I WENT TO MONGOLIA
In July 2018, I traveled to Mongolia. There I reconnected with old friends, made new ones, learned a good deal of history and bore witness to some of the most beautiful land our planet has to offer. Here are my photos and experiences.
Some years ago, I picked up Jack Weatherford’s excellent book, “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World” on a free Audible credit. That book sparked a long-standing interest with the country and history of Mongolia and central Asia in general.
In the past few years, I’ve had the privilege of making a number of Mongolian friends in the Washington D.C. area (suburban Arlington has, I believe, the largest Mongolian diaspora in the world). I’ve even picked up cursory bits of the language, but my vocabulary is relegated primarily to food items, basic greetings and compliments. It’s more than most Americans know, though, so even a simple greeting—Сайн байна уу?—is sometimes enough to show that I’m at least trying.
And so in Summer 2018, I decided it was time to see Mongolia for myself.
So Many Creatures
A Day at the Beach
We spent one morning and early afternoon leisurely goofing off in and around Terkhiin Tsaagan Lake, about 400-500 miles’ drive west from Ulaanbaatar. It’s one of the only places in the entire country I’ve seen a restriction on where one could set up camp–in this case, you had you pitch your tent at least 20 feet or so from the beach.
Otherwise, best as I can tell, you are free to stand up up your tent (or ger) on nearly whichever inch of this vast and beautiful country you would like to.
In a nation of such seemingly limitless natural and scenic beauty, it seems ridiculous, frankly, to designate any one particular area as protected land. However, Khorgo Mountain, a dormant volcano in Arkhangai province, struck me as worthy of the protected status it has held since 1965.
The volcano erupted about 8000 years ago, flooding the valley with magma and peppering the surrounding region with countless black boulders and stones of basalt rock. Owing to this geologic event, the region now carries unique flora and fauna including an evergreen forest populated with deer, ducks and wild boar. The hike up to the lip of the crater is manageable even for a novice hiker and offers outstanding views of the Taryatu-Chulutu volcanic field.
Once cannot investigate Mongolian culture and history without considering the important role of Buddhism—not only as a cultural and religious institution, but as a political and historical one.
There is evidence that Buddhism was first introduced to the Mongols as far back as the 4th century, but it would not become central to Mongolian history until the 13th century, when Kublai Khan practiced and clearly favored Buddhism. After the fall of the Kublai’s Yuan dynasty, Buddhism experienced a brief decline until later in the 16th century, when feudal lords and herdsmen began to convert to Buddhism en masse. Eventually, thousands of monasteries were built throughout the city, and at one point, as much as about half of the male population of Mongolia consisted of Buddhist monks and over 2000 monasteries were constructed throughout the countryside.
From the late 1500s and until the era of Soviet control in the 20th century, Buddhist monasteries functioned as much as political entities just as much as they did religious ones, controlling much of the wealth, order and legitimate control of society in the country.
The widespread Soviet-led purge of Buddhism in the 1920s eliminated any legitimate control Buddhist leaders had over the function of society. Mongolia established a democratic government in a series of reforms through 1990-1992, and today, Mongolia is a modern country led by elected officials. Today, most residents of Mongolia are practicing Buddhists.
Some old temples and monasteries stand today, serving a dual role as tourist attractions as well as places of worship. As my friends and I traveled through, we both seemed equally welcome as I admired the art and history of these and my friends stopped to pray.
Naadam is Mongolia’s largest cultural festival and holiday, occuring every summer for three days. While the festival traditionally is centered around the nation’s three traditional sports–wrestling, archery, and horseback riding–in Ulaanbaatar, while these sports were certainly well-represented, the experience of being there was not much different than any other national festival. There were concerts, fireworks, street vendors and performers, fried food, long waits at temporary toilets and, of course, crowds.
I was tremendously excited prior to my trip, feeling it was an honor to visit Mongolia during Naadam. Before I went, I had thought it would be the highlight of my trip. However, when I came home and began looking back through my photos, I noted that I had barely taken any of them at the three-day festival. It was a great privilege to see Naadam, but the best memories I had during my trip all took place outside of it.
Life in Mongolia
Ulaanbaatar is the capital of Mongolia, and practically speaking, the country’s only city (the second largest city, Erdenet, has only 83,000 residents). About half of the country’s 3 million people live here in Ulaanbaatar.
Through most of the 20th century, Mongolia was not an official member of the Soviet Union, but it was more or less under Soviet control and a sort of unofficial member of the republic. Today though, outside of the primary alphabet used (Cyrillic), a handful of old monuments and some aging apartment buildings, there is very little of the country’s soviet history on display. I wondered while I was there if any Soviet character the country had has been suppressed on purpose in order to establish a new Mongolian identity, or if it just was never part of the culture the way it is, for example, in Kazakhstan.
Mongolia established a Democratic government and market economy through 1990-1992, finding its way into the modern world like many other countries did during the collapse of the Soviet Union. Though Mongolia is a developing country with many of the same economic and social challenges as its peers in the developing world, It has on average been one of the fastest-growing economies in the world for 20 years.
The vibrant capital lies at a confluence of eras, featuring brutally efficient old Soviet concrete towers, Russian-style opera houses, soaring asymmetrical glass towers, ancient Buddhist temples and not a small number of gers. Further, it seems like the city is the middle of a constant complete teardown and rebuild as the city’s population swells by about 5% every year and infrastructure struggles to keep up.
For the most part, though, it was not unlike any other nation’s capital: a modern city with significant public and private investment designed to attract international business and to make a good impression on visitors.