Old and New Mongolia

Trip Start Aug 08, 2006
Trip End Oct 11, 2006

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Sunday, August 20, 2006


Today, I went with the group to visit the largest monastery in Mongolia, Gandantegchinlen Khild (Transl: "Great Place of Perfect Joy"), or Gandan Monastery. The original monastery was built in 1785, but it was destroyed and had to be rebuilt in 1838. After importing Buddhism from Tibet almost 1000 years ago, all Mongolians were denied to practice their faith under the atheist Soviet occupation in the late 1930's. More than 14,000 monks were assassinated, and most places of worship with great historical significance were eradicated. Since the democratic movement in 1990, most religious restrictions eased, allowing the peaceful return of Buddhism.

This was the third example of Buddhist architecture I saw so far on my journey across Asia. In Japan, China, and Mongolia, not only was the lay-out of the temple complex different, but also the practice of Buddhism was heterogeneous. In Japan, the Buddhist temples had the graceful element of Zen with the surrounding manicured gardens and serene ponds. In China, the temples were juxtaposed between asphalt and cement pavements since the emperors were concerned about accidents caused by falling trees and brush fire. In Mongolia, the temples were on a much smaller scale with the pointed rooftops akin to the Tibetan/Nepalese style.

The temple complex today was the residence for more than 400 monks, who freely walked around among tourists. The main hall was a special experience in itself. Without any photography allowed, I could only describe to you the moving sight of more than 50 monks sitting on the floor, from 6 to 80 years old, all draped in the orange and magenta colors of Tibetan Buddhism, chanting in unison the holy mantra of the Buddhist religion. Their melodious voices were echoed by the solemn, rhythmic gong of a large, gold drum suspended in front of the main altar. Their fixed stare into the heaven was interrupted by occasional bowing of the head. The tourists were allowed entry into this active prayer service, and we were permitted to circumnavigate around the prayer floor. At the altar, I saw some donated money on a silver plate. I, too, clasped my hands in prayer and deposited some financial contribution to these monks, who probably were surviving mostly on these monetary gifts.

The main attraction of Gandan Monastery was the observation of not only the lives of these peaceful monks, but also the largest standing Buddha statue in the world, Magjid Janraisig, measuring 25m (75 feet) high and covered with precious stones. The statue stood directly inside the monastery, with its head almost touching the arched ceiling. The magnitude of this statue reminded me of the largest sitting wooden Buddha in Nara, Japan, which was built in the 700's AD.

After our tour, I walked around town and did some souvenir shopping until our 6:30PM departure to Russia. Although I was hungry at this time, I was afraid to lose time by going to a restaurant. In Mongolian restaurants, patience was really a virtue. Although capitalism had invaded the country, the service industry was still a century behind that in the West. The normal waiting time to make an order was around one hour and then, one still had to wait another hour before the food would arrive. After that, one had to add another hour before receiving the bill. With the clock ticking before our Trans-Mongolian train ride, I decided to lunch on some apples on the street.

The State Department Store, where I went to purchase some souvenirs, was situated right on Peace Avenue. Although it was the largest department store in the country, its selection was anemic compared to that in the US. The cosmetic counters on the first floor appeared more like flea market stands. There were some electronics like computers and HDTV's for US$800, but it was beyond my comprehension how the average Mongolian could afford such items.

At around 6:30PM, our guide Nemo dropped us off at the train station to embark on the 40-hour journey into Siberia, Russia. We collectively gave him a handsome tip, which was much more than the average monthly wage of $61 (source:CIA Worldfact), for his kindness, attentiveness, and profound knowledge of his country, which he had shared with us in 3 days. He told me that he mentioned to his wife about my language knowledge. His wife, who majored in Spanish in a Russian-run Mongolian language institute, could also speak Russian, English, Italian, French, Hebrew, and German. He said she was impressed with my aptitude and interest in foreign languages, and that she hoped to meet me one day. I brushed off his nice compliments by telling him that I was hopeless when it came to Mongolian. But one day, I would like to return to Mongolia with a stronger ability to communicate with the beautiful, strong people who were able to resist political and economic adversities as well as the harsh climate of the desolate steppes to survive today to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the founding of Mongolia by Chinggis Khan.

With a hesitant farewell, I stared outside the train window as the locomotive left Ulaan Baatar and proceeded through the shadows of twilight that descended over the undulating, solitary steppes. It was still too early to see any stars on the velvety vermilion horizon, but the voices of the wind carried an eerie reverberation of melancholy and rejoice, a common theme in the spirit of the Mongolian people. In the distance, the white felt Ger tents emerged, and one could see the nomads gathering all their animals together for the night. What was awaiting me on the other side of the Mongolian-Russian border would be known in the morning...
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