A Buddhist wearing bright red robes drove me to the Chinggis Khaan International Airport. He spoke almost no English, but somehow I understood he was asking me what country I was from. When I said, “American,” he said, “LeBron James!” Later on, during the car ride, he said, “Dwight Howard.” I responded, “Kobe Bryant,” but he corrected me, saying, “Howard came to Mongolia.”
Sure enough, there are videos online of Dwight Howard dancing to Mongolian music in a club in 2011. Mongolia is a country that makes you want to get on your feet and be active. The grasslands of the country are vast. The sky is blue. The people are few.
Nanjing has three times as many people as Mongolia. Almost half of all Mongolians live in the capital, Ulaanbaatar. But in the center of the city, it is still buzzing with life. Shoppers stream in and out of the State Department Store. Pedestrians walk around the city in numbers that approach those of the streets in Hexi. A group of young women and men are gathered in a Korean-style pavilion holding flowers as they prepare for their friend to propose to his girlfriend.
In Sukhbaatar Square, in the center of the city, there was a convention of sorts. Lawyers, graduates, soldiers and rescue workers were just some of the groups of people who had tents set up. On a stage, a suit-clad group of four men were signing while a circle of Mongolians watched and cheered. Next up was a girl wearing an orange Mongolian dress with boots and a hat. She danced while extending her arms in a swimming motion and jumping.
On the other side of the square is the Government House containing the parliament. On the exterior, there is a statue of Genghis Khaan (henceforth referred to as Chinggis Khan) and nine horsemen (Kublai among them). The square was renamed as Chinggis Khan in 2013, but most people still call it after the name of person astride the galloping horse in the center. Damdin Sukhbaatar was the commander of the Mongolian People’s Partisans who fought off Chinese troops in 1921 with the help of the Russians.
Century of Revolution
Mongolia’s history of the past hundred years is on display in the city of Ulaanbaatar. After the revolution of 1921, Mongolia went communist, under the control of the Mongolian People’s Party, of which Sukhbaatar was a member, and the support of Russia. In the square that bears his name in 1990, students protested and went on hunger strikes, eventually persuading the government to introduce multiparty democracy.
Many more monuments to communism and democracy are nearby. Outside the National Museum of Mongolia one block away is a modern art monument to victims of political persecution with the words “No to Death Penalty” written in Mongolian and English. In 2012, Mongolia said no and abolished the death penalty.
In the mountains on the edge of the city is the Zaisan Memorial, where a mural shows soldiers and civilians stomping on a staff bearing the Nazi swastika insignia. The Zaisan Memorial is a monument to the Russians for their support from the 1921 revolution through World Wars I and II. A wreath left by Russian President Vladimir Putin when he visited one week before was still there.
I drove there with a guide and Nick, an Australian I met at the hostel. The guide told us about the history of Mongolia as we admired the view of the city from the top of the Zaisan Memorial. On the edges of Ulaanbaatar were ger communities. Our guide grew up in a ger, but now she lives in an apartment. She remembers how good the air used to be, living inside those round tents, close to nature. Now, however, the air in Ulaanbaatar is even worse than in Beijing. The gers are partially to blame. During the winter, they all burn coal.
A Nomadic City
Mongols have historically been a nomadic people. The nomads migrate based on the seasons. They migrate in the summer for grazing livestock then back to a fixed area in a mountain valley for winter. Lamb is the Mongol’s favorite meat, and they use milk for yogurt and milk tea, and horses for riding.
Even the cities used to migrate. The city of Ulaanbaatar started out as a nomadic monastic center that moved twenty-eight times before it eventually settled on its current location in 1778.
A few hours later, we arrived at Terelj National Park, which itself was a former site of Ulaanbaatar in 1733. We sat down in a ger and ate a meal of mutton with fried dough noodles. Mutton is in everything in Mongolian cuisine. Khuushur, a popular kind of dumpling is filled with mutton and sometimes fried in sheep fat. Steamed buuz dumplings can also feature mutton. The host poured milk tea, and we ate while sitting on the beds.
On our way there we had stopped at the giant metal statue of Chinggis Khan. The Chinggis Khan Equestrian Statue is a 40 m (131 ft) tall statue of the man on horseback in shiny brushed steel in the middle of the Mongolian steppes. the stairwell is dark and narrow. After walking up through the horse’s stomach to floor three, I was standing on a platform on the horse’s head, and I could see the huge eyes of Chinggis staring back at me, menacingly, with a gruff beard, and his hand on his staff.
Horse Riding and the Three Manly Skills
He was riding such a big horse. After lunch, we rode quite smaller horses. I think the last time I rode a horse was when I was at summer camp in Minnesota. But horse riding is like riding a bike. As in China, you don’t wear a helmet. The horse walked along a grassy hill at a tepid pace while we yelled “Choo!” to try to get it to go faster. Only when the Tibetan horse handler in back ran up and whipped the horse with his rope did the horse start trotting.
After horse riding, we set our sights on those rocks behind us. The Mongolian-Manchurian Steppe covers the eastern half of Mongolia and the western part of China’s Dongbei. All around us were greenish yellow grass and bushes with leaves taking shades between brownish yellow and red. Fall comes early that far north in Mongolia. There was a hill behind us with solid rocks and boulders on its ridge.
From down below we could hear shouting. People in the valley were standing in a circle with two people in the middle wrestling. Wrestling is one of the most important skills for a man in Mongolia. Along with archery and horse riding, it is one of the “Three Manly Skills”. How do you think Chinggis Khan and his people were able to build a 33 million sq km (12.7 million sq mi) empire? They built up their manliness without the help of modern innovations like Jack Link’s Beef Jerky, Red Bull, and Old Spice.
Chinggis Khan thought wrestling was a good way to train his troops. The Secret History of the Mongols, a classic book written in 1240, includes the description of a wrestling match Khan set up between then-champion Buri Bokh and challenger Belgutei. “Belgutei broke his back, dragged him and then left his body.” The book casually mentions how Belgutei killed Buri.
People died in wrestling matches all the time back then, and Chinggis, being the bad ass that he was, used wrestling to dispose of his enemies. When Kokochu was trying to drive a rift between Chinggis and his brother Jochi, Chinggis had Kokochu killed in a wrestling match. “You and your sons began thinking you were equal to me, and you have paid for this,” Chinggis was said to have remarked to the defeated shaman, according to the book The Leadership Secrets of Genghis Khan by John Man.
Buddhism and Shamanism
Mongolian religion is mostly divided between shamanism and Buddhism. Throughout history, the fate of these belief systems has waxed and waned. In Chinggis’ time, shamanism reigned supreme. During the Yuan Dynasty, Buddhism became ascendant, having been introduced from Tibet. Buddhists fought with shamans and took power–Buddhism was a state religion for a short while–and both Buddhism and shamanism were suppressed under communism.
After hiking over the rock ridge and through a small section of forest, we ended up at a monastery built in the side of a mountain. The Tibetan influence on Mongolian Buddhism is evident in the Tibetan text on the prayer wheels. Inside, there are cloths hung in each shade of the rainbow, and there are a few prayer flags blowing in the wind behind a brightly painted image of a bodhisattva.
On the inside walls of the temple were paintings of historic people who attained enlightenment. Many of them had great riches but chose to give them up. There were a few who once had golden elephants that laid golden eggs. Those paintings highlight the Buddhist call to give up all material desires. Looking out at the grasslands, mountains, and the vast sky outside the monastery, I can see why Buddhism has had such an impact in Mongolia. What more do you need when you have all this?
Link: Being a Man in Mongolia