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Mongolia's Mystique.

In this mysterious, unspoiled land, travelers are warmly welcomed.

Mongolia. Even in experienced travelers the name stirs a thrill of the appealingly unknown. Going there is one of the great journeys of the world. Increasing numbers of Americans are visiting this legendary land, which combines spectacular expanses of unspoiled wilderness, the legends of Genghis and Kublai Khan, and beguiling people newly weaving their heritage together with democracy.

Remote (landlocked in the center of Asia) and enigmatic, Mongolia is a rugged, arid plateau of amazing natural contrasts--wild forests, alpine meadows, deserts, badlands, vast steppes, and snow-capped mountains--with a wealth of unusual flora and fauna. Those who are fascinated by prehistoric creatures can visit the paleontological digs in the southern Gobi Desert.

One of the world's most sparsely populated countries--animals outnumber people by a ratio of twelve to one--Mongolia has long been wild and untamed, with a hostile climate of sharp seasonal fluctuations and a culture, language, and religion that are unfamiliar to most Westerners. Yet, beginning in the thirteenth century with Marco Polo, travelers have chosen to put up with a great many discomforts to visit this land.

Ulan Bator

The starting point of my journey was Ulan Bator, Mongolia's sprawling capital. Cows grazed outside the modern hotel where I stayed. While Russian-built high-rise apartments dominate the city center, almost half the population lives in felt-covered circular tents (known in Mongolian as gers and in English as yurts). Walking along the broad streets were a few herdsmen dressed in the traditional del (a wraparound robe with a high collar tied with a contrasting sash) and guttal (heel-less boots with upturned toes and imaginative decorations). But most people wore Western clothes, even American T-shirts.

I enjoyed walking around the city by myself but had to know exactly where I was going, as Mongolians do not use the Western system of street names and numbers. "We know only the names of areas and places," I was told.

My introduction to Ulan Bator was Suhbaatar Square, the Mongolian version of Moscow's Red Square, which has at its center an equestrian statue of Suhbaatar, the leader of the 1921 revolution that finished in Mongolia's embrace of communism. (Three years later, Mongolia became a Soviet republic, ending several hundred years of Chinese domination.) The square also saw prodemocracy demonstrations in 1989 that forced the government to abandon Marxism, ending seven decades of Soviet domination.

Overlooking the large square today is the building containing the first Mongolian stock exchange. The market economy is flourishing. "Hello. How are you? Want to buy?" I was asked politely by the ubiquitous, eager capitalists selling paintings, postage stamps, and souvenirs in the plaza. All of them want dollars, the preferred currency, rather than Mongolian tugriks.

An American diplomat had told me that it would not be easy to understand what's going on in Mongolia. The country is in transition, remodeling its economy, political system, heroes, allies, and even its alphabet. (Mongolian, a Ural-Altaic Ylanguage of many intricacies, is changing its alphabet from the horizontal Cyrillic script introduced by the communists back to the traditional Mongol vertical script.)

While the most commonly spoken foreign language is Russian, many Mongolians are studying English. Mongolia's first and only English newspaper, the Mongol Messenger, is a four-page weekly with a circulation of around one thousand that has been published by the government news agency since 1991. Its articles are well written and cover a wide range of subjects, but it isn't easy to find. One place is a kiosk near the central post office on Peace Avenue, the main boulevard, on the west side of Suhbaatar Square. A popular meeting place for Westerners, the building housing the kiosk also has international telephone and fax services. A small shop sells stamps, including Mongolia's post-independence Mickey Mouse stamp.

A postcard I bought there depicts Genghis Khan, who is being resurrected to his former role as national hero some eight hundred years after he ruled the Mongolian empire, which stretched east to Korea and west to Hungary. His name and image are everywhere--even on a colorful bottle of Mongolian Vodka.

Revival of religion

Religion is also enjoying a phenomenal revival, particularly the predominant belief, Lamaism, the Yellow (Mahayana) Sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Characterized by elaborate ritual and a strong hierarchal organization, it was brought from Tibet by Kublai Khan, Genghis Khan's grandson. It had great influence until the communist takeover, as the lamas exercised both spiritual and temporal power.

Although Lamaism replaced shamanism, traces of the older tradition may still be seen. Majestic statues of four fierce shamanite "guardian kings" stand at the entrance to the spectacular monastery-museum of Choijin Lama. It was saved from destruction during the antireligious Stalinist purges of 1937 that wiped out several hundred of the country's monasteries and converted into a museum by the communists to display the "decadent" ways of Lamaism. An architectural masterpiece, it contains statues by the eighteenth-century sculptor Zanabazar, rich silk embroideries, and exquisite papier-mache masks that were used during the performances of tsama, a ritual dance for exorcising evil spirits.

The former palace of Mongolia's monarch, known as the Bogd Gegeen, or living Buddha, is also a museum (the last king died in 1924). Renowned for its elaborate Chinese decor, its rooms are also filled with fascinating objects, including ceremonial thrones.

Magnificent Ganden Hild is the country's sole surviving functional monastery. Due to international criticisms, it was kept open by the communists to use as a religious showpiece to impress foreigners. It once housed thousands of lamas, today there are about 150. The monastery courtyard is festooned with colorful tankas, or temple banners. Elderly men and women in dels rise and bow before Buddhist images. Families pray by ardently spinning prayer wheels on the temple walls--spinning the turnstile-drum once is an easy way to quickly "say" all the prayers pasted on it. Shaven-headed, saffron-robed lamas face each other solemnly as they chant in rows, fingering strings of beads.

The ancient Manjshir Monastery in the Bogd Uul Mountains southwest of the capital has a spectacular setting. Set high upon the hillside is a giant copper bowl once used to serve a thousand lamas.

In the area we spotted marmots peering out of their small raised mounds. When a Mongolian hunter stalks the thick-bodied rodents, he dresses in a white headband topped with two large paper ears and waves a white object on a stick, simulating a tail. Apparently the marmot often actually acts as if the hunter is another animal and does not run away. Just another Mongolian idiosyncrasy.

Ruins of the Empire

Erdene Zuu monastery occupies the site of Karakorum, the legendary capital of the thirteenth-century Mongol empire. It was the military headquarters of Genghis Khan and the site of a magnificent city built by his son. To get there, I flew on a small MIAT plane to Khujirt. Our plane took off and landed easily on the hard, turf-covered flatlands.

The next morning, I boarded a Russian-made bus and rode over a rutty dirt road, past an occasional horseman carrying an urrga (a lasso made of a long pole with a sliding loop at the end), flocks of cranes, small boys with herds, ancient cemeteries, fields of newly planted wheat, and sweeping grasslands to what seemed like the ends of the earth.

The fabled Karakorum today is a deserted valley surrounded by rolling hills and mountains. I tried to envisage what it would have been like to visit the magnificent sixty-four-columned Palace of Universal Peace, where six thousand people used to enjoy elaborate feasts and sip libations from a magical silver fountain with four spouts dispensing airaq (fermented milk), mead, rice beer, and wine.

In the 1380s, the city was reduced to rubble by the Chinese. With stone columns, blocks, and sculptures excavated from Karakorum's ruins, lamas began building the 4,000-foot-square Erdene Zuu monastery two centuries later. Taking three hundred years to be completed, it had sixty temples.

Today, Erdene Zuu survives as Mongolia's primary architectural monument, although the communists razed all but three of its temples. Fortunately, the outer stone walls, graced with 108 elaborate stupas, were left standing. Inside is the handsome gold and white Golden Prayer Stupa and a central flagstone courtyard known as the Square of Happiness and Prosperity. The richly decorated, green-blue roofed stupas are filled with ancient Mongolian works of art--brass and gold statues of Buddha, religious scrolls, silk appliques and hangings, masks, figurines, threatening wooden guards with spears and swords, carved dragons, idols, and a handsome model of the eastern Zuu temple.

Nearby is a famous landmark--an enormous granite tortoise set on a grassy knoll. Once one of a pair standing on either side of a Karakorum gateway, the tortoise is now an object of worship, an obo, or shrine, where passersby toss stones for good luck.

About thirty minutes after we left, we sat on the side of a mountain looking down at our bus, now disabled in a desolate valley miles and miles from nowhere. I wished that at least one of us had thrown a pebble to the obo. The "land of the blue sky" was indeed beautiful, but Mongolian distances are tremendous. There was no sign of life in any direction. The driver took off, running like the wind across the steppes.

Meanwhile, our young Moscow-educated guide asked me if every American has a private home and a swimming pool. Before we had completed the conversation, a tow truck was spotted in the distance, and the driver returned to a hero's welcome.

On to the Gobi

Late that afternoon, I flew on to the Gobi (meaning "waterless place"), which covers nearly one third of the country. After landing at Dalan Dzadagad, the capital of Omnogov (formerly South Gobi), I was taken by bus to a tourist camp, where I stayed in one of its gers.

In the morning, we set out by bus. The Gobi is a land of magnificent desolation, a vast, hot, and arid bedrock desert. Much of the surface is covered with fine gravel, with little vegetation. Here herders and their families live as they have for centuries, struggling with the harsh climate and tending horses, cows, sheep, goats, and short two-humped Bactrian camels.

The Gobi's rich and diverse wildlife has attracted international attention. A few of its animals, such as the Przhevalski horse (named after the famous Russian explorer), are extremely rare and found nowhere else in Asia. At the base of the Yol Valley, now a nature preserve, is a small museum displaying the Gobi's fauna and flora, including some of its many valuable medicinal plants.

Late that afternoon, we headed to the Bayanzag, called "the cemetery of the dragons." Jouncing over the open rangeland, we passed small herds of camels.

Once we stopped to talk with a lone herdsman astride his sturdy horse. Since the days of Genghis Khan, Mongolian horses have been renowned for their endurance, making excellent polo and racing ponies. Mongols are keen lovers of racing. For Naadam, Mongolia's National Day (July 11), roughly two hundred children race their ponies fifteen miles across an open plain on the outskirts of Ulan Bator.

Long whirlwinds of dust and sand swept across the land as we approached the fossil-bearing area of the Gobi, made famous by the expeditions of the American Museum of Natural History. While collecting living fauna in the 1920s, Roy Chapman Andrews and his company discovered one of the richest fossil fields in the world, yielding the first dinosaur eggs (believed to be some ninety-five million years old) and bones of the oldest and largest land mammals known to have walked the earth. The discoveries proved that this place had been a favorite breeding ground for dinosaurs. Andrews speculated that a primary reason was the quality of the sand, which was well adapted to act as an incubator.

While trying to appreciate the eerie beauty of the flame-red cliffs, some of our group ran down into a pink basin to a stunted tree resembling a tamarisk. It was a picturesque and memorable place. But a storm came, and we reluctantly departed.

After dinner, a troupe of local performers entertained us with traditional tsama dances, accompanied by native instruments. One of them was the revered two-stringed morin khour (horse's violin). Legend has it that this violin is connected to the spirit world, used by the shaman to call his helping spirits.

Mongols do not like to speak of unpleasant things, feeling that bad luck will ensue. Thus, expressions of goodwill and praise, so-called erool and magtaal, are widespread. Praise of the mother country and the beauty of natural scenery have become a special form of folklore. I, like other visitors to Mongolia, will remember the Mongolian traditions of friendliness and hospitality.

CITATION: This article by Kay Shaw Nelson was first published as "The Mystique of Mongolia," in the Life / Travel section of The World & I in September 1994 pp 162 (search article # 12595). It is reproduced here in support of the multimedia presentation on Mongolia presented in "World Gallery."

Kay Shaw Nelson is a Food and travel writer who has written for numerous magazines and newspapers, including Gourmet, House and Garden, Washingtonian, the New York Times, and produced 14 articles for The World & I. At the time of writing this essay she was the author of thirteen cookbooks, including "A Bonnie Scottish Cookbook." This article, now attached to our multi-media presentation on Mongolia in World Gallery, was first published under the title "The Mystique of Mongolia" in The World & I as a Life / Travel article in September 1994
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Title Annotation:CULTURE
Author:Nelson, Kay Shaw
Publication:World and I
Geographic Code:9MONG
Date:Sep 1, 2010
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