Friday, November 20, 2009

Ulan Bator, Mongolia

The capital of Mongolia is Ulan Bator, which reminds one of the large European cities that used to be under the Warsaw Pact. The great influence of the USSR is visible on every corner. Its spacious squares, public institution buildings, the communist-style residential blocks of flats, with Lada and Moskvich cars and other remnants of the Soviet car industry cruising down its streets, testify to the difficult road to recovery of a poor country from the burden of the past. Ulan Bator can be reached by train from Moscow or Beijing. The railway lines going through Mongolia are a spur of the Trans-Siberian Railway. There is, of course, a much shorter and easier way, which is also considerably more expensive – by airplane, which will not give you the opportunity to admire the astonishing landscapes of Mongolia. Any decent accommodation in the city costs a minimum of EUR 50 a day, but it should be noted that the Mongolians prefer the US dollar. It is, therefore, preferable to provide yourself with enough American currency before your trip there, because there are not many places in the city where you can use credit cards or exchange money. You will need some commercial talent when shopping, but still do not expect any large discounts. As regards food, because of the nomadic lifestyle, the traditional nomadic cuisine is based on meat and rice, although fish is not an exception. The Russian influence in Mongolia resulted in vodka being the favorite beverage, although the Mongolians have their own national drink based on alcohol – fermented mare milk than can include up to over 10 percent of alcohol, depending on the producer.
Apart from such gastronomically based pleasures, Ulan Bator also offers cultural and historical attractions. The Gandan Monastery is comprised of a group of temples and other Buddhist buildings. Its full name Gan Dan Teg Leng has recently become popular (the name is pronounced as one world, but is given here separately for easier pronunciation). In loose translation, the name means the Great Place of Complete Joy. This is a Tibetan-style monastery harmonized with the prevailing Buddhist trends in Mongolia. The Monastery was established in 1835 and it soon became the main Buddhist refuge in Mongolia. In the 1930’s, the Mongolian communist government started, under great pressure from Stalin, a campaign of annihilation of Buddhist monasteries. Ganden was virtually the only monastery, but only with a limited number of residents, as well with other restrictions. There is a Zanabazar university within the monastery, teaching astrology, traditional medicine and Buddhism. In 2006, the first generation of female students enrolled at the university. The Winter Palace of the Living Buddha, the last Emperor of Mongolia, should absolutely be visited. There are six temples around the palace, treasuring the gifts presented to the emperor. The Natural History Museum is also an excellent site for tourists. Among other attractions, it boasts two dinosaur skeletons discovered in the Gobi desert.
The same as most cities, Ulan Bator also has its dark side. Be prepared to confront the ugly images of the Mongolian capital, and some even less pleasant feelings, when you see the large number of homeless children, whose only home are the streets and deserted sewers. If you try to find out more about them from the citizens, you will get no explanation and it will be unmistakably that this very unwillingly.
However, what they will gladly talk about is the Gobi desert. You will easily find a guide with a jeep in the capital of Mongolia, ready to take you to the desert. What is more difficult to find, however, is a guide who can talk to you in English. However, you will soon realize that what connects people in the desert is not language. The vast areas of steppe in combination with the incredible blue color of the sky will make you become silent for a long time, with your eyes wide open. When you recover your desire to speak, your vocabulary will be richer in words you will use trying to describe the impressions made by such beautiful landscapes where the freedom of the nomad is a synonym for a way of life.

Monday, November 16, 2009


Because of its extremely harsh climate, Mongolia has been inhabited almost exclusively by nomadic tribes of cattle farmers since ancient times. This large country had only sporadic small villages of Samoyeds and Uyghur’s, as well as some others who lived under Chinese influence. Back at that time, there were occasional attacks by them on individual tribes in China, on the Silk Road than went through Western and Central Asia. In the medieval period, the legendary Genghis Khan managed to unite the Mongolian tribes and establish a state that ruled a world empire, which spread all the way to Central Europe. His grandson Kublai Khan was the founder of the Yuan Dynasty in China, and empowered Buddhist monk rule in Tibet. After several periods of frailty, a great empire was created under the rule of Timur Lang, which was later inherited by the Chinese Qing dynasty. After its downfall in 1911, Mongolia proclaimed independence, but it took until 1921 (despite Russia’s assistance) to finally force out the Chinese forces. June 11 is celebrated as a national holiday, called Naadam. The price of the expulsion of the Chinese occupation army was paid, however, by the great dependency on the then USSR. In 1924, the Mongolian People’s Republic was declared, which became a USSR satellite nation. A national holiday is celebrated on 26 November in honor of the establishment of the Mongolian People’s Republic in 1924. As a result of the ambitions of the Soviet leaders to develop Mongolia into a modern communist country, the traditional nomadic cattle breeding culture was almost completely obliterated, which caused great economic problems. The Soviets even influenced a change in the alphabet. Namely, Mongolians used their traditional Mongolian alphabet until 1921, and they switched to the Cyrillic alphabet after the revolution. Nowadays, all Mongolians use the Cyrillic alphabet, and only a smaller portion of the population is familiar with the traditional alphabet, which is also in official use. During the Stalinist purges, many Buddhist monks were killed. Almost all Buddhist monasteries in Mongolia were destroyed forever, including all their cultural treasures and libraries.
The winds of change in Eastern Europe in 1990 brought about a democratic movement to Mongolia as well, and the first free elections were organized in 1992. Today, the democracy in Mongolia is more stable than in any other country of Central Asia.
A half of the Mongolian population still pursues the nomadic lifestyle, whole families move in search of work, food and pastures, erecting their unique tents, the so-called gers or yurts (round tents with six beds arranged in a circle and a cattle dung stove), along the roads. Mongolians are primarily involved in the agricultural production of meat, milk and wool. In addition, they grow some crops, potatoes and vegetables. The share of agriculture in the total gross domestic products is – the same as industry – below 30 percent. After 1990 and the breakdown of communism, the people have tried to return to their roots and nomadic life. However, after a long period of stagnation the economy has started to strengthen recently. This growth relies mainly on services. However, the result of this growth has not affected the poor population very much. More than one-third of the citizens still live below the poverty threshold. The difficult years of reforms have however increased the share of private entrepreneurship to around 80 percent, but at the same time this has increased social division and the differences between the urban and rural areas.
Vast area of steppes, mountains and deserts are characterized by a very low density of population. Even through their numbers have doubled over the last three decades, there are still less than 3 million citizens living in Mongolia. It is easy to find the reason for this low density of population. Out of the 1.5 million square kilometers that Mongolia covers, only 10 percent is covered in forests (mainly in the northern and western mountains), and less than 1 percent is arable. Climate conditions make this area extremely harsh and cruel. Its position on the Central Asia plateau gives Mongolia one of the most extreme continental climates. The difference in average temperatures between day and night are unusually great, while the one between winter and summer temperatures reaches up to 100 C. That is why Mongolia boasts the southernmost areas of permafrost which, apart from the top few centimeters, never melt, as well as the northernmost deserts on the planet Earth.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Rijeka Crnojevica

After nearly a century of decay, Montenegrins started timidly turning back to Rijeka Crnojevica at the beginning of the new millennium. Dressed stone embankments were erected on the Rijeka waterfront, this was then paved, Danilo’s Bridge reconstructed… and there is hope that the small town will manage to recover at least a small part of its former splendor.
When you leave Podgorica, on your way to Rijeka, your first stop will be at Pavlova strana, overlooking the River Crnojevica that springs from the Obodska cave and runs down the valley, meandering among the nearby hills and flowing into Skadar Lake. After the surreal image of natural harmony from Pavlova strana, the road goes on to another view. A view to the past and… oblivion…
Nestled into the silence of Skadar Lake, away from modern roads, new buildings, industry… almost deserted by both its citizens and visitors… this small town has been lost in time. The beauty of its nature has remained untouched because of human neglect, glorious past of this place.
A law prohibiting the sale of fish also contributed to the slow death of this town, as well as the construction of the Podgorica Cetinje road, which did not go through Rijeka. A whole town with around 500 citizens remained derelict and deserted. It was also considerably damaged in the devastating earthquake of 1979.
Montenegrins started timidly turning back to Rijeka Crnojevica at the beginning of the new millennium. Dressed stone embankments were erected on the Rijeka waterfront, this was then paved, Danilo’s Bridge reconstructed…
Tourists have again started coming from Russia, Italy, Great Britain… together with the hope that this small town will manage to recover at least a small part of its former splendor so that a beautiful heritage would not slip into oblivion and neglect, living on only in the canvasses of painters and in the eye of a cameraman.
The history of oblivion
The beginning of the story of Rijeka is related to a former ruler of Zeta, Ivan Crnojevic, who, while running away from the Ottoman army in 1475, erected a fortification and a monastery on Obod hill, with a church dedicated to St Nicholas. He moved his capital there from the Zabljak fortification, while the monastery became the seat of the Metropolitanate of Zeta.
The Town of Obod is better known for the first Montenegrin printing house, than as the seat of the Crnojevic Dynasty. Ivan’s son, Djuradj Crnojevic, bought a printing press from Venice (only 38 years after Guttenberg), which was used to print Oktoih, the first printed book among the South Slavs, in 1494. The printers were hieromonks, out of whom Makarije was the most skilled. The printing house was active until the Montenegrins were forced to melt down its lead letters into rifle ammunition in order to defend their freedom. A modest plaque, exhibited on the walls of the remains of the Obod fortress, which informs visitors that the Obod printing house used to work there.
The dynasty that ruled Montenegro after the Crnojevic was also not indifferent to the beauties of this palace. The Metropolitan and ruler of Montenegro, Petar I Petrovic Njegos, build a house here in the early 19th century, and it later became known as the Bishop’s House. A famous landmark of Rijeka Crnijevica, its stone bridge, was erected in 1853 by Prince Danilo. Apart from the bridge, Danilo built a house on the left riverbank, and the two compose a harmonious whole and blend perfectly with the surroundings. King Nikola built his winter palace, Ljeskovac, in this town, as well as a large bridge on the road connecting Rijeka and Virpazar.
During the 19th and the early 20th centuries, Rijeka Crnojevica was Montenegro’s largest port and leading trade centre. Many people of different religions and nations came to its market, which offered goods from all parts of Montenegro. A local product that was especially appreciated was dried bleak, which was a highly valued dish in Italy. The then great wealth in this area was based on community land, located in the lakes inlets, the so called oke, which are numerous in this area and very rich in fish. At that time, the town used to have its town government, district court, customs house, a salt and oil monopoly, and it was the main industrial centre of Montenegro. Before the Balkan Wars, Rijeka was full of manufacturers. The first pharmacy in Montenegro was opened here, as well as the first gunsmith shop. The Marica factory produced fine mother-of-pearl, that is, pearls made out of fish scales. At that time, there were seventy-five different trade and service companies, as well as nearly seventy taverns in the town, all of which operated successfully. Nowadays, there are three taverns in Rijeka, one of which (next to Danilo’s Bridge) bears the symbolic name “The First Port”.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Banja Luka

Banja Luka, with 250.000 inhabitants, is the largest city in the Republic of Srpska and the second largest city in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It represents political, financial, university and cultural center of the Republic of Srpska. It is situated in the valley at the altitude of 164 m, in the transition between Dinaric Mountains in the south and Panonic basin in the north. Banja Luka has moderately continental climate with prevailing influences of Panonic area. Average annual temperature is 10.7 C, average January temperature is 0.8 C, while average July temperature is 21.3 C. Due to large number of green areas (parks and avenues), Banja Luka has the epithet of the town of greenery. Banja Luka is also called the town of the young, sports and pretty girls.
In the territory of the today’s Banja Luka, since the ancient times, there were always human communities that left traces of time in which they lived. In Banja Luka you can experience a spirit of different cultures that were interwoven in this territory and visit a large number of cultural and historic monuments being the witnesses of different epochs and human creativity. Cultural and historical monuments: Gospodska Street, Petar Kocic monument, fortress Kastel, Banski dvor, monument of Banj brdo, Hipotekarna banka, Sokolska kuca, hotel Palace, old Serbian Primary School, environmental entity Carski drum, Trappist Monastery, the Building of old railway station, Safikava’s grave, Monastery Gomionica, medieval town of Zvecaj, Archive of the Republic of Srpska, church of Christ the Savior. Also, Banja Luka as a cultural center of the Republic of Srpska offers you the possibility to visit the cultural institutions such as the Museum of the Contemporary Art of the Republic of Srpska, Museum of the Republic of Srpska, Cultural Centre Banski dvor, National Theatre of the Republic of Srpska, Galleries etc.
At the territory of today’s Banja Luka, the continuous development of human communities from prehistory until today can be followed. This territory has been favorable for settling and living since the ancient times, first of all due to natural resources, and later also due to geographical, traffic, and strategic position. Banja Luka was mentioned for the first time in the year of 1494 in the charter of Hungarian king Vladislav II Jagelovic, issued in Budim in Latin language, although the town had existed even earlier. Prehistorically archeological localities as well as the items found on them give evidence on existence of human communities at these areas since the epoch of musterien from 5000 – 3500 BC. In preantic period, wider area of Banja Luka and western Bosnia was inhabited by Illyria tribes called Mezeji and Oserijati which left behind many ancient town settlements. Having defeated the Illyric tribes in Baton war (6 -9 AD), the Romans started to come to this territory and assigned it into their province Illyrik. A part of the structure of military and administrative power of the Roman Empire was construction of roads near which stationary military camps (Castra) and civil settlements (municipium) were formed. After the fall of the Roman Empire, this area was inhabited by Slavs which left behind early-Slavonic ancient town settlements. Medieval life in Banja Luka and its surrounding grew, which can be confirmed by many written documents as well as a large number of fortified towns from the period from XII to XV century. By the fall of the Bosnian state and by coming of Turks to these areas in the year of 1528, Banja Luka got the significance as the strategic bastion of Hungarian and Turkish domination. Banja Luka got a special significance during the rule of Ferhad-Pasha Sokolovic (1574 - 1588) when it became the center of the Turkish administrative unit – Bosnian pashaluk (jurisdiction of a Pasha). The thing that followed after 350 years of the Turkish administration was the Austro-Hungarian occupation (1878) that lasted for 40 years. After the World War I, this area became a part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenians, and from 1929 a center of Vrbaska banovina (region ruled by a ban – civil governor) of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia when it experienced its largest rise. The first civil governor (Ban) of the Vrbaska banovina Svetislav Tisa Milosavljevic (1929 – 1934) during his mandate built many structures among which the following buildings should be emphasized: Ban’s administration (Banska uprava) and Ban’s residency (Banski dvor), National Theatre, Hotel Palace, Sokolski dom, City Park (Gradski park), Ethnographic Museum, schools, hospitals etc. Also, the Ban Milosavljevic christened the church of Christ the Savior on the occasion of its dedication in 1929, and the church was bombed later, and then destroyed in 1941. The church was renovated in 2004 and today presents one of the most beautiful orthodox churches in Bosnia and Herzegovina. After the World War II, Banja Luka experienced its peak again which was stopped during the time of a large earthquake in 1969 and the war 1992-1995 after which it started to develop again as a center of the Republic of Srpska.
Banja Luka has always been very important intersection of roads, in the period of Romans when a road that connected Roman Provinces Dalmatia and Pannonia passed through the town, and the railway Banja Luka – Dobrljin that was released in 1873 as the first railway of this type in Bosnia and Herzegovina. And today as well, Banja Luka presents the junction of roads of the direction north – east Europe towards the Adriatic and east – west. A railway communication that connects the City with the western and Eastern Europe and other parts of the Republic of Srpska and Bosnia and Herzegovina passes through Banja Luka as well. There is an international airport Banja Luka situated 25 kilometers north of the center of the City.
Vrbas is the main watercourse of Banja Luka that divides the town into two parts and is something more than just a river for the inhabitants of Banja Luka. Therefore, still in some settlements we have the rule of “view to the river” that is applied in civil engineering at the banks the Vrbas. In town, the following tributaries flow into the Vrbas: Vrbanja, Suturlija, Crkvena, Rijeka, Svrakava, Rekavica and others. Flowing from the south towards the north, Vrbas gets out of the canyon, mountain flow and transfers into plain flow. The area of the Vrbas canyon that is situated only 12 km from the centre of the town is distinguished by the clear water of the II category, rich and various flora and fauna, cultural and historical monuments, and natural rarities on the basis of which it was protected according to the Decision of the Institute for Monuments and Culture Protection of SR BiH dated 1955. Vrbas has a specific boat known as dajak which got the name after the stick used for moving the boat.
The location of Banja Luka as a transit town caused the appearance of stationary resorts as early as in the Roman period. One of the first hotels that were built in the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina is the hotel Bosnia from the year of 1885 and according to some sources it was built even earlier. Today Banja Luka has a large number of lodging capacities of different categories and purposes.
In Banja Luka there are many restaurants that can satisfy the needs even of the most demanding gourmands, from the national ones that offer traditional cuisine till modern with European and world specialties. Specific specialty of the town of Banja Luka is Banjalucki kebab (Banjalucki cevap) consisted of tablets of grilled minced meat and specific round flat bread – lepinja.
During the year, in Banja Luka and its surroundings there are a range of traditional events of different characters such as Ljeto na Vrbasu (Summer on the Vrbas), Povratak selu (Return to village life), Kocicev zbor (Kocic’s gathering), Banjalucke ljetne igre (Summer Games of Banja Luka) and many others.