Gandan Monastery (short for Gandantegchinlen Monastery- a Tibetan name which means “Great Place of Complete Joy”) is a Tibetan-style monastery that was the main reason for the very existence of Ulaanbaatar.
In olden days, the whole settlement of Ulaanbaatar, then called Ikh Khuree, or “Great Camp,” was centered around this temple, which stood at the heart of the city, with Gers erected all around it, providing accommodation for the Lamas and monks as well as to to all other inhabitants. It was a mobile monastery-town, which frequently changed its location along the three rivers in the area, depending on the availability of fresh water, wild game, and grass for the herds of animals.
The spiritual leaders of those times were also the most powerful politicians, making all the laws and ruling decisions.
Gandan temple, built in 1809, has been restored and revitalized since 1990; it was one of the only monasteries to be spared the destruction of almost all Buddhist buildings during the Stalinist purges of the 1930s.
It stretches across a large piece of land with many buildings and stupas. Many of the buildings are used as schools and to house the many monks who make this place their home.
It is the most vital monastery for practicing monks in this country.
We came to Gandan with our guide and translator Tuya.
Tuya was born and still lives in DZ, an abbreviation of Dalanzadgad, the capital of the province in the south Gobi Desert.
Tuya teaches English in DZ, and during the summer months, when schools are on summer vacation, she works as a tour guide to supplement her small income as a teacher.
Tuya’s career as a tour guide started rather randomly.
She used to work as a bartender in one of the tourist Ger camps in the Gobi.
Ger camps are scattered all around Mongolia, providing Ger accommodations in striking, remote places where there are no hotels.
One evening, as she poured cold beer into the glasses of two European tourists, they told her about their dissatisfaction with their tour guide.
They were attempting to call their tour company office in Ulaanbaatar, demanding to replace their guide with somebody new and more honest.
Apparently while driving around the Gobi, they requested their guide and driver to take them to see a place that was not listed on their itinerary.
They even offered to pay for the extra gas that would be required to get to the place and back.
The guide spoke to the driver and translated back to them that the driver adamantly refused to take them there.
Back at the tourist ger camp, they talked with another guide whom they had previously met in Ulaanbaatar.
They told him about their problems with their driver and that night he spoke to the driver, who seemed utterly shocked and disheartened to hear the story.
Apparently, their guide had never even conveyed their request to the driver, who would have been perfectly happy to go where they wanted!
Feeling betrayed and unwilling to continue their travels around Mongolia with a guide they could not trust, the couple called their tour company and asked to replace their guide.
The tour company said that it would be difficult to send a replacement from UB (Ulaanbaatar), but that they would try to engage a guide from the Gobi.
The couple asked Tuya if she might be willing to take on the job of becoming their guide.
Tuya protested that her spoken English was not good enough and that she had no experience as a guide, but the couple promised her that all she would need to do is to translate for them, and to communicate with the driver on their behalf.
Tuya was able to take a break from her job, and joined the couple who were delighted to have her around.
When they finished trip, they demanded to see that their tour company pay Tuya in front of them, feeling that they might try to cut her daily rate because of her lack of experience.
The company tried to wiggle its way out of paying on the spot, but the tourists insisted and Tuya got paid, and thus started her summer career as a freelance tour guide.
Tourism might be a lucrative business, but it is not an easy one.
Just like in Bhutan, where everyone who speaks a smattering of English decides to start a tour company and get in on the tourists’ cash, so it is in Mongolia.
Most of the guides are freelancers, and it cost very little to design a basic website and try to attract tourists from all over the world.
With the relaxed regulations in China about traveling and accumulating personal wealth, it sure seems like the Chinese people, along with the rest of the vast population of the world, are now traveling much more than a few years ago.
Although….. I have to admit that in Mongolia, most of the tourists we encountered were Russians and Koreans.
Many Russians come by land by driving south on their motorcycles, or with their grey Russian vans, and the Koreans are connected via a short, direct, three hours flight from Seoul.
Our day started with a visit to the Gandan monastery.
Tuya had arranged for us to go into the “belly of the temple” where the young monks live, so we could meet one of her Gobi students who decided to become a monk and moved to UB to live and study at this monastery.
When we arrived, the young monks were chanting Sutras in the main hall.
They had a short break coming up, and we were invited to visit the ten year old monk in his dormitory to chat and to talk about his experience of being a monk.
Tuya told us that young Mongolian kids in general are very shy, and that kids from the countryside are even more so, and so she suggested that we ask many questions, so he can open up and speak.
Tuya said that kids who grew up in Ulaanbaatar are more outspoken since by living in a crowded city, they had learned to express themselves out loud, in order to be heard.
But in the rural countryside, communication is more subtle.
People are more sensitive and convey much through their tone, their eyes, their energies and their emotions.
Rural kids do not learn to verbalize everything; instead they “think inside themselves,” she added.
The red robed young monk, with his shy gaze, took us downstairs through a dark corridor into his dorm room, which he shares with three other boys.
As we sat on the bunk-beds, I noticed that they sleep on mattresses with only a blanket, no sheets and no pillows.
Moments later, word of our visit spread around the dorm, and the room filled with monks of all ages, all wanting to share in the unusual experience of talking with Western tourists.
We asked many questions and were told about their daily schedule, about their ambitions to go to India and join a bigger monastery there, about their families whom they had left behind, about their free time and the games they play.
The break was over and only an older monk, who was not scheduled to chant with the rest, stayed with us to converse.
He is the one in the photo above.
After our visit with the monks, we toured Gandan Monastery and marveled at the beautiful halls and Buddhist artifacts.
We had lunch at “BD’s Mongolian Grill” restaurant, an American concept in which you select your own vegetables, add your choice of noodles or meat and your own spices, and they stir fry it for you.
It seems to be a popular choice with tour groups, and every tour company seemed to book their clients to dine there at least once. The only locals to be seen were the tour guides and drivers!
It was easy to spot the many tourists and their guides who always paid with a voucher, which would be redeemed later by the restaurant’s manager at the tour group’s offices.
We spent a few more days touring Ulaanbaatar, this time with our translator and guide Tuya and Nasa, Tuya’s husband who was assigned to be our driver on this journey.
Among the places we enjoyed visiting was the Bogd Khaan Palace Museum.
It features an impressive gate with large guardians painted on the red doors of the gate.
A Mongolian guide employed by this temple, which has been converted into a museum, joined us to explain about this interesting place.
It used to be a Buddhist temple and on its grounds was also the winter palace of the last Bogd Khaan of Mongolia (called Javzandamba), who used to be a collector of strange and interesting things.
Built around 1893, this temple was somehow spared the systematic destruction that demolished most of the ancient temples in this country, except a few.
In the 1930’s the Mongolian Communist government who believed that religion was the root of all evil, destroyed almost all of the Buddhist monasteries and killed most of the Lamas.
The Bogd Khaan owned three other palaces around the country, but they were all destroyed.
Only the winter palace was spared.
The small temple is comprised of a few buildings built in a beautiful Asian architectural style, showing Buddhist artifacts and beautiful wall hanging scrolls.
The residence palace was built in a European architectural style, showing the Bogd Khan and his wife’s love of all things foreign.
The Bogd Khan received many gifts from foreign visitors and politicians, which are displayed in the palace buildings along with a large collection of stuffed exotic animals from all over the world.
Perhaps the strangest thing was to see a large Ger that was built indoors, covered with the skins of 150 elusive and now endangered snow leopards.
You can see the contradiction between the devoted Buddhist practitioner as the Bogd Khan was, following a religion which disallows the killing of all beings including animals and even bugs, and the extravagant behavior of lining one of his Gers with the beautiful skins of Snow Leopards.
Buddhism has adopted itself differently in each of the cultures where it took root.
The people accepted its general spiritual principles, but they tweaked it to fit the preferences and limitations of their culture.
Mongolians have always been hunters and herders of animals.
The hard and often volcanic rocky soil of the Mongolian Steppes, or the sandy and arid soil of the Gobi Desert, did not yield easily to growing cereals nor vegetables and fruit.
The cuisine is relies to this day on meat and milk products.
They raise their animals with love, they adore their horses, even putting on their Ger’s shrines and mantles sculptures of horses, yet they see no contradiction in eating their camels, horses, goats and sheep, nor in hunting all wild animals including bears and Leopards.
The rest of the palace features the bedrooms, dining and living rooms of the Bogd Khan and his wife, just as they were designed, furnished and stood in the past.
We had the place almost to ourselves, but noticed that a huge bus of tourists pulled in just as we left the place.
I could not help but contemplate….is the whole world getting too populated?… There seems to be so many people everywhere…. So much crowd and so much noise….
Later, as we roamed the open landscape of the Mongolian Steppes, we would encounter thousands of domestic animals and a small population of nomads living in white Gers, but the days would pass with seeing almost no other tourists.
We ate dinner at the “Bull” restaurant, a very popular place with the locals.
Each diner gets a soup pot simmering with a broth of your choice. (Vegetable, chicken or meat).
They serve a large basket with raw fresh vegetables, fresh noodles, dipping sauces and meat, and each diner cooks his own meal to taste.
We spent an enjoyable time dining there and getting to know our guide and driver, exchanging stories about our lives, trying to harmonize our energies in preparation for the long journey ahead.