While I was in Ulaanbaatar this last trip, I spent a couple of mornings at Gandan Monastery sketching and taking photos. I thought that I would share some of my favorites with you of a truly special place that I always look forward to visiting when I’m in Mongolia.
While Ulaanbaatar may not be a well-known destination city, it has plenty of interest to offer visitors, especially if they are interested in Buddhism, history, nature or art. Here’s my list of the places I’ve found so rewarding that I’ve been back to most of them twice so far and will probably visit them again.
1. Gandantegchinlen Khiid– the full name translates as “the great place of complete joy”. More commonly known as Gandan Monastery, it was built starting in 1838. Ninety-nine years later, it was one of the very few monasteries to survive the Stalin-style purges that led to the destruction of hundreds of temples and the deaths of an estimated 17,000 monks. These days, with the revival of Buddhism in Mongolia, Gandan is a busy place. There are a number of temples. Visitors are only allowed into the main one, as seen below, Migjjid Janraisig Sum. Within it is an enormous statue of Buddha, well worth the modest price of admission.
2. Chojin Lama Temple Museum– Smaller than Gandan, but with an intimate, decorative charm, this old temple is tucked away down a side street and is surrounded on three sides by modern buildings. But once inside the walls, it’s a place of beauty and peace. Construction started in 1904 and took four years. It was saved from destruction for use as an example of past “feudal” ways. Although it is considered a museum and there don’t seem to be any monks in attendance, every time I’ve been there, people have been in the temples praying and leaving offerings. There is also a concrete ger “Art Shop” shop on the grounds that can be accessed without paying admission. I think it’s the best place in UB for souvenirs, although it doesn’t have the wide selection you can find at the State Department Store. What it does have is the feeling of a treasure hunt in a curiosity shop.
3. The Natural History Museum– Speaking of curiosity shops, the Natural History Museum is like a survivor from another time. It needs and deserves to be modernized, but something charming and fun will be lost when that happens. It is home to a very good collection of dinosaur fossils that have been found in Mongolia over the years, including eggs and a huge Tarbosaurus. The most spectacular fossil on display is the famous “fighting dinosaurs”, a protoceratops and a velociraptor locked in mortal combat as they were possibly trapped in a mud slide. Another personal favorite, which I hope will be preserved in any modernization, is the “camel room”, see below.
4. The National Museum of Mongolian History– Only a block away from the Natural History Museum, the history museum has been renovated to an international standard. There are three floors of exhibits, starting with the superb section of stone and bronze age items on the first floor, an amazing display of ethnic Mongol historic costume and jewelry on the second floor, the can’t-be-missed third floor collection of artifacts from the time of the Mongol Empire and on through to the changeover twenty years ago from socialism to democracy.
5. Mongolian National Modern Art Gallery– Housed in one of my favorite buildings, the Palace of Culture, anyone who is interested in excellent representational or abstract art will find a couple of hours here very rewarding. For a more thorough tour from my visit there during my 2009 Artists for Conservation Flag Expedition, click here. It’s clear that many of the artists have had classical training, either in Russia or other Eastern European art schools. But, as seems to be the case with most of the art forms practiced in the country, what is on display has a unique Mongol sensibility.
6. Zanabazar Museum of Fine Arts– Zanabazar was one of the greatest artists to have lived and worked in Mongolia. He is best known for his exquisite bronze sculptures of Buddhist manifestations such as Tara. The best images that I was able to get, however, due to low light or glare on glass, were of some of the appliqued and embroidered thangkas, or devotional works. The Red Ger Gallery on the first floor has an excellent collection of work by contemporary Mongol artists available for purchase.
I’m not sure that this photo, taken by Roy Chapman Andrews, is from Gandan Monastery, but the prayer wheel is certainly close in size and design to the one I saw there.
Here is the one I saw.
People had written on it with a variety of pens, probably prayers.
Looking through some of my books about Mongolia and magazines with articles about the country, I had that “I’ve been there” feeling a number of times, partly because not much has changed in some respects from when westerners first visited. So, I thought it would be fun to occasionally juxtapose my photos with the old ones, starting with Gandan Monastery.
Purely coincidental that I took my photo from almost the same position as Andrews.
Then, I was hoping someone could help me here. I really, really, really would like to get one of these tents and have had no luck so far. Can anyone get me a price and supplier? I could probably sell a half dozen or so here in the States. I might be able to pick them up in UB in July, but am open to suggestion.
Arrived in Ulaanbaatar yesterday afternoon. Managed to get together with a couple of the Mongolian scientists that I met on the Earthwatch project in 2005 and got an update about what is happening at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu.
And….had a hoped-for email from my husband informing me that I have had two paintings accepted in the Society of Animal Artists show “Small Works, Big Impressions”! One is of two young marmots and the other is of a takhi mare and foal. The show will be at The Wildlife Experience in Parker, Colorado, which is just south of Denver. More after I get home.
But first, the day before my husband, David, left for home, we walked up to Gandan Monastery and around the downtown. There are more monastery photos on my website but the last time the main temple building was closed. This time we were able to go in and see the gigantic statue of Buddha.
David flew home on the afternoon of the 14th after I had left for Ikh Nart. Colleen, the other artist who accompanied us for part of the trip, and I spent the first day trekking around the reserve. We went out with the driver the second and third mornings. The afternoon of Day Two, two busloads of 26 Swedish tourists, who had come from Moscow via the Trans-Siberian Railway, arrived for a couple of nights, so things were very lively. Here’s a selection of images from Ikh Nart, trip 2-
One of the conservation challenges the reserve faces is illegal mining for gems like amethyst. The addition of more rangers has mostly stopped this kind of thing, but the damage remains and will have to be repaired as funding allows. That’s Colleen in the trench for scale.
On the other hand, this is the kind of thing, besides the wildlife, that makes Ikh Nart special, the amazing rock formations.
Saw very few argali. They were clearly elsewhere, as were the herder families. The rains didn’t come when they were supposed to, so everybody left. Then it rained like crazy, as described in a previous post, and things greened up. It looked like some families were coming back as we left.
I thought that that’s what seeing these horse meant, but learned last night that the herders take their sheep, goats and camels, but leave the horses on their own. Looks like they’re doing ok to me.
The reserve faces a number of threats, including overgrazing and climate change, so the challenges exist on a micro and macro level. At one time the grass came up to the bellies of the cows. I hardly saw any grass. It is being replaced by “forbs”, perennial plants, some of which is edible by livestock and some not. I have no idea what the possibility is of reversing this, if it can be done at all. Climate change may trump everyone’s efforts. So, the work then will be to help the country people adjust to the new reality. I don’t know what the prognosis is for the wildlife. The argali seem to be holding their own, so far, which is good.
One of the things I love about Ikn Nart are the sunrises and sunsets on the rocks. So, to conclude my Mongolian trip blog, here’s a couple of final images from one of my favorite places in the world.
Thanks to all of you who followed along and left comments. I had no idea whether this would work or not and I’m glad it did. It’s pretty amazing when you think about it. Not that long ago, just making an international phone call from Mongolia would have been a challenge. Now Mongolia is as connected to the rest of the world as the USA. Most Mongolians can’t afford their own computers yet, but there are lots of internet cafes to provide access
I fly to Beijing tomorrow, stay overnight and then home. Hope to be back at the easel after catching up on mail, petting the cats, kissing my sweetie, etc. Oh, and getting at least the basic cataloging done on the over 2300 images I’ve shot. I can hardly wait to get painting again!
Particularly since Mongolia made one of its rare appearances in international news last week, I thought I would start to post a photo or two of my travels there on Monday mornings, along with new paintings and drawings with Mongolian subjects. My husband and I and another artist are currently set to go back ( my third trip, his first) on August 24. My hope is to blog while on the trip when I can.
In the meantime, I know that Mongolia is still a mysterious, exotic place to most Americans who only know the country from stories about Chinggis Khan (the more correct spelling of Genghis Khan). I think the riot caught everyone off-guard and, I would venture to guess, that most Mongolians did not approve of, and are quite possibly embarrassed by, what happened.
Alcohol abuse (coupled with poverty and hardship) has been a problem in the country for a long time, partly due to the introduction of vodka by the Russians many years ago when Mongolia was tied very closely to the Soviet Union. I have read that the younger generation is moving away from hard liquor and choosing beer instead, but, in any case, booze appears to be a factor in what happened, as at least one news report I read stated that 600 mostly young men had been taken away to the Mongolian equivalent of a “drunk tank”.
Mongolia is sitting on huge deposits of valuable mineral resources like copper and uranium. How the income is handled from the mining, which involves foreign companies, appears to be a point of serious internal political disagreement. This is a young democracy, less than twenty years old, but the citizens have expressed their views forcefully and in public many times before now. This time, for whatever reason, it got completely out of hand.
So, here are some photos of Ulaanbaatar that are typical of the city and the people, who go about their business day to day just like the rest of us. They catch the bus, talk on cell phones, go grocery shopping and vacation in the countryside. They can eat out in restaurants serving a variety of cuisines, including American, Korean, German, Japanese, Italian, Chinese and, of course, Mongolian (I adore buuz, the steamed meat turnovers), although many can’t afford that yet. And an increasing number speak at least a little English. I did love the fact that one often sees people dressed in “del”, the national garment.
(There are lots more photos from both my trips on my website)
Street Scene on Peace Avenue
The famous State Department Store, which has an entire floor dedicated to Mongolian crafts, music, art, books, etc. A must-go if you’re in Ulaanbaatar for the first time
Sukhbaatar Square, with the Palace of Culture on the left, one of my all-time favorite buildings
Gandan Monastery in the background with the Shaman Center and a small ger “district” in the foreground
Couple at Gandan Monastery taking a break
Another family at Gandan Monastery