Although Mongolians have always been small in number, they created a name for themselves throughout history. The empire they built was the largest the world has ever seen. Later on, even though they ended up being trapped between two giants, China and Russia, Mongolians managed to preserve their identity.
Recently, I decided, together with a good friend of mine, to visit this land of stories. No visa was needed for us, so off we went…
I remember just a few years ago I was reading articles about Mongolia in which the authors were naming it in the same stereotypical way “the new Asian Tiger” (or “the Asian Wolf”, because Mongolians like wolfs better), as the country had huge economic increases. The mining industry and the agriculture were the main drivers of the economy.
This image of a prosperous Mongolia confused me as I was imagining it like one of my professors described it to me, a poor country. As he said, this happened because for as long as USSR existed, Mongolia seemed like it was in no way different from any of the former Soviet states, and thus was completely subordinated to it. Not surprisingly for an Asian Tiger, in 2013 an economic downfall started and one year later the foreign direct investments reduced by 74% (!!!).
Mongolia currently has a population of 3 million and a surface of 1.560.000 sq km, making it the most sparsely populated country on earth; almost half of the people live in Ulan Bator, the city capital. One can imagine Mongolia as a huge empty field, with one dot only being populated. In the rest of the country, the chances of meeting a horse are higher than spotting a person.
Travelling by Trans Siberian
We decided to go to Mongolia by train, so we took the Trans Siberian from Beijing, as we had heard that this would be a unique experience. And so it was, indeed.
This train was the nicest and most comfortable train in which I have ever traveled. Even the toilets were very clean (contrary to most of my other experiences with train toilets), as the staff was making sure they were proper very often.
What I found particularly interesting about this train was that each wagon had a small room where the staff, some very nice Mongolian ladies, were cooking for themselves. But what’s even more interesting, they weren’t just cooking something fast, like scrambled eggs, but some very complicated dishes.
Before crossing to Mongolia we had to spend about 3 hours at the border crossing. This wasn’t only due to the regular border control, but also because the train gauge is larger in Mongolia than in China, so we had to wait for the bogies to be changed. The train gauge in Mongolia is identical with the train gauge from all the former Soviet states.
It was nice to look through the window of the train, although for hours the only thing you could see was desert and sporadic herds of horses.
After only 27 hours of train riding, we reached Ulan Bator, the Mongolian city capital. Usually, unless I visit very popular touristic destinations, I don’t bother booking hotels in advance. This time my luck came as soon as I got off the train. A young couple were advertising their recently opened Guest House and we decided to accept the offer – only 11000 Mongolian Tugrik / night (about 6 dollars).
What we did not knew at that time is that we were their first clients ever, so for the next 6 days we received special treatment and we were spoiled with delicious breakfasts. The guest house was in the owner’s own huge apartment, so we were basically staying in a Mongolian home, we had the chance to see how urban Mongolians actually live. Fortunately, we later had the chance to enter 3 other houses.
Mongolian friends & Patriotism
In China, I met many Mongolians and with some of them I became very good friends. At the beginning, when I knew I was to visit Mongolia soon, I was somehow upset that I won’t meet any of them there, since they were all in Nanjing.
Nevertheless, they offered to put me in contact with some of their friends residing in Ulan Bator, so we ended up having 4 new Mongolian friends. They helped us a lot, making the most out of this experience; they drove us by car to all the places that we visited, they invited us to their homes, they cooked for us and they dressed us in their traditional clothing.
During this time, my Mongolian friends from Nanjing were all writing to me on Wechat and even calling me, just to make sure I am having a good time and I don’t need anything. I met people before in other countries that I visited, friends or friends of friends, and they were all very hospitable, but nothing compares to how well our Mongolian friends treated us. I had the feeling that an entire army was mobilized just to make sure we are having a great experience in Mongolia.
I am sure their friendship for me was the main driver of this incredible hospitality, but I think their strong patriotism also had something to do with it. Mongolians are very patriotic and proud of their country and history; even their Hip Hop songs often address themes like patriotism or history. So, my friends tried to project the best possible image about Mongolia.
As soon as we finished installing ourselves in the guest house, we went out with 3 of our new friends. We ate in a restaurant where I had a very tasty traditional Mongolian food. Everything was delicious about that food, even the large piece of sheep fat. Usually, the Mongolian food has a lot of meat, as that helps people go through the hard winter.
That is opposite from the Chinese food, which has very little meat. Actually, I would say that, with a few exceptions, the Mongolian food has very little in common with the Chinese food. The Mongolian food is in many respects more similar with the Russian food and even with some dishes that I eat home in Eastern Europe, such as egg or Boeuf salad.
Infrastructure & public transportation
We knew in advance that Mongolia was famous for its beautiful rural landscapes – desert, mountains, forests, steppes and, of course, the unforgettable blue skies. I was looking forward to seeing the countryside so I could get a better grasp of the people’s traditional way of living.
However, one should keep in mind that Mongolia is the country with the lowest human density on earth, having a huge surface and a small population. For this reason, infrastructure and public transportation are poorly developed. A population of only 3 million cannot afford to invest in too many (or too big) infrastructure projects.
Same with the public transportation, you cannot just create long transportation routes when there is only a hand of people using them. Z., my Mongolian classmate, was born in the Choibalsan city, but she went to Ulan Bator for her undergraduate studies; as there is no public transportation linking the 2 cities, she had to travel with her own car for some 700 km whenever she was going from one city to another.
Considering all this, but also the fact that we were to be in Mongolia for 6 days only, we knew that we would mostly stay in Ulan Bator and visit only the nearby places.
This was definitely the most unusual city capital that I ever visited. I will try to explain why;
First of all, Ulan Bator is a very strange combination of urban and rural. While downtown you have the usual urban image, with tall buildings, embassies, a big central square and some apartment buildings, the outskirts are rural by all means.
Unlike other big cities, I had the feeling that Ulan Bator does not have a gradual shift from an urbanized area to an (eventually) industrialized area and in the end to a rural area. Here, next to a neighborhood with apartment buildings you have a neighborhood with traditional houses where people raise their own animals and vegetables.
As opposing to other countries, Mongolians did not quit building their traditional houses named ger. These houses look and operate like a tent, so they can easily be moved from one place to another (considering Mongolia’s nomadic past, we can easily understand how handy these houses were).
One day, as we went out of Ulan Bator, I noticed that after a few kilometers of nothing but empty hills, a place suddenly popped up with many apartment buildings and also gers. I asked my Mongolian friend what was the name of that place and she replied that it is one of Ulan Bator’s districts; so one of the districts was outside the city.
Ulan Bator is in a pretty bad condition. Many roads are full of potholes and many side streets turn muddy in case it starts raining. Even Ulan Bator’s central square, Chinggis Square, which is located next to the Government Palace and where you can see statues of Mongolia’s greatest heroes, has many holes that create a unaesthetic image.
These bad and muddy streets remind me of how the Romanian small cities used to look like back in the early 2000’s. They also resemble very closely the streets of Chisinau, the capital of Republic of Moldova, as I recall it from my 2 visits there.
Another thing that captured my attention from the very beginning was how chaotic the new buildings were built in Ulan Bator; you don’t need professional expertise to notice that. I assume this took place under the same scenarios as in Bucharest, but much worse. In the transition from a political system to another, and from a centralized economy to a free market economy, people started to build chaotically, without any urbanistic plan.
Although Mongolia is known as the country of the blue skies, Ulan Bator is very polluted; according to a 2013 World Health Organization report, it ranks second on the list of the most polluted cities on earth. Contrary to my expectations, that is not because of some heavy industry, but because of the coal people use during the harsh winters to heat their gers. I could easily feel the pollution while I was in Ulan Bator, as my throat turned dry and my nostrils felt as I had dust inside them.
That’s how the city looks like today, but I am sure it will change a lot in the near future, as the Mongolian economy will (hopefully) expand.
See in Ulan Bator
On the streets of Ulan Bator I saw many Korean restaurants. This probably has to do with the fact that South Korea is the most popular destination for the Mongolians looking for a job abroad. Italian restaurants were also a hit in Mongolia.
Another cool place that I visited in Ulan Bator was Zaisan Memorial, a Soviet build monument that honors the Soviet soldiers killed during WW2. The circular monument features propaganda images that aim to portray the friendship between USSR and Mongolia, but also images with Lenin, Stalin or Yuri Gagarin.
Seems to me that the architects of this monument arranged this large display just to show Mongolians how great the USSR was and how much it helped Mongolia. I like the Soviet propaganda images and I think it was very hard for people not to assimilate the hidden message it had. What is also nice about this monument is that it is located on the top of a hill from which you can enjoy a nice belvedere over Ulan Bator.
Gandan Monastery & Religion
The first important thing that I visited in Ulan Bator was the Gandan Monastery. This is Mongolia’s largest and most important Buddhist monastery. It was built in 1809 and almost 100 years later, in 1904, the 13th Dalai Lama resided here for a while. Gandan Monastery is one of the few monasteries in Mongolia that remained intact after the communists took control of the country.
Inside the monastery a huge 26.5-meter-high statue of Avalokiteśvaram can be admired. It is here that I had the chance to see how the Buddhist monks create a sand mandala. In case you watched House of Cards’s season 3, you know what I’m talking about. I actually captured the moment on my camera, you can check it bellow:
Buddhism is the most widespread religion in Mongolia, with half of the population adhering to it. After it was introduced in the 13th century, Buddhism started to gain more and more popularity. So much so, that in 1911, at the time when Mongolia declared its independence from China’s Qing Dynasty, 20% (!!!) of its population – about 115.000 people, were monks in Buddhist monasteries.
However, things had to change after 1921, when communists took over and Mongolia became one of USSR’s puppet states. The Stalinist oppression that followed resulted in the destruction of most of the Buddhist monasteries and in the punishment (by killing or imprisonment) of many of the Buddhist clergy. I found different sources, but apparently more than 700 monasteries were destroyed, and around 17.000 lamas killed. Only after the democratic reforms from 1990, could Buddhism be practiced again free of any prohibition.
Although Mongolian shamanism is practiced today by less than 3% of the population, it has a special place in Mongolia’s history, as it was the major religion throughout its history until 13th century, when Buddhism started to gain grounds. Below you can see the picture of a worshiping place I took in the outskirts of Ulan Bator.
Another 3% of the people are Muslims, mostly Kazakh ethnic that live in the western part of the country. About 39% of the population has no religious belief.
Outside Ulan Bator
Going out of UB was interesting, as on the side of streets we could meet merchants who were selling nice antiques and souvenirs. That wasn’t the only thing they were doing, they also had camels and donkeys who could be ridden for a cheap price, or eagles tied with a rope with which tourists could take photos.
I understand this is a long tradition, and I don’t judge the people who follow it, but I felt such a pity seeing those beautiful birds designed to be capable of doing so many things, yet captured and with their legs tied. We actually met people who had these stands with eagles in almost all the attractions that we visited.
Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue
As I said before, it is really difficult in Mongolia to move from one place to another, especially when there are long distances in between. Fortunately we were able to visit some things outside Ulan Bator thanks to our friends who drove us around.
The first place where we went was the Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue located at approximately 40 km outside Ulan Bator. This huge 40 m statue portraits Genghis Khan on horseback. It is built where, as the legend goes, he found a golden whip. Visitors can actually enter the statue from where they can climb on the head of the horse, place from which they can face Genghis Khan and take nice selfies.
At the base of the statue, a museum is arranged where collections of objects from Mongolia’s bronze age or from the time of the Mongolian Empire can be admired.
My first thoughts when I saw this huge statue in the middle of a plane field, were that building it is maybe not the best thing to do when your country is struggling with poverty. What I did not know at that time is that this statue was actually built by a private company. A large touristic complex, with restaurants, souvenirs shops and gers to accommodate tourists was supposed to be built close by, but it didn’t go through as I could only see a few gers.
Although it was not the first time I witnessed this, it was interesting for me to see how many places bare the name of Genghis Khan. One could arrive in Mongolia on Genghis Khan International Airport, get a room in the Genghis Khan Hotel and then, why not, have some good Genghis Khan vodka in the Genghis Khan Irish Pub; and the list can continue.
Patriotism and great figures like Genghis Khan are the elements that helped Mongolians stay united and preserve their identity throughout their history.
Gorkhi Terelj National Park
The next thing I checked was the Gorkhi Terelj National Park, located 70 Km outside Ulan Bator. This is one of the most popular Mongolian tourist attractions and it is famous for its nice landscapes, beautiful rocky formations and the Aryabal Meditation Temple.
After we arrived in the park and we took photos with a big, turtle-like shaped rock, we decided to go by horse to the Aryabal Meditation Temple. It took us back some 6 dollars a horse for 1 hour of riding (after harsh negotiations with the horse owners). It was the first time in my life I rode a horse and I can tell you, it’s not hard at all, especially if your horse is lazy like the one I had. The temple is beautiful and I particularly enjoyed that many of the objects inside are handmade, which gives it a warm and welcoming atmosphere.
Returning to China
At the end of our 6 day escape we returned to Beijing by plane. It wasn’t difficult to find our flight on the electronic display as there were only 2 scheduled, on the whole board.
I really enjoyed travelling through Mongolia and getting a glimpse of its culture, reason why I plan to return. I also plan to visit Inner Mongolia, located in Northern China.