We fly into Ulaanbaatar from Seoul with large fluffy cumulus clouds below us and as we land into the Chenggis Khan Airport of Mongolia’s capital city, we are amazed that the area is open barren fields, slightly touched by green from recent rain, with only essential airport buildings to mark this as the 21st Century.
But that quickly changes as we pass through immigration, are surrounded by throngs of people and are met by our guide for the next two weeks, Sara, and are driven by our minivan into gridlock traffic approaching the city. The city is quickly expanding its borders and now holds 50% of the country’s population as we pass large commercial mall projects and stores reaching out into the countryside.
We have all had very little sleep on our very long journey but the weather is perfect this afternoon and it is our only free day before our tour officially begins, so Pat, Jack and I head out into the central downtown area to explore. Right across the street from us is the Choijin Lama Museum, one of the few remaining monastery complexes left after the cultural desecration of religion during the soviet period of Mongolian history between 1921 and 1990.
I have visited Tibetan Buddhist monastery sites and museums in Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, Ladakh, Dharamsala and China. But I was overwhelmed by the beautify and intensity of the collection in this small temple. It was filled with the most intricate masks as well as paintings, appliqué work and statuary
With poor lighting and hard to read descriptive cards, it contained the finest examples of the various arts which are an essential part of the practice of Tibetan Buddhism. With two smaller temples on the simply maintained grounds, we all in our sleep-deprived and hazy states were all awed by what we saw. Below is a sample.
In neighboring temple rooms are other displays of great beauty.
Filled with brilliant created images, we moved into the crowds and bustle of this capital city, said to be the coldest capital in the world. We walked to find a vegan restaurant I had read about and which was in Pat’s guidebook as well. We walked across heavily trafficked streets with traffic lights and walk/dont walk signs and then sometimes a traffic patrolman with whistle in the center trying to direct the solid stream in all directions. We pass through streets filled with young people, who could be at home at any urban city in the world, coffee houses abounding, large concrete block buildings interspersed with some of the old Russian French buildings from another era. Following google maps, we walked along brick sidewalks and around parked cars and past office buildings and a line of restaurants but very few retail shops. We walk and walk and come to where the restaurant is shown on our map and it is not there. I asked several people in coffee shops who speak minimal English, despite our guide earlier telling us that all young people now speak English learned from You Tube, and we are directed in various routes, make a big circle, and end up back where we originally thought it would be — only to finally be told that it is inside a bank building without any sign or indication of its existence, And it changed its name as well!
We have a large and delicious dinner, probably my best for a while as it turns out our guide has never had a vegan guests and despite all the promises the tour operator made to me about my diet not being a problem, she seemed a little unsure about what I would be able to eat.
I leave the restaurant and go to the restroom on the first floor of this modern bank building. It is uni-sex with men opening urinating, there is no toilet paper and there is no soap in the sink. I have the feeling this is probably the highest level of public toilets we will experience along our journey.
We find our way back to our hotel and sleep.