Monday, April 27, 2009

The City of Ulaangom

Ulaangom must be one of tne of the least photogenic cities in the world. To make matters worse, it could be dangerous to take pictures of locals without their permission. On the other hand, Ulaangom has some interesting train car diners.

This one is out of service.

Diners or cheap local restaurants like this one are known as 'guanz.'
An apartment block.
The grafitti here, whether intentional or not, is sheer genius. The Mongol hordes led by Chinggis Khaan were known in the west as the 'Tatars' or 'Tartars,' though the 'Tatars' were in fact a completely separate clan.

Kharkiraa Valley

Here are a couple of pictures of the mountain valley of Kharkiraa, about 30 km south of Ulaangom, Mongolia.

The remains of a sheep on the still-frozen stream into the valley.

The Largest Lake in Mongolia - Uvs Nuur

From the city of Ulaangom, I was able to make a day trip to Uvs Nuur, a very salty inland sea in western Mongolia. My guide/driver was a local police officer. Little did I know that he would bring his family along as well as an old Russian rifle. I should mention that as one of the great bird sanctuaries of Central Asia, Uvs Nuur has been listed as a UN World Heritage Site. I would like to stress that I did not take any shots at the wild fowl, though I did manage to shoot a picture or two of the poachers.

This is the lake itself.

My guide's son. Note: the rifle was not loaded at this time.
Salty patches.
This gentleman was a great hunter - he felled two big geese (this is the first one). The other hunters were unsuccessful.

The most impressive of the Russian rifles.

1,300 kms and 40 hours in a Cramped Russian Van

To get from Ulaanbaatar to Ulaangom on the other side of the country, near the Tuva region of the Russian Federation, and not far from the border of Kazakhstan, I opted on taking a Russian van from the Naran Tuul market. Passenger count: 15.
I'll post a link of the full grisly story when/if it gets published. For now, here are a few pics.

The driver - who I believe to be an offroad genius.

A holy tree.
A mural of a Mongolian wrestler on the wall of a small town diner.
View of Khyrgas Lake on the last morning of the trip.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Read More about Ulaanbaatar at The Asia Times

If you've liked the pictures I've been posting on Ulaanbaatar you may want to read more about this unusual city. Here's my article in The Asia Times (Online Edition, April 24).


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

More Random Sights of Ulaanbaatar

Here is the final installment of pictures on the wonderfully strange city of Ulaanbaatar.

Yesterday, April 20, would have been S. Zorig's birthday if he were still alive today. Zorig was one of the great democracy leaders during Mongolia's post-Soviet era. He was stabbed to death in his apartment in 1998 and the crime remains unsolved to this day.

The State Department Store! 1921-2009.

Why is there a Beatles monument in the heart of Ulaanbaatar? This question has been eating away at me for more than a year now. When I asked a local resident her answer was, 'Because everyone loves the Beatles.' There also seems to be an esoteric link between the Beatles and Mongolia's democratic movement. Why, I wonder, is Paul standing alone, with George, John, and Ringo sidestepping away?

Mongolian Shamanism Alive and Well

It seems like almost every high point in Mongolia has an ovoo on it. What is an ovoo? It is basically a pile of rocks - like a cairn. Hundreds of years ago (and maybe still today?) animals were sacrificed at the ovoos. It seems like all Mongolians still 'worship' these rock piles.

This particular ovoo is known as 'Scary Rock' (I have no idea why). People walk around it three times and throw a rock onto the pile with each circumambulation. Sometimes Mongolians come with a bottle of vodka, dedicating the first glass to the ovoo and then enjoying the rest of the bottle themselves.

Anyone who's hiked in South Korea will have noticed similar rock piles all over the place (only minus the prayer flags).

Manzushir Monastery Ruins

Not far south from Ulaanbaatar are the ruins of Manzushir Khiid, which makes for a great day trip. I was reminded a bit of the demolished neighborhoods of urban China (see photos from a few weeks back). In the case of Manzushir Khiid, though, the temples and monastery buildings were destroyed by Soviet soldiers in the time of Stalin. Most of the monks were killed. This 'cultural revolution' of Mongolia came decades earlier than its sequel in the China of Mao.

This slope was covered with buildings to house 2,000 monks.

One of the main temples.

Airag and Cow Tongue

A few days ago I tried fermented mare's milk for the first time. Called airag, this drink is the traditional alcohol of Mongolians. It smells a bit like sour grapes, but the taste is more like gastric juices. Incidentally, Mongolian beers and vodkas are superb!

Cow tongue is not an exclusively Mongolian dish, but most Mongolians like it and it can be easily found in the markets. This one wasn't boiled quite long enough so it was hard to de-skin, and turned out a bit tough.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Foreskin Cauldron

My disreputable sources in Mongolia have informed me that this is an ancient Buddhist cauldron named the 'Foreskin Cauldron.' It was cast in the 18th century, at the base of the ruined monastery of Manzushir - not too far from Ulaanbaatar.

According to my guide, 'Dirty Mike,' an ancient esoteric riddle is inscribed on the side in old Mongolian script. 

'Given the variable X = skins, solve the following equation: What is the square root of 16X?'

Dusk in Ulaanbaatar

Ulaanbaatar is a baffling city. Fermented mare's milk (an alcoholic drink known as airag) can be bought supermarkets. While the manhole covers have all been sold as scrap metal to China, and many of the sidewalks have crumbled to dust, at the same time the skyline is filled with new construction projects. With only 1,000,000 residents, it is the smallest of the East Asian capitals, and yet within a five minute are a Dutch cafe, a French bakery, and a Cuban restaurant.

The city is full of striking long-legged Mongolian beauties. This billboard hardly does it justice.

The headquarters of the communist party - torched by rioters after the election of June, 2008.

I have been staying with the legendary, long-time Ulaanbaaar resident 'Dirty Mike.'  The back alleys behind Dirty Mike's apartment building, itself near the State Circus Stadium, exude with the gritty charisma of Ulaanbaatar.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Amarbayasgalant Khiid - Remote Buddhist Monastery

To reach the ancient Buddhist monastery of Amarbayasgalant, one can use either the city of Darkhan or Erdenet as a jumping off point. There is no regular service to this site, so renting a private vehicle is necessary. Here is the turn off from the highway. The monastery is at the end of a 35 km-long dirt road. Somehow, my taxi driver made it without breaking an axle, careening into the fields, or flipping his Hyundai.

35 kilometers of white-knuckle driving later...

The monastery, built by the Manchus to honor (and entomb) the great Mongolian 'living Buddha' - and renaissance man - Zanabazar, seemed totally abandoned. There were plenty of pigeons, crows, and magpies, though. The temples have been partially restored.

Child monks were sweeping dead grasses when we arrived. Here they are before we left, walking toward the hills...

To Erdenet

This week I made a side trip to Mongolia's second largest city, Erdenet (population: 75,000). The road between these two cities is paved, and there is a regular bus connection, while to reach any other city requires taking a private minivan. This is a picture of the comfortable Korean bus (a Daewoo) parked at a rest stop.

A herder and his flocks - opposite the rest stop.

The city of Erdenet grew up around a huge copper mine that was established by the Soviets. Today, the mine is the country's biggest cash cow. There are still a fair number of Russians in Erdenet, I noticed, not to mention this Marx mural (and a profile of Lenin on an adjacent building).

An early evening view from the Friendship Monument, with the copper mine in the distance.
The friendship monument.

Monday, April 13, 2009


Some 60 kms northwest of Ulaanbaatar, on one of the rare paved roads of the country, is Gorkhi-Terelj National Park. The Soviet-era concrete blocks and new construction projects of the city soon turn into shacks and fenced-in gers (yurts). Then, before long, the scenery becomes rolling steppe land.

Note the rock in the background - Turtle Rock. This is the most famous site of the national park.

At the end of the road the land of herder camps and settlements begins.

One of the ridges.

                                    A spectral yak.

                                                         The mountains of the moon?