Trans-Siberian Railway: Three days in Mongolia
People are always surprised when the ask me about Mongolia and I tell them that it's full of the most collectively beautiful people I've ever seen, speaking what is probably the most incomprehensible language I have ever heard. That it’s not just flat expanses of grasslands, but that they have forests, mountains, glaciers, and deserts. There aren’t just horses, but camels, eagles, vultures, and herds of livestock. I think I too had fewer preconceived notions going into Mongolia than any other place on my trip. I didn’t know at all what to expect.
Ulaanbaatar was probably the most fascinating city on this entire journey. Right from the beginning, riding in on the train from the plains through the flat districts — miles upon miles of green, blue, and orange roofs balanced on weathered wooden huts, studded with the occasional white cloth of a Ger. There are demarcations for the plots of land that certain dwellings have, family units use their allotted land to erect their temporary structures and keep a grasp on their nomadic heritage, sharing family and livestock. Every Mongolian is legally entitled to their own piece of land.
Then all of a sudden, the train arrived in the contemporary city center. Escaping the train station, we made our way through the epically clogged streets, through traffic that slows down the commute to three times longer than it should to get even the shortest distance. In the center of town is the main square and parliament buildings, decorated with a huge and rather squat statue of Genghis Khan. There’s a haze hovering above the city from the traffic and coal burning, settling into the nook where the city lies between grassy Mongolian hills.
Our drive extended back into the hills the next morning, heading out to the countryside. We weren't 20 minutes outside of the city when we came upon a cherub-cheeked bald man in a striped shirt, holding up a huge eagle. Next to him perched on a makeshift stand was an even bigger vulture. The birds were trained for photo ops, immense animals with fierce faces who would perch on your should, or on your arm where they would spread their wings if you moved them up and down. They were also trained to hunt on command, a tradition that goes back 2,000 years.
To properly begin our day, we stopped next at an Awl, a structure created by piling stones on top of one another and covering them in prayer flags. Before starting a journey, you must walk around
the Awl three times, and place three rocks of your own, for good luck. I think the luck worked, because the rest of our day was amazing, following the road through the grasslands of Gorki Terelj National Park and spending the night at a Ger camp.
Next to the camp, there lived a nomadic family composed of two brothers, their wives, their mother, and a couple of children. The older of the brothers had a pack of horses that he used to lead guests from the camp on very slow horse-back riding excursions. The other brother was a saddle-maker, sitting on a stool in the sun all day long working with leather and wood to create one-of-a-kind saddles. The three women maintained a herd of cattle, milking them twice daily for milk to create yogurt, a staple in their diet.
We had a free afternoon, and our guide led us up to a stream behind the family’s camp which one of the brothers had told her about, supposedly the water was good for curing ailments the stomach. On the way down, we encountered the women of the family herding the cows for the night in by the pen where the calfs were held - it was time to milk. In exchange for our help in herding, they let us watch the process. One by one, they brought a calf out and matched it with it’s mother, first milking the cow and then letting the calf drink what was left over. They then invited us into their hut for yogurt, which we shared for about five minutes before a paying arrived at the camp came in to get their own glimpse into a real life nomadic experience, and we were quickly hustled out and back to our camp, overrun with yaks.
On the third day we made our way back into Ulaanbaatar, to visit the city's temples. Mongolia's religious history has blended Shamanism with Tibetan Buddhism to create a complex and fascinating set of beliefs, as well as a collection of religious icons in the city that are definitely worth a visit.
The Gandan Monastery is the biggest and oldest in the country. It’s a huge complex with beautiful buildings, but is well used and well worn, teeming with pigeons encouraged by the peddlers selling grain packets to visitors, who can feed the pigeons for luck. Making our way through the complex took us through waves and waves of the birds, moving with the tides of human currents.
This wasn't entirely encouraging until we entered the main temple, a tall and thing building holding an 87-foot-tall Boddhisatva, a statue covered in gold and containing sand from every region of Mongolia. A square path allows you to move around the structure, walking through the cool and quiet atmosphere while turning the golden-covered scrolls with your hands, helping to release the souls they contain up to heaven. The inner space feels bigger than the size of the building itself, reaching up to the skies, and sacred in a way that not a lot of places I've been before have felt.
The second and final monastery of the day felt much more earthly. The Choijin Lama Temple Complex was built in 1908 for the younger brother of Bogd Kahn, the last King of Mongolia, who was the state oracle. Starting with the protector gods that flank the entrance of Buddhist structures, you move into a complex of temples each with their own vivid imagery. There are fierce masks and statues painted like skulls and animals and snarling men. One temple is sculptured to look like the inside of a cove, filled with Buddha's disciples. There's even a sutra temple for tantric meditation, with a very limited guest list as to who was allowed inside.
In the end of it, we only got to spend a couple of days in Mongolia and it was probably the place where I most wish we had been able to spend more time. The best part of it was the stories told to me by our 19-year-old guide Anu, which I'm working into a subsequent blog post and will link to soon.