Janet Wood’s Mongolian Diary

trav-mongoliaLast year, Janet Wood from Mere, joined explorer Col John Blashford-Snell and members of the Scientific Exploration Society, based at Motcombe, on an expedition to Mongolia. In her latest article, Janet describes a visit to a Buddhist monastery and temples in the capital city Ulan Bator.

CYNTHIA, my room mate, woke me up at 9am from a very deep sleep.

She is a seasoned traveller and likes walking everywhere, which suited me, so off we went after breakfast, first to find a bank and then a market and the monastery. The Mongolian currency is in togrogs with about 2000T to the £. That takes some getting used to (good for my brain) and means carrying a lot of notes. An easy calculation is to take off the last three figures and divide the remander by two.

We managed all three destinations ending up quite a way from the centre of town. Cynthia’s advice was to walk fast and look as if you know where you are going, even if you don’t, which we didn’t. To be fair we never felt uncomfortable or threatened and were steered in the right direction by several kind Mongolians.

First we found the small temple of Geser and were lured in by the delicious aroma of incense. The rooms were dark with queues of people with small scraps of paper in their hands. These were the prayers they were asking the monks to say for them.

We felt like intruders here so found the large monastery, Gandantegchenling, which is inside a large compound surrounded by an ornate green wall. I have never been anywhere like this – it felt as if we were walking through the gate into a monastery in Nepal or Tibet, so very different from the city outside. A place of harmony and peace with hundreds of pigeons, elderly ladies with rice for the birds, beautiful green tiled roofs and people just sitting contemplating or passing the time of day.

We entered the Vajradhara Temple where a service was being conducted, sat at the back and listened to the chanting in the gloom. A venerable old monk entered and sat at the back – what a life he has had living through various occupations and having to hide his Buddhist beliefs. Then, quite abruptly, we were all asked to leave – it was time for their lunch!

Moving on to Migjed Janraising Temple outside of which were a huge pair of gold feet (Buddha’s I presume), we were introduced to the temple by a young man who spoke excellent English. I asked him where he had learnt English and he told me it was from watching English television.

Inside the temple was a huge statue of the Buddha made of copper and gilded in gold, 26.5 metres tall. This statue was made in 1996. The temple was built in 1911 but then destroyed by communists in 1938. Once independence came the temple was rebuilt and the new statue installed. The walls of this large temple were competely lined from floor to ceiling on three sides with glass boxes each one holding a small Buddha. There were many devout Mongolians of all ages, saying their prayers and spinning the numerous Prayer Wheels. On the main altar was a photograph of the current Dalai Llama as a younger man.

trav-mongolia3The next temple was not so serene and we were lured in by the energetic chanting we could hear from outside. We were asked to remove our shoes and put on oversize flip flops, and sent into the room to sit along the side. You have to remember to step over the threshold and to walk in a clockwise direction. In the centre were two long tables lined with monks with the head monk on a thronelike chair at the end.

Along the sides of the room were various family groups on comfortable chairs and it seemed that they were sponsoring prayers as now and then a family group would get up and take drinks and biscuits to the monks, while the head monk would chant from yet another scrap of paper similar to the ones we had seen previously. The chanting was very lively interrupted now and then by a monk’s mobile ringing, animated chatter and then more chanting.

I absolutely loved the monastery finding it very moving and emotional. The Mongolians, of all ages, impressed me with their unquestioning devotion and the services were relaxed and happy affairs.

It was all quite exhausting so we headed back into town, found a noodle house and had fried dumplings and tea.

Replenished, Cynthia then announced that whenever she travels she traditionally has a haircut, so off we went to find a hairdressers. It was a mixed salon and I amused myself watching a hunky descendant of Ghengis Khan with curlers in his hair!

Then it was back to the hotel and a complete contrast going to the 23rd floor of the Blue Sky Tower. Built in 2009, the tower is a 105 metre steel and glass structure with a curtain wall of blue coloured glass housing office space, conferences, hotel and living space. We ascended in a glass elevator on the outside of the building with uninterrupted views over Ulan Bator to the surrounding mountains.

Even the toilets had outside walls made of glass but privacy was not an issue at that height!

The cocktail lounge was contemporary and we enjoyed cocktails with all party members, comparing notes on our day. Then off to a local restaurant where I went for the Mongolian option of ‘fat lamb tile’. This, in fact, was lamb tails complete with the fat, a tasty sauce and very delicious (the best lamb I was to have in Mongolia!)

And so back to the hotel to sleep in comparative luxury – I had had enough of the city. Ready to get on with the adventure now.

Pictured are the giant Buddha and scenes around the monastery and temples.