Magistrale Diaries: The land of the Khaans

Two knocks on the cabin door and some garbled words spoken by our Provodnitsa are enough to awaken us. Outside, to the backdrop of rolling hills, trucks line a highway that gradually reveals an industrial sprawl. There’s a definite nip in the air and the sun is yet to make an appearance. Moments later, just a few minutes behind our advertised time, we pull in to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia…P1020609

Within ten minutes of our arrival, the platform has cleared out almost completely, and only then do we encounter the first few cabbies. They’re not pushy or aggressive in the least, and the one we pick is happy to wait while we scout around the station taking photographs. Pulling up to our hotel, he slips us his card, asking us to call him should we need a driver, or a cheaper place to stay!

The lobby of the Ramada is empty at the time, and an early check-in is quickly accomplished. The TV by the reception desk blares the morning news – Trump is to meet Putin for the first time, and Mongolia is headed to the polls. Unfortunately for us, the latter means we’ll have no access to alcohol for the duration of our stay. For the Mongolian capital though, its just another Friday, and business as usual…P1020719Our hotel is located along Peace Avenue, a wide and busy east-west drag, one of the cities principal arteries. Not far north from us lies the Gandan Monastery, possibly one of the most visited destinations in the capital. Gandan is short for Gandantegchinlen, a Tibetan word that means “great place of complete joy”. Till the Mongolian Revolution of 1990 though, the monastery was anything but that. The religious purges by Choibalsan‘s communist government, starting in the 30s, had effectively wiped out all of Mongolia’s monasteries, and decimated its population of Buddhist monks. Gandan Monastery was one of a handful that survived.

Today, not only is it popular among tourists, but also one of the country’s most important Buddhist institutions. Its centerpiece is a 26.5-meter-high statue of Migjid Janraisig (the lord who watches in every direction), which the Dalai Lama inaugurated in ’96. It remains to this day the tallest indoor statue in the world.IMG_8271The revolution of 1990 brought with it many changes. A change in government, the transition to a market economy, and a huge influx of people into the Mongolian capital. In less than three decades, Ulaanbaatar’s population has almost doubled, resulting in a huge strain on the city’s infrastructure. Save for a few bus lines, public transit is far from adequate, and traffic congestion is a part and parcel of everyday life. Any time of day, and just about any distance, you’re likely to be stuck in a jam. To their credit, the Mongolians are incredibly patient drivers though. They also have an inexplicable obsession for the Toyota Prius, a vehicle that accounts for over 15% of automobile sales! IMG_8296Long before the Prius’s and the communists though, this was a land of Khaans. And Bogd Khaan was the last of them. Born in Tibet as Jebtzun Damba Hutagt, he was fairly high up in the Buddhist pecking order, and considered Mongolia’s eighth Living Buddha. Bogd Khaan died in 1924 but his legacy lives on. Built at the end of the 19th-century, his winter palace was miraculously spared destruction by the Russians, and is today one of Ulaanbaatar’s finest museums, containing a stunning array of Buddhist artwork.  IMG_8284The market economy that resulted from the revolution also led to a construction boom, and the city today is a glorious juxtaposition of ancient Buddhist temples, Soviet-era housing blocks, and contemporary steel and glass business centers. A massive influx of expats over the years has further fueled the growth, giving rise to pubs, karaoke bars and hot pot restaurants, all with aspirational English names hopelessly lost in translation.IMG_8456Lying squat in the middle of downtown, contrasting sharply with Ulaanbaatar’s gleaming office towers, is the Choijin Lama Temple, another survivor from the era of religious persecutions. Although no longer a place of worship, the Choijin Lama Temple, dating from the early 20th-century, also serves as a museum. The temples within the complex, six in all, display several religious artifacts, the most striking amongst them being the Tsam masks and Thangka paintings. Sadly, like it was at Bogd Khaan‘s winter palace, indoor photography here too is absurdly expensive…  IMG_8328Surrounded by the Khentii Mountains, Ulaanbaatar or UB as its often referred to, lies in the Tuul River valley, at an elevation of 1350-meters or 4400-feet. Its elevation, combined with its latitude, and its remote location – far removed from any coast – gives it the unglamorous reputation of being the coldest capital city in the world. With an annual average temperature just below freezing, UB’s summers are extremely short lived, and understandably, the locals do everything they can to maximize them.

Among the city’s youth, the quintessential hub of summertime activity is a little plaza that sits across from the iconic State Department Store building on Peace Avenue. Occupying pride of place on that plaza is a monument dedicated to the Fab Four, with the public space itself unofficially referred to as Beatles Square…
P1020749A little further east along Peace Avenue lies Sükhbaatar Square, the city’s most notable landmark. Named after Damdin Sükhbaatar, the gent responsible for relieving Mongolia from Chinese rule, the plaza features at its center a bronze statue of the revolutionary hero astride his horse. Directly to its north lies the impressive Mongolian Parliament building, also known as Government House, who’s centerpiece is a seated Chinggis Khaan statue. Another bronze sculpture, this one was completed in ’06 to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the great Khaan‘s coronation.

Sükhbaatar Square was at the center of all activity during the Mongolian Revolution of 1990, and continues to be a place of gathering to this day – the occasional protest, cultural event, state ceremony, and in the summer months, rock concerts too. Its also considered the geographic center of UB, and features on its south end a large plaque listing the former names of the city – Örgöö, Nomiin Khuree, Ikh Khuree and Niislel Khuree.  P1020803The capital of Mongolia didn’t just change names multiple times, but true to the country’s nomadic ways, also changed locations. While the name Ulaanbaatar was chosen as recently as the early 20th-century, the site of the present day capital was only established in the late 18th-century.  And while the economic boom of recent years has brought with it dramatic changes in population to the capital, a healthy percentage of Mongolians still maintain a largely nomadic lifestyle.

Thankfully, access to the great Mongolian outdoors they inhabit, is no more than an hour away, even from our lofty perch at the Ramada, overlooking the bustle of Peace Avenue. We’ve recruited the services of a hotel-supplied driver this gloomy Saturday morning, who comes at a bit of a price, but knows his stuff for sure. We’re headed some 50-miles east of the city today, towards Gorkhi-Terelj National Park. But first, a spot of rail fanning, in quintessential Mongolian countryside…P1030013_1,pngThe third largest protected area in Mongolia, only the southern portion of humongous Gorkhi-Terelj National Park is open to visitors. And while a lot of it has, over the years, been developed for tourism – mostly eco-friendly Ger-style camps – the park still offers a truly memorable getaway from the city, in the most beautiful natural setting there is.   P1030104Pristine alpine forests and the expansive Mongolian steppe make the area ideal for hiking and horse back riding, and the park’s many rock formations are perfectly suited to climbing. Frog Rock, or Melkhii Khad in Mongolian, is one of the park’s most famous, its distinctive contours easily discernible from a distance.
P1030097On our short hike up Frog Rock, we encounter a group of expats, encompassing much of the British Commonwealth. There’s a lady from Singapore, her Kiwi boyfriend, a couple of Scotts, an Aussie, and his Labrador from South Africa, Mandela. In the brief but lively exchange we have up top, we reminisce our travels, exchange tips about the country, and collectively lament the temporary liquor ban.
P1030066Not far from Gorkhi-Terelj National Park lies the Chenggis Khaan Statue Complex, a tourist destination created within the last decade, par for the course on any day trip out of the Mongolian capital…
P1030154Weighing 250-tons and standing 40-meters or 130-feet tall, the imposing stainless steel monument to Chenggis Khaan is the largest equestrian statue in the world. Facing east – a symbolic nod to the man’s birth place – it sits atop a circular visitor center, who’s 36 columns represent the famous Khaans of Mongolia.

Visitors emerge onto the observation area – the head of Chenggis Khaan‘s horse – through a doorway carved out of his crotch! Once atop, the views are spectacular, making that extra detour to the complex seem well worth your while. Why the obscure location, you might ask. Legend has it that it was here that the great Khaan found his golden whip…P1030126Back in UB and its time for another well deserved meal. Sans alcohol. Thanks to the constant infusion of outsiders into the mix, the city has plenty to offer by way of dining destinations, catering to many a palette today. But for a last supper in this country, nothing quite compares to good ol’ Shashlik, which is typically skewered here with alternating pieces of meat and fat…IMG_8464Its our final morning in UB and we decide to trek back to the train station, where we arrived a couple of days ago. There, awaiting departure from the main platform stands Train 24, Ulaanbaatar – Beijing, in a smart British racing green. It’s inspiration enough for our next trip. Mongolia, we will be back…P1020814

A full set of pics from our time in Mongolia can be seen here.

One thought on “Magistrale Diaries: The land of the Khaans

  1. Pingback: Magistrale Diaries: Naushki, and the International Border | brat's ramblings

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s