The day started with a visit to the Mongolian National Museum, which was only a 5 or 10-minute walk from our friend’s apartment. Entry was T5000 ($3) each, plus another T10,000 to take photos. I actually didn’t purchase a camera pass, and I was thankful, as the majority of the things I would have wanted to photograph had signs forbidding you from photographing them, even with the extra pass.
The museum chronologically displays and explains the history of Mongolia, from pre-history to modern times. The vast majority of the exhibits also had an English translation, too. It’s an interesting museum, and there was lots I didn’t know about the country. The traditional clothing was amazing – I can’t imagine how long clothing used to take to make (and how expensive it must have been). Unfortunately the Soviet Era section of the museum is still under renovations, which was one of the areas that I really wanted to see more of. Alas.
All that walking around and reading about history had made us hungry, and stepping outside we could smell the smell of food (so we followed our noses). We ended up at a small (but rather upmarket) Ukrainian restaurant. Even stranger, the waitress spoke awesome Japanese. Food was really good, too. I got a Chicken Kiev, and Risa had some kind of Ukrainian soup – though, I’m sure that’s obvious from the pictures.
After refuelling, we were good to go for some more exploring of downtown UB – that’s what the ex-pats call Ulaanbaatar. We checked out the State Department Store. The name is a remnant of the Soviet Era, but inside was nothing but pure capitalism at work – foreign and expensive brands. I was actually lucky enough to find a pair of hiking boots that fit me, and that’s not the best news, the best news is it only cost me T50,000 ($30)! There were also some really cheap down jackets, and it took a lot strength not to buy one.
The backstreets of UB were an odd mix of ex-Soviet occupation, nomadic Mongolian dwellings, and stalled capitalistic ventures. Lots of sad looking Soviet apartment blocks that were in need of some loving, lots of inner city ger tents, and loads of high rise buildings that have stalled due to a sudden weakening of the Mongolian currency (which has made the completion unviable). It’s a little eerie seeing these skeletons of buildings in the town, it looks more like a decaying building than a partially completed one.
We continued walking towards the Gandan Khiid, an impressive Buddhist monastery within walking distance of the centre of town. We walked past a few other smaller and quite modest Buddhist temples. We walked through the gates and were greeted by smiling monks, though they did look a little surprised to see us.
Getting to Gandan Khiid required some navigation of the narrow alleys that surrounded the monastery. There were small fenced off plots with ger tents surrounded by narrow and eroded dirt roads.
We entered the monastery from one of the side gates. The first thing we noticed was a strange humming noise. It got louder the further we walked inside the gates. Then we saw the thousands (OK, maybe hundreds) of pigeons, and then we realised that the noise was their collective voices rejoicing at all the food that was being thrown to them by tourists.
The next thing we noticed (other than the beautiful buildings) was a group of young women, all dressed up and wearing sashes and ribbons – like prize cows. I thought it must have been a beauty contest, but after asking one of the ladies, I found out that it was a school graduation thing. Judging by their age, it must have been a university or college graduation, rather than a high school.
The main building looms over everything else in the area, and the design is unlike any other temple I had seen before. So, naturally it drew us in to peer inside. It came as a real surprise when we stepped though the doors to find an enormous gilded Buddha. It must have been at least three stories tall, occupying the majority of the cavity of the building. Surrounding this commanding statue were hundreds of prayer wheels. Risa did a lap, and by the end her hands were sore and tired from spinning so many of them. Being an Atheist, I feel it’s a little weird to do the same, so I just looked around and took in the beauty of the place.
As we stepped out into the sunshine again, we could hear the sounds of chanting and percussion. And, like the dozens of others who heard the same thing, we wondered in the direction of the source. Inside the small, but intricately decorated building were several monks who were seated at tables, with some form of soup/porridge in front of them. They were chanting with beautiful harmonious voices, and ever so often they would stop while some cymbals were crashed, drums were hit and horns blown. I wanted to photograph it, but I didn’t feel comfortable doing so. It was really crowded and I felt out of place, so I waited outside and listened for a while longer from there.
There were many other smaller and much less grand buildings inside the monastery. There weren’t any signs about not entering places, so we opened random doors and entered random buildings and courtyards.
The walk home didn’t take too long, and it felt like it wouldn’t have been much quicker to have been in a car due to the ridiculous traffic in UB. Our friend whom we were staying with had found information about a cultural show that was taking place tonight, but without a wireless connection we’re off the grid, so we didn’t get the messages until we’d returned to her house and it was too late. The late setting sun continued to be a source of confusion for us – if I didn’t check the time on my watch, I wouldn’t have known that it was already 6PM.
Plan B was to meet for drinks on the rooftop bar in one of the new buildings in town, Blue Sky. First stop was the open air patio (7th floor), where we rugged up and drank some good local beers (or strong cocktail if you’re Risa) and enjoyed the sunshine and the view out over the city. They had amazing smelling BBQ meats available, but we decided it was probably a little too cold for dinner.
But, since it was quite cold, we didn’t spend too much time sipping on our drinks. We finished them off quite quickly and made our way to the indoor rooftop bar. It was another couple of local beers on the relaxing couches while we watched the sun finally set over UB (8:30PM). Unfortunately I had to be content with photographing through the murky windows.
It was now well after 9PM and we still hadn’t had dinner, so we popped in to a nice nearby Korean restaurant and had a Korean hotpot. And, since we hadn’t had dumplings yet today, we ordered some of them for the hotpot, too.