Mongolia is GREAT!! Who’da thunk it? – Part 1

Mongolia was a very pleasant surprise for us. When we were planning our trip we had the choice to take the train from Beijing back to Vladivostok and then take the Trans-Siberian across Russia, or take the Trans-Mongolian from Beijing through Mongolia and then meet up with the Tran-Siberian railroad in Irkutsk. Since our cruise across the Pacific Ocean stopped in Vladivostok – we didn’t see any need to return to Vladivostok and Holly particularly wanted to see Mongolia, so the decision was relatively easy.

We used a Russian travel company to book our travel from Beijing through Mongolia and Russia. We didn’t have a lot of details about what we would see and do in Mongolia other than the bare outline:

Day 1: Arrive in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia and have a city tour.

Day 2 & 3: Drive to the Terelj National Park and spend two nights in a Ger Camp.

Day 4: Return to Ulaanbaatar and transfer to train to Russia.

Our expectations were therefore not that high. We expected to see some nice scenery in the national park and rough it a little in the Ger Camp.

When we arrived we were met at the train station by our guide Damidaa Dashpuntsag and our driver “Mr. Bald” (I’m sure that’s not the correct spelling & we probably incorrectly pronounced his name “Mr. Bold”). We immediately began a tour of Ulaanbaatar (which translates as “Red Hero” and is called “U.B.” by the locals). Our first stop was the National Museum of Mongolia. Here we saw many nice exhibits about the history and the culture of Mongolia and its many different ethnic groups. As we came into the museum we noticed that the staff was cleaning the floor in a large room on the main floor and Damidaa asked what was happening. He was told that a performance of the National Song and Dance Ensemble was performing in about an hour for a group that was holding a conference in Ulaanbaatar and we could attend.

The National Song and Dance Ensemble puts on shows of traditional Mongolian music, singing and dance and we could have paid to attend one of their normal performances, but we had the opportunity to see this condensed performance of about 40 minutes, for free. It was really great. There were dancers with colorful costumes,

and musicians with traditional instruments, along with Mongolian Throat Singing. If you’ve never heard Throat Singers, do NOT pass up the opportunity. It’s really interesting. Here’s a photo of a Mongolian throat singer (on the right) and musicians. Note the Mongolian Horse Head Fiddle on the left, a two stringed instrument; the musician’s fingers are both under and over the strings, not just on top of the strings like a guitar or a European violin. The lady in the middle is playing a stringed instrument, like a harp set on its side but played like a xylophone.

After the Mongolian National Museum we visited the Zanabazar Museum of Fine Arts and viewed both modern and ancient works of art that further filled in our overview of Mongolian history and culture.

Damidaa then took us to a Mongolian Barbeque restaurant, which would be indistinguishable from any Mongolian Barbeque joint in the United States. Our first day in Mongolia was October 31st and we discovered that some westerns holidays, including Halloween have been adopted by Mongolians, at least in the capital. The restaurant was fully decked out in Halloween decorations and the staff was all in costume. There was even person doing very elaborate face makeup. Here’s a photo of our very friendly waitress:

On our final day in Mongolia, before heading to the train station, we went to do a little shopping. We noticed that Christmas has also come to this Buddhist country – or at least the savvy merchants will not let any opportunity to increase sales be missed. Inside this shopping mall, there were also Christmas decorations hanging from the ceiling.

We spent the night at the Ulaanbaatar Hotel, just a block away from the main square – Sukhbaator Square, named for Damdin Sukhbaatar one of the leaders of the 1921 Mongolian revolution, whose statue seated on a horse dominates the square. On the north end of the square is this large structure built to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the founding of the Mongol Empire. Just behind this structure is the Mongolian Government Palace (Parliament building). The central statue in the structure pictured below is Ghengis Khan (in Mongolia it’s spelled and pronounced: Chinggis Khaan). Chinggis is flanked by his successors as the great Khan – his son Ogedei and grandson Kubai Khan who founded the Yuan Dynasty in China.

Chinggis Khaan is a still a really big deal in Mongolia. A lot of things are named after Chinggis, including a local beer – very good. They were preparing for a function later that evening. As part of the preparations they were cleaning the Chinggis Khaan statue while we were there. As a former cleaning professional myself, I admired his technique (notice the ladder on the left).

A brief modern history of Mongolia (from the Trans-Siberian Handbook):
“Mongolia declared itself independent of China in 1911… After the Communist Party came to power in 1921 the capital was renamed Ulaanbaatar, meaning “Red Hero”. With help from the USSR, the city was redesigned… Besides the hideous multi-story buildings, close ties to the Communist giant led to the destruction of private enterprise, redistribution of wealth, and the creation of cooperatives which led to famine, just as it had done in the Soviet Union. Political repressions and persecutions of religious figures led to the deaths and disappearances of 27,000 people in 1937 alone, almost two-thirds of whom were monks. When Sino-Soviet relations soured in the 1960s, Mongolia sided with the (USSR), resulting in a disastrous loss of trade with China and increased economic dependence on the Soviet Union.”

“When the Soviet Union fell apart, the resulting shockwaves led to pro-democracy protests and hunger strikes. In May 1990, an amendment to the constitution allowed multi-party elections and the resulting coalition government included old Communists rather than expelling them completely. The first few post-communism years were a difficult time for the Mongolian economy, as it collapsed without Soviet subsidies. Nevertheless, the country recovered by building relationships with European countries, Japan, South Korea, and the United States. In the mid-1990s the city experienced a private-sector boom, with new buildings springing up everywhere and shops and restaurants opening. As in Russia, most of the money for this came from Communist-era power brokers who took control of privatized state assets.”

“In 1999-2000 Mongolia was hit by severe weather conditions; a serious drought followed by an extremely cold winter. Massive loss of livestock caused food shortages and forced many nomadic herders to flee to the city, though the Communist era’s social support system no longer exists to help them. Ulaanbaatar continues to develop with speed, but it’s still easy to see that under this surface layer of development the people and traditions remain largely unchanged.”

Here’s the statue of Damdin Sukhbaatar opposite the statue of Chinggis Khaan, note Holly and Damidaa patiently waiting for me to take pictures.

The Trans-Siberian Handbook describes Ulaanbaatar this way:
“The world’s coldest capital is a fascinating place to visit even if it is, at first sight a jumble of Soviet-style housing, ancient temples, old palaces and Dubai-style skyscrapers jostling each other for space amidst chaotic traffic snarls. Things are changing fast here, and the capital is filled with fascinating incongruities. Nomadic herders from the countryside have filled the city’s outskirts with their ger tents; they retain their traditional dress and practices, and today they share the sidewalks of downtown Ulaanbaatar with young, professional urbanites.” This is all true. Here’s the building that looks like it could have come from Dubai. Elsewhere there are very nice, and we are told – expensive, apartments being built.

The Mongolian Stock Exchange is also on the square. Originally, the stock exchange was open only one day a week. Now it’s open two days per week.

Like Mexico City, Ulaanbaatar sits in a basin surrounded by Mountains. At the top of a hill on the south side of Ulaanbaatar is Zaisan Memorial, built by the Soviets to celebrate Russian-Mongolian cooperation in WWII against the Japanese.

Once we climbed the (many) stairs to the top of the hill and were inside the monument itself, we were rewarded with a panoramic view of the city. Although, you can see from this picture that like most large cities in a basin, Ulaanbaatar does have an air pollution problem. Also, inexplicably, there is a new multi-story building going up adjacent to the parking area for the monument which will block some of the views immediately below the monument.

The Gandan Khild monastery complex is largest and most important Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. As we came into the monastery complex, we saw several people selling food to feed the many pigeons.

In this monastery, we viewed the largest standing Buddha statue in Mongolia. We also arrived in the morning and observed morning prayers and chanting in the Vajradhara Temple. It is a small room with many, many monks and worshippers all together, along with us. It was a really interesting experience.

After our time in Ulaanbaatar, we headed to the Terelj National Park, about 80 km east of Ulaanbaatar. On the side of the road as we traveled into the countryside, there was a small concession set up, with items for sale spread out on a blanket and birds and reindeer available for photographs. I took the opportunity to have my picture taken with this vulture and also a golden eagle.

Holly chose to get up close and personal with two reindeer, reminding us of our previous reindeer encounters in Finland.

A little further down the road, we encountered these domesticated yaks. This is my “Dances with Yaks” moment. (I hope that becomes my new nickname.)

When we arrived at our “Ger Camp” in the Terelj National Park, almost the first thing we did was go on a horseback ride. Holly, the granddaughter of New Mexico ranchers, became nostalgic for the summers she would visit her mother’s rancher relatives.

The only thing we were disappointed with in Mongolia was the “Ger Camp” we had booked into. A “ger” is the name for the tents that nomads live in. There are fairly authentic Ger camps, where families have set up a few Gers in the middle of nowhere and it’s a reasonably authentic experience. Our experience was far from authentic. We stayed in Ger #1 – pictured below.

Here’s a view of the inside of our Ger. Notice: electric lights, television, even the floor of the Ger was heated. The furniture looked like it had been purchased at IKEA.

Worst of all, our Ger was located among perhaps 6 to 8 other Gers in the back of this hotel: Ulaanbaatar-2. We went inside the hotel for meals and for bathroom and shower needs. Overall, it was OK, but hardly the authentic experience we had hoped for. My suggestion for those visiting Mongolia, is to read the guide books carefully and if you book through a travel company, be sure you know what you are getting.

Behind our hotel we took a short walk and crossed over this creek that is starting to freeze a bit on the edges.

A few minutes later, these men rode by on their horses. I thought this made a nice picture.

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