Sunday, September 16, 2018

Sights of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia: August-September 2018

Migjid Janraisig, the Lord Who Looks in Every Direction
We arrived in Ulaanbaatar (UB) and we departed Mongolia from UB. In between we returned to UB before heading off to another area of Mongolia. UB is a city of about 1.5 million people. The country is roughly the size of the state of Alaska. The country's total population is a little over 3 million people or about 2 persons for every square kilometer on average. It is the most sparsely populated sovereign nation in the world. Ninety seven percent of the population is literate.

The Cyrillic alphabet was imposed on/introduced in Mongolia in 1946. Prior to that time, Mongolians used an elegant vertical script. Today, much of the signage in UB is in English and the second language chosen by the majority of students is English instead of Russian.



View of Sükhbaatar Square
Damdin Sükhbaatar was the revolutionary leader who with the help of Russia led the fight for independence from Manchuria in the 1920s. Sükhbaatar Square is the site of the Great Khans Memorial built in 2006 to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Mongolian Empire. The memorial (concealed behind scaffolding for repairs) features seated statues of Chinggis, his son Ogedei and grandson Kublai. The Great Khans Memorial sits in front of Parliament. While Mongolia was part of the Communist Bloc it was illegal for Mongolians to say the words "Chinggis Khan." Now, many places including the airport are also named for Chinggis Khan.

The largest percentage of the population practice Buddhism followed by Islam, Shamanism, and Christianity. Due to their time in the Communist Bloc, about 40% of the population are atheists. Despite communism, Mongolian's spirituality persisted and Buddhism had a resurgence in 1990 when Mongolia became a democracy.

Our first visit in UB was to the Gandan Monastery. The monastery was constructed in 1809 but only one pillar remains from that time period. It is the seat of Buddhism in Mongolia. Most monasteries were destroyed or converted to museums during the Stalinist purges of the 1930s. Gandan Monastery escaped destruction but was closed in 1938. It reopened in 1944 and was allowed to continue as the only functioning Buddhist monastery and showpiece for government officials.

The 26.5 meter high (87 foot) gilded statue of Migjid Janraisig (the Lord Who Looks in Every Direction) is also known as Boddhisattva Avalokiteshvara. This Boddhisattva can be portrayed as either male or female. In Chinese Buddhism she would be called Guanyin. The original, copper statute was dismantled by Russian troops in 1938. Funded by donations from the Mongolian people, it was rebuilt in 1996. The statue is covered with 2,286 precious stones and is gilded with gold leaf. The electricity was off inside the Avalokiteśvara temple during our visit so the color isn't so apparent.

The tall Avalokiteśvara temple built in 1913




Dancer wearing a Tsam Mask
One evening we attended an exciting folk and culture performance that included singing, dancing, throat singers, a contortionist, and an orchestra playing Mongolian instruments such as the horse-headed fiddle.



We visited the Bogd Khan Palace Museum formerly the Winter Palace. This was the home to Mongolia's last theocrat, Bogd Jabtzan Damba Hutagt VIII, known as Mongolian's "8th Living Buddha." The Winter Palace was built for him in 1905 by Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. The 8th Bogd was Mongolia's only religious and political leader. He died in 1924. The museum is filled with treasures and ephemera from the 8th Bogd's life including a ger covered by 40 snow-leopard skins.

Winter Palace
The Winter Palace is surrounded by temples also filled with treasures and the library of the 8th Bogd.




Two of the Four Guardians of the Four Directions of the World

My favorite visit was to the jewel-like Choijin Lama Temple Museum. The temple was built for the 8th Bogd's younger brother who was also the "State Oracle." His body as well as the body of his religious tutor are embalmed and sit on either side of a statue of Buddha. Their heads are hidden under paper mâché replacements. Sadly, photos of the interior temples were not allowed (actually you could take photos if you paid a huge sum). The interiors were filled exquisite art, religious books, and relics including tsam masks used in religious dances. While these early 20th century buildings have been preserved, they are surrounded and overshadowed by UB's ubiquitous high-rise buildings.


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