywhere in Mongolia throughout the year — for sale in markets, in temples, tied to bridges, etc.)

While I don’t know much about shamanism in Mongolia or the deeper meaning behind the ovoo, for me, ovoos symbolize what I find most alluring about Mongolia: the ancientness, vastness, and uniqueness of this land.  A land in which you never know when you might come across a beautiful, mysterious rock pile which has marked a sacred space for an unknowable number of years, decades, or maybe centuries.
For all of the North Star Project 2013-2014 Reports, see

For all of the North Star Project 2013 Summer Reports, see

The North Star Project 2013-2014 School Year Reports: The Middle Ground Journal’s collaborative outreach program with K-12 classes around the world. We gratefully acknowledge North Star Academy of Duluth, Minnesota as our inaugural partner school, and the flagship of our K-12 outreach program. We also warmly welcome Duluth East High School and Dodge Middle School to our collaborative program. 

Under the leadership of our North Star host teachers and student interns, The North Star Project has flourished for two years. For a brief summary, please see a recent article in the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History, at:

Having re-tooled and re-designed the collaborative program, we are drawing on the experience of our veteran student interns, ideas from our host teachers, and new projects provided by our incoming student interns. This school year The Middle Ground Journal will share brief dispatches from our North Star Project student interns, particularly from those who are currently stationed, or will soon be stationed abroad. As of the time of this report we have confirmed student interns who will be reporting from Mongolia, Southern China, Shanghai, northeastern China, The Netherlands, Tanzania, Ireland, England, Finland, Russia, and Haiti. We also have students developing presentations on theatrical representations of historical trauma, historical memory, the price individuals pay during tragic global conflicts, and different perceptions of current events from around the world.  We will post their brief dispatches here, and report on their interactions with the North Star students and teachers throughout the school year.

Hong-Ming Liang, Chief Editor, The Middle Ground Journal, The College of St. Scholastica, Duluth, MN, USA, 2013-2014 School Year

(c) 2013 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 7, Fall, 2013. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy.


Filed under North Star Student Editors, Professor Hong-Ming Liang

14 responses to “The North Star Project, 2013-2014 Report Number Twenty-One — Erdenet, Mongolia by Gina Sterk

  1. Brianna Curtis

    Does the ovoo being placed in particularly high places have something to do with the correlation that it is “reaching up to the sky?” Similar to most other religions in which symbols or practices correlate with the heavens. This just shows that religious beliefs may be different, but at the same time, some of them have similar components.

  2. The idea in this article that strikes accord with me is how as human beings we like to leave our mark on the world. Also how as humans we wish to mark important areas. I know in my area whenever there is a car crash the scene is memorialized by others in the community. The most recent accident in our area now has a wooden cross in the ditch to mark that place. It’s one of those world wide themes that people can study is how humans leave their mark, and where they leave it.

  3. Tayler

    I am glad you took the time to share this and I have a few questions:

    What was your original purpose in your travels to Mongolia?
    Did you also circle the ovoo and if so, why? Was their any spiritual benefit to you?

    I feel like if I were to encounter such a thing, knowing what I know now, I would want to participate in the ritual, even if it does not directly relate to my faith. I think that something that is holy to anyone, should be respected by all cultures. I see no harm in practicing multiple religions, even if just for a moment.

    • I really like Tayler’s comment about participating in the ritual even if it is not part of a persons faith. I would do the same thing as I believe that having and showing respect for what others hold as sacred is an act of holiness. Thank you for sharing your discovery of the Ovoo. It is very interesting.

  4. Kirsten Olsen

    I don’t find it very surprising that such a sacred place or thing is located on top of a hill, mountain, or any high place. Throughout history sacred places have been located in high places. I would think it symbolizes power and strength, like the author said it is always growing so if you look at the top of a hill and this structure is growing, I would think that you would find faith in the ever growing structure on top of the hill.

  5. I, too, find it interesting so many religious sites are on higher ground. When a hill or mountain top is unavailable, places of worship build their structures tall to produce the same symbolism Kristen Olsen mentioned in a previous comment. In some cases, churches in Europe would compete for tallest steeple.

  6. Samantha Roettger

    I like the symbolism or idea that the ovoo is ever growing and adding to the height of the mountain. I would have liked to learn more about the symbolism behind this action because it seems very interesting.

  7. Bao Vang

    Shamanism is my religion and this is really interesting to read about! I don’t have any knowledge about the practice but I assume it’s a different practice done within a different ethnic group. Thank you for sharing your story and hopefully you had a great time to Mongolia!

  8. Tommy Traaholt

    I don’t know much about Mongolia, but this article is quite interesting. I don’t know too much about Shamanism but from what i have heard it is a unique religion. It’s interesting that they have so many symbols for object. Great article!

  9. Mackenzie Sherrill

    This was very interesting to read about since we don’t really have these in the U.S. I think this would be really cool to see in person because of all the history behind the rock pile. I wonder what would be comparable to this tradition here in America?

  10. Kyle Stepka

    It was very cool to read about all these things and realized how we don’t have any of these in the U.S. I think the history behind this is very cool! this tradition is very cool and should continue.

  11. Eleni Birhane

    Different traditions and rituals like this exist all around the world. They are some of the things that allow people to be connected in ways they could not have otherwise. The ovoo is a scared cairn in the Mongolian Shamanic traditions that stands on remote mountain tops and the like as a pillar to the religion to anybody that might come across it. I think the part you wrote about people having to circle it clockwise three times and add on a rock when they pass is pretty neat because it gives the people within that religion and some that that do not practice it as well a sense of being a part of something that has been around for a long time.

  12. Tessa Erickson-Thoemke

    I enjoyed reading your article about ovoos in Mongolia. I had never heard of them before, so I was fascinated in learning more about them and their importance in shamanism. This is a religion I am not very familiar with, either. I found this ritual of circling the ovoo to be very interesting, and it made me think about rituals and traditions from other religions. For example, in Buddhism, daily prayers and mantras are extremely important. They include “seated meditations in solitude requiring mind and breath control” (Tignor, 2018, p. 303). Though these two rituals are different, they may provide the practicing individuals with similar feelings that exude their faith. I agree with you that the ancientness of a religious site such as this one is truly mesmerizing. Thanks for sharing!

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