Capital: Ulaan Baatar
The history of the nomad steppe people is not widely known even though they have had an enormous impact on Europe and Asia. They have been described as lawless barbarians by those who were subjected to their depredations but they had in fact very ancient traditions of social organization and discipline (read: respect for laws), without which Genghis Khan would not have been able to establish The Mongol Empire of the Steppes which, under Kublai Khan in 1280, extended from the Pacific almost to the Mediterranean, from the Indus to Moscow in the west and from Baikal to Vietnam in the east. The Mongol Empire was the largest ever to be assembled. It left its mark in the minds of man but no monuments...
Seventy years of soviet domination has left unmistakable traces. Ulaan Baatar looks very soviet with its huge ploshchad Suhbaatar, its Circus, its House of Culture, its central heating system and its soviet housing apartment blocks.
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Sukh Baatar train station on the Mongolian side of the border.
The train took 24 hours to cover the 450 kms between Ulan-Ude and Ulaan Baatar! That's only 19 km/hour or 12 mph! Anyway, I slept from here to Ulaan Baatar which was reached very early in the morning.
When I got to Ulaan Baatar, I met a mongol lady in the station who got on the phone and helped me choose an inexpensive hotel. I also met Eskil, a middle aged danish primary school teacher who suddenly decided he needed a month of adventure in Mongolia after 25 years without moving from his small village! He had less than an hour before his train but he decided to show me how to get here by trolley bus. People are wonderful!
Ulaan Baatar is centered on the huge Sukh Baatar Square with the House of Government on the north side and a mounted statue of the national hero Sukh Baatar in the middle.
The House of Culture and the National Opera and Ballet theater on the east side of Sukh Baatar Square.
My hotel was only about one km further east so I said goodbye to Eskil and went on foot.
These buildings on the west side of Sukh Baatar Square house the Mongolian Stock Exchange and various stores and offices.
I had a decent room in the Negdelchin hotel for 12 US$ a night. The staff did not speak English but they were friendly and helpful. The restaurant staff and I had unforgettable sign language sessions that left us in stitches! The menu offered only variations of meat and potatoes but vodka came in 100 ml shots!
The three internet contacts I had in Ulaan Baatar were all busy on my first day there so I started my sight seeing by myself.
These buildings were previously the Chojin Lama Monastery which has become a Museum.
This unmistakably russian Drama Theater is just across the street from the museum the Bolsheviks built in honor of the Mongol writer and poet Natsagdorj who served the communist cause well but who nevertheless disappeared during the purges in '37.
There is no Russian city without a Circus so, here is yet another trace of past soviet influence. Physical markings such as these look out of place because the people don't look Russian at all and because the traditional mongol dress is quite common on city streets.
As these lovely girls show, the people have kept their customs and traditions in spite of heavy outside influence during most of this century.
Traditional dress is quite common on the streets of Ulaan Baatar. I could not resist when I saw this group posing in front of Ganden for a family picture being taken by one of them.
Kublai Khan made political alliances with the Yellow Sect against the Sakya Sect (Red hat) in the course of establishing Mongol hegemony over Tibet in the 13th century but Shamanism remained the popular religion until Altan Khan made Tibetan Buddhism the state religion in the 16th century and declared himself a "living Buddha" by the same occasion.
This large Gandantegchin monastery, built in 1840, was kept open by the communists during the religious persecutions of the 1930's as a showcase of liberalism very much in the same way that the Orthodox Zagorsk Monastery near Moscow was maintained.
Ganden Hiid (monastery)
Ganden Hiid (monastery)
A city ger in a suburb near Ganden Hiid. Close to here is a ger hostel for backpackers where accommodations can be had for as little as 5US$/night. I might have ended up there had I not found the Negdelchin first.
One of my internet contacts was a student. I visited the museum with him but we didn't strike it off so we said bye and that was that. I was pretty lucky because out of the forty or so internet contacts I met on this trip, there were only two that I couldn't get along with.
Batbold, another one of my contacts, was very busy with a delegation of Ukrainian businessmen. We met only briefly but he asked his accountant Dandin Suren Otgo and his driver Chluum Baatar to show me the countryside. I am very glad they did for that is where to find the real Mongolia.
This pile of rocks with a few prayer flags is called an Ovoo. Walking around the Ovoo in a clockwise direction an adding a stone to the pile will bring you good fortune according to an ancient shamanist belief introduced from the Bon religion into Tibetan Buddhism in the 7th century and brought here in the 16th. The weather was not clement but the Mongol steppe showed all its wild beauty in the high wind south of the city.
The Mongolian steppe south of Ulaan Baatar. If re-incarnation made any sense for me, I might think that I have learned to love scenery like this in an anterior life but then I would have to have also had anterior lives as a Bedouin and as an Inuit for I equally love the vast expanses of the Sahara and of the high Canadian Arctic. As I don't believe in anything I can afford to just love this kind of scenery without having to understand why...
Gers in Manzhir Park, site of a monastery destroyed by the communists.
The weather was really miserable! A primitive teepee can provide welcome shelter from the rain.
This tourist oriented Genghis Khan camp shows how the noble's gers could be moved without dismantling them. It is a pity that Mongolia's tourist potential stagnates because the bureaucratic controls of soviet times have not yet been removed. Mongolia is not the only country to labour under the delusion that tourists will cope with two tier pricing and with visas that are needlessly hard to get. Tourism is one industry where optimization of revenues by volume has been proved to work better than optimization by price.
This display is intended to show how luxurious gers could be in ancient times. I would more readily accept its authenticity if they had hidden the TV set!
In all seriousness, it is of historical record that the gers of Mongol Khans and nobles were incredibly luxurious when the Mongol empire extended from the Pacific Ocean to the Black Sea and from the Himalayas to Baikal Lake.