PictoJournal©: Mongolia - Meandering through Mongolia

Travel article on Mongolia.

Text and Photos by Suchit Nanda [http://photos.suchit.in/Travel]

Mongolia isn’t exactly on the tourist maps of Indians and most know it only as the land of Genghis Khan – the great invader & warrior. So when an opportunity arose to visit Mongolia to do an ICT (Information and Communication Technology) evaluation visit to the country I was quite delighted. Having been there before, I wasn’t totally unaware but this time the challenges were going to be different as I was hardly going to spend time in the Capital city of Ulaan Baator and more on the rustic & rural “country-side” as they call it. This included a trip to the famous and vast Gobi desert. Adventures and calculated risks always excite me and so before long I was on a flight to Beijing, China and on my way to UB (as the capital Ulaan Baator is called). Initially, I was asked to visit in January but when I learnt that the prevailing temperature was going to be around -40 degrees centigrade, I just froze on the offer. There was no way I was going. Fortunately, I was able to push the visit back to March and I’m sure glad that it was so as even then, some days the temperatures ranged from -10 degrees in the morning to +20 degrees in the barren Gobi desert. I was advised that the best way to deal with this thirty degree variation in temperature in a day is to have layer of clothing. That’s what I did but it felt that almost throughout the day, I was either putting on clothing when it was cold or taking them off as it got warmer.

As my plane landed in Chinggis Khaan International Airport, UB, and I got into the city my first sense was how few people lived there. Design and architecture of the city resembled the former USSR. An inheritance of the former communist regime, the Sukhbaatar Square could quite easily be in the same league as the Red Square (Russia), or Tiananmen Square (China).

The capital UB which is located in the valley of Tuul river, between the beautiful mountains has a population of only about 8,00,000 people. For a sizeable capital city this explained why it looked so sparsely populated. What is even more amazing is that this constitutes about 30 to 40% of the whole country’s population! That too when the physical size of Mongolia is quite large consisting of 1.57 million Sq Kms which is roughly half the size of India! However, unlike India, a large number of Mongolians still lead a nomadic life across quite inhabitable areas. Living in mobile homes called gers, they move from place to place several times a year in search of better pastures. A ger home is round & squat shaped structure designed so that it can withstand the strong winds and cold winters. The centre of the ger has an opening for a chimney/heater which typically has fire wood. There are no rooms or privacy within the ger – sections around the arc of the ger contain the various living items – kitchen, bedding, house-hold things etc. Those who are a bit more affluent have solar powered TV & CD/DVD/radio sets. Typically a small structure near the ger is made as a make-shift toilet. The people living in the country-side rely on their traditional way of life which is deeply connected with pastoral livestock husbandry. In fact, while the country’s population is under 3 million people, the livestock population is about 30 million which is a 10:1 ratio. That’s also the reason why apart from natural resources, Mongolia is known for its export of fine fur and wool.

The Mongols primarily raise five kinds of animals: horses, camels, cows, goats and sheep. These also serve as food as practically no vegetable grows in this harsh climate and therefore is not part of the diet. Being a vegetarian and one who doesn’t take alcohol, I was quite a sore thumb. In fact, without exception, we had a hard time explaining this concept and my host had to deeply apologize to whoever we visited. More so, because it’s a custom to carry a bottle of vodka, and drink it together as a form of bonding & fraternity. Not doing that, bordered from annoying to a serious insult. As a compromise, we finally settled to a routine that while the team could go ahead and have their vodka shots, I was given a tikka to the forehead. This probably has some religious roots. Depending on who you talk to, over 90% of Mongolians are Buddhist although few practice it religiously. Still even today and even in the remote desert areas one can find Buddhist temples and monks.

With a simple way of life, Mongolians love their music which is strongly influenced by Tibetan Buddhism and their nomadic living. The "tsam" dance is to keep away evil spirits which was the reminiscences of shamaning traditions. The traditional Mongolian music includes a variety of instruments but the main and most popular instrument is the Morin Khuur, a two-string horse-head violin. This is accompanied bys a lot of throat-singing particularly of a technique called khoomei. Its quite amazing listening to the range of sounds the throat-singers can produce.

While in UB, I was pleasantly surprised to find the “Atal Bihari Centre of Excellence (ABVCE) in Information and Communication Technology (ICT)”. This impressive building was setup by a grant from India in 2001 of USD 1 million and includes establishing five Community Information Centres (CICs) in five provinces. Walking the corridors, I was impressed by the range of gear, the course (as seen on the notice boards) and the buzz around. Cisco, Intel, HP and many other top brands were clearly recognizable and the lab looked quite impressive as well.

All this while, I was keen to get out of UB and experience the real Mongolia but before we left, I just had to visit the Zaisan Memorial. Located to the south side of Ulaanbaatar, it was erected on the occasion of 50th anniversary of Mongolia Independence and honors the Soviet and Mongolian soldiers who died in WWII in the fight against Japan and Nazi Germany. Next to the monumental statue of the soldier, a mosaic composition on a large circular panel in reinforced concrete illustrates the theme of friendship between Mongol and Soviet peoples. In the center of it a large granite bowl holds an eternal flame. The Memorial provides impressive view over the whole capital city. Having done this visit, we took a train from the Ulaan Baator Train Station to leave the city. While not too big or anything fancy, it was quite clean. I was quite surprised to see women attendants in impeccable dress standing at attention. These were later to board the train and serve on-board. The train was not too different from what we find in India but it was clean and well maintained. Winding and curving our train meandered through the outskirts of the city and soon we were on our way.

One of the first places we visited on leaving UB was The Danzanravjaa Museum which was established in 1991 in honour of the fifth Goviin Dogshin Noyon Khutagt ("Terrible Noble Saint of the Gobi"). He was one of the most unusual intellectuals in Mongolian history. The museum preserves and displays Danzanravjaa's original artistic works and literary manuscripts, along with his books, religious items, theatrical costumes, and personal possessions. The nineteenth century Lama Danzanravjaa was one of the most creative, colorful and enigmatic characters in Mongolian history. He was an accomplished artist, poet, scholar, playwright, songwriter, linguist, collector, traveler, martial artist, and herbal medic as well as Buddhist leader in the Gobi. He spent months at a time in prayer and creative solitude in caves (which we visited) or in his special ger, which, to avoid interruption, he had built without a door. At other times he was a hot-tempered, drunken party animal, organizing and participating in wild orgies at his temple. Some of the drawings are very explicit and could compare to the Indian Kama Sutra. In his lifetime, he was considered a living god and at his death a martyr. Today Mongolians are just discovering his full dimensions as after his death in 1856, Danzanravjaa's legend and surviving works went underground for 135 years. The museum had some strange articles on display ranging from human skulls to 108 beads-mala of bones of scholars and masks and weapons. The other museum nearby was interesting in a different way. I got to feel and touch fossils of dinosaur eggs and bones which are abundantly found in the Gobi Desert.

From here we switched to a road journey. There are no roads in the Gobi – paved, unpaved – nothing. When I found our driver merrily singing, having shots of vodka and driving just about anywhere, I asked how he knew where to go. His reply nailed it “Look sky. See Sun. Drive”. Doesn’t get more basic than this. I kept shut for an hour. Soon I realized that while he was driving he was sort of following earlier tyre marks. What confused me was when there were multiple tracks. To my quizzical look, he replied “Fresh track. Good track”. Clearly, someone made it before us, so why not us? After this I learnt to shut up and just enjoy the drive leaving our destination to fate and the car that went before us. Suddenly, our four wheel drive screeched to a halt. Our driver purposefully got out and did a sort of dance in front of the car. I took it as some shamic-ritualistic step until I gathered myself to slowly open my mouth to ask what was going on. I learnt that since we were not driving on the roads, he was stepping out and jumping on frozen ice to see if it could take the car weight. If we got stuck in a melting stream it could take hours if not the whole day waiting for help to arrive. There was no question of mobile phones here. We were driving almost 30 to 40 Kms at a stretch before we saw any form of animal or human life. So it’s a good thing that he did these jigs from time to time. Part of me felt that he was just enjoying this and burning off some vodka. At some stretches there was just gravel and dust. Nothing in sight. Not even a bump or hillock. Then suddenly we came across a group of horses and camels. The Mongolians love their horses and they have the one humped camels. Most animals had a lot of fur to keep them warm. We got off to pull water from a water-well. The animals were excited to get their fill of water in this dry and arid stretch. All this while, let alone a tree, I didn’t even see a bush. So how was one to answer nature’s call? Simple, you just walk a short distance away from the car, make sure you understand the direction of the wind and do what you have to do while the others look away. Definitely not an easy place for women travelers.

We continued further until we got to Erdene Zuu Monastary which is in Övörkhangai Province, in the town of Kharkhorin (near Karakorum). Before we got to the monastery, we first come to this stone structure which is on a hill outside the monastery. This stone is shaped as a phallus and is said to retain the sexual impulses of the monks and ensure their good behavior. The story goes that monks who wanted to enter the monastery were supposed to masturbate here and offer their last sexual energy to this stone organ. Others who were unable to get children would come here and pray and draw upon this energy. Having paid our visit, we quickly headed to the Erdene Zuu monastery and museum but before that, we came across the Turtle Rock (Tortoise) at Karakorum.

Ogedei Khaan ordered that each of his brothers, sons and other princes build a magnificent palace in Karakorum (Capital of the Mongol Empire). The city hosted Buddhist temples, Christian churches and Muslim mosques. There were sculptures of tortoises at each gate on the four sides of the city wall. Steles on the backs of the tortoises were crowned with beacons for travelers in the steppe. The overall construction in Karakorun was supervised by Otchigin, the youngest brother of Genghis Khan.

From here one could see the Erdene Zuu monastry clearly. With a number of temples and lots of colourful doors it was nice to see this after a long stretch of driving. The Erdene Zuu monastery (Mongolian: ?????? ???) is probably the most ancient surviving Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. It was built in 1585 by Abtai Sain Khan, as the (second) introduction of Tibetan Buddhism into Mongolia. Stones from the ruins of Karakorum were used in construction. The monastery is surrounded by a wall featuring 102 stupas. The number 108, being a sacred number in Buddhism, and the number of beads in a Buddhist rosary, was probably envisioned, but never achieved. The monastery temples' wall were painted, and the Chinese-style roof was covered with green tiles. The monastery was damaged during war in the 1680s, but was rebuilt in the 18th century and by 1872 had a full 62 temples inside.

While the experience of UB was unique and quite interesting, you can only truly experience and enjoy the beauty of Mongolia when you leave the city. That’s when the landscape changes, the people get friendlier and you get to see life in its simplicity and probably as it was lived for hundreds of years. You get to experience nature in its natural form. Rural Mongolia has some enchanting landscapes and if you enjoy a different kind of holiday than going to Ooty or Goa, then Mongolia would certainly fit the bill as an exotic destination. Experience the unique life of nomadic people; a pre-historic living fast-forwarded to the present with a blend of untouched nature. It will be a truly memorable trip.


~ Suchit Nanda, Apr, 2005
Many more pictures can be seen at: Mongolian Travel Images

Fact File:

Travel Advice:
• There are no direct flights to Ulaan Baator, Mongolia. One can either fly to China or Thailand and take a connecting flight. Take adequate weather protection. Winters can get below -40 degrees and summers can be hot. Mongolia enjoys 300+ days of clear sky to its good to carry adequate skin-protection UV-glasses.

Text and all pictures copyright Suchit Nanda. All images shot with Nikon D70 DSLR camera with lens: Nikkor lens such as Nikkor 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G ED IF AF-S DX, Nikon 50 mm f/1.8 and Sigma 70-300 f/4-5.6 APO Macro Super Etc.

This article has been printed in Asian Photography Magazine March 2009 issue and can be seen here.