Erdene Zuu, (meaning "Hundred Treasures"), was the first Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. The monastery was started in 1586 by Abtai Khaan, but wasn't entirely finished until about 300 years later. It had between 60 and 100 temples, about 300 gers were set up inside the walls and, at its height, up to 1000 monks were in residence.
Like Karakorum, the monastery was abandoned and then vandalised by the invading Manchu’s. Attempts at restoration were made in about 1760 and, again, in 1808 under the direction of the famous architect Manzshir, but then came the Stalinist purges of the 1930s. All but three of the temples in Erdene Zuu were destroyed and an unknown number of monks were either killed or shipped off to Siberia and never heard from again.
However, a surprising number of statues, tsam masks and scroll paintings were saved from the monastery at the time of the purges - possibly with the help of a few sympathetic military officers. These were buried in nearby mountains, or stored in local homes (at great risk to the residents). The monastery remained closed until 1965 when it was permitted to reopen as a museum, but not as a place of worship. It was only with the collapse of communism in 1990 that religious freedom was restored and the monastery became active again. Today, Erdene Zuu still retains much of its former glory and is the largest tourist draw outside Ulaanbaatar.
The history of Hustai National Park, about 100km south-west of Ulaanbaatar, starts with the extinction of the Mongolian Wild Horse, known as the Przewalski horse or Takhi horse in Mongolian. The species were first discovered by a Russian general and explorer Nikolai Przhevalsky in the 19th century. The horses lived off the grass on the vast Mongolian steppes within this area. But the population declined dramatically in the 20th century for a number of reasons. First of all, the horse was wanted for its chloroplasts. In a chemical process, which is unique to the Przewalski horse, the animal produces certain chloroplasts in the back of their throat as a result of a chemical process after eating steppe grass. The very same chloroplasts were used as an anti-viral drug to conquer an outbreak of a disease in the early 20th century. Secondly, the horse was simply hunted for its meat. It was an easy target as it lived on the open steppes and was never used to be hunted (Przewalski horses had no natural enemies).
The last Przewalski horse was seen in 1967. A special expedition to track the animal in 1969 had no result. In order to bring the Mongolian Wild Horse back to its native land, the Foundation for the Preservation and Protection of the Przewalski Horse was founded in 1977. They used Przewalski horses from zoos all over Europe to start a special breeding program. In 1992, the foundation reintroduced the first 16 horses to the Mongolian steppes. The horses bred successfully and more of them were released in the years to follow.
I came here on the third day of my 12-day Mongolian tour and stayed overnight at a ger camp by the park’s entrance. After arriving, we had lunch and rested before driving into the park where we eventually spotted a two young male Przewalski horses coming down the hill from where they graze during the day.
Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, about 80km (50 miles) north-east of Ulaanbaatar in the region of Tov Aimag, is a deservedly popular destination. At 1600m, the area is cool and the alpine scenery is magnificent. Terelj was first developed for tourism in 1964 and 30 years later it became part of the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park. One of the most visited sights within the National Park is the Turtle Rock, (Melkhii Khad in Mongolian) which is one of many rock formations, that is shaped like a turtle.
I came to the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park on the second day of my 12-day Mongolian tour with a tour company called Black Idex. Myself and an American guy on my tour, first visited the Turtle Rock before heading further up the valley to a monastery. We then headed to our overnight Ger Camp which was the first time that we saw and stayed in a Ger so everything was a bit of a novelty. We then walked around and did some horse-riding on some horses from a nearby nomadic family which was the first time I'd ever ridden a horse before.
The Trans-Mongolian Railway runs for 2215km between Ulan Ude on the Trans-Siberian Railway in Russia, with the Chinese city of Jining, by way of Ulaanbaatar. The line was built between 1949 and 1961 and in most of Mongolia it is single-track and in China dual-track. The gauge is 1520mm in Russia and Mongolia and 1435mm in China meaning that as change of gauge is required at the Mongolian/Chinese border.
I took train No.24 on a Thursday morning at 08:05 from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing (which you arrive at 14:05 the following day) and it was one of the best train journeys I've ever done. I had reserved a 'soft-class' sleeper at the International Railway Ticketing Centre across the road from the main railway station in UB. The train carriage I was in looked very new and my compartment, (which I was lucky enough to have all to myself for the whole journey), featured two bunk beds on one side and an armchair in a corner on the other side with a table in front. Two compartments share a toilet which is located in between the two with a door from each so as to access it (you have to remember to lock the next door compartments door when you go in!). I was staggered to find, not only a WC and sink like you get on a plane but also a shower with a detachable head! The journey to Beijing is beautiful and really has to be done if you're thinking of travelling between the two capitals.
The biggest event of the Mongolian year for foreigners and locals alike is the Naadam Festival held in during three days in July. Part family reunion, part fair and part nomad Olympics, Naadam (meaning 'holiday' or 'festival') has its roots in the nomad assemblies and hunting extravaganzas of the Mongol armies. The communists renamed the festival People's Revolution Day and fixed it to July 11th to 13th, on the anniversary of the Mongolian Revolution of 1921 and this festival still takes place between these dates today.
Wrestling, archery and horse racing are held during the first and second days. Day one of the Naadam Festival (July 11th) starts at about 9am with a fantastic, colourful ceremony outside the State Parliament House at Sukhbaatar Square. Chinggis Khaan's nine yak tails, representing the nine tribes of the Mongols, are ceremonially transported from Sukhbaatar Square to Naadam Stadium to open the festivities. The opening ceremony, which starts at about 11am at the Naadam Stadium, includes an impressive march of monks and athletes, plenty of music and even parachute displays. The closing ceremony, with more marches and dancing, is held at about 7pm on the second day, but the exact time depends on when the wrestling finishes.
Naadam is properly known as Eriyn Gurvan Naadam, after the three 'manly' sports of wrestling, archery and horse racing (though women participate in the first two events). The first round of the wrestling, which starts at about noon on day one in the main stadium, is the more interesting and photogenic. Archery is held in an open stadium next to the main stadium. The judges, who raise their arms and utter a traditional cry to indicate the quality of the shot are often more entertaining than the archery itself. The horse racing is held at the village of Yarmag, about 10km along the main road to the airport - it is very easy to spot. You should be able to pick up tickets for each day fairly easily by going to a tour company - I went to mine called Black Ibex who got me 2 tickets (one for the morning and one for the afternoon on day 2) that cost a total of T7,000.
This two-storey wood-framed Winter Palace was constructed in 1905 according to the designs of a Russian architect working under direct orders of the Russian Czar Nicholas II, who was apparently trying to curry favour with the Bogd Khaan at this time. The Qing Emperor, nominal ruler of Mongolia, took exception to the palace being built on European lines, since Europeans were Christians, not Buddhists, and to please him, lotus patterns were painted on the walls and Buddhist ornaments added to the roof (the latter are now no longer present). The Bogd Khaan and his consort Dondogdulam lived in the Palace for almost twenty winters.
In 1925, after the Bogd Khaan’s death, many of his personal possessions were auctioned off at a sale organised by Kh. Choibalsan, the future dictator of communist Mongolia, and the following year his Winter Palace was turned into a museum. Despite the dispersal of many of his effects, the Winter Palace remains an overflowing cornucopia of material connected with the life and times of the 8th Bogd Khaan; his sumptuous robes and hats; the elaborately decorated thrones of the Bogd Khaan and his consort; the richly ornamented sleeping chambers where they spent their nights; the music box given to him by a Russian trade delegation in 1910 which played a variety of classical tunes; the silver vase and platter given to him as a token of their esteem by the newly founded Bolshevik government in Siberia (no doubt plundered from wealthy aristocrats); the bizarre collection of stuffed animals and fish, including aardvarks, anteaters, blowfish, tigers, monkeys and much else prepared for him in 1910 by taxidermists in Hamburg, Germany; the handsome trappings worn by the elephant he had imported to Mongolia for his amusement and an incredible ger covered with the skins of 150 snow leopards.
The Winter Palace of Bogd Khaan - one of the first museums in Mongolia - was built in 1924 and was where Mongolia's 8th living Buddha, and last king, Jebtzun Damba Hutagt VIII, lived for 20 years. The palace compound was built between 1893 and 1903, and is well known for its Gate of Peace, Temple and personal library of Bogd Khaan. For reasons that are unclear, the palace was spared destruction by the Russians and turned into a museum. The summer palace, on the banks of Tuul Gol, was, however, completely destroyed.
There are six temples in the grounds. The white building to the right as you enter is the Winter Palace itself. It contains a collection of gifts received from foreign dignitaries, such as a pair of golden boots from a Russian tsar, a robe made from 80 unfortunate foxes and a ger lined with the skins of 150 snow leopards
Open: 10am-5pm daily. Admission: T2,500, camera charge T10,000.
This is the oldest public museum in Mongolia. It was opened in 1924 under the name "National Museum" in a small house situated in the centre of the city. It then moved, on its 30th anniversary, to its present location and was then, in 1992, separated into two museums with the National Museum of Mongolian History being moved just down the road.
The museum exhibits Mongolia's geography, flora and fauna, including the requisite section with stuffed and embalmed animals, birds and even fish. Geologists will like the geology section (especially the awesome meteorites). Likewise, the birders will want to check off what they've seen at the Ornithological Gallery, stuffed (literally) with over 200 species. More impressive are the two complete dinosaur skeletons, which were found in the Gobi - the giant flesh-eating Tarbosaurus, 3m tall and four to five tons in weight, and the little duck-billed plant eating Saurolophus at 'only' 8m. You can see them from above on the 3rd floor.
The gallery next door to the hall is full of interesting knick-knacks such as petrified wood, dinosaur eggs and some huge leg bones, which look like something out of the Flintstones. Look out for the world-famous 'fighting dinosaurs', a Velociraptor and Protoceratops that were buried alive (probably when a sand dune collapsed on top of them) in the midst of mortal combat, some 80 million years ago.
The museum is old and rambling, with doors and corridors going all over the place, so trace your route using the map given out free with your ticket. It's open daily in summer from 10 a.m. to 4.30 p.m. (closed Monday and Tuesday in winter). Admission is T2,500, camera is T5,000.
This monastery in the northern part of the city centre was originally built at another location in 1890, but was destroyed in the late 1930s. The monastery was recently moved into three huge concrete gers that once formed part of the State Circus (the main entrance gate has a date of 1990 on it but I don't know if this is when it was moved here). There are plans afoot to expand the monastery to include a six-storey building which will house a 17m-high statue of Maidar. So far, the only part of the statue to exist is the 108-bead rosary, donated by monks from Japan (each bead weighs 45.5kg, making it the largest in the world).
This temple, located just to the south of Sukhbaatar Square, was built between 1904 and 1908 by the 8th Bogd Khaan, Javzandamba, and dedicated to his brother Lama Luvsanhaidav. The Museum has a fine collection of woodcarving, appliqué, embroidery and sculptures, dated as early as the 17th century.
The museum contains precious examples of Buddhist art including the paintings by Ts. Zanabazar, a renowned religious reformer and great artisan of 17th century as well as colourful masks for Tsam Dance ceremony embroidered with corals, bronze statue of gods in erotic poses, silk thankas and many other artefacts. Some of the paintings inside are pretty gruesome as they depict dismembered bodies and torture which is the last place you expect to find them.
The monastery was closed in 1938 and probably would have been demolished but it was saved as a museum in 1942 to demonstrate the 'feudal' ways of the past. Although religious freedom in Mongolia recommenced in 1990, this monastery is no longer an active place of worship and will probably remain a museum.
Open: 9am - 6.30pm. Admission: T2,500. Camera charge: T5,500.
This is the largest monastery and temple complex in use in Mongolia which was built in 1810 and moved to its present location in 1838. Over the next century the Monastery grew to include nine dastans or institutes, a library and housed a community of around 5000 monks. Gandan became an important centre for learning and practicing Buddha's teachings, not only in Mongolia but for the entire Mahayana Buddhist community. The monastery is famous for its 26.5m high standing Janraisig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion
In 1938, the communists suppressed religious communities in Mongolia. They destroyed around 900 monasteries, though a handful were turned into museums. The monks were killed, jailed, or forced to join the army. Five temples of Gandan Monastery were destroyed. The remaining temples were used to accommodate Russian officials or used as barns to keep their horses. In 1944 after a petition from several monks, Gandan Monastery was reopened but its functions were carried out under the strict supervision of the socialist government. In 1990, after the Democratic Revolution and with Buddhism flourishing once more, the monastery embarked on an ambitious restoration program around the country. Today there are currently 10 datsans and temples operating with approximately 900 monks.
The National Museum of Mongolian History was founded in 1991 and is located to the west of the Government Building in the city centre. The exhibits of the museum show the history and culture of Mongols from ages as early as the Stone Age and right up to the modern days. The 15,000 exhibits of the museum are divided into sections such as Ancient History, Ancient States Period, Traditional Clothing and Jewellery, Mongol Empire, Manchu Period, Traditional Mongolian Culture and Life and the Socialist and Democratic Periods. The museum is a must-see thing if you're in Ulaanbaatar as it is very well done and well presented. I spent a good couple of hours here and took many photos, some of which can be seen in one of my travelogues.
Open: Everyday between 9.30am and 6pm. Admission: T2,500 and camera charge T10,000.
As you face North from the Sukhbaatar statue in Sukhbaatar Square, the large building is the State Parliament House, commonly known as Government House - which, like every ger, was built to face south. It's a modern building with an even more modern facade as this used to be the mausoleum for Sukhbaatar. In front of the Parliament House is a seated bronze Genghis Khan Statue, lording it over his nation. He is flanked by Ogedei (on the west) and Kublai (east).
Located slap bag in the middle of Sukhbaatar Square (and therefore right in the middle of the city) is this monument dedicated to Damdin Sukhbaatar (1893-1923), who was a military leader in the 1921 revolution and is best remembered as one of the most important figures in Mongolia's struggle for independence against the Chinese. The words he apparently proclaimed at the time are engraved on the bottom of the statue: 'If we, the whole people, unite in our common effort and common will, there will be nothing in the world that we cannot achieve, that we will not have learnt or failed to do.' The city was actually renamed Ulaanbaatar ("Red Hero") in 1924 in his honour.
In July 1921 in the centre of Ulaanbaatar, the 'hero of the revolution', Damdin Sukhbaatar, declared Mongolia's final independence from the Chinese. This Square, lying right in the centre of the city, now bears his name and features a statue of him astride his horse. Today, the Square is occasionally used for rallies, ceremonies and even rock concerts, but is generally a serene place for taking lots of photos of the buildings that border it. As you face North from the statue, the large grey building is the State Parliament House, commonly known as Government House - which, like every ger, was built to face south. Directly in front of it is a mausoleum, built in 1921, which contains the remains of Sukhbaatar. In front of the Parliament House is a seated bronze Genghis Khan Statue, lording it over his nation. He is flanked by Ogedei (on the west) and Kublai (east). Other buildings include the Cultural Palace and National Ballet and Opera Theatre on the eastern side and the Mongolian Stock Exchange and the Golomt Bank. A new high-rise modern glass building was being built on the southern side when I was there and is a useful landmark.
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