Following a brief stopover in Beijing, we landed in Ulan Bator (the Mongolian capital) yesterday afternoon, successfully navigated to the hotel by bus, and met up with our group for the next 3 weeks. Today we have had a chance to explore the city, and gradually adjust to the 7 hour time difference.
Mongolia has a long history of Russian and Chinese invasions, as well as building the world’s largest land empire in the 13th century, under the rule of Ghengis Khan. From about the 16th century onwards, Mongolia settled into a relatively peaceful Buddhist existence, before the Russians invaded again in 1920 when they burnt down the monasteries and killed or imprisoned most of the monks. However, they also built schools, hospitals and progressed the general infrastructure of the country, so not all bad. Mongolia finally gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1990.
As a result of this diverse history, UB is a pretty interesting place, a mix of old Buddhist temples and Soviet concrete monstrosities, with ger settlements (traditional round Mongolian tents) sprawling into the countryside. The people, culture, food and architecture are all a strange mix of Chinese and Russian, yet at the same time unmistakably Mongolian.
We visited the Gandan Buddhist monastery, where we saw chanting monks and turned the prayer wheels, spent a couple of hours in the National Museum (recommended) and then headed up to the Zaisan Monument on the edge of UB. This is a soviet memorial which was built in the 1980s to display the friendship between the Mongolian and Russian peoples, and where you can also get a great view over the city. There is a lot of smog, which we were told is partly due to the many gers, which traditionally use a coal stove for heating.
We ended the day at the theatre, to watch a cultural performance by the Mongolian National Song and Dance Ensemble. This involved traditional Mongolian dancing, singing, musical instruments, throat-warbling, an incredible contortionist (though unconvinced of the cultural relevance) before finishing with a completely surreal rendition of Queen’s ‘We are the champions’, by a full string orchestra in traditional Mongolian attire, playing traditional Mongolian lutes and harps.
Tomorrow morning we leave the city and head into the vast wilderness for 3 weeks, in a huge purpose built truck. Can’t wait…