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July 2, 2017

Monastery, Museum, and Music in Mongolia…say that five times fast!

This morning we managed to sleep in until about 5:30am which was pretty good.  We just had to kill a little time until hour 7am buffet breakfast which included an egg station, fruit, meats and cheese, Mongolian fare, waffles, spaghetti and meatballs, grilled veggies, kefir, juices, and of course coffee and tea.  While the breakfast and room were nice, the most memorable part of the Best Western was the carpet in the elevators which indicated the day of the week!  This was very helpful to those of us on vacation!

Around 8:30am, the group loaded on our bright yellow bus which transported us to Gandan Khiid located on the west side of Ulaanbaatar (or UB for short).  Gandan Khiid is one of the most important monasteries in Mongolia.  Its full name, Gandantegchinlen, translates to “the great place of complete joy”.  Along with Choijin Lama Temple Museum, it was one of the few monasteries that survived the religious purge in 1937 under Soviet rule.

Our bus driver in Armani

This monastery, which is active, was saved in 1944 when US Vice President Henry Wallace asked to see a monastery during his visit.  Prime Minister Choibalsan, who carried out Stalin’s religious persecution orders, scrambled to reopen Gandan Khiid to cover up the committed atrocities which included murdering tens of thousands of monks. Gandan remained a “show monastery” for foreign visitors until 1990 when the Soviet Union crumbled and religious ceremonies could recommence.

Mongolians are spiritual people.  As such, Shamanism and Buddhism never died under communist rule, but is was practiced under ground until religious freedom was again restored.  Buddhism, which was introduced to the Mongols under Kublai Khaan’s reign in the 13th Century, is now more prevalent than Shamanism which has been practiced by Mongolian tribes since recorded history. Having said that, both belief systems exist today and are sometimes intermingled.

For example, Carroll explained, the blue khata which in Shamanism represents the sky god who controls all nature, can be seen depicted in the outside monastery door.  It can also be found tied to many Buddhas inside the temple.  This is because the Mongols (or at least the nomads) who live in “The Land of Eternal Blue Sky” need the rain from the sky to grow the grass for their herds to survive the harsh winters.

In addition to learning about the symbolism painted on the outside of monastery which was constructed in 1838, we learned about the prayer wheels mounted on spindles outside of the temple.  They are spun in a clockwise direction to accumulate wisdom and good karma while expunging bad karma.

Soon we quietly entered the Ochidara Temple located near the main entrance to watch the monks perform their ceremony which generally takes place around 9am.  We shuffled to our left and slowly worked our way around the seated monks to the right side of the building.  With their shaved heads and dressed in maroon robes, they chanted their mantra, drummed, clinged symbols and blew in conch shells as visitors provided gifts.  It was my first time to see a ritual like this, and I found it quite interesting despite not understanding a word.

After the ceremony, we followed the kora path in a clockwise direction through the courtyard past four stupas which represent the four great elements in Buddhism: earth, water, fire, and wind. The square base expresses solidity, strength and support like the earth.  The round dome atop the cube represents the cohesiveness of a water droplet.  On top of the dome is the conical fire element which radiates energy upward.  Finally, the wind which symbolizes movement is in shape of a disc that crowns the cone.

After passing the stupas, we reached Migjid Janraisig Süm, the monastery’s main attraction.  Hundreds of Buddhas of Longevity line the temple wall as an enormous statue of Migjid Janraisig stands two stories high in the center.  The original statue was commissioned by the eighth Bogd Khan in 1911.  Syphillis blinded him, and he hoped the statue might restore his eyesight.  The statue was removed in 1937 during the religious purges, and it wasn’t replaced until 1996 with the help of donations from Japan and Nepal.  The hollow statue is made of copper, covered in gold and holds 27 tons of medicinal herbs, 334 Sutras, two million bundles of mantra, and an entire ger (similar to a yurt) with furniture!

Photos were only allowed inside this temple only if we paid extra, which turned out to be a common theme.  Most of the time, however, the photo charge was five times the paltry entry fee which caused visitors to balk.  Had the fees been reversed, tourists would have lots of spectacular photos to show of their visits to the major sites.

From the monastery, we loaded into the bus for a short ride to the National Museum of Mongolia.  The three floors of exhibits date from 800,000 BC to present day.  We saw a variety of old tools, games, and traditional dress as well as documentation related to the history of socialist Mongolia along with the current Democratic Mongolia which is still facing difficulties today.

In fact, there was an election last week, and out of protest several young people voted with a blank ballot.  As a result, none of the three candidates won 50% of the vote.  Another election is being held while we are here.  The two candidates in the run off seem to be polar opposites, and the citizens as evidenced by the blank ballots are not that happy with the choices.  One supports the traditional nomadic beliefs while the other supports the copper mine which has damaged the land but will account for one third of Mongolia’s GDP by next year. We’ll see what happens…nothing like going half way around the world to find the same political controversies.

From the museum, we went to Rosewood Kitchen for a great lunch.  We were warned this was one of the last times we could get fresh greens, so I went with an apple quinoa salad which was quite tasty.  The restaurant is run by a Bostonian name Cliffe and offers a variety of choices from pizza, to burgers, to salads, to roasted bone marrow.

By the time we finished lunch it was almost 3pm.  Page went on a shopping expedition while I returned to the hotel.  We had to be ready by 5:30pm for a show performed by the Mongolian National Song & Dance Ensemble.  Once again, we were not allowed to snap photos unless we paid an additional $20.  Dancers, clothed in elaborate traditional dress, performed the dances of different tribes.  Singers performed khöömii, traditional throat singing of a guttural sound.  Musicians, played traditional instruments such as the popular horse-head fiddle called the morin khuur whose strings are made from a horse’s tail.  In addition to the traditional music, the orchestra included some newer music which included a classical version of “We Are the Champions” by Queen.  I don’t think I have heard such a rendition, but it was quite good!

From the performing hall, we walked to the Silk Road Restaurant for our dinner…pumpkin soup and lamb kebobs.  I can’t say it was as good as yesterday’s lunch here, but it’s always nice to know the food is safe to eat.  We enjoyed a nice day and look forward to getting closer to the Mongolian steppes tomorrow!  ETB

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