A country the size of Iran has a population of just about a third that of Tehran, and less than most mid-size towns of Iran, India, Pakistan or China. Our two nights in a national park, some two hour’s drive out from the city, transported us to a different world, remarkable for its beauty and serenity.
(Daily Times, 10 July 2014)
Our Mongolian tour guide, Odka, was a very gentle woman. So polite and courteous that she seemed a rather unlikely descendant of Chenghiz Khan, Kublai Khan and Halaku Khan, who struck terror all around.
Chenghiz Khan, whose name is almost synonymous with Mongolia, was born not far from Ulan Baatar, the capital of Mongolia, in the middle of the 12th century, and died in 1227. Situated at an elevation 1,310 metres in a valley on the Tuul River, Ulan Baatar was originally founded as a nomadic Buddhist monastic centre and in 1778 it settled permanently at its present location.
Emerging from the steppes of this far-flung and sparsely populated land, Chenghiz (real name Temujin) and his descendants, founded the largest empire the world has known. It was a contiguous land mass spanning large swathes of Europe and Asia, from the Sea of Japan in the east to the Black Sea in the west, including Mongolia, Russia, China, Korea, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, all the lands that fell between them, and some beyond.
The Mongol invasions resulted in some of the most destructive wars in history, causing tens of millions of deaths as far as China, Iran and India. They also facilitated the division of the Eastern Slavic people into three separate nations, namely, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, and the rise of Moscow as the capital of the future Russian empire.
It is hardly surprising then, that portraits of Chenghiz Khan adorn every office, building and square in Mongolia today. About 50 km from the capital, there is a statue of the great Khan on horseback, 40 metre tall, part of a complex including a visitor centre and a museum.
Less than 400 km southwest of Ulan Baatar are the ruins of Karakorum, founded by Chenghiz Khan in 1220, which was the capital of the Mongol Empire in the 13th century.
Contemporary Mongolia merits attention merely as a tourist destination, tucked between two of the world’s largest countries, Russia and China. A rather large country in its own right, nearly half the size of India, Mongolia has a population of less than three million, the lowest population density in the world (less than 2 persons per square kilometres). In other words, a country the size of Iran has a population of just about a third that of Tehran, and less than most mid-size towns of Iran, India, Pakistan or China.
Ulan Baatar, which has more than a third of the country’s population, does not impress, except for its large central square, a standard feature in all European, Latin American and Communist countries.
But outside of the capital, it is an altogether different country. Our two nights in a national park, some two hour’s drive out from the city, transported us to a different world, remarkable for its beauty and serenity.
We slept in a ger, also known as yurt in Russia, the traditional round tent popular with all northern peoples. Their round shape enables them to withstand strong winds and gales. As the sides and canopy are made of animal hide and padded with animal hair, they are quite warm inside. These windowless rooms always face south to allow maximum sunlight.
All around our encampment were hills dense with forest birch, silver fir and pine trees. Just walking around was spiritually liberating. Here, time stood still, or so it seemed. For a spiritual experience though, we were taken to a Meditation Centre. Although the predominant religion in Mongolia is Buddhism, Christianity is making inroads through American and South Korean evangelists.
Buddhist or not, Mongols do not have the luxury of being vegetarians, for the obvious reason that the harsh climate allows little to grow by way of fruits and vegetables. Of the 21 ethnic groups who live in Mongolia, Kazakhs are the largest after the Mongols. Hats are not just a necessary part of their dress, but a cultural statement. There are about a hundred types of hats, we were told.
Mongolian Buddhism is heavily influenced by Tibetan Buddhism. So much so, that even today the sacred texts are read and chanted in Tibetan, totally foreign to all but a selected few monks. Interestingly, according to the latest census, while just over half (53%) of the population practice Buddhism, over a third (36%) declared themselves to have no religion.
The large number of Mongolians without any religious beliefs is partly the result of Soviet influence for nearly seven decades. Mongolia was the second country in the world, after Russia, to adopt Communist ideology. The Mongolian People’s Republic was declared in 1924, within a few years of the country’s gaining independence from China. It remained a part of the Soviet bloc until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1990-91.
Finally, it was time for us to board the train for the second leg of our trip, from the Mongolian steppes to the Siberian Taiga. Saying us goodbye at the railway station and showing us our berths on the train was our guide, Odka. It is an advantage with package tours that everything is pre-arranged and things run smoothly. One also clearly knows the costs beforehand as most of it is prepaid anyway.
One disadvantage is the lack of flexibility and independence. There is no opportunity to hang out anywhere, to sample the culture, the street food and the fun, to observe the hustle and bustle of everyday life, as it were. Not to mention that one is condemned to spend a lot of time in the company of the same people, even those you would never choose to have around you.
An independent trip may be a bit strenuous, occasionally bumpy, more expensive perhaps, but it allows one to get a real glimpse of local life and culture, to be flexible with destinations, eating choices and travel dates.
Our train left Ulan Baatar at 9:15 pm, arriving at the Mongolian border town of Sukhbaatar the next morning at 6, leaving again after a stop of over four hours after the required change of wheels and passport checks. We reached the Russian border post of Naushki in less than an hour.
(To be concluded)
By Razi Azmi