We arose bright and early at 4:45am for a 9:30am flight to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. We allowed an hour to get to the Beijing airport and miraculously at this crazy hour there wasn’t much traffic so we arrived sooner. We were there sooner than the three hour check-in time at MIAT Mongolian Airlines, so we waited in line for a while before we finally got our boarding pass and headed to immigration.
Immigration and security took at least one hour to get through, maybe longer, which gave us about 1.5 hours to get water, breakfast, and in Page’s case do some shopping. I never thought I’d say I ate at KFC in China, but the options were limited. The only other choices were Pizza Hut and Starbucks and a muffin wasn’t going to cut it for the next four plus hours of waiting, flying, and going through immigration in Ulaanbaatar.
Upon arrival at Ulaanbaatar, both of Page’s bags made it to the luggage carousel while mine did not. Fortunately, neither did some monks’ bags, so I followed them to a back room. For an unknown reason, they wanted to look through my backpack which was protected by a large cover. I asked why, but with the language barrier I didn’t get many answers. I said, “It’s a backpack like all the other ones that were out on the conveyor belt. Soon enough they waived me off and didn’t even make me put the bag through the scanner.
Outside, representatives of National Geographic greeted us. We loaded in the small car and were presented with a blue khata as a welcome gift. Khatas are a traditional ceremonial scarf used in many occasions including welcoming arriving guests. Mongolians like blue as it represents the sky. Soon, we made it to the Best Western Premier Hotel where dumped our we belongings, freshened up and headed out for lunch and to explore the city of mixed architecture…soviet style buildings, new skyscrapers from the boom of the copper mine, and traditional architecture.
The city, founded in 1639, has sported several names including Örgöö, Khuree, Ikh Khuree, and Niislel Khuree over the last few hundred years. It was renamed Ulaanbaatar (Red Hero) in 1924 in honor of the communist triumph and was declared the official capital city of “independent” Mongolia (independent of China, but not the Soviet Union). Ulaanbaatar is the coldest national capital in the world and in the winters when the 1.3 million residents burn coal to stay warm, it is the second most polluted behind a city in Iran. Fortunately, in the summer, the air is somewhat clean (at least compared to Beijing)!
We took a short walk to what we thought was Veranda Restaurant, but what we later found out, Veranda was located upstairs, so our lunch ended up being at The Silk Road which is the same place we will be eating tomorrow night. Oh well, the mozzarella and tomato salad was excellent as was the Silk Road Soup which was beef broth with meat, noodles, and bean sprouts.
The Veranda and Silk Road restaurants were located across the way from Choijin Lama Temple Museum, which was hidden gem. I was pleasantly surprised by this once temple, now museum. The temple, constructed in 1904, was once the home of Luvsan Haidav Choijin Lama, Bogd Khan’s brother. The temple, tucked in between new buildings of modern downtown, was lucky to be saved from the religious purge under communist rule in 1937 to serve as a museum.
The five temples on the grounds house magnificent thangkas (silk appliqués and paintings depicting Buddhist scenes) and spectacular tsam masks. The masks are used in dance and were first introduced in Mongolia in the 18th Century. The dance is a religious ritual and is performed to exorcise evil. The masks look like colorful characters from the Where the Wild Things Are. While I really loved the masks, the bronze statues sculpted in a single cast by famous Zanabazar who was proclaimed the head of Buddhism in Mongolia at five years old are considered masterpieces. Unfortunately, photos were not allowed inside, otherwise I would have been snapping away. At least the exterior of the temple complex, though weather worn, was quite wonderful to me and offered a variety of interesting shots.
From the temple, Page and I followed the main road, called Peace Ave to Beatles Square. The traffic wasn’t as bad a Beijing, but it was still important to tread carefully through the crosswalks especially given stop lights were arbitrary for both the left-hand side vehicles and the right-hand side vehicles on the road!
Beatles Square is named for a monument to the Fab Four which was fully funded by Beatles fans. The monument features bronze images of John, Paul, George and Ringo on one side and a guitar player on the other. The sculpture recalls the 1970’s era when teenagers would gather in stairwells to sing Beatles songs they learned from contraband records.
From the Beatles square, we poked our heads in the State Department Store which is a huge mall. Supposedly the sixth floor is full of authentic Mongolian wear, but we didn’t make it there today. Instead we browsed through the handicrafts at Mary and Martha’s before we took a circuitous route back to the hotel.
Our hotel was located one block away from Chinggis Khaan (Sükhbaatar) Square. Yes, Chinggis Khaan is the same as Genghis Khaan. The Genghis spelling came from the Arabic translation whose language lacks the “ch” sound. Beyond that, I don’t know how “Genghis” has stuck in the Western world. Furthermore, the K in the Mongolian “kh” is silent, so this famous emperor’s name is pronounced completely different from the way we know it.
Chinggis Khaan, born Temüjin, in 1162 was the Great Khan and founder of the Mongol Empire which became the largest contiguous empire in history after his death (1227). He came to power by uniting many fighting tribes in Mongolia. Though merciless in battle, Chinggis offered leaders of each clan the chance to surrender in exchange for protection, religious freedom, lower taxes and a heightened level of commerce and prosperity. Through this way, he was able to establish peace among the rival clans.
After his death, his son Ögedei, Ögedei’s widow, Ögedei’s son (Guyuk) respectively ruled the powerful empire until 1248. Its demise came when tensions arose between his descendants Arik Boke and Kublai who each claimed the title of great khan. Arik Boke controlled Mongolia while Kublai controlled northern China until he defeated his brother. Kublai went on to create the Chinese dynasty Yuan and moved the capital to present day Beijing. The Ming army captured Beijing in 1368 and the Mongol royal family retreated to Mongolia where fighting continued for years to come.
Chinggis Khaan never erected statues or monuments to himself though modern Mongolians have tried to rectify this. The enormous marble construction featuring a bronze Chinggis Khaan statue was erected on the north side of Chinggis Khaan (Sükhbaatar) Square in 2006 for the 800th anniversary of Chinggis Khaan’s coronation. He is flanked by Ögedei and Kublai and two famed Mongol soldiers Boruchu and Mukhlai guard the entrance.
In the center of the square stands a bronze statue of Sükhbaatar astride his horse. Sükhbaatar, for whom the square was originally named, is known as the “hero of the revolution”. He declared Mongolia’s final independence from China in July 1921.
The square that once served as a place for peaceful anti-communism protests in the 1990’s which ushered Mongolia into democracy, is now used for rallies, concerts, and festivals. In addition, families ride bikes (single, side-by-side tandems, and triples) while little kids drive toy cars which don neon lights. It is quite an active place, both day and night.
After our short visit to the square, we cleaned up and met the group we’d be traveling with for the next two weeks. The fearless leaders of our National Geographic horse riding trip on the Mongolian Steppes are Thomas Kelly, a famous National Geographic photographer and his wife Carroll Dunham, a religious anthropologist who is an expert on Himalayan cultures. They have both written several books and have produced several documentaries. They currently reside in Katmandu, but have apartments in Mongolia, India, and New Mexico.
Their son Liam who was born in Katmandu and his Irish girlfriend Emma were both at the meeting. Liam is a budding photographer and an accomplished kayaker. He currently attends Prescott College in Arizona. Emma is an accomplished musician and a massage therapist. Liam’s younger brother, Galen, was already at camp, so we would meet him later, but it is a small world as he attends Fountain Valley School in Colorado Springs!
Our translator, Nomin, has an eight-year old brother that is a world champion chess player, and her regular job is translating for the Mongolian Chess Federation! She was recently in the USA translating at a competition.
We were a group of twelve tourists…mostly women. Diane and Kim were friends from California who met volunteering at a refugee camp in Greece. Brigitte, a surgeon who likes her high heels and was out of her comfort zone, came with her daughter Steffi who is a saddle horse trainer. Debbie, from Illinois, left her husband behind and enjoys trail riding her horse in the park. Béla, a Hungarian who lives in Florida, rides dressage. Anna, a biostatistician from Boston who recently quit her job, has never ridden a horse, but was brave enough to try it on the countryside of Mongolia. Ingrid, a hoot and definitely the personality of the group, is a retired nurse who resides in Dixie, Idaho. She field-dresses bear and elk, tans their hides, and makes holsters and other useful things for hunters. Last, but not least, Chip and Kate, who live in Ohio, were celebrating a year-delayed honeymoon!
After the introductions and trip briefing, our group walked to The Bull Restaurant, another hot-pot restaurant. This time, from our recent experience in Beijing, we knew how to boil the vegetables and beef in our cauldron of broth. We had our own private room and the table, which seated seventeen people had the biggest Lazy Susan I’ve ever seen! It was a nice way to end the day. ETB