By Siberian standards, it isn’t a great distance. Travel southwards along its length, crossing the Russian border in towards Mongolia, the distance between Ulan Ude and Ulan Bator is about the same as that between Brussels and Zurich.
As the bus sails through the highway, the twelve hour drive is punctuated occasionally by the slopes of the hills pressing close to the roads, as though it were a larger mountain than a small hill. The absence of vertical magnificence is replaced by the green, horizontal foreground consisting the renowned Ger Camps, so sporadically placed, yet presenting an ever welcoming picture that it would incline any traveller towards stopping by for a plate of khuushuur and fermented mare’s milk.
The people here appear indeed backward, for whom becoming ‘modern’ means little, yet, at the same time, living on their history, treasuring their customs presents a far more attractive option.
I squint in to the sun, as the bus breaks for a halt at an isolated hotel along the highway, and observe the surroundings. It is late afternoon, and I notice villagers, mainly farm men and women, carrying their produce from one village to another, resting, and wiping the sweat from their faces while waiting, I presume, for the sun to go down before recommencing their journey. A third of Mongolia’s population still practises semi-nomadic herding.
Mongolia offers a classically exampled view of history, an excitement of watching the lack of what we label as the only thing in the world which isn’t constant – change. Frankly, this is what attracts me as a heritage-eroding Indian. It appears as though rural Mongolia is a still backwater that the ocean has neither had the interest, nor the time, to consume.
The fear of impermanence of such lands strikes a consequential chord in my mind. I feel its beauty more strongly because, I fear, in another decade or so, change would have played its role.
The bus ride from Ulan Ude, Russia to Ulan Bator, Mongolia takes us across the border in to Mongolia. What strikes me about its people, as I’d later find out when we stop by a Ger Camp for food, is how civil the people are – not only towards tourists, but also between one and other. A family of eight had invite us to their Ger, entering which evoked a range of emotions – a cocktail consisting amusement, surprise, poignancy and laughter.
There were no signs of modernity inside – dominating the scene were sacks of vegetables spread across the floor, in front of which sat four women, welcoming us with wide smiles, vivid amidst the smoke coming out of the gas stoves using which they are preparing food. Unable to hide their delight on a chance to host foreigners for a meal, they had, excitedly, started asking us questions only to be stopped by our informant who reminded them, much to their disappointment, that we neither spoke nor understood Mongolian. .
We had assured them that we were delighted to be in company of such wonderful hosts. By this time, the entire family had gathered around us to nod and smile, despite not having understood a word of what we had spoken in English.
They had known, it would seem, that moments like these have no language barriers. Our amusement, and appreciation towards their warmth and lifestyle, I later sensed, had given them a sense of pride. And rightly so.
Gankhuyag has been running Gana’s Gers Guesthouse at Ulaanbaatar’s Gandan district since time immemorial, or 1994, to be precise. Gana is popular among backpackers owing to its Ger themed rooms, a convenient location, albeit a dingy, immediate neighborhood – close to the famous Gandan Buddhist Monastery, and wallet-friendly prices. We’d paid an equivalent of 4 USD per head per night.
An assortment of newspapers and travel magazines, I suspect donated by visitors, piled up on a long table along the sides of the wall had welcome us to the hostel the previous night. A few locals sat around a reading table, poring through the newspapers, unmindful of the dates on them.
He puts on a spotlessly clean, white shirt and stands behind the desk, short in stature, his black hair camouflaging his actual age – which I had presumed to be in the early fifties. He later tells us that his favourite way to spend time was to play his guitar, a brief glimpse of which he offers us.
We are soon joined by other backpackers and tourists staying at Gana’s, one of whom is Nam Ho Kim, a South Korean native who has been backpacking around Mongolia for the last two months. We get along well with Nam Ho at first sight as he’d visited my hometown in India, Chennai, several times as part of his earlier association with Hyundai Motors.
Soon, we were all sitting on the terrace, sipping hot tea while looking at the fading light as late evening dawned. A few of his mates slowly took their ease but kept their reserve – a warm, smiling, infectious reserve, so self-conscious that you’d assume they have never spoken to foreigners before.
Our old French friend from Irkutsk, Remi, soon joins the bandwagon and listens to Nam Ho’s travel tales that ended with “One day I will open a backpacker hostel in Seoul, and all of you should visit me.”
It is past 9:30 PM now. Ulaanbaatar is all but well asleep.
“He is a God to us,” says Gankhuyag the following day when we press him up on Mongolia’s most famous son, Genghis Khan. “Like Red Communism for China and Russia, our identity is Genghis Khan,” he adds, pronouncing their leader’s name Chinggis.
I had come to learn that during the seven decades the Soviet Union ran Mongolia, the Russians had feared the adulation of Genghis Khan would provoke Mongolian nationalism. It wasn’t until the 90s that Mongolia could rise from the shadows of its titanic neighbours – Russia and China.
Evidence of a reignited adulation of Genghis Khan is seen aplenty – hotels, beer, cigarettes, banks, the International Airport, stamps, currency, among others, bear his name.
The Mongols are keen on erasing public perception of Genghis Khan as a blood-thirsty villain, given the number of nations and civilizations that had fallen prey to his audacious conquests. The Mongols were feared as the most ruthless of conquests, the accidental quality only to be surmised perfectly by our host when he said that no one could dare touch Mongolia when Genghis Khan was in power.
We hire a vehicle to drive us to Tsonjin Boldog, an hour’s drive away from Ulaanbaatar, housing the legendary conqueror’s 131 foot statue. Wrapped in 25 tons of stainless steel, and costing in excess of 4 million USD, the daunting statue is visible from several miles afar.
Mongol legend has it that a person who finds a horse whip is destined for greatness. It is in this very spot at Tsonjin Boldog where Cenghiz Khan had found a horsewhip. The rest, as they say, is history.
Sukhbataar Square at downtown Ulan Bator: Cenghiz Khan is revered as a God here
Mongol legend has it that a person who identifies a horsewhip is destined for greatness. It is at this very spot, where the statue stands, that Genghis Khan was believed to have found a horsewhip. The museum beneath the statue throws history behind his rise and conquests.
The truth, so simple yet basic, venerating through the walls of the museum dance to a tune that conveniently convinces any visitor that the history of Genghis Khan was written by his enemies. Hence, the barbaric, villainous misconception of him and his deeds.
Back in the city of Ulanbaataar, Sukhbataar Square, now known as Grand Chinggis Khaan Square, in downtown Ulaanbatar houses another imposing monument of Genghis Khan along with Kublai Khan, his grandson. It isn’t uncommon to watch locals offer their prayers and seek the blessings of Genghis Khan in front of the monument.
The Gandan Monastery in Ulaanbataar is one of the sole survivors of the Communist regime, a period during which hundreds of monasteries were destroyed, and monks jailed.
One of Mongolia’s most important monasteries, housing over 300 monks, it continues to be a place of learning – housing colleges on philosophy, medicine and astrology. The Dalai Lama is said to have frequented the temple many a time.
We take a walk around the monastery during our last day in Ulaanbaatar, and reacquaint with our fellow backpackers we’d met during the train journey from Moscow. It is a Sunday, and the crowd gets busier with every minute that passes.
We notice arrays of families making a grand tour of the temples, a route we managed to pattern after observing a few sample sets. Another set, we notice, feed the pigeons on the other side of the temple. We assume they’ve completed their prayers and are on their way out.
The focus of our attention is the 28-feet tall Bronze Buddha statue, the largest of its kind in the world. And around this statue, along the perimeter of the building, inside, are several miniature Buddha statues, adorned in fabric outfits.
Another attraction we discover, and one that I particularly enjoyed, was spinning the prayer wheels situated all over the site. We were no different from the little kids who were running around, spinning these wheels aimlessly, while their parents, more diligently, offered prayers as they went through their routines.
We feed a few pigeons before heading out to a reverberating Buddhist Chant echoing through the air, alongside men and women, old and young, casting one last glance at the temples hoping that their prayers won’t go unanswered.