The Winter Palace

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The Winter Palace was built between 1893 and 1903 for Mongolia’s eighth living Buddha and last king, the Bogd Khan. He lived there for 20 years.

Although the Summer Palace was destroyed, the Winter Palace was spared destruction by the Russians. Now it is a museum, and a good one at that.

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Amongst the exhibits are a Ger lined with the skin of 150 leopards, a robe made out of 80 foxes, a pair of gold boots gifted by the Russian Tsar Nicholas II, and a parasol gifted by the British and made entirely out of peacock feathers. A tour through the palace brings you into two rooms full of taxidermied animals. These were two of the most amazing rooms I have ever been in! The first was full of exotic birds in every colour of the rainbow – some of them were tiny and beautiful, others were massive and freaky-looking. Toucans and even penguins were amongst the animals brought to the Bogd Khan’s palace. At the back of the second room (filled mostly with reptiles) was an armadillo, a sloth, and, most incredibly, a tiger swinging a bloodied gazelle in its jaws. A pretty surreal place.

You weren’t allowed to take pictures in the museum so I’ve nicked some off the Internet:

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Exhibit 24-9-63 – ‘Pencil-sharpenings Bird’

It’s fair to say that the Bogd Khan was keen on animals – he had a brown elephant calf walked through the Gobi desert for him to keep at the palace. He was particularly fond of this elephant, and there is a black and white photograph of it in the exhibition. Next to this photograph, in a glass cabinet, you can see the elephant’s red ceremonial hat which it wore on special occasions. My colleague told me that the elephant was cared for by the tallest man in the world at that time — so tall he could reportedly walk along next to the palace walls and pick up people walking on the other side without bending down.

A little further through the exhibition you can see the framed certificate of Mongolia’s Declaration of Independence from China (1911), and then the bedroom of the king and queen. The Bogd Khan and his wife slept separately, in beds surrounded by painted glass. However, the doors of these glass cubes were pointed towards each other, so that the king and queen would see each other when they woke up in the mornings. Also in the bedroom was the Bogd Khan’s musical chair, which I imagine he probably considered throwing out of the ornate window one or two times.

There are six temples in the palace grounds, and most of these are filled with golden bronze and copper bronze statues inlaid with coral and turquoise, as well as richly coloured tapestries and wood carvings. There is a whole room dedicated to paintings of the ‘White Tara’, many of which were painted in a single day.

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Gandan Khiid Monastery

DSC00970 (2)The Gandan Khiid monastery is an active monastery which stands atop a hill in Ulaanbaatar city. Its full name – Gandantegchinlen – roughly translates as ‘the great place of complete joy’.

The monastery was one of the few to survive the Communist purges of 1937, but was closed in 1938. It was hastily opened again in 1944, when US President Henry Wallace asked to see a monastery during his visit to Mongolia that year. Until 1990, Gandantegchinlen remained a ‘show monastery’ for foreign visitors, distracting from the fact that Prime Minister Choibalsan had laid waste to much of Mongolia’s religious heritage in the first part of that century.

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As you enter the monastery’s main attraction, the Migjid Janraisig Sum, you find yourself face to face, or rather, face to base, with a 26m high statue, made of copper with a gilt gold covering and inlaid with 2,236 precious gems. The eighth Bogd Khan commissioned the original statue in 1911, but it was removed by Russia in 1937 and allegedly melted down to make bullets. The new statue was built in 1996 with donations from the Mongolian, Japanese and Nepali people and is said to contain 27 tonnes of medicinal herbs and 334 Sutras (Buddhist scriptures).

DSC00971 (2)As you enter the monastery you see candles and incense burning in front of a kind of altar. People stand in front of this to pray, and use their hands to waft the smoke towards their faces.

DSC00973 (2)All around the room there are gold prayer wheels embossed with religious scripture. The custom is to walk around the whole monastery, turning each wheel with your right hand.

The monastery is part of a complex – you can also see the Ochidara Temple, the two-storey Didan-Lavran Temple, the four colleges of Buddhist philosophy, and the Ondor Gegeen Zanabazar Buddhist University.

 

Article Published! – Braids Interview

My interview with two of the members of Canadian band ‘Braids’ was published in this Friday’s issue of the ‘Mongol Messenger’!

 

I actually went to watch ‘Braids’ perform a few days before the interview at the Gandan Hill pub in Ulaanbaatar. They were the last band on, following two of the most popular bands in Mongolia – ‘The Lemons’ and ‘Magnolian’.

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Magnolian

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It was a great night. I also met loads of expats at the concert. When you’ve been in Mongolia for a few weeks and you meet another English-speaking person, you practically fall into their arms with relief.

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Terelj National Park

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Terelj National Park was top of my list for places to visit in Mongolia – and it didn’t disappoint. I took this photo standing on the steps leading up to a tiny monastery in the side of a mountain. To reach the steps, you first had to hike through the valley, and then cross a rickety wooden bridge that was like something out of an Indiana Jones movie.

On the way to Terelj we stopped at this – an ‘ovoo’.

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Saruul instructed me to pick up some stones. We walked around the ovoo three times in a clockwise direction, as is the tradition, throwing the stones onto the pile, and yellow rice into the air. If you drive past an ovoo and can’t stop, you’re supposed to beep your horn three times instead.

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What I found the most interesting when we got to Terelj was the coloured writing and pictures on the sides of some of the mountains. Like here for example:

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The monastery was similarly colourful, both outside…

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…and inside.

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In here, we had to take off our shoes and stand in a line. There was a lady in front of us wearing a gold robe, and she led a kind of prayer ceremony. I self-consciously joined in with the ‘ummmmms’ but couldn’t last as long as the Mongolians. 25 seconds and I almost passed out.

All around the outside of the monastery were brightly coloured prayer wheels. We walked right around the building, turning each wheel with our right hands.

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On the way out of the park, we stopped at one of Terelj’s famous rock formations – ‘Turtle Rock’.

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Five Go Off To A Ger Camp

On Saturday afternoon, me, my host sisters Saruul and Enkhzul, their sister Tumi and her friend, all piled into Tumi’s car and drove out of Ulaanbaatar to the countryside beyond.

“What’s your favourite music, Ros?” Tumi called back to me as we were hurtling along.

“The Beatles.” I replied. The car swerved violently to the left as Tumi delved into her CD compartment and unearthed a 28 track Beatles compilation. After the car was realigned with the oncoming traffic, I could relax to the sound of ‘All My Loving’ and ‘From Me To You’.

We arrived at the ger camp at dusk, having taken three wrong turns and driven through a massive sprawl of gers and huts.

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Ger unlocked, we hauled our supplies inside, then stood around shivering uncontrollably until a little man came along with a bucket of coal and fired up the stove for us. Within minutes, Saruul had a pan of pak choi and noodles hissing away on, Enkhzul was playing Teddy Pendergrass from her portable speaker, and Tumi had broken out the Mongolian beer. The party had started.

After we had eaten, we had a few rounds of cards. The girls’ Mongolian card game, however, counted 2 and 3 as ‘high cards’, and this totally messed with my head. To make matters worse for me, the punishment for losing a round was to have the others actually inflict physical pain on you, either by whacking you on the wrist, or by flicking you really hard on the forehead. As a result of this, and the aforementioned Mongolian beer, I woke up in the morning feeling quite tender.

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I don’t think I could have felt any further away from home than I did when I was sat on my bed looking up at the stars through the top of the tent, whilst the girls all sat around in the dark singing Mongolian folk songs for me. Perhaps more surreal though was when Tumi, remembering my love for The Beatles, led them into a rendition of ‘Yesterday’.

Sleeping in a ger is one of the cosiest experiences you can have. Tucked up under several blankets, with the stove spilling out warmth, the dogs howling in the distance, and the tent flapping quietly in the wind, I fell asleep almost instantly.

I was woken up at 1am by the little man returning to top up our stove with another bucket of coal, and then again at 6am by my alarm – I wanted to get up and see the day break. I took my coat and camera and headed outside, where all was still and silent. It was so beautiful.

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After crunching around in the snow for a while, I headed back to the ger. It was at this point that I was thankful for my Rabies jabs, because I turned around to find five or six scraggly dogs loping along behind me. Another was sat on the doorstep of our ger like he’d just knocked and was waiting to be let in for breakfast.

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With cold hands and toes, I crept back under the covers and lay looking up through the top of the tent until the others stirred around me.

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The little man came back in and had breakfast with us (I don’t know who invited him) and then we all headed out to play basketball and volleyball in the snow. A little while later, we filed back inside to warm our hands around mugs of milk tea. Then we packed up and set off for Terelj.

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We had to leave this little guy behind.

Community Outreach Project

book6 (2)On International Women’s Day, our journalism volunteer group took a bus out to the ger district of Ulaanbaatar to visit a single mother caring for her six children, the youngest of whom had Cerebral Palsy. We brought gifts and sweets for the children, and a large decorated cake for the mother. Whilst we were there, we shot footage of the mother’s day-to-day life, which included collecting firewood, coal and water, cooking and cleaning, and keeping a constant eye on her youngest son, who couldn’t talk, and who had to be held up constantly and prevented from falling into the stove.We filmed an interview with her and with a woman single-handedly running a daycare centre for nine children. Our group hopes that by giving a presentation on Saturday in the heart of the city and doing a fundraising event the same day, we may be able to raise awareness of the suffering of single mothers with disabled children in Ulaanbaatar.

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There’s something afoot in Mongolia…

I was taken slightly aback the other day when Aminaa from work suddenly grabbed my hand as we were walking along. I wondered what I could possibly have done to have prompted such an unexpected display of affection. Turns out I hadn’t done anything except step slightly on her foot, which in Mongolia causes offence unless you immediately clasp the person by the hand.

This is actually proving to be slightly inconvenient. For example, Ted and I were walking along chatting to each other when all of a sudden, he was no longer there. I looked behind to see him ten or so yards back, hand outstretched to another Mongolian. As it happens, Ted’s spatial awareness is particularly poor, which means that I have to factor in grace time for any journey I go on with him, since he will inevitably brush feet with four or five Mongolians en route and delay us considerably. It makes me wonder what happens when Mongolians find themselves in large crowds…Maybe they just hold hands with each other in that situation…I don’t know. I don’t suppose they play many games of Twister here.

Another thing that I’ve learned is that you mustn’t wear your shoes inside people’s homes. I understand why – shoes are dirty – but it’s a real pain if you’ve left something in the apartment and have to go back for it. One of the other volunteers told me that her host left the house one day last week and had to come back for her mobile phone. With not enough time to take her shoes off again, she reportedly walked through the house on her knees.

Horse-trekking in -18

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Yesterday I rode a horse through a snow-cloaked valley at such a speed that it was a miracle I managed to stay on. It was both terrifying and exhilarating, and probably an experience I’ll never have again in my life – in England, they don’t tend to put beginners on top of horses which run like they’re escaping wildfire.

We (me, two other volunteers from England and Germany, and an American man and his daughter) hired a van to take us out of the city and into the Mongolian countryside. Unfortunately, this van had no seatbelts, and the potholes were big enough for a full-grown man to lie down in. We drove for miles and miles without seeing anything except for mountains, and a herd of camels surrounded by four enormous eagles. Lord knows what they were doing there… I’ve stopped questioning what I see in Mongolia…

Finally fell out of the van at the ger camp, which looked like this:

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Here we were helped onto our horses by a man wearing what looked like an entire fox on his head, the ‘deel’, and curly-toed Mongolian boots. He grabbed my arm to help me up and almost launched me clear of the horse entirely.

I don’t think I will ever forget our horse-trek between the white mountains feathered with trees, partly because that Mongolian may have permanently altered the way my arm hangs by my side, but mostly because the scenery was just so fantastic. It was freezing cold but the sky was deep blue, as ever. Not a sound could be heard in the valley except for the soft moan escaping our guide’s lips. At first I put this down to the Mongolian saddle, which is made out of wood, with no padding whatsoever, but by riding closer to him I realised he was quietly singing ‘Fly Me to the Moon’.

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Here is our guide, Zulaa. His Mongolian saddle forced him to shift his weight continuously.
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This Mongolian came thundering through the valley towards us. He had seen us approaching in the distance and was keen to invite us inside his ger.

Having already ridden for 2.5 hours, we gladly accepted his invitation and tied our horses up outside the ger, where we were greeted by two rosy-cheeked children dressed in their ‘deels’. Inside, the stove was on, and we gladly filed in to receive milk tea, sweets, buuz and curds (or in Zulaa’s case, what looked to be the whole hind leg of a sheep which he cut from the bone.) The nomad and his family watched us with intrigue.

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This is a particularly terrible photo of Tom, who looks like he’s just been sentenced to death by hanging, but it gives you an impression of  what the inside of a ger looks like.
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And this is the outside.

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Then we rode back to the camp, where we met a group of people from the international school. As we sat chatting in a ger, we heard a blood-curdling yowl, and a dog staggered in with its ear hanging off its head. The dogs are always fighting each other out there in the wilderness.

Driving home, we had to stop the van whilst a herd of cattle crossed the road. We also stopped to get photos of ourselves holding an eagle. It was the evening by then, and the sun was setting behind the beautiful Mongolian mountains. As we were about to enter Ulaanbaatar, a full moon rose up behind them.

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Genghis Khan Statue

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This statue of Genghis Khan is the highest statue of a man on horseback in the world. It was built in 2008 to commemorate the eight-hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Mongol Empire and weighs 250 tons. The statue is made of stainless steel and is 40 metres high.

An elevator inside the museum takes you up to the horse’s head, where you can stand and have your picture taken with the face of the war legend looming behind you. From such a height, the view is spectacular.

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That’s Tom and Nina by the way, who came with us on our horse-trek.

At the moment, they are working on building an entire military unit of warriors on horseback to surround the statue, but only five or six have been built so far. Inside the museum, you can also see the world’s largest statue of a boot!DSC01038