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.

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