The country of Mongolia has been inhabited for over 850,000 years, and for more than the 2500 years of its recorded history, the Mongolian people have followed a nomadic, herding and hunting lifestyle.
In order to raise the traditional herd animals of Mongolia – the “five snouts” – horses, camels, yaks/cows, sheep and goats – the people devised a way to move from place to place, following the best grazing land at different times of the year.
They did this by living in circular Gers (yurts) made from wood poles covered with animal skins or nowadays canvas, with two warm layers of felt that they laboriously produced from yak or camel hair.
These gers can be erected and taken down in less than an hour, and many Mongolians who no longer raise animals still live in gers today, as well as those who do follow a nomadic lifestyle.
Even in the biggest city of Ulaanbaatar, the only permanent buildings were historically the many Buddhist monasteries with their beautiful structures and impressive gates.
Those glorious temple buildings feature awesome curved roofs with handmade tiles decorated with guardians and mythical animals.
The walls were constructed from wood, adobe or bricks, supported with huge wooden poles and beams, intricately carved with Buddhist symbols of abundance and harmony.
Many of the old temples featured circular windows offering what was intended to be enlightened views of the surrounding landscape and gardens.
For those of you who plan to travel to Mongolia, and are thinking to skip the busy and gridlocked city of Ulaanbaatar, I would like to send a gentle reminder that it is still the capital city, housing many of the important cultural artifacts found in this land, well worth exploring and thoroughly enjoyable if done with patience and a sense of rejoicing in the otherness of this place and its people.
We spent days walking around the city, admittedly on broken sidewalks and through many traffic crossings where no driver yields to pedestrians, and found that lingering here helped us better understand the culture, both past and present.
I believe that we are the authors of our own realities.
We see what is projected from within because that is what we focus on, and it is recognizable to us, because we hold similar beliefs.
We encounter the kind of experiences that we resonate with, complete with seemingly random events and meetings with apparently arbitrary people but who actually resonate on similar energy levels that we do at the moment.
We do all this mostly automatically and subconsciously, but as we grow in spiritual understanding and claim our birthright to create harmony and perfect joy for ourselves as our life’s mission, we start creating our reality consciously.
And so listening to stories told by other travelers does not at all mean that you will encounter the same experiences when you happen to be in the same place.
Other travelers have told me that they had to eat mostly mutton, greasy dumplings filled with meat and loads of dairy products while traveling in Mongolia.
Since we are partial to a vegan diet, we braced ourselves for the worst and brought with us some zip-lock bags filled with freeze-dried fruit and vegetables mixed with nuts from the USA.
To my delight, the Kempinski hotel offered an impressive daily breakfast buffet brimming with many good healthy food choices.
We had freshly squeezed juices of carrots, apples, pineapples, lemons and oranges, big fresh vegetable salads and fresh fruits with seeds and nuts.
There were whole wheat artisan breads and black Mongolian honey, complete with green tea or herbal tea from herbs and flowers collected in the Mongolian Taiga, which borders the Siberian Taiga in the north, which we will visit later on our trip.
Jules told me that we might still encounter a lack of healthy food options outside of Ulaanbaatar….and that our packages of dried veg and fruit which are bulky and somewhat heavy, might still become handy later on during our trip in rural Mongolia.
He was somewhat right and we were happy to have healthy snacks with us, but we had no problem dining on vegetarian food while traveling throughout rural Mongolia.
Although we did not encounter again the flavors and quality of the food at the Kempinski, we never felt that we lacked freshly made veg food.
After breakfast, our friendly hotel concierge printed for us a Google map and circled on it the museums that we wanted to see, art galleries, cafés, shops, temples and vegan restaurants that serve veg versions of all the traditional Mongolian food.
Our hotel was located on the eastern end of Peace Avenue, the main artery of Ulaanbaatar.
The sidewalks were lined with vendors selling fresh fruit and bags of candy.
Some vendors sold umbrellas when the sky showed signs that rain was fast approaching.
Other vendors tied colorful balloons to a makeshift wooden board surrounded with cutesy bears and toys.
For a small amount of money, they handed people arrows to throw at the balloons, and if the arrows pierced a certain number of balloons, they would win a cutesy bear.
Many street vendors just sat on low stools by the side of the busy intersections, selling boiled eggs, cigarettes and Russian lollipops from a cardboard box.
Many also had a cordless phone, charging people who wished to make phone calls, although it seems like every Mongolian, even penniless monks, carried smartphones with them.
A few shopping malls lined Peace Avenue catering to different budgets.
A fancy mall with a glass facade with Gucci and Louis Vuitton stores among other international high priced designers, was not as interesting or attractive to us.
They are a common fixture in every international city worldwide, selling identical goods at inflated prices for those who need a recognizable designer label to believe that they are buying quality or showing good taste.
We opted instead to explore the more interesting government department store when we did need something (mostly to pee in a nice air conditioned bathrooms….sorry but we did not come to Mongolia to shop, although we did end up getting a few souvenirs along the way.)
At the center of Peace Avenue, in the heart of the city, is Sukhbaatar Square, a large
plaza looking like a smaller version of Tiananmen Square in Beijing, where the main government buildings are located, where concerts take place on special days, and where other public events take place. The public demonstrations leading to the end of the communist dictatorship in Mongolia took place right in this square, in 1990, so it has a very special place in every Mongolian’s heart.
Most of the museums, shops, restaurants, hotels, temples and universities, are clustered around the center.
In a small park in front of square sat a few old fortune tellers with rheumatic eyes and wrinkly faces, dressed in traditional clothing, offering to read peoples’ fortunes by tossing goats’ ankle bones or coins into the air.
Across from the fortune tellers sat a man with an old bathroom scale, for anyone who was willing to pay a few Tugriks to find out (more or less) what he weighs.
I wished our Mongolian guide was with us. I love and wish to support fortune tellers and all sorts of Shamans and faith healers, whether they are charlatans or genuine.
But alas we were to meet our guide and driver who will be taking us into the heart of Mongolia, a few days later.
The traditional clothing of Mongolia is the Del, a full length robe designed for each season, still worn by many, especially in the countryside.
We saw many people congregate in Sukhbaatar square wearing those traditional Del garments.
It was summertime, and so the Dels were made of silk and brocade, woven with beautiful patterns in gold or silver thread.
In the wintertime, the Dels are made of sheep skins, lined with the sheep wool on the inside.
Family reunions, celebrations, funerals and other gatherings, often start with the people meeting in Sukhbaatar Square, and end up with a group visit to Gandan Monastery, the biggest and most important monastery of Ulaanbaatar.
On the first few days we spent alone in Ulaanbaatar, before getting together with Tuya, our guide, and Nasa, our driver, we walked the streets of the city.
We stopped in at the National Museum, where we saw an impressive collection of treasures and learned about the history of the country.
We visited the small and most beautiful Choijin Lama museum.
Once it was an ornate Buddhist temple that was built by the 8th Bogd Khaan Javzandamba, who dedicated the temple to his brother, Lama Choijin Luvsanhaidav.
It has been converted into a museum and is no longer a practicing temple.
The museum houses a copy of the 108-volume Kangyur and a hand-printed 226-volume Tengyur, both containing the original versions of the Buddhist teachings brought over from Tibet.
In another ornate building, we walked around an impressive collection of Tsam dance masks made from papier-mâché that were traditionally used in festivals aimed to pass the teachings to the successive generations of people in the form of song and dance.
The main temple features three figures.
In the center there is an 18th-century gold gilded statue of Buddha Sakyamuni.
On the right of the Buddha stands a statue of Choijin Lama, and the preserved mummified corpse of his teacher Baldanchoimbal is on the left side of the Buddha.
On the day we visited, a horse fiddle musician played some songs from the Mongolian highlands in the central courtyard.
We bought his CD and prepared to go, when he called us back and performed just for us a beautiful Tuvan throat song which the Mongolian musicians are so famous for.
The throat song, with its two notes at once clearly audible, vibrated straight into my heart and made me feel homesick, longing for an invisible non-earthly home…… Perhaps a heavenly home….. and tears collected in the corners of my eyes.
In another temple building we saw sculptures of the Buddha Shakyamuni of the past, present, and future, with 16 disciples along with four fiercely looking Maharantsa protectors on either side of the door.
A small Ger served as the museum shop, and as we made our way out, a Mongolian woman came to me and asked that I do not forget to visit her Ger shop.
I bought a silk pouch filled with goats’ ankle bones.
Later on our trip, we learned how to play the traditional games that use these bones, and we spent many enjoyable hours playing in our Ger to the light of a candle, where there was no other entertainment, no TV, and often no electricity.
In the amazing Zanabazar Museum, we learnt about this talented artist, the foremost secular and spiritual leader of his time, whom we were to encounter again and again on our Buddhist pilgrimage around Mongolia.
Zanabazar also composed sacred music, and in a remote mountain monastery which we would hike to later on our trip, he mastered the art of bronze casting, and retreated to that serene mountain to focus on his writings, casting and paintings.
He created a new design for monastic robes, and he invented the Soyombo script in 1686- based on the Lantsa script of India, which served as the alphabet for Mongolian Buddhism.
He also created the Quadratic Script, based on the Tibetan and Phagspa scripts.
He intricately painted Thankas and bronze statues of the Buddha and the female manifestations of the Divine Mother, in the form of the white and green Tara.
In the museums that we visited in this city, we saw a superb collection of scroll Thangkas done in embroidery and stitching, by far the best I have ever seen around the world, including those in temples and museums around India, the Tibetan Autonomous regions of China, in Bhutan, Korea, Thailand and other Buddhist cultures.
Across from the Zanabazar museum we spotted a Loving Hut vegan restaurant.
At times when we encountered this spiritually based chain of vegan restaurants, we found the food to be a bit tasteless.
But in this busy branch in Ulaanbaatar, filled with locals, the food was fantastic, the best we had in Mongolia.
In fact, Ulaanbaatar has seen an amazing increase in vegetarian and healthy places to eat in the past few years, including a wave of dozens of Japanese restaurants, and Korean and Indian places opening all around the city.
Just to name a few, the ‘Zest Bakery’ offers fresh juices and organic vegan cakes.
At ‘Luna Blanca’ we can recommend the delicious vegan cakes and their endless pots of delicious tea.
The ‘Bull Restaurant,’ offers table-side cooking in your own individual soup pot, where you cook fresh mushrooms, fresh noodles and vegetables to taste.
All the food in ‘Loving Hut’ across from the Zanabazar museum was very good (there are many other branches around the city, but we did not try them), including the traditional Mongolian dumplings in a vegan form, the veg Ragu, the seaweed soup, the potato and peppers stir fried with soy-meat and spices, and if you are lucky, their Borsht, which is always sold out early!