Mongolia Monday- Fun With My Mongolia Photos

Chinggis Khan, Parliament building, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Chinggis Khan, Parliament building, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

I’ve been having fun using a variety of photo effects on some of my iPad drawings using the Camera Awesome app on my iPad. I thought it would be interesting to do the same with a selection of my Mongolia photos. Here’s five I did this morning to see what I could come up with. I like it. So much of what one sees in Mongolia has an iconic, storybook quality that the images really lend themselves to “special effects”.

Bactrian camels with Zurgul Uul in the background, Bayan Onguul soum
Bactrian camels with Zurgul Uul in the background, Bayan Onguul soum
Horse trainer, Dalanjargalan
Horse trainer, Dalanjargalan
Gers on a stormy day, en route from Ikh Nart to Gun-Galuut, 2011
Gers on a stormy day, en route from Ikh Nart to Gun-Galuut, 2011
Decorative carving on old temple, Gachen Lama Khiid, Erdenesogt, Khangai Mountains, 2010
Decorative carving on old temple, Gachen Lama Khiid, Erdenesogt, Khangai Mountains, 2010

Mongolia Monday: 5 Proverbs About Life

Mongol bokh (wrestling), Baga Gazriin Chuluu, July 2009

By experiencing hardship
You will become experienced

There are thousands of owners for something done right
There is one owner for something done wrong

Chinggis Khan statue, July 2009

If a person tries hard
Destiny will try hard

From a little bit of laziness
Much laziness will come

Young jockeys finish 7km race for 2 year old horses, August 2010

Talk little
Do much

Mongolia Monday- 6 Places For Chinggis Khan Fans To Visit

The only thing many people know about Mongolia is that it is the place from which Chinggis Khan and the Mongol Horde rode forth to conquer the largest land empire in history. The Mongols’ view of him is very different than the one westerners grew up with. Far from being a bloodthirsty “barbarian”, he is considered more as Americans do George Washington, as the father of their country. He united the Mongol tribes in 1206. The last vestiges of his empire lasted until the 18th century, although it had split into many separate parts long before. He was their lawgiver and his pronouncements carry weight and provide some guidance in the country to this day.

Mongolia became the world’s second communist country in 1921. Not long after, the memory and public acknowledgment of Chinggis Khan was, except for a very few brief periods, actively suppressed. This changed, it appears, almost instantly, when Mongolia became a democracy in 1990. He is THE major cultural icon of Mongolia today. In fact, I just realized that I’m writing this wearing my Chinggis Khan t-shirt that I bought when I was there in 2006. There is also Chinggis Khan beer and vodka. Large wall-hangings with his portrait are very popular. You see him on billboards. He and his warriors ride into the National Naadam stadium during the opening ceremonies. There is a pop singer named Chinggis Khan. And, as you will see below, one can put together quite an interesting tour of the country visiting statues, monuments and a variety of locations associated with him.

I’ve been to three of the ones listed here and hope to visit the others at some point. Who knows, maybe this summer!

Government House, Sukhbaatar Square, Ulaanbaatar
Chinggis statue

1. Sukhbaatar Square- When I first saw the Government Building in 2005, it was a socialist era plain brown rectangle. The next time, in 2006, it was covered with scaffolding and it looked like a major change in the facade was under way. By the time I saw it again in 2008, the transformation was complete as you can see in the first image. It’s now one of my favorite government buildings ever. And the centerpiece is an enormous statue of Chinggis Khan.

Chinggis Khan room at the National Museum of Mongolian History
Mongol chain mail hauberk-13th-14th c.

2. National Museum of Mongolian History- There’s a rather large room devoted to Chinggis Khan and the Mongol Empire on the 3rd floor. Lots of interesting artifacts, including the chain mail hauberk show above. There are supposed portraits of Chinggis, Kublai and other Mongol khans, but I believe they are Chinese in origin and created after the lifetimes of the subjects. One unexpected display has an actual letter between one of the later Khans, Guyuk,  and the Pope. There was a surprising amount of communication between the Mongols and western Europeans from the 13th century on, although usually at cross-purposes. The Europeans wanted the Mongols to help them beat the Saracens and the Mongols wanted the Europeans to submit to them and become part of the Empire. Needless to say, neither party got what they wanted.

The world's largest equestrian statue
The view looking east as Chinggis would see it

3. The Chinggis Khan Equestrian Statue- It’s 40 meters high and on a 10 meter high base and is covered in aluminum. If you look at the horse’s mane, you can see the people who had taken the elevator up into the horse’s body. There’s a restaurant, gift shop and other facilities in the base. The second image shows what the statue “sees”. Out beyond those mountains is the origin point of the Khalkha Mongol people, who westerners think of as “Mongols”, although there are quite a few other ethnic Mongol groups.

These next three are the places that I haven’t been to yet, so there’s no images.

4. The Onon River– In the mountains near this river’s junction with another, Balj Gols, is where Chinggis Khan is believed to have been born. Although westerners think of the Mongols as a steppe people, they originated in a mountainous area that is part of the southernmost extension of the taiga or boreal forest. This is where the first monument to Chinggis Khan was erected during the socialist era. The people responsible ended up being purged. There is also a stone marker near the village of Dadal, placed in 1990 to commemorate the 750th anniversary of the writing of the Secret History of the Mongols, almost the only primary reference material available about the Mongols during the time of Chinggis Khan, although it survived only as a Chinese transliteration.

5. Avarga- This site on the Kherlen River is supposed to be the location of Chinggis Khan’s “capital”. It is believed to have served as his base from 1197 until the end of his life. I’ve been told that there are two noisy ger camps in the immediate vicinity, so it looks like a day trip or camping out will be the preferred options.

6. Burkhan Khaldun- This mountain, where Chinggis Khan took refuge from enemies before he became Khan of all the Mongols and journeyed at various times in his life to pray to Tenger (the Sky), is located within the Khan Khentii Strictly Protected Area, which the Lonely Planet guide describes as “Chinggis Khan territory”. There is an ovoo on the mountaintop that is visited by the Mongols. I don’t know if it’s ok for non-Mongols to go onto the mountain, but I would at least like to see it.

Mongolia Monday- Placeholder Pic of Chinggis Khan

Travel home from my trip back east got, shall we say, interesting. Suffice to say that the good news is that I got home. The bad news was that it was at 2:30 in the morning. So I slept in a little.

I did get in some studio time since I have to have five small works for the Godwit Days waterfowl festival this weekend. I’ll pick up the “Six Things” series next week, but, in the meantime, here’s an image of the Chinggis Khan statue that is in the front of the Parliament Building in Ulaanbaatar. As you can see, it’s quite large.

Mongolia Monday- Book Review: Genghis Khan And The Making Of The Modern World


This book is on my short list of “must reads” for anyone interested in Mongolia. It’s not simply a history of the Mongols and their empire, but what they did that still influences us today in ways that you might find quite surprising. Weatherford effectively demonstrates how the way of life dictated by the vicissitudes of living on the steppes of Central Asia formed Mongol society and, indeed, Genghis (hereinafter called by the more accurate rendition, “Chinggis”) Khan himself.

After reading “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World”, I was left almost wishing that the Mongols had been able to keep going to the Atlantic and beyond. So much of what people know about them was, unusually, written by the “losers”, historians and chroniclers in the countries that the Mongols conquered. Not surprisingly, the emphasis is often on the destruction and disruption that they caused wherever their armies appeared. The only surviving source of information on Mongol history by the Mongols themselves that is available in English is “The Secret History of the Mongols”, a book that will deserve its own post once I’ve acquired the latest translation, which, with luck, will be this summer.

Chinggis Khan was not a man to take “no” for an answer and he and his sons and grandsons had the warriors and tactics to back it up. Being practical people, they went with what worked. Not reveling in, or particularly liking, bloodshed, their campaigns were designed to minimize it, at least for themselves. Against other armies, they used the same methods as when they hunted game on the steppes back home. Retreating to draw the opposing army onto favorable ground was a common tactic that seems to have worked every time. Against cities, they used Chinese-designed siege engines, re-routed at least one river and, in another siege, when the inhabitants had barricaded themselves within their city walls, built an entire second wall around the perimeter to demonstrate who was really in charge.

When the Mongol army arrived at a city, it was given the opportunity to surrender and if it did, then everyone, except leaders who could foment revolt, was pretty much allowed go on peaceably about their business, but under a Mongol administration. Defiance was met with total destruction, hence their reputation for violence and ruthlessness in the West.

The boundaries of the empire expanded until they were defeated by the Mameluke army of Egypt in the west, failed twice to conquer Japan in the east and were more or less defeated by the hot, humid climate to the south. Kublai Khan, Chinggis’ grandson, over the course of twenty years, defeated the Sung dynasty of China and founded the Yuan dynasty, which ruled for over 100 years until overthrown by rebels who established the Ming Dynasty. The other parts of the empire more or less faded away over time and the Mongols were assimilated into the local populations.

For most Westerners, that’s the end of the story. But as dramatic as it is, it’s what happened during the existence of the Mongol Empire that I found fascinating and which is the heart of this book.

The Mongols, over three generations and thirty years, created the largest land empire the world has ever seen. They created countries, Russia is one example, that hadn’t previously existed. Within that empire the Pax Mongolica reigned. It turns out that Chinggis Khan wanted peace for himself and his people. The irony, of course, is that he waged war for most of his life to achieve it.

So, how does any of this relate to the modern world? Well, here are a few highlights from the book…..

-Chinggis Khan established the supremacy of the rule of law, which he applied to himself the same as to the poorest herder. It’s known as The Great Law and was based, not on divine revelation or the codes of settled lands, but the customs and traditions of the nomadic steppe people. This at a time, the 13th century, when in Western Europe kings ruled by divine right, no rules need apply.

-Given that within his empire, virtually every religion, including Christianity, Islam and Buddhism, was represented, Chinggis Khan decreed total religious freedom for everyone, though he himself worshiped the traditional Mongol spirits and always had a shaman in attendance in his camps.

-The Mongols had no written language. Once they found themselves administering an empire that was almost 6000 miles from east to west, that had to change. Since the Uighers are closely related to the Mongols (Xinjiang in China in their homeland) and already had a perfectly serviceable writing system, Chinggis Khan simply adopted it. That, plus the addition of professional administrators from China and other countries like Persia, and bureaucratic paperwork, Mongol-style, was born.

-Most Americans have heard of the fabled Pony Express, which operated for a short time in the 19th century American West. The Mongols had the “arrow messengers”, a system of fast riders. The stations were about twenty miles apart and staffed by about twenty-five families. The system survived from the 13th to 18th centuries, when it had sixty-four stations. Chinggis Khan knew that efficient, reliable communication was essential for administering the empire.

-Under Khubilai Khan in China (the empire had split into four parts by that time), the Mongols: “guaranteed landowners their property rights, reduced taxes and improved roads and communication”. They reduced by almost half the number of capital offenses that had existed under their predecessors, substituted fines for physical punishment and moved to limit the use of torture (evidence had to be gathered first; physical compulsion was a last resort) at the same time European authorities, both church and state, were expanding it through, among other things, the creation of institutions like the Inquisition, no evidence sought or used.

-Khubilai Khan greatly expanded the use of paper money, which Marco Polo remarked on, creating opportunities for both credit and bankruptcy. No one could declare bankruptcy to avoid debts more than twice. A third time could lead to execution. The money was made from mulberry bark, cut into various sized rectangles, marked and stamped.

-Unlike the Romans and their enthusiasm for blood sports, the Mongols had a cultural abhorrence, mentioned earlier, of bloodshed. They had no interest in pitting animals against each other for entertainment. Execution of criminals was not a public spectacle as was so prevalent in Europe.

-What made Chinggis Khan’s, and his descendant’s, empire tick was trade, on a massive scale. Under the Pax Mongolica, the Silk Road flourished like never before or since. The quantity and quality of goods that flowed between east and west was incredible. A partial list of what the author mentions includes: silk (of course, and in massive amounts), bronze knives, wooden puppets, iron kettles, board games, perfume and makeup, musk, indigo, jewelry, wine, honey, cinnabar and sandalwood. It was the closest thing to a global economy until relatively recently.

The author, Jack Weatherford, has produced a compelling, compulsively readable account of how one man, starting from nothing, even being kept a slave for some period of time, rose to become the ruler of the world’s largest empire and, in doing so, laid much of the groundwork for the world we know today.

And…. he has a new book coming out on Feb. 16, The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued his Empire.

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford, Three Rivers Press, New York, 2004

Mongolia Monday Miscellany

The holidays are upon us and things are getting busy. The weather here in northern California has been unseasonably warm and sunny, with almost no rain. Very odd. On the other hand, winter has apparently arrived in Mongolia. There’s some nice photos here at AsianGypsy. Below is a picture of a pretty spring day (no wind!)  in UB, which brings me to the next topic:

Ger felt at the Narantuul Market, UB 2005
Ger felt at the Narantuul Market, UB 2005

One of the things that I noticed on my first trip to Mongolia was the number of shipping containers around town. I was told that when the economy collapsed, aid poured in and that a lot of it came in shipping containers. Lots of shipping containers. Really, really a lot of containers. Since Mongolia had nothing to send back out,  there they have stayed and been put to good use. If you think about it, it makes perfect sense. The Mongols are nothing if not resourceful, there were lots of containers and they are weather and theft-proof. So there is line of crates along one of the main roads where tires are sold, an area of them that house grocery sellers, etc.

Ger supplies, Narantuul Market, UB 2005
Ger supplies, Narantuul Market, UB 2005

These two photos are from the Narantuul (or, as some of you know it, the Black Market) Market in Ulaanbaatar. The containers line the outer edge of the parking lot. Since my interest was gers, my guide took me to the area where everything from complete gers to any and all the parts and furnishings were sold, all out of shipping containers. So, a few weeks ago, I saw this posting on Craig’s List, offering shipping containers for sale. We’ve ended up short on secure, clean storage at our now 3 year old house. I’ve needed somewhere to store extra frames for my paintings, older work, plus all my art festival gear and AirFloat shipping boxes, that is dry and bug-free. David needs to de-clutter the part of the garage he uses for his shop.  I also remembered a book I have that discusses how the Japanese traditionally had secure free-standing buildings in which to store their valuables and seasonal items that were not in use (that would be, for us, holiday decorations).

You can see where this is going, right? We’ve almost got the space cleared and the 20’x 8′ shipping container should arrive in a week or so. Mongolians would be shocked at what we are paying for it, but for what it is, on a per-square-foot basis, it’s a deal. It will, however, lack “style points”. I’m going to take a cue from Frank Lloyd Wright, who observed that doctors can bury their mistakes, but architects can only plant vines. We’re going to paint the thing a neutral green, put lattice up along the outboard wall and plant rambling roses and other big vines like a climbing hydranga (canes up to 80′ long). The inboard side will form a wall for a carport on which we can hang our ladders. The door will be the aesthetic challenge, but I’ll think of something. Environmentally it makes sense since we’re re-using something, not using resources for new construction. It may be a marker of where we are in life that both of us are really quite excited about all this. Sufficient storage, The Final Frontier! Thank you to the Mongols for a great inspiration!


On a cultural note, most of what is known about the early history of the Mongolian people is contained in the Secret History of the Mongols, which I plan to blog about in the future once I’ve read it. In the meantime, in Simon Wickham-Smith’s Mongolian poetry anthologies is this, from Chinggis Khan himself:

Statue of Chinggis Khan, Government House, Ulaanbaatar 2008
Statue of Chinggis Khan, Government House, Ulaanbaatar 2008


I don’t worry about my own humble body,
I do worry that my great state may weaken.
I don’t worry about my own constitution,
I do worry that my great country may be distressed.
Should my humble body be exhausted,
Still my great state shall not weaken.
Should my own constitution suffer,
Still my great country shall not be distressed.

Physical strength can see off one alone,
But mental strength can see off many.

One skilled in words becomes wise,
One skilled in swordsmanship becomes a hero.

Head for the mountain pass,
Head for a place to ford the river,
Don’t be overwhelmed by the distance,
Just keep going.
Don’t be overwhelmed by the weight,
You’ll lift it if you make the effort,
Immense river fords,
Don’t be faint-hearted because you’re far away-
If you go along, you will come out on top,
Don’t hesitate believing that is heavy-
If you exert yourself you will lift that up.

Words of Chinggis Khan were noted in decrees and books and called Chinggis’ advice.

Mongolia Monday- Poetry Special, Part 2

For Part 2 of this special post, here is Simon Wickham-Smith sharing how he became involved in things Mongolian, along with a little information on translating literature from one language into another. His comment about the number of precise words that exist in Mongolian for some parts of their world and culture reminds me of hearing that the Inuit have 37 names for snow, but no generic term as occurs in English.

Gandan Monastery, Ulaanbaatar 2006
Gandan Monastery, Ulaanbaatar 2006

Simon Wickham-Smith: My own involvement with Mongolian literature started when I was a Tibetan Buddhist monk in Scotland during the 1990s.  I became interested – obsessed might be a better word – with the life and writings of the 6th Dalai Lama and, during my research, came across a reference to Danzanravjaa, a nineteenth century nationalist, scholar, poet and Buddhist monk.

I had already studied Mongolian for some time during the early nineties, and now I started to read and translate Danzanravjaa’s collected works.  When I finally finished this work, in 2005, I felt that, really as a matter of courtesy,  I should write to someone in Mongolia and let them know what I had done.

Thus it was that I came into contact with Gombojavin Mend-Ooyo, one of Mongolia’s most famous literary figures, who invited me to Ulaanbaatar the following year and for whose Mongolian Academy of Poetry and Culture ( I have now translated ten books, with at least four more in the pipeline.

The act of translation from any language is a subtle and nuanced negotiation, but when dealing with a source culture which is so very different from the target culture, a number of problems appear.  And so it is with Mongolian.

Painting seen at the Mongolian Artists' Union, Ulaanbaatar 2006
Painting seen at the Mongolian Artists' Union gallery, Ulaanbaatar 2006

The number of words used to describe the natural landscape, animals and animal products, and the movement of the heavens are so detailed and precise as to be effectively untranslatable into English, short of adding phrases or entire sentences to the mix.  This, together with the morphology and structure of the language, means that simply recording what is said in the original becomes a restructuring of thought and a reinterpretation of culture.  Once these concerns are settled, then the literary work can begin, and the rhythm, sound and development of the text finessed.

Over the next five years, the Mongolian Academy of Poetry and Culture intends to publish more translations and to encourage scholarship in both Mongolian and English.  As for me, I am soon to embark upon postgraduate work at the University of Washington’s Jackson School, with an emphasis on Mongolian literature.  Moreover, I am also co-director of the Center for Central Asian Literatures in Translation at UW (, which is hoping to increase the profile of literature from across Central Asia.

I’d like to thank Susan for letting me benignly invade her blog.  I hope that the work that she and I, along with many others, are doing, will encourage people to investigate Mongolian culture and, in particular, its literature.

Statue of Chinggis Khan, Government House, Ulaanbaatar 2008
Statue of Chinggis Khan, Government House, Ulaanbaatar 2008

You’re very welcome Simon! It’s a pleasure and a privilege to have you participate here. The following poems are a little on the longer side, but I think that they really show a side of the Mongol people that Westerners, raised on the idea of Chinggis Khan and his Horde cutting a path of destruction across a large chunk of the world, don’t realize exists. If nothing else, it demonstrates our common humanity across time and space. Not a bad thing these days.

Jargalant at sunrise, Khar Us Nur National Park 2006
Jargalant at sunrise, Khar Us Nuur National Park 2006

Khubilai Khann (1215-1294)
(Yes, that Kublai Khan)

One a day blessed by good fortune,
I climbed up a blue bluff.
I stepped carefully on the ground,
So as not to destroy the landscape.
The flowers glowed red,
Like rainbows.
A beryllium light glistened like mist or smoke or blue haze.
The bamboos along the streams grew green from rain fall and spring water.
The wind blew through the mountain pines with a wonderful fluting melody.
I paid my respects
At the sacred temples,
And returned with the aid of Indra.
And controlled the dragons.

Western Mongolia 2006, "expedition" group shot
Western Mongolia 2006,"expedition" group shot; two German graduate students, myself, the American, and the Mongolians who made it happen; Jargalant in the background


Love one another, my people, while you are alive.
Don’t keep from others whatever you find beautiful.
Don’t wound my heart with heedless barbs, and
don’t push anyone into a dark hole.
Don’t mock someone who has gotten drunk,
think how it could even be your own father.
And, if you manage to become famous,
open the door to happiness to others!
They should also not forget your kindness.
To someone who is lacking a single word of kindness,
you should search for it and speak it out.
Whether outside the sun or at home when it’s mild,
don’t spend one moment at rest.
Don’t use harsh words to complain, you women,
about the young man you remember.
Speak lovingly of those who loved you!
Let them remember you as a good lover.
Our lives are similar,
our words constrict our throats the same way,
our tears drop onto our cheeks the same way-
things are much the same as we go along the road.
Wipe away a halt woman’s tears without a word,
talk your lover up when she’s tripped and fallen!
Today you’re smiling, tomorrow you’ll be crying.
Another day you’re sad, and the next you’ll be singing.
We all pass from the cradle to the grave-
if for no other reason , love one another!
People must not lack love on this wide earth!
I grasp happiness with the fire of my human mind,
the golden shines lovingly upon us all the same, and
so I think that loving others is the path of life,
I understand that to be loved is a great joy.

O Dashbalbar (1957-1999)