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Mongolia: Bayanzag, Kharakhorum, Khongar Sand Dunes, Khustai National Park, Ongi, Ulaanbaatar, Yol Valley
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia: Capital that moved 28 times
by Prakash Bang, Editor in Chief
The capital city was founded in 1639 as a nomadic Buddhist monastic centre. In 1778, it settled permanently at its present location, the junction of the Tuul and Selbe rivers. Before that, it changed location 28 times, with each location being chosen ceremonially.
Mongolia's only international airport is in Ulaanbaatar. The city is directly connected with few cities including Beijing, Hong Kong, Moscow, Seoul, Tokyo, Istanbul and Berlin. From Mumbai, India, our departure point we opted to transit through Hong Kong - a total of 10 hours flying time. Mongolia falls under the GMT +8 time zone.
After a traditional welcome at the airport, we were escorted to our Hotel Shangri La, conveniently located in the CBD area and within walking distance from everything important. The city was under rapid development. Many upcoming structures were standing testimony. We had no schedule for the rest of the day; save for the dinner and a restful night.
Essentially, dairy products (using milk of cow, horse, camel, sheep and goat) and meat are a staple for Mongolians. Given the dry region, vegetables and fruit are indeed a luxury. It would be a good idea for strict vegetarians (especially to us Indians) to carry snacks and processed food. Of course, there are a few Indian restaurants in the city; but none once you hit the road.
After a late breakfast the next morning, our first stop was Choijin Lama Museum. It was originally a Buddhist temple complex, consisting of one main and five branch temples. It was active until 1937, when it was closed during the height of Communist repression against Buddhism and other religious traditions. In 1938 the complex was re-established as museum due to skilful efforts of wise people. This was how it was saved throughout communism.
The main temple features an 18th-century gilt statue of Buddha Sakyamuni with a statue of Choijin Lama Luvsankhaidav on the Buddha's right and the embalmed corpse of Baldan Choephel on his left. In addition, the temple boasts a copious collection of religious instruments, thangka paintings, silk embroideries, wood carvings, statues, and the biggest collection of cham dance masks. The annex to the temple contains another temple, named 'Zankhang' and a central square in which Choijin Lama Luvsankhaidav performed trance rituals.
The next stop was the famous Sukhbaatar Square in the Government District. The square is 31,068 square metres. In the middle of Sukhbaatar Square, is the statue of Damdin Sukhbaatar on horseback. The spot was chosen because that was where Sukhbaatar's horse had urinated (a good omen) on July 8, 1921 during a gathering of the Red Army. On the north side of Sukhbaatar Square is the Mongolian Parliament building, featuring a large statue of Chinggis Khaan. This building was the country’s first multi-storied construction which was built with the help of Japanese POW.
Ulaanbaatar has several museums dedicated to Mongolian history and culture. Our next stop was the Natural History Museum that features many dinosaur fossils and meteorites found in Mongolia. The National Museum of Mongolia includes exhibits from prehistoric times through the Mongol Empire to the present.
Finally in the evening, we attended a 90-minute show at the National Theatre of Performing Arts. Regional dance sequences; traditional 64-piece orchestra and the famous throat singing had us all in awe.
Mongolia is home to the famous Cashmere Wool. For the shoppers in you, Ulaanbaatar has many stores including a few Factory Outlets to buy Cashmere. ‘Gobi’ is one of the famous Mongolian brands for Cashmere products.
Before I commence my commentary on Mongolia’s rugged terrain, it might be a good idea to share with you the country’s background.
Mongolia was ruled by various nomadic empires, including the Xiongnu, the Xianbei, the Rouran, and the Turkic Khaganate, among others. In 1206, came Chinggis Khaan. Under him was founded the Mongol Empire. Later, his grandson Kublai Khaan conquered China to establish the Yuan dynasty. After the collapse of the Yuan, the Mongols retreated to Mongolia and resumed their earlier pattern of factional conflict.
Chinggis Khaan is spelt in many different ways. I have adopted the one that was written at Ulaanbaatar's international airport. Born Temujin, Chinggis Khaan (circa 1162 - August 18, 1227) was the Great Khaan and founder of the Mongol Empire, which became the largest contiguous empire in history after his death. He came to power by uniting many of the nomadic tribes of Northeast Asia. After founding the Empire and being proclaimed "Chinggis Khaan" (King of Kings), he launched the Mongol invasions that conquered most of Eurasia. Khaan was a title (pronounced Haan) and not, as many believe, an Islamic name. Chinggis Khaan practiced Shamanism.
Campaigns initiated in his lifetime include those against the Qara Khitai, Caucasus, and Khwarazmian, Western Xia and Jin dynasties. These campaigns were often accompanied by large-scale massacres of the civilian populations. By the end of his life, the Mongol Empire occupied a substantial portion of Central Asia and China.
Beyond his military accomplishments, Chinggis Khaan also advanced the Mongol Empire in other ways. He decreed the adoption of the Uyghur script as the Mongol Empire's writing system. He also practiced meritocracy and encouraged religious tolerance in the Mongol Empire, and unified the nomadic tribes of Northeast Asia.
Present-day Mongolians regard him as the founding father of Mongolia.
Although known for the brutality of his campaigns, Chinggis Khaan is indeed credited with bringing the Silk Road under one cohesive political environment. This brought communication and trade from Northeast Asia into Muslim Southwest Asia and Christian Europe, thus expanding the horizons of all three cultural areas.
In the 16th century, Tibetan Buddhism began to spread in Mongolia, being further led by the Manchu-founded Qing dynasty, which absorbed the country in the 17th century. By the early 1900s, almost one-third of the adult male population were Buddhist monks. After the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911, Mongolia declared independence from the Qing dynasty, and in 1921 established de facto independence from the Republic of China.
Shortly thereafter, the country came under the control of the Soviet Union, which had aided its independence from China. In 1924, the Mongolian People's Republic was declared as a Soviet satellite state. After the anti-Communist revolutions of 1989, Mongolia conducted its own peaceful democratic revolution in early 1990. This led to a multi-party system, a new constitution of 1992, and transition to a market economy.
The country’s population stands at around 3 million. Over half of them are in Ulaanbaatar – the country’s capital city. Majority of the population are Buddhist. 30% of the country’s population live a Nomadic life – the world’s largest, so to say.
And that’s what I was in Mongolia for – to explore the vast wilderness.
Sandwiched between Russia and China, Mongolia is the world’s second largest landlocked country. Kazakhstan is the first. The country contains very little arable land, as much of its area is covered by grassy steppe, with mountains to the north and west and the Gobi Desert to the south.
Most of the country is hot in the summer and extremely cold in the winter, with January averages dropping as low as -30 °C. A vast front of cold, heavy, shallow air comes in from Siberia in winter and collects in river valleys and low basins causing very cold temperatures while slopes of mountains are much warmer due to the effects of temperature inversion.
I was leading a group of 10 enthusiastic friends. Between the 11 of us, we shared five 4x4 Land Cruisers. Accompanying us were drivers in each and our guide Tsomorlig – a wonderful lady who didn’t mind at all we pronouncing her name wrong – each and every time! The best she liked was the name Summer Queen.
For our trip, I availed the services of Active & Adventure Tours Mongolia – a professional DMC with knowledgeable & helpful staff. They surely will have my recommendation.
The term create your own road fits perfectly well whilst crisscrossing the countryside. Though distances are measured in kilometres, it’s good to go by the time taken! The beasts that we were driving in had the capability to drive at high-speeds as if they were on highways. More time was consumed for taking photo stops than for the actual drives!
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