Monasteries amidst snow flurries and chill winds

Thursday, September 20, 2018
Ulaanbaatar, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Every person or a place has to be the first or last or biggest or smallest or something or the other. Otherwise, what's the point? If the place happens to be Mongolia, then we need to look no further than its population density. The vast landscape that we had just been through the last couple of days made it clear to us that there are very few humans to occupy all this vastness. If you started counting sheep however (and don't you fall asleep now!), then the game changes. But looking at it from the number of humans per land unit, Mongolia is the least populated country on the planet. Isn't that something? 
But forget all about that now. Because we are back in Ulaan Bataar (Ulan Bator is the spelling used by outsiders) and here humans have clearly won the battle against sheep (horses and camels never had a chance). Snarling gridlocks, sudden jerky maneurvers by impatient motorists, all make for a stranglehold that is not alleviated even by the rationing of road use by vehicle registration numbers. The promised drop in temperature and arrival of snow was a bit late in coming, but we could feel the discomfort as we said our goodbyes to Bor and Belegt. Even the short hop around the block to withdraw more Togrok from a mini market ATM felt like an expedition as the chill winds howled through the city.
But we are not easily put off by such trifles and armed with all the winter gear we got with us, we dragged ourselves to nearby Sukhbataar square - a vast open space in the center of the city dominated by the equestrian statue of national hero Sukhbataar (who freed Mongolia from China in the 19th century) and large imposing buildings all around. The wide marble portico on one end of the square houses the 3 great Mongol Khans. Our old friend, Chinggis was getting a face lift and so was temporarily hidden from us. But that gave us the time to have a good look at his son Ogedei (we mentioned him in our earlier post on Kharakorin) and grandson Kublai (by a different son). Other notable structures are the pink hued Opera house, museums, the uniquely shaped Blue Sky hotel. 
Snow started falling at night and continued all of the next day. The wind chill factor was 11 degrees F. But we chose to visit the Gandan Khiid (Monastery) and the Choijin Lama Monastery Museum with the aid of taxis. We got to Gandan Khiid (full name - Gandantegchinlen, meaning Great Place of Complete Joy) and were dropped off at a side entrance which turned out to be a lucky break as a live chanting ceremony was taking place in the outer structure. Boy monks and adult monks in lock step vocal rhythm punctuated with mesmerizing cymbal clashes. After a few minutes of this, we went into another chamber where a much quieter chanting session was going on with ceremonial passing of incense bowls among the devotees. We stepped out into the chill winds and walked up the main axis to the central tall building (Migjid Janraising Sum) which houses the supersized (26.5m) tall gilded statue of Buddha Sakyamuni (reminding us of similar statues that seem to occupy the entire containing structure - as in Bagan, Myanmar). This is a recent replacement for the original that was carted off to St. Petersburg in 1937, ostensibly to melt it down to make bullets by the atheistic Stalin regime. The monastery was built in 1838 by the second Bogd Gegeen and even served as home to the 13th Dalai Lama for a few years after he fled Lhasa in 1904. It survived the 1930s purges and was even made up quickly to satisfy the wishes of a visiting US VP (Henry Wallace) who wanted to visit a monastery. It remained a show monastery till the fall of communism in 1990 restored spiritual life back and now there are 600 monks in residence.
Another quick taxi ride got us back to the city centre and to the Choijin Lama Monastery Museum housing five temples none of which are functioning today. Hence "museum". We were the only visitors on this chilly day and the attendants opened the doors to the 3 temples that are "open" for display. The central temple contained very interesting artifacts of the performing arts associated with the monastery - animal masks, wind instruments made out of thigh bones, friendly and hostile spirits most of which had Sanskrit names (e.g. Mrug for deer, Mahish for bull etc.). The grotesque image of Shri Devi, one of the scary spirits that are intended to ward off evil spirits recalled our visit to the Erdene Zuu monastery the previous day. The museum complex is completely surrounded by tall glass and concrete structures that stood out in contrast.
Our hotel was just a short walk away but the increasing winds that sent snow flurries into our faces made for a testing time. After checking out, we left our bags and headed out for a quick bite at Black Burger Factory who surprised us with some tasty vegetarian burgers. After collecting our bags at the hotel we gratefully hopped into a taxi that took us to the railway station to begin the main chapter of our journey - the Trans Siberian Express. Stay tuned! 
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