In August 2017, we travelled across Central Mongolia over a period of 10 days. Our journey took us through National Parks, a lush forest, desolate valleys, nondescript towns, forgotten cities, and of course Ulaanbaatar. It was a trip of a lifetime and it has taken me a rather long time to complete our account (link of story so far) of our Mongolian journey. I’ve finally reached the last day of our trip and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about our travels as much as I’ve enjoyed reminiscing about them.
Domestic tourism has grown in recent years in Mongolia. According to Boggi, our guide, many Mongolians have started exploring their country. And sure enough, we had seen domestic tourists line up, in their 4WD, at popular tourist landmarks. Outside the Erdene Zuu Monastery, some tourists had dressed in royal robes — probably rented from the stalls that dot the sidewalk. Back then, I didn’t notice the similarity between the noble woman’s costume and Queen Amidala from the Star Wars movie. Surprisingly, Basil (an avid Star Wars fan) didn’t notice it either.
We also spotted a bunch of kids dressed in royal silks. Unlike the adults, they took their role as royals pretty seriously and stood with fierce expressions at the entrance of the monastery.
I’ve noticed, no matter where you go, tourist places of interest will have some form of entertainment. I don’t subscribe to keeping birds tied up for human amusement and I’d love to set them free instead. However, Basil found it hard to resist the urge to make friends with that gorgeous female eagle. His childlike glee was difficult to ignore and I gave in. After a few clumsy tries, he managed to get her delicately balanced on his forearm and also have his moment of adoration. Judging by the picture, it looked like the love was mutual.
Erdene Zuu Monastery
On the inside, it was hard to imagine this site was once the heart of the mighty Mongolian Empire. There was virtually no trace of Chinggis Khaan’s capital city, Karakorum — built in 1220 and later expanded by his son. I had been eagerly waiting for this visit and felt disappointed by its emptiness. The last few remnants (stones) of the ancient capital were hidden in plain sight. Erdene Zuu Monastery dominated the scene and competed with the blue sky above it. White stupas formed a periphery that enclosed the temple complex and the remnants of the past within them.
Erdene Zuu Monastery was built around 1585 from the stones of the ancient capital city. The monastery has a checkered history shaped by the politics of the region. The temple complex was thriving before the purges that destroyed most of the Buddhist monasteries in Mongolia. It briefly became a museum during Soviet rule and was finally returned to the lamas in 1990.
The three temples inspired by Chinese architectural styles are hard to miss. In the morning, tour groups thronged the narrow entrances of each temple. We joined the free guided tour of the temple complex and tried to follow the monk who gave us a discourse on the history of each temple. I suffered from temple fatigue and my mind wandered pretty soon. Besides, it was hard to keep up with people blocking the doorway.
We didn’t wait till the end of the tour. Once Basil was satisfied with the pictures he had clicked, we proceeded to the Lama Temple. Boggi wanted us to attend the morning chants, but it would delay us by a couple of hours and we had to begin our journey back to Ulaanbaatar. So we skipped the morning prayers and only took a quick look inside.
The journey from the Erdene Zuu Monastery to Ulaanbaatar took about 5 hours. We made a stop for lunch around noon and continued the rest of the journey without a halt. Although tired, everyone seemed to be in good spirits and we were all eagerly waiting to get back. We got stuck in traffic in Ulaanbataar and Saturday evening isn’t a good time to enter the city. We were just in time to buy tickets and wait in line for the evening performance to begin.
Tumen Ekh: Mongolian National Song and Dance Ensemble
Tumen Ekh was a small theatre and seating is unreserved. It’s important to stand in line and rush for the best seats. We made it to last few rows and had a sea of bobbing heads in front of us. Basil struggled with the photography because an impatient little girl kept jumping right in front of us. As I looked around, I realised: the sun was a great unifier. Everyone who had dared to ditch the comfort of a city hotel — for the life in the countryside — had got rewarded with a kiss from the sun.
I particularly liked the musical performances. The contortion act was fantastic, but too scary for me. I was worried for the girls and hoped the act would sail through without disaster. It takes some time to appreciate the Mongolian throat singing (not in pictures).
After the performance, we rushed to check-in the hotel. We decided to have dinner with our new friends, Saikhna and Boggi. Over the next hour: we cracked jokes like old friends, raised glasses of Chinggis Vodka and Beer, sang songs without knowing the words, and talked about our lives. The masks had come off and it felt great to survive the rough adventure that we had together. It’s also hard to say goodbye when you’re not sure if you would ever meet again…
And if you can’t get enough of Mongolia…
Coming Home to Mongolia (link)
Designer, Saruul Fischer goes back to her roots in this heartwarming documentary about life away from home and breaking stereotypes.
The Eagle Huntress (link)
“Thirteen-year-old Aisholpan trains to become the first female in twelve generations of her nomad family to become an eagle huntress.” IMDb
- Karakorum (UNESCO)
- Tumen Ekh