I had planned on taking a 7-day trip to the Gobi Desert, but I backed out after I ran into a German couple I met in Moscow. They invited me on a trip they were planning, so I did that instead. One lesson I've learned on this trip is that it's not always where you go or what you see, but who you're with. When you get the opportunity to travel with good people, you take it.
Volker and Heidi are two of the most calm, pleasant, agreeable people I've ever met. And they are both much more experienced as travelers than I am. They have been in Mongolia for a few weeks. They also invited an American girl from their hostel, who is finishing up her second month in Mongolia. Margaret went to Towson State. Small world, once again.
We went to the Gongoriin Bombani Hural, or prayer ceremony, at Amarbayasgalant Khiid, one of the three main Buddhist monasteries in Mongolia. It was completed in 1737, and at one time there were 2,000 monks there. But during the Stalinist purges in 1937 up to 30,000 monks in Mongolia were either killed or deported to Siberian work camps. Now there are only 30 monks there.
It was about a five-hour drive from Ulaanbaatar. The last 35 km were on a dirt road, through gorgeous valleys with acres and acres of wildflowers. I was looking forward to visiting a working monastery and enjoying a few peaceful days of meditation. But it was more like going to Disneyworld. This is a view of the monastery from the hill just behind it. And on the other side are thousands of cars.
It's always annoying when someone quotes something from a travel guide as if it was something he thought of himself, so I'd like to say for the record that I have witnesses that I compared the festival to Woodstock before I read it in my Lonely Planet guide book.
This is the scene just inside the main temple. Monks are seated on either side, where they chant, play music, receive offerings and give blessings.
Note: I don't normally think it's appropriate to take pictures in a working house of worship, but everyone was. (I happen to be reading "Moby-Dick" at the moment, and as Ishmael says, "I cherish the greatest respect towards everybody’s religious obligations, never mind how comical.") Most of the people there were locals. There were very few Westerners. It was a wee bit crowded inside.
People would enter and circle clockwise through the temple. (Everything is done clockwise in Buddhism.) In the back there were tables where they would leave offerings. I never did find out why they offer what they do: candy, cookies, vodka, etc. My theory is it's to fatten the monks up for the winter.
This photo gives a good idea of the general scene. The crowd of people seated on the floor. The incredible profusion of color. The modern touches like the video camera. Just to the right of the video camera you can see a monk chanting into the microphone on his collar. Outside the temple there were closed-circuit TVs and a booming PA system to broadcast the ceremonies across the valley.
At one point someone was speaking through the PA system and the crowd started cheering and clapping, which struck us as a little unrestrained, given the location. A local sitting next to us told us that they had just announced that a Mongolian had won an Olympic gold medal in judo. The whole valley celebrated that night.
My new Mongolian friend lent me his prayer beads. It's similar to the rosary. The idea is to run the string clockwise through your hand, turning each bead once clockwise. My mentor seems to approve of my technique. It's too bad I look like Karl from "Sling Blade".
I reckon I'm gonna twiddle me these here prayer beads, mmhmm.
On the far end of the valley is a set of eight religious monuments called stupas. Margaret and I walked up there one evening but left when a group walked up to perform some sort of ritual. I felt like I was intruding.
I must admit I was somewhat disappointed at the carnival atmosphere. There were lots of vendors there, selling Coca-Cola, water, fruit, and, of course, Coca-Cola. Knockoff sunglasses and toys were for sale. There were also vendors selling khuushuur, which is mutton in fried dough, similar to an empanada. Mmm ... khuushuur. Three was enough to fill me up, and cost 900 togrog, or about 75 cents.
I also finally tried the local brew, which I was looking forward to. Airag is fermented mare's milk. It's not as bad as it sounds. I actually enjoyed it. One of the joys of traveling is doing things you wouldn't do at home, like drinking something you bought from a complete stranger in a parking lot, who ladled it out of a 55-gallon drum into a used water bottle!
Still, it saddened me that the monks would have to clean up the mess.
I was careful to observe the etiquette of the temple: taking off my hat when I entered, not stepping on the threshold, not sitting with my feet pointing towards anyone, etc. But I was one of the few. There were some true Mongol herders in traditional capes called dels that were positively regal looking. But the new generation was there in greater numbers, with Yankees caps and iPhones and surgical masks.
Now, in the polluted cities of China surgical masks are a necessary precaution. In Ulaanbaatar it's probably overkill. In rural Mongolia it's a ridiculous affectation. And in a monastery I think it's downright disrespectful.
Then again, the cars and horses stirred up so much dust that by the end of the festival the valley took on the hellish look of the oil refinery in "The Road Warrior".
The last night, as we were getting ready for bed, a herd of dozens of horses came through the camping area to graze. I couldn't get a picture of them in the darkness but they were there in the morning. In the foreground is Heidi and Volker's tent.
The next morning I hiked up to the ridge behind our campsite. I carried my coffee all the way up there to sit and enjoy the view but the gnats were so bad I took this self-portrait and headed back down.
So I still don't feel like I've really seen Mongolia yet. The past few days I've had a bit of a cold, so I've been just hanging out at the hostel and resting. I hope to join a tour for 10 to 14 days so I can get out and see the country.