After the last Khan (Altan Khan) declared himself to be the "Living Buddha" and made Tantric Lamaism the state religion in the 16th century, mongol discipline broke down and internecine strife between the western Djungar and the eastern Halh Mongols invited invasion by the Manchu Qing Emperor Kang Xi who annexed "Inner Mongolia" and made "Outer Mongolia" a protectorate of China headed by a puppet theocracy under a subservient "Jebtsundamba Hutuktu" (Living Buddha).
It is of historical interest to note that the Qing Dynasty supported Tantric Lamaism as state religions both in Tibet and in Mongolia but that they did not attempt to import it into China. Could it be because they knew that the more sophisticated and basically sceptical Chinese people would never accept a state religion nor would they believe in the absolute holiness of a "Living Buddha" or of a "Dalai Lama"?
Qing rule was tempered by Confucian traditions in China but the absolute rule of the theocracies it fostered in Tibet and Mongolia was cruel and ruthless. When the Qing Dynasty crumbled in 1911, the mongolian feudal, landowning aristocracy lost no time to declare independence from China and did so according to their religious traditions with a theocratic government under the leadership of the 8th "Living Buddha" called "Bogd Khaan" (holy king).
This is the outside gate to Bogd Khaan's summer palace.
Entrance of Bogd Khaan's summer palace.
China was too engrossed in its own turmoil to oppose this move and finally signed the treaty of Kyakhta with Russia and Mongolia recognizing the latter's autonomy in 1915. The ink was barely dry that the russian revolution of October 1917 made it possible for the Chinese to occupy Mongolia in 1919 until retreating White Russian troops expelled them in February 1921. The Bolsheviks' advance into Siberia and their assistance to mongolian nationalists soon made it possible to expel the White Russians in turn. In July of the same year, the People's Government of Mongolia was established, retaining Bogd Khaan as a figurehead to placate the landowners.
Main building of Bogd Khaan's summer palace.
This peaceful looking palace was the scene of intense jockeying and of multiple conspiracies during all these troubled years between the feudal landowners supporting Bogd Khaan, mongolian nationalists of various shades from center to left and the hard core Bolshevik russian forces .
The russian Bolshevik troops prevailed during this tumultuous revolutionary period and the Mongolian People's Republic was created in 1924. Bogd Khan conveniently died in his bed (on the left). Several other nationalist mongolian revolutionaries, (premier Bodoo, party chairman Danzan, Minister of War Sukh Baatar), also died conveniently and were duly canonized as national heroes once they were out of the way.
When the dust cleared, the mongolian communist Horloyn Choilbalsan had a firm grasp on the reins of power. The brutality with which he destroyed the feudal and lamaist landowning establishment earned him the title of Mongolian Stalin until his death 28 years later in 1952.
Of the three internet contacts I had in here, one I did not get along with, another was very busy but the third made time to share with me.We exchanged on many topics from computers to business to history and religion. My meetings with Gurdorz Bat were the highlight of my mongolian visit. We spent a lot of time in his office and he took a day off to introduce me to his 68 year old aunt who lived alone in a traditional mongolian ger in the beautiful Terelj valley seen here.
Gurdorz Bat and I with his daughters Bulgan and Haliun by an Ovoo overlooking Terelj valley.
The introduction of glasnost (transparency), and perestroika (reform), in the Soviet empire in the mid 1980's brought a wind of change which led to free multi party elections in July 1990 and again in June 1992 after the collapse of the USSR. The communist party stayed in power but they nevertheless undertook privatisations and reforms to move towards a market economy. The mongol spirit had not been broken and private enterprises sprouted everywhere like mushrooms after rain.
The physical face of Ulaan Baatar has been deeply marked by 65 years of soviet occupation. It has the same huge central square, the same city wide central heating system, the same soviet style apartment blocks with their welded steel plumbing, and the same trams and busses found in all other soviet cities. The countryside has however retained its mongolian identity untainted. Perhaps that is why all the mongolians I have met were so attached to their bare hills and thin pastures. Their cultural roots lie in nomad camps like this one in the Terelj valley.
As soon as conditions allowed, Gurdorz and his seven brothers lost no time to set up the Sant Khaan Company which started small with import-export and grew into the important multi-division corporation it has become today.
There was only a narrow dirt track going up the valley. People get around these broad pastures by horse or by four wheel drive vehicles like we did. We asked these people if they knew where Bat's aunt Chimed was camped.
It took us a while to find her ger tucked away by a clump of trees near a clear mountain stream. Chimed had two of her grand children with her but she was happy to see her nephew and greeted us warmly. Inside the ger, I was given the place of honor facing the door. Chimed prepared a fresh batch of flour thickened milk tea which she served us in the traditional manner with home made biscuits, fresh cream and tasty kefir.
After that, we shared vodka and bread that Bat had brought. I learned how to flick a drop of vodka to the left and to the right as a ritual offering to mother earth. It was a beautiful experience, with few words for lack of a common language but with strong vibrations of hospitality and friendship which flood back into my heart when I look at this picture of Bat and his daughters with Chimed and her grand children.
Mongolia has much to offer to those who like to get off the beaten path. Several private tourist agencies have sprouted to compete with the official (and expensive), Juulchin agency who operates this camp of gers for tourists further up the valley.
Nearby Turtle Rock, a renowned tourist attraction with two mongolian kids who rushed in to offer a ride on their ponies.
I think that the visible traces of the soviet occupation will not last very long for russian ways are quite foreign to the mongol culture which is closer to the Chinese as you can see from these singers in Nairamdal Park's folklore center.
Ancient "Tsam" dancing with religious masks.
I found the situation in Mongolia to be somewhere in between what I observed in its two giant neighbours. The people seem to be happier and more optimistic than in Russia but not as much as in China. There is more crime and corruption than in China but not as much as in the ex soviet countries. And so on in many ways...
Orchestra of traditional musicians accompanying the dancers.
Mongolia, with a minuscule population of only 2.5 million for an area three times that of France, will have to chart its course carefully between these two giants.
Finally the time came to leave the homeland of Genghis Khaan, the greatest conqueror of all time, and I boarded the train back to China here at the Ulaan Baatar station.
Moving south, the grassland gets drier and the nomad camps are fewer and far between.
Mongolia is huge and empty and towns worthy of the name are far apart The Sain Shand train station is 460 km south of Ulaan Baatar and 220 km from the border with China.
There is not much to say about dry Sain Shand except that it is the capital of Dornogov airmag on the east edge of the Gobi desert.
In this part of the desert, a sparse vegetation finds enough humidity to sprout in the spring but it does not live long in this heat.
Here the Gobi conforms to its popular image, a sea of sand with no sign of life. Actually there is life out there but you have to look hard to find it. In a couple of hours we will be at the Chinese border.