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August 13th, 2003

Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia

A rap-rap-rapping on the cabin door by the provodnitsa was the signal to wake: we were on the outskirts of Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia's capital city. It was still dark outside, so I couldn't see much other than the outlines of some distant mountains. I was met on the platform by Mica, an employee at a local guesthouse. I napped for a few hours at the guesthouse, then took my first shower in four days. Refreshed and ready, I hit the streets to explore the city.

Ulaan Bataar's architecture can best be described as functional and inconsistent. The main square has some classically derived buildings, but most of the stores, hotels, etc. were in buildings of the same random design as in some of the more developed West African cities, and rarely more than three or four stories tall. In fact, Ulaan Bataar reminded me very much of a well-ordered, mostly clean West African city. Locals were invariably dressed in Western-style clothes, and considerably more stylishly than in Russia, that nation of slobbish Slavs. A famous Russian author had once remarked that to understand Russia, you must visit Moscow. My initial impression of Ulaan Bataar brought this quote to mind, only slightly modified: to understand Mongolia, this nation of nomads, perhaps it's best to avoid Ulaan Bataar.

Only in one way did Ulaan Bataar stand out, namely in its Buddhist temples. One of my first stops in the morning was to the Gandan Khild temple, considered to be one of the finest remaining Buddhist temples in Mongolia. (Some eighty percent of the temples were destroyed by the Soviets under Stalin.) After passing through the main gate of the complex, I was in awe at the sheer number of temples and the unique beauty of each one. I stuck my head into one such temple from which some guttural noises were audible, and saw several dozen monks seated in rows, dressed in red and orange robes, chanting hypnotically. The interior was decorated with carpets, idols, and all manner of Buddhist bric-brac. A steady profusion of locals passed around the edges of the room, bowing before some of the idols, leaving donations, and then departing. Every few minutes the chanting would reach a peak, and the monks would clash cymbals, blow horns, bang drums -- and then resume the chanting. There was a great informality to the whole process.

Another such temple complex on the other side of town had been converted into a museum. Again I wandered in and around an assortment of beautiful Buddhistically-inspired buildings, their roofs upturned in corners and their columns and cross-beams ornately carved and colored. This was more of what I had expected in Asia! There was nothing in the architecture, the decoration, the rituals that I could connect to my own Western experience: The totality was to me incomprehensible, but prosaically so.

After a bit more wandering and a stop at the National Museum, I found an internet cafe and uploaded the backlog of journal entries. I met up with two of the guesthouse residents for dinner in the evening. Thembi was a blonde, outgoing Aussie who had worked in London for a couple of years, and was now spending the fruits of her labor on a long Asia trip. Ben was a tall, skinny German who had just finished his PhD in mechanical engineering, and had taken a three month sabbatical before starting his first post-doctoral job. We dined on pasta and salad -- my first non-cup-of-soup meal in several days -- and then returned to the hostel in time to catch the last hour of a kung fu movie spoof.

Strange doggy
State Department Store
Random gazebo
Entrance to Gandan Khild temple
Inside the temple complex
Feeding the birds
Golden Dedenpovaran Sum
Spinning the prayer wheels
Migjid Janraisig Sum
Massive golden statue
Temple interior
Temple detail
Another temple
Another strange doggy
Ulaan Bataar suburb
Inside the Monastery of Choijin-Lama
Monastery throne
Buddha and his earthly trappings
Tsam masks
Monastery interior
Monastery exterior
Monastery wall mural

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