Ulaanbaatar, also known simply as UB, is the capital and largest city of Mongolia. The city began as a seasonal migratory abode of the Mongolian princes and in 1693 with the establishment of the monastic palace of the first spiritual leader, Zanabazar, it became a permanent city. Modern day UB is a mixture of high rises, Soviet style architecture, Buddhist monasteries, and ger settlements. About 60% of UB’s population still live in gers on the outskirts of the city. I didn’t expect it to be such a vibrant and at the same time chaotic city mostly because my impression of Mongolia was one of endless grasslands and nomads living in gers. Ulaanbaatar is full of contrasts. You can see fashionably dressed locals walking past traditionally dressed nomads. You can sample traditional culture and food and then party till the wee hours at a trendy club. Getting around UB is not simple as English is not widely spoken. Most people speak Mongol and a little Russian and Mongol sounds are extremely hard for native English speakers so it is easiest to resort to sign/body language. To me, Mongol sounds like a mix between Korean and Russian. We stayed at the Shangri-la Hotel which is by far the nicest hotel in UB.
UB is the heart of Mongolian Tibetan Buddhism. Mongolia has their own Dalai Lama equivalent called Jebtsundamba Khutuktu who resides in the Gandantegchinlen Khlid Monastery or simply the Gandan Monastery. Gandantegchinlen translates to “the great place of complete joy”. This is the only monastery that escaped destruction during the religious purge and was reopened in 1944 as a token homage to Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia. Restrictions on religion and worship were only lifted in the 1990s with the end of Marxism in Mongolia. Entering the monastery from the southern gates, you will arrive at the Ochidara Temple where the most significant religious activities are held. Across from it is the smaller Golden Dedenpovaran Sum. Continuing along the path is the white Migjid Janraisig Sum temple with hundreds of images of Ayush (the Buddha of Longevity). The Avalokitesvara or Migjid Janraisig Statue here is 26.5 meters high, making it the largest indoor buddhist statue in the world. Avalokitesvara is a bodhisattva embodying the compassion of all Buddhas. In Chinese Buddhism, Avalokitesvara appears as the female figure Guanyin.
A brief stop at the Mongolian National Museum gave us some useful insights into local history and culture. There are some interesting exhibits spread over the 3 floors and shouldn’t take more than an hour or so. There are a few other places I would have wanted to visit but was too pressed for time. I wanted to see a Mongolian wrestling match but during non-Naadam times, matches don’t happen everyday and can be watched at the Wrestling Palace. Mongolian wrestling, known as Bokh, is the folk wrestling style where touching the ground with anything other than the feet loses the match. Wrestling played a very important role in Mongolian culture since the days of Genghis Khan where it was necessary to keep the army combat ready. The biggest wrestling competition is held every year during the National Naadam Festival in July. Another place of interest is the Khustain Nuruu National Park, also known as Hustai National Park, where one can still spot the wild horses called Takhi. The Takhi breed became extinct in Mongolia in the 1960s until it was reintroduced here at the National Park in the 1990s. The National Park is about 100km west of UB.
Some of you may have heard of the Golden Eagle Festival held every October in Mongolia. The Kazakhs of western Mongolia hunt with trained golden eagles and every year before the winter hunting season, they gather in celebration of their tradition and pit their birds against each other. I didn’t have the opportunity to see the golden eagles on this trip but we did find some Kazakhs with their falcons, owls, and eagles for tourists to take photos with. Better than nothing right :)
Next post will be on my trip to the Gobi Desert in south Mongolia. Stayed tuned!
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