An early start, a few museums and temples and another exciting city to explore
09.07.2011 - 09.07.2011 26 °C
Woken at 5am by our Provodnista the rolling green fields dotted with Ger camps and small Mongolian villages and towns, that appeared to have few roads around them, soon morphed into the dirty, grey suburbs of Ulaanbaatar that we had been promised.
Low rise ugly concrete buildings, industrial premises and adhoc rubbish tips perforated the view. Yet the continuous addition of small Ger camps to the landscape ensured that our slightly romantic view of Ulaanbaatar was maintained.
It was not until 1911, when Mongolia first proclaimed its independence from China, that the city became capital of Outer Mongolia; named Niisel Khuree (Capital Camp). In 1918 it was invaded by the Chinese and three years later the Russians. Finally, in 1924 the city was renamed Ulaanbaatar (Red Hero), in honor of the communist triumph, and declared the official capital of an ‘independent’ Mongolia (independent from China, not the Soviet Union).
Arriving at 6am the city was still quiet. At our guesthouse the two receptionists, asleep on cots behind their desk, were soon awake and showing us to our room. With showers making us feel almost reborn, after three days on the train, our first order of business was to obtain visas for our next destination.
Walking to the Chinese embassy we passed through Sükhbaatar Square, home to the declaration of independence by Damdin Sükhbaatar in 1921. The Square also saw the first protests in 1990, which eventually led to the fall of communism in Mongolia , after being the second country to ever proclaim themselves Communist. As the centre of the city and home to Parliament, museums and the State opera it would also commence and end the Naadam festival, later in the week, with the procession of the nine yak-tail banners to the National Stadium.
Arriving at the embassy an unpublished closure (for technical reasons!) required some re-planning but confident we could still obtain visa’s in time for our departure a week later we returned to Sükhbaatar Square and began our exploration of this exciting new city. Walking through the Captial a key change, from Russia, was the attitude of drivers to both pedestrians and each other. Horns constantly blew, whilst no quarter was ever given for any animate object on the street. The red and green of traffic lights mean very little in Ulaanbaatar. Certainly, a pedestrian crossing in no way ensures a safe crossing. Given that a green pedestrian walk light, amusingly shaped as an archer, wrestler or horse rider, warrants no safety pedestrians appeared to dodge through the traffic regardless of their actual state – adding to the danger. This attitude of not stopping, even when traffic was stationary immediately beyond the crosswalk, was a constant feature of our time in the city and something that must rank Mongolians as amongst the worst and certainly the most ungracious drivers in the world.
Yet, we conquered the roads and were soon inside the National Museum of Mongolia. Whilst the first floor houses some interesting, if not a little staid, exhibits on Stone Age sights in Mongolia, the 2nd showcases costumes, jewelry and hats from most of Mongolia’s ethnic groups along with some excellent pen and ink drawings representing life during the time of Genghis Khan.
The showcase of the museum is the 3rd floor. However, with the new exhibition dedicated to Genghis Khan not yet open it was a little disappointing as whilst the history of Mongolia was documented this key gallery was closed to the public. Outside the museum we were approached by one of the many individuals selling art purported to be painted by themselves. Whilst clearly not true (as all the paintings are the same and the vendors do not know the paintings!) some of their pieces were well executed and evocative. Something to look at later.
Wondering along the broken pavements, of the city, it was clear that at night walking the streets of the city could be treacherous. Not only were there a number of protruding curbstones and paviers to trip over it also appeared that a popular occupation was to steal manhole covers. Later in the week we even saw a group of very unofficial looking locals removing one. In key tourist areas of the city some even had six foot metal bars, bolted to the ground, over them to deter all but the most ardent of criminal. This practice left a plethora of often 10ft deep holes across the cities pavements. With aggressive drivers and the pavement hazards certainly walking the streets of Ulaanbaatar was not a simple activity.
An enjoyable lunch was secured from one of the various ‘Grab and Go’s’ that we had seen throughout the city. Like the others this one, located outside one of Mongolia’s most important tourist attractions - Gandan Khiid monastery – offered lamb, beef or chicken wrapped in pastry. Whilst fast food, like this, is a relatively new concept in Mongolia (we have yet to see the dreaded yellow ‘M’) our Cornish pasty like treats were just what we needed.
Entering the Gandan Khiid monastery we could soon see a variety of temples and gardens. With a full name of Gandantegchinlen, that translates roughly as the ‘the great place of complete joy’, building commenced at the monastery in 1838. However, like many monasteries in Mongolia during the purges of 1937, it was closed but not destroyed like many others. When the US Vice-President asked to view the temple during a visit in 1944 the temple was hurriedly opened up to cover the fact that many others had been laid waste. It was not until 1990 that the monastery was reopened to visitors, today supporting some 600 monks, within its confines.
Inside the magnificent, Tibetan style, white Migjid Janraisig Süm lies the 90ft high copper, with gold gilt covering, Migjid Janraisig statue- a 1996 reproduction of the original 1911 statue that was purportedly removed and melted down for bullets by the Russians in 1937. Vast and entirely dominating the interior of the temple, the statue contains within it 27 tonnes of medicinal herbs, 334 sutras, two million bundles of mantras, plus an entire Ger with furniture.
Wondering through the city we were soon able to grow familiar with the layout of the, relatively, compact city centre. Various art galleries held our attention, along with the Central Post Office and their magnificent stamps before supper called. Having had no Thai food for over a month we ended a long day at one of the few Thai restaurants in the city before retiring to our guesthouse and rest in an unusually stationary bed.