Thursday, August 26, 2010

Mongolia Part 4 – Amarbayasgalant Monastery and North-Central Mongolia (August 2 – 5)

After a wonderful time at Khövsgöl Nuur it is time for us to begin the final part of our journey across the top of Mongolia. On the morning of August 2nd I recover from my food poisoning and we take care of a bunch of necessary things: do laundry in our hotel sink, buy food, gas, get a haircut, and buy a Mongolian SIM card for one of our phones because both of our phones have stopped working. We have been getting a good signal in the towns but our phone calls won’t go through. Our Mongolian SIM card works fine. On the way out of town we pass the town’s wrestling stadium with some statues in front of it. Wrestling is one of Mongolia’s national sports. Below is a photo of one of the statues.

At 1:30 p.m. we are on the road out of Moron. Today the road is a gravel and dirt road but it is much better than what we had before Moron. We are able to average more than 20 mph for the first time in a long time. Plus there are kilometer markers, which is so nice because each one reassures us that we are still on the right track. Along the way there is a beautiful rainbow that stays with us for a long time.

We cover 120 miles today and make it half way to Bulgan. We camp on the side of the road at the edge of a Birch forest. After dinner as it is getting dark a herd of horses comes to us once again. They walk straight to us, then feed and hang out close by. They’ve done this 3 times now. We wonder why they do this. Is it because they are curious? Or do they feel secure around us (from wolves)? But then after a while two Mongolians on horseback round them up and lead them to the yurts close by.

The next day, August 3rd, the roads are unfortunately not nearly as good and our average speed for the day drops way below 20 mph again. It starts to rain and the road becomes a greasy, muddy mess.

After a while we come to an area where a paved 2-lane highway is being built. In places we can drive on the gravel that has been built up but at other times we have to drive next to the road being built and there is no road there to take. Sections of trees, extremely deep mud, super greasy sections of mud, and standing water all must be negotiated. How can people build a highway and not have a detour while it is being built? Plus each time we have to get on and off the “highway”, there is no ramp to do this. You are on your own. Below is a short movie showing one of these ramp-less exits.

After getting down one particularly greasy hill we stop for lunch and watch in amusement as many vehicles try to get up and down the hill. Some make it and some get stuck. There are cars, SUVs, mini trucks, a sheep wool truck and a convoy of fuel tanker trucks. We nickname some of the vehicles: “Baaaaaad news for sheep wool (a truck overloaded with a gigantic cargo of wool, with some of it falling out the end), oh, little truck is REALLY stuck now, u-oh it looks like the tanker convoy is ditching their trailers!” Eventually everyone seems to make it. Our last day on dirt is a real challenge!

Eventually we reach the section of road that is finished and it is really nice pavement. We arrive in Bulgan (a larger town), buy some gas and groceries, then have trouble finding the paved road to Erdenet, but eventually do find it. The map in Lonely Planet is totally wrong but the locals tell us where the road is. We drive 20 km, pull off the road, drive across a field and behind some trees for a really nice camping spot. Tonight I add pressure to our tires. So far in Mongolia I’ve been running ~18 psi and now I optimistically put 25 psi into the tires for the roads in the rest of Mongolia that should be much better.

On August 4th we drive the last 30 km to Erdenet on a great paced road. The 30k are covered in a flash! Erdenet is a large and modern (for Mongolia) town. It has a population of 73,000 and the main street is lined with concrete buildings about 4 stories high. We check internet in an internet café with modern computers and a decent internet connection and get some groceries but are unable to see the mining museum (closed until September) and copper mine (they want 20,000 Torog just to drive in). The copper/moly mine is one of the largest in the world and consumes 40% of Mongolia’s energy! We get back on the road toward Darkhan, stopping for lunch at the top of a pass. Then after asking we find the gravel road that goes north to Amarbayasgalant Khiid, one of the most significant and beautiful Buddhist monasteries in Mongolia. The monastery is at the end of a 35 km gravel road with a few muddy spots and a couple stream crossings. As we get there a boy rides past us on a horse and I’m able to quickly snap the photo below.

Amarbayasgalant Khiid is beautiful and is set in a stunning valley. It is Mongolia’s most intact archeological complex and is filled with beautiful Buddhist artwork. It was built 1727-1737 by the Manchu Emperor Yongzheng. It is a Mahayana Buddhist monastery (same as Tibetan Buddhism). For 200 years it was a flourishing monastery, but in 1937 the Soviets executed the 200 monks living here and destroyed many of the religious relics, books, sutras, thankas and Buddhas, but thankfully tore down only 10 of the 37 temples, probably because the local military chiefs were sympathetic and procrastinated. After Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Mongolia, the artwork, religious meaning and symbolism, and culture are overwhelming. Today 30 monks, mostly young boys, live in the monastery. I think the hope is to rebuild a community of monks here as this batch of boys grows up. There is also a lot of restoration going on.

Before visiting the monastery we check into a really nice ger camp next to the monastery that is run by the monastery and profits go to help support the monks and restoration. Our ger has painted artwork on our table, chairs, support posts, ceiling rods and door.

After moving into our ger we walk to the monastery, whose front side is shown in the photo below.

Upon entering the monastery you first walk through a building containing four protector gods, two on each side. There protector gods are common in all of the Mahayana Buddhist temples I’ve seen in India and now Mongolia. Their purpose is to protect Buddhism. Usually they are painted near the entrance, but these are huge, larger-than-life figures are especially impressive.

In the monastery most of the buildings are open to visitors and contain beautiful temples. We see some of them on our own but are soon joined by a boy monk that proudly shows us around and tells us exactly how many prayer books there are, how many columns each building has, how many statues in each hall, etc.

The photo below shows the main prayer hall.

The boy monk we meet shows us a small stupa next to the main hall, climbs in, spins around three times and climbs back out. Then he says I should do the same. The stupa is really small but the monk is so nice and I’m feeling playful so I squeeze in and do the same. But just as I’m extricating myself from this holy symbol the supervisor monk walks by and gives us both a cold stare. I feel really bad and try to explain that this wasn’t my idea and that we were just playing. The next day, I see some other Mongolilan adult visitors doing the same thing so I feel much better about the whole thing. Below you can see the stupa and me standing next to it.

The monastery is closing for the day so we walk back to our ger but on the way we walk up to a giant golden Buddha being built above the monastery and then a huge stupa. Below are three photos showing the monastery and the valley it is and the giant stupa.

We are really, really impressed by everything here and take lots of pictures. What a wonderful last sight and experience in Mongolia! We enjoy nice pasta dinner on the lawn in front of our ger and then retire to our cozy, wood-stove heated home.

The next day (August 5th) the ger camp serves us breakfast and then we visit the morning prayer ceremony. We are surprised that it is just kid monks with only one older one. They are a little disorganized and the kids are being kids. But it’s cool to see the service. Below you can see the monks gathering in front of the main prayer hall.

After the ceremony we pack up our things and head back down the gravel road. At the first stream crossing we wash our car. It’s gotten super dirty and it looks so nice being clean and shiny again. In an hour we are back on the paved highway heading for Darkhan. After Darkhan we pass through Suhbaatar, which will be our last town in Mongolia. We buy gas and some groceries but still have a little money left and can’t find a bank that is open so we buy a bottle of Ghinggis Khan vodka. Ghinggis would travel with us all the way to Vladivostok.

We drive out of Suhbaatar and find a really nice camping spot about a kilometer off the road. It’s a really, really nice camping spot. The Russian/Mongolia border mountains are to our north, we can see a stupa to our south, we are in a little valley where nobody can see us, and there is grass to camp on. We have a nice Ramen-noodle style dish for dinner with a candy bar and some vodka for dessert. A great last night of camping in Mongolia!

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