The main historical sites are few in a city which was governed under Soviet rule for 70 years — all bourgeois cultural and religious landmarks were purposefully demolished or allowed to wither away. Central Ulaanbaatar is now a combination of a few Russian-French style buildings types left standing (such as the Opera House and Ballet and the School of Dramatic Arts), weighty Soviet style concrete buildings, and new soaring skyscrapers, trying to outdo each other with mixed results.
Some of the Buddhist sites were left standing, perhaps as a symbol of the useless waste of religion. In Ulaanbaatar a main remaining attraction is the active Ganden Monastery, a Buddhist center in Mongolia and a repository of decades of neglected sutra books and religious ritual. This monastery was built around 1900 to serve as the motherhouse for the last Bogd, or spiritual head for the country, but which was then shut down in the 1920’s when the Soviet powers took over the government until the emergence of the new Mongolia in 1990. But it looks older than 120 years as it was so poorly maintained. I asked our guide what happened to the practice of the religious during the Soviet period and she indicted the everyone had to pray in secret. Now there are donations from the community and from the government to maintain the monastery which incudes a school for boys as well as a separate training center for girls at the nearby nunnery.
We enter the main temple where the red and yellow robed monks are sitting and chanting on low platforms in unison, a wonderful deep resonating sound. We respectfully circle and leave and visit a neighboring building where another set of monks are having their morning breakfast, milk tea and rice, while continuing to chant their morning required readings. Attached was a separate room where families come and pay to have rituals performed for loved ones.
It is a big switch from these 2 small older temples to a bright big building where new and shiny paintings and statuary and more comfortable surroundings indicate recent donations and respect for the tradition. I asked how it is decided which monks practice in the old cramped spaces and which in the new and was told the most learned practitioners serve in the old quarters and train others.
Our minibus returns us to the central square and the Mongolian National Museum which provided us an overview of the areas long history. Between the era of active Buddhism in the 1300’s until the turn of the 20th century there was continual warfare across central Asia led by Chenggis (the correct transliteration, not Genghis) Khan. Filled with history, we walk across Sukhbaatar square where the large stolid government building stands overlooking the city gathering place and onto a beautiful restaurant serving traditional Mongolian food. The others have plates filled with steamed meat dumplings in various forms while I have some sautéed vegetables. Mongolian food does definitely not support a vegan diet.
The last Mongol ruler was the Bogd Khan revered as a ruler and spiritual head and his winter palace is now a museum. We walk around and view a collection of once opulent buildings holding his personal collections (of stuffed birds and animals!) and priceless Buddhist relics.
What distinguishes traveling now and 50 years ago is today’s homogeneity of culture among the youngest generations, raised with the internet and the spread of corporate culture. We visit a movie complex and shopping center which would be indistinguishable from those in the U.S. and another mall with a very upscale grocery store selling food from around the world. We went there so I could buy some food to supplement the meat central diet. I found brown rice ramen from Germany, Heinz canned beans, Mongolian tofu and soy milk, and Uncle Bens whole grain rice at prices equivalent to what I would pay in the U.S. – so very expensive for local Mongolians whose income is probably no more than a third of ours.
Our long day ends with a performance showcasing Mongolian culture. The theater was packed, with tourists, only about half of whom were wearing masks. Pat and I felt uncomfortable and double masked ourselves. The performers, especially the throat-singer, dancers and instrumentalists (imagine square cello and bass sound boxes) were all excellent and a good introduction to the arts of this large country.