There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Ulan Bator (or Ulaanbaatar): Part 11 of The Trans-Siberian Railway

Back to Part 10

Arriving in Ulanbaatar

Our first impressions were right, Ulan Bator is an ugly, unplanned sprawl of a city; indeed I cannot think of an uglier capital city. It is not particularly run down or dirty, though it is no shining city on or off a hill, but there is little that aspires to be more than ‘functional’ and disparate buildings – and tents - are plonked down without regard for their surroundings.

‘Ulan Bator’ is now often written ‘Ulaanbaatar’, which is an accurate transliteration of the Mongolian Cyrillic but looks odd in English, so I have stuck with the old-fashioned name. The city claims to have been founded in 1639 as a Buddhist monastic centre, but as that centre was originally nomadic it did not really come into being until it settled on its present site in 1778. Originally called Khuree, the city was renamed Ulan Bator (literally: Red Hero) when it became the capital of the People’s Republic of Mongolia in 1924. 1.2 million people live there - roughly half all Mongolians - and it is the only city of any size in the whole of the sparsely populated country.

Sukhbaatar Square Ulanbaatar

Between our arrival from Naushki and departure in the direction of Buurd Sum we had time for a quick look round. Ulan Batar’s central Sukhbaatar (Axe Hero) Square is impressive and the only part of the city that looks as if it was ever planned.

In the centre is an equestrian statue of Sukhbaatar himself. After the First World War, the Chinese attempted to regain control over Outer Mongolia (the present Republic of Mongolia)  and in 1919 ‘persuaded’ the country's ruler, the Bogd Khan, to sign an edict incorporating Outer Mongolia into China (Inner Mongolia had long been – and remains - a Chinese Province). Damdin Sukhbaatar, a founder of the Mongolian People’s Party, led the resistance which re-established independence in 1921. He died in 1923, officially of stress and overwork. As he was aged 30 and in otherwise good health it is generally believed that he was murdered by the Russians. Normally I distrust conspiracy theories, but this one has much to recommend it. Sukhbaatar may have been a communist, but he was too powerful for the Soviet regime to control and they wanted a more malleable leader.

Sukhbaatar in his square
Ulan Bator
Dying young and at the peak of his popularity, he naturally became a national hero. With a north-western town, a south-eastern province and a district of the capital named after him as well as his own square, he is Mongolia’s second greatest hero. The greatest sits outside the parliament building which occupies one side of the square. Mongolia today is a parliamentary democracy; I am not sure that Genghis Khan (or Chinggis Khaan as the locals would say) would have had much time for democracy, but there he sits, several times larger than life, guarding the entrance to parliament.

The biggest local hero - in every sense
Chinggis Khaan outside the parliament building, Ulan Bator
We visited a money changer to turn some US dollars into togrogs. It was largely a waste of time as only once were we quoted a price in Togrogs. Generally we were asked for dollars and suggesting we might pay in togrogs produced a sigh and a calculator. This was not just because we were foreigners, I saw locals paying taxi drivers with dollar bills as well. Chinggis is, of course, on all the large notes, Sukhbaatar is on notes from 5 to 100 togrogs. As there are some 2000 to the pound, 10 togrogs are quite difficult to spend.

Sukhbaatar on the 10 togrog note
Gandan Monastery, Ulaanbaatar

Gandan Monastery was built in 1809 and is the centre of Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia. It was closed by the government in 1938 but later Stalin – who pulled the strings – decided to look more kindly on religion* and it was reopened in 1949 as a token gesture to the country’s traditional culture and religion. It was extensively refurbished is 1990 and is now home to some 150 monks.

Entrance, Gandan Monastery, Ulan Bator
We wandered round Gandan marvelling at its many pigeons, at the monks’ exotic hats and at the way it looked so Tibetan despite Tibet being 2000km away. Then we set off south to stay with the nomads (a highlight of the whole journey), before passing back through Ulaanbaatar on our way to the Elstei Ger camp (a Mongolian dude ranch and a cold and damp anti-climax after the real thing).  See Part 9: Across the Mongolian Steppe from Ulan Bator to Burd Sum and Part 10: With the Mongolian Nomads.

Gandan Monastery, Ulan Bator

Return from Elstei

From Elstei we returned to Ulan Bator and checked into the Bayangol Hotel, a genuine four star international class hotel with soft beds and a shower which pumped out an unlimited supply of hot water.

Cleaner than we had been for some time we set out in search of lunch. Walking north towards the city centre we soon encountered The Brauhaus. Why two Germans chose to travel to Mongolia and set up a brewery in 1996 is a mystery, but I am glad they did. Khan Brau is a well-made pilsner style beer and the Brauhaus restaurant menu includes chicken. I was surprised how important this was, but after a week of eating mutton twice a day every day, chicken seemed exotic and luxurious.

The Bogd Khan's Palace, Ulaanbaator

Well fed, we walked south past our hotel and into the hinterland of the ugly city towards a huge portrait of Chinggis Khan on the hill opposite. We were in search of the Bogd Khan’s palace.

Chinggis on the opposite hillside, Ulan Bator
The Jebtsundamba (Holy Venerable Lord) is Mongolia’s spiritual leader and is the third most important Lama in Tibetan Buddhism. In 1911 Mongolia declared independence from China and the 8th Jebtsundamba became Mongolia’s theocratic ruler, the Bogd Khan. He remained the titular head of state after the 1921 revolution, but died in 1924. The 9th Jebtsundamba was born in 1932 and despite spending most of his life in exile in India, he was enthroned at the Gandan monastery in 1999. [update: he became a Mongolian citizen in 2010 and died in Ulan Bator in 2012. The search is now on for the 10th incarnation]

There was a major refurbishment going on at the palace. Parts of it still looked rather sad…..

Bogd Khan Palace, Ulan Bator
 …. but other parts had been newly restored,….

Bogd Khan Palace, Ulan Bator
….the paintings on the lintels had been touched up….

Lintel, Bogd Khan Palace, Ulan Bator
….as had the decorations on the gables. These - there are always an even number of ornaments - look Ming in style though the palace was built during the later Qing dynasty in China.

gable ornaments, Bogd Khan Palace, Ulan Bator
 But the Bogd Khan, like all Mongolians, was a nomad at heart and when he went travelling he used a ger made from the skins of 150 snow leopards, which maybe accounts for why there as so few left. The ger is now in the palace museum.

Ger made of snow leopard skins, Bogd Khan Palace Museum
Ulan Bator
Back at the hotel we wrote an email home. The ‘business centre’ was part of reception and the dial-up connection was slow and unreliable.  I tutted – nothing more – when I lost the connection in the middle of an email. An American serviceman – one of several we had seen around the hotel - using the other computer said, ‘Don’t complain, you’re in Mongolia and you’re on the internet.’ It was said loudly, within hearing of the the receptionists who spoke good English, and it sounded very patronising. ‘Hearts and minds,’ I thought, but I just smiled and grunted.

Cultural Show, Ulaanbaatar

That evening we walked into the centre to see a show that had been recommended to us by James and Naomi whom we had met in Listvyanka.
The auditorium, in Ulan Bator’s only shopping mall, was far from packed and we found ourselves sitting next to the W’s whom we had first met at the nomad encampment. They were there with their guide who expressed surprise, indeed amazement, that we had found our way there unaided. We had spoken to her before, and she was good at her job, but had suddenly become confused by the distinction between ‘foreign’, which we were, and ‘stupid’ which were (and are) not. This confusion often affects professional guides – and not just guides.

The band was good, the man with the one string fiddle really could make it sound like a herd of galloping horses, and Mongolian throat singing should be heard by everybody - once.

There is nothing like a bit of Mongolian throat singing
Nomin auditorium, Ulan Bator
Three skinny girls were impressive contortionists, but I would rather they had kept their act to themselves. The human body is not supposed to bend like that and watching it made me feel queasy. Several dances were supposed to portray the country’s shamanist tradition, but they seemed a bit twee – not that I have ever understood dance.

Shamanic spirits, I think
Nomin auditorium, Ulan Bator
We walked back to our hotel as darkness fell. I would not have liked to be out much later, with unreliable lighting and some unsavoury people abroad. We were only accosted by one drunk who was easily dealt with, but it can be a problem. Beer is being promoted to wean drinkers off harder liquor, but success has been partial – and are lager louts preferable to vodka vandals, anyway?

Breakfast Excitement and Departure from Ulaanbaatar

At breakfast we discovered just how many of our fellow guests were American military advisers. Lynne had gone to do some packing and I was finishing my breakfast alone when there was a noisy explosion. Shaven heads jerked upwards from their toast and gimlet eyes darted round the room seeking out the terrorists. It was actually just a gas bottle loudly but harmlessly announcing that it was empty. Under the circumstances I was surprised and relieved that the omelette chef was not shredded by a hail of bullets.

Without further excitement we set off for the station and the last stage of our journey from Moscow to Beijing.

*Ivolginsk Datsun outside Ulan Ude opened two years earlier
Back to Part 10
On to Part 11
Ulan Bator to Beijing
(coming one day, when I have the time)