Thursday, 16 August 2012

A Mongolian Wedding

When I was looking for projects with different NGOs to work with whilst I was in Mongolia, a Dutch woman named Susanne came across my website on a Facebook page for expats living in Mongolia, after it had been left there by Jess, an Australian friend-of-a-friend who was helping me. Susanne has been living in Mongolia for a few years, and was getting married to a Mongolian named Bilguun, and asked if I would be available to photograph her wedding. I of course jumped at the opportunity, I would just need to extend my visa by about a week, which turned out to be a piece of cake, and of course buy some smart shoes, as I only had boots or trainers.

On the morning of the wedding I met the Europeans (mostly Dutch and Belgian) who had come over for the wedding, in a car park just a few blocks from where I was staying. We traveled on a bus for about an hour and a half from Ulaanbaatar to Terelj National Park, where the wedding would be taking place in the grounds of a luxury hotel.

I wasn't sure exactly what to expect, but I was excited for what would unfold and to be involved in something so exciting and different. The day started with a very familiar feel. I photographed the bridal party getting ready, the women having their hair and make up done, last minute adjustments to clothing and the finer details of the start of the day.

Getting the hair and make up done in the salon
Professional hairdressers who worked at Terelj Hotel.
A close up of Susanne's Dell.
Make up in the mirror.
Susanne getting her hair done.
Susanne's dress.
Susanne gets her make up done.
For the first part of the ceremony, the bride and groom wore traditional Mongolian Dell's, which were bright blue and made from a beautiful material with a subtle pattern. The Mongolian ceremony took place inside a large ger, with Susanne's guests sat on one side and Bilguun's guests seated on the other. After a speech by the host, which was really for the benefit of the foreigners, and gave them a short lesson in the history and culture of Mongolian life and gers, Susanne was invited to light the stove in the middle of the ger, a ritual to symbolise bringing warmth and love to the family home. Afterwards she then had to pour milk tea for the top table into silver cups, and present them one at a time. A Mongolian lady dressed in traditional costume then gave some well-wishing speeches in Mongolian, before the short ceremony was over and the guests returned to the bright sunshine for drinks on the patio. All of the guests were photographed in small groups with the bride and groom, as I was informed is the tradition in Mongolia.

Susanne and Bilguun enter the ger.
Seated at the top table in the ger.
Susanne lights the stove.
Susanne serves Bilguun traditional milk tea.
His words: Mmmm - delicious!
Families seated in the ger.
Walking off for some private portraits.
Pictured in their Dells.
Down by the river.
Guests relax on the patio of Terelj Hotel.
Terraces overlooked the river.
During this time Susanne and Bilguun disappeared to change into Western clothes, for the second part of the wedding, and actual wedding ceremony. They re-emerged shortly after, Bilguun looking very dapper in a well fitted tuxedo, and Susanne looking every bit the beautiful bride in a white wedding dress from Europe. After some private photographs, it was their turn to walk down the aisle, Bilguun first with his mother, followed by Susanne with her parents. The ceremony was fairly quick, quicker than ceremonies at home - no hymns, songs, poems or romantic readings by friends and family, just conducted by a registrar before the signing of the certificates. Everyone then took it in turns to be photographed with Susanne and Bilguun in their western dress, and the whole process was very quick thanks to the help of the host and everyone being contained in one place. It wasn't like weddings at home where group photographs can take a fair while due to an aunt being AWOL or an uncle deciding now would be a good time to move the car.

Not something I had photographed before but had heard of - the first look.
The Western style ceremony gets underway.
Susanne and Bilguun while the registrar does her thing.
Sisters sign the certificates.
Proud family watch on.
The exchange of rings.

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Susanne's friends from Belgium and Holland.
After the formal photographs were finished it was time for the guests to be seated and for dinner and speeches to begin. The speeches took a slightly different format. Traditionally at home speeches are made by the father of the bride, the best man, and the groom. There was no role for best man at this wedding so Bilguun escaped what at home may have been a rough few minutes as he regales stories of a misspent youth and escapades into adulthood. Instead speeches were made by both sets of parents which were short and translated into various languages - Mongolian, Dutch, English, depending on who was speaking.

The table settings.
Nice view for dinner.
Toasting the happy couple.
Once the speeches were over, I was intending to go and find myself some food quickly at the cheaper hotel next door, but I was invited to sit down and so joined a group of young Mongolians who had a few spare seats at their table. They spoke some English and were very hospitable in ordering me a whiskey without my knowing, and before I had a chance to eat anything I had to neck three big shots of vodka as part of the toasts to the newly married couple. The food was delicious, we had tomato soup, salmon wrapped with cream cheese and caviar, tender steak and vegetables and cake, and I was incredibly grateful for both the hospitality and for the fact I was starving, having not eaten all day. I left my seat a few times to photograph events that occurred during dinner, such as the ceremonious cutting of the mutton, and then some people made a few short speeches as gifts were handed over.

The cutting of the mutton.
The traditonal Mongolian band.
Relaxing by the river.
Another ceremony drinking milk. 
After dinner the band struck up and the couple danced the first dance before inviting others to join them on the outdoor dance floor. In fact there were two bands, the first playing Western songs, I can't remember what was played (the vodka was probably kicking in) but I'm sure something like Frank Sinatra and the like; and then a second band who had apparently recently performed at the Royal Albert Hall played some fantastic and throbbing traditional Mongolian folk music. Later on the evening fireworks lit up the sky and again I dashed for my camera. I began to ease off duty, and the generous free bar lubricated the crowd, and I had a fantastic evening mingling with guests and dancing with people I had just met. Around midnight the party moved indoors to the hotel bar, and the merriment continued until the bar was forced to close at 3am, which was just as well as it may have stopped me making a tit of myself. We returned to our gers next door which we were sleeping in for the night, and after managing to half light the stove using smaller bank notes, I went to bed drunk with my back and legs aching.
The giving of gifts.
The Western style band
Everyone's up on the dancefloor.
Fireworks light up proceedings.
Dancing the night away in the hotel barr
 All in all it was a fantastic experience. Everyone was so welcoming and friendly towards me that it could have been my group of friends; it was great to witness a different type of wedding, with a different format and different ceremonies. It was set in a beautiful location that made my job easier and more enjoyable and it was a wonderful opportunity I wont forget in a hurry - and I can also now claim to be an international wedding photographer!

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