We B n UB

Trip Start Jun 05, 2011
Trip End Feb 28, 2013

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Where I stayed
Green Steppe Hostel
What I did
Bakula Rinpoche Sum
Gesar Sum
Centre of Shaman Eternal Heavenly Sophistication
Tumen Ekh Song and Dance Ensamble
Mongolian BBQ

Flag of Mongolia  , Ulaanbaatar,
Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Ulaanbaatar altitude 1310 m. Temperatures in July are in the low 30'sC max 35C. Nights are usually warm while others are cool enough to need a light blanket. 

Most days have clear blue skies with billowy white clouds but also some days are unseasonably cloudy and rainy.
City drainage is poor and even small showers cause large puddles. Cars plow right through them and have little or no concern for pedestrians causing those to look like they have been slugging through mud in army bootcamp. Of the 210 road junctions in the city of Ulaanbaatar, only 48 have traffic signals. Our guide book says the most dangerous thing you can do in Mongolia is cross the street in UB. This is funny but absolutely accurate. 

Mongolia has the worlds lowest population density and is landlocked between Russia and China. It has a long fascinating history but the most obvious stain evident in UB is the shoddy Soviet style infrastructure that is slowly being replaced. 

- 209 BC, Huns rule, then a bunch of other stuff happens
- 1204, Genghis Khan established the Mongol Empire
- 1696, Qings claim western Mongolia
- 1911, Independence from Qing Empire declared
- 1917 Russian Revolution sentiment swept into Mongolia and in 1924 the People's Republic of Mongolia was formed with Bogd Khan retained as a figurehead with the Soviets running the show for 70 subsequent years (an "alliance" per wikipedia). 
- 1990, unraveling of the USSR. The 1st non-communist government was elected in 1996 but ex-communist MPR Party subsequently regained control of the Parliament. 
- 2005, George Bush becomes the 1st President to visit Mongolia
- 2009, The current prime minister Sükhbaataryn Batbold assumed office
- 2011, Michelle and Dave sweep into Ulaanbaatar 

Mongolian Currency is Tugriks $1.= 1250 Tugriks.

We disembarked at the humble station at 1:20 in the afternoon. We went looking for Emily to give her a hand with her bike. After the wheel-change, the cars had been given a different sequence and we could not find the car where we left Emily. (It turned out she was moved to a different car in Beijing and her original car was no longer part of the train). After 2 times back and forth on the platform with no sign of Emily, Michelle went to the exit to look for the Green Steppe Hotel transport that we arraigned to meet us. Sure enough at the top of the steps stood a lady holding up a sign with "Dave and Michelle" written on it. Soon Dave and Emily appeared. Emily needed to meet up with the girl she is cycling across Mongolia with. Maybe I'll see you later at your Hostel and we can go out for a meal, she said. We said goodbye to her.

We packed into the tiny Honda with the driver her sister, baby and our backpacks. Only a little tight. It was a long stop and go drive to the hostel fairly close to the center of town in haphazard traffic. Rules of the road, if any, were not obvious. The center line substitutes for a left hand turn lane. Our driver scooted over even further into the on-coming traffic lane to allow cars from behind to go by. Then with magical powers of a pointed finger, she caused the oncoming head-on traffic to slow while she made a u-turn and whipped into a courtyard surrounded by short old soviet style apartment buildings. 

One part of the apartment was pained green with 'Green Steppe Mongolia' lettered above the windows. This is our 'new' hostel? The business card we found in Beijing for Green Steppe said all the right things; new, free wifi, etc. Turns out they are new in this location which occupies an old 3 room 1st floor apartment. It also turned out that we were reserved in two beds in an 8 person dorm, rather than the private double we expected. Nice owners and fun fellow travelers. But sharing 1 small bathroom (2 showers 2 toilets) with 20+people was a bit more than we were comfortable with. In fact we didn't even take off our packs or shoes (everybody does that at the door) and were ready to look for other place until one lovely girl from Belgium stepped forward. She said they just got back from looking all over the place and couldn't find a private room. It's high season! So we stayed in the dorm and it turned out to be great. We got some real good trip advice from fellow travelers including the location of a burger restaurant owned by a Canadian that serves burgers like at home.

After a disappointing lunch we ran into Emily at the grocery store! She decided to stay at our hostel! We had some great banter with Emily and the others at the hostel.Two nights in the overcrowded dorm was enough though and we moved to a private room owned by the same people but 6 blocks away. The place is really just a small 2 bedroom apartment. In the other room is a Russian scholar!! She is researching monasteries here in Mongolia and will speak at a global academic conference on Mongolan history here in August. So verrry quiet!!
In town, lots of products from Russia, Germany, US, China are available. In short, here in the big city, a person doesn't need to go without.

In the 1920's 1/3rd of the population were Buddhist monks. In 1928 a purge (including murder) of the monks began and all monasteries were wiped out. With the departure of the Russians, 140 monasteries and temples have been reestablished countrywide.

1) Bakula Rinpoche Sum is newly built (1999) active monastery with a complex of buildings which seem to be mostly living quarters for the center for buddhist teachings. We walked around the outside where many large prayer wheels surround the buildings. The doors of the main temple were locked. Too bad. There is a stupa in the yard. 

2) Gesar Sum
 is a small but very quaint monastery in an old Chinese temple building. This is a favorite of ours. We walked through the tiny Chinese style gate and through a small courtyard. A monk sat near the entrance of a room on the north end. Inside the room monks were chanting and it seemed some were telling fortunes or giving advice. Dave started a video of one of the monks who was chanting at a rapid pace. He saw Dave and shook his arm wildly without a breaking his rhythmic chant. Michelle was also asked not to photograph an interesting monk. We learned they did not want pictures taken of the people worshiping. It was okay to photograph the outside of the temple. Gesar Sum also has a temple school with 80 student lamas, all boys, ages 8 to 14 years old. We didn't see the school. Perhaps the school buildings were the ones in the back of the complex.

Gandan Monastery is a hill top Tibetan-style monastery established in 1835, closed in 1938, reopened as a fake monastery by the communists in 1944, and has been restored and revitalized legitimately since 1990. The Tibetan name translates to the "Great Place of Complete Joy." It has over 900 monks with 150 monks in residence but during our visit we saw only a handful in robes. Gandan complex has many buildings. At the main temple, we were asked to pay a big entrance fee to go in and see a big statue. And an additional big camera fee. We've seen so many history temples, we decided to keep our Tugriks in our pocket. Many Mongolian visitors came to the complex. Several older ladies wearing traditional Mongolian dress arrived escorted by adult children dressed in polo shirts and slacks.

4) Centre of Shaman Eternal Heavenly Sophistication
We poked our heads into the tilting ger of a well known Shaman, Zorigtbaatar Banza. The hot steamy ger had gongs and other adornment that caused Dave to speculate that it could be Jerry Garcia's old bedroom. In fact, the fortune telling shaman looked like Jerry Garcia. He waved off any picture taking too. Maybe there are some on his facebook. If you can't find one, just pull up Jerry and you know what the pot-bellied Z-man looks like.
RELIGIONS IN MONGOLIA: 53.0% Buddhist, 3.0% Islamic, 2.9% Shamanic, 2.1% Christian, 0.4% Other religions. Remainder 38.6% are Atheist.


Another day we continued the walking tour of UB starting at the main city square, Sukhbaatar, in front of the government legislature building. Nobody seemed to be going inside the grand building so we assumed it was closed to tourist. The big square in front has an impressive statue of a mongol warrior on a horse. From there we went to the Mongolia History Museum intending a quick 15 minute walk through. We actually left 3 hours later when they turned off the AC and lights. We closed the place! Then we went to a Thai restaurant that had pretty good Indonesian dishes. 
The history starts with a display of a cave where homo erectus remains were found and dated to 800,000 years ago. It ended with pictures of Mongolian leaders shaking hands with Prime Minister Koizumi symbolizing the new capitalist age of development in Mongolia. Between, we spent a most of our time in the room displaying traditional dress of 20 ethnic groups in Mongolia. This display made us anxious to get out to the country where we hope to see some of these people.  The special display featuring Genghis Khan and the spread of the Empire from Korea to the Bhospherus was interesting. The transition from imperial rule to communism to democracy was depicted as merely necessary steps in development, not a mistake or anything to apologize about.

The parents of our niece's husband are living in UB on mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. We joined them for a Saturday evening performance by Tumen Ekh, a Mongolian National Song and Dance Ensemble. We watched and listened to long and short folk songs accompanied by traditional Mongolian instruments such as the two string horse head fiddle, khuumi (throat) singing, shaman dance,  a contortionist, and a religious mask dance. The performers were talented and colorful costumes beautiful. Some spike heel shoes and modern musical rhythms made me believe this was a performance 'based' on traditional themes and updated to be more accessible to today’s audiences.  The throat singing is the most novel of what we have seen although we did see the Tuva Throat Singers in Ann Arbor when they toured America several years ago.

Contortionists give Dave the willies and one mask dance that featured an oversized old white bearded white man with a cane, was dull. Later research revealed that this character is Tsagaan uvgon (aka Chaghan Ebügen), a protector of the herds and the giver of harvest, God of Fertility, and symbol of long life of Shaman origin and deity among Tibetan and Mongolian believers. His dancing is suppose to be sluggish. Overall the Ensemble put on a good show. 

Dinner at overpriced Seoul Club nearby was disappointing. We all ordered the Salmon off the Japanese menu. It turned out to be overcooked and dry with little or no side dishes (okay a bowl of miso soup). We had a laugh after Dave asked for chopsticks while making the universal two finger chopstick handling motion with his hand. The waiter understood, rushed off and quickly returned with.... scissors. I guess the two finger chopstick motion is not as universal as I thought.

The salmon was dry but the dinner conversation was not. Blaine asked what the most unique thing we have seen during our travels. Dave decided skip the "Sky Burial' story (see our Tibet blog for that one) and instead told of our two week trek in Irian Jaya (now known as West Papua) where we hired local a guide with porters who abandoned us in the remote jungle after three days over a pay dispute. We were rescued by a Bertrand, the leader of a French tour group who put it to a group vote. They voted to save us and arranged new porters and food and let us follow them as long as we could keep up. It was arduous hiking over mountains and down a sheer wall climbing on makeshift ropes, vines and chains on the worst parts and through the incredible land of the Dani and Yali tribal people. An experience of a lifetime!

We asked about the humanitarian work the Church was doing here and Blaine told us about the projects including wheel chairs for the needy, providing irrigation pumps for clean water projects and greenhouse cultivation techniques.

We also talked of the difficulty in converting the historically atheist Mongolian people to Mormonism and Dave speculated that it was probably easier to convert someone who was already a religious person than to make an atheist believe. Now that the conversation was firmly about religious beliefs in general, Linda stated that Buddhism is a violent and fear based religion. At first Michelle asked what she meant. She repeated again that Buddhism is fear based. Michelle asserted: "Buddhism is passive and peaceful... But what about the Christian religions... now they use fear and have been violent all through out history"?  Linda objected and said 'her' religion is not based on fear. While the debate was still friendly, Dave changed the subject to that other impolite dinner conversion topic, politics.

Who are the Republicans going to put up against Obama in the next election? Is it going to be someone middle of the road like Mitt? Blaine said Mitt would be better than Obama on Economics but it was still open who would be the best candidate. Dave explained that we are staunch Obama supporters to the extent that Michelle helped Obama get elected by working on his campaign!  Dave hastily added that he didn't agree with all Obama's economic policies but he thought Health Care Act and getting bin Laden were fantastic achievements. Michelle also pointed out the Herculean mess Obama inherited from the Bush years.

Dave was a bit surprised he did not bring up the other Mormon in the race (Huntsman) and said it would be disaster if they put a Tea Party candidate forward. Then threw in the tea partiers further under the bus by calling them the lunatic fringe ..of the Republican party? (No offence meant toward our tea party rally attending relatives, Dave interjected). Blaine said he had not been to any tea party rallies but he believes the ballooning deficit is a problem that will not be dealt with by the long careered politicians and any spending must come with a way to pay for it. (could the tea party popularity be a de facto admission that the main-stream Republicans blew it when they controlled both House and Senate for many of the Bush years?) Dave agreed we cannot spend our way to prosperity but that cutting federal spending during the longest recession in recent history would have been a huge risk at the wrong time. We all could agree the state and local government pension obligations are another big economic burden festering. And that the cost of campaigns causes all politicians to make promises they cannot keep. 
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Hugo on

Thanks for the detailed explanations of your travels! These entries are great!
Interesting points on religion and politics. As a Mormon myself, let me weigh in with my view (which is different from the ones the missionaries you met shared).

Violence - my view is that most religions are all peaceful but every once in a while you get individuals that introduce violence in the name of religion. Most religions, including Mormonism, have had these "violent" incidents. The Mountain Meadow Massacre in southern Utah was a sad violent event that is a black eye for Mormons. The Christian Crusades.... Islamic Jihad... etc etc. Although I'm not familiar with Buddhism enough to know of their "violent" history... maybe it was our favorite dragon warrior, Po the Panda, with his Kung Fu skills ?? :)

Politics - I am a proud Mormon Obama supporter! I don't want a religious leader as president, I want a pragmatist who understands the limits of our system and knows how to get things done and how to "get along" with other countries. I also recognize the "balance" that the tea party has brought to the table.... finally our country recognizes that we can't spend more than what we take in. Better to take the medicine now than later. I love having polar opposing views that democrats and republics bring to the table... it incites great debate that helps get to the best solutions. I'm not sure what I "am"... republican, democrat, centrist??? I just love to look at opposing views and taking one issue at a time.

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