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xEurasia Odyssey

Time in a Timeless Mongolia

MONGOLIA | Sunday, 19 August 2018 | Views [269]

typical scene

typical scene

                                                                                      Time in a Timeless Mongolia

 Ulan Baatar

We only had a day in the capital of Mongolia so our experiences there were obviously limited, but what we did see was fascinating.  We spent the morning at the Ganden Monastery, then the afternoon at the National Museum of Mongolian History and the Zaisan Hill War Memorial. Dinner was at a very nice panorama restaurant in City Center.

The Ganden Monastery was started in 1806 and the main temple was the tallest building in the city at that time.  The location of the city was chosen due to the four sacred hills surrounding the valley with the river running through it. The monastery brought a permanent spiritual home to the formerly nomadic people who migrated to the emerging settlement area.  Buddhism came to Mongolia from India and Tibet fairly early on, and by the 16th C both Red Hat Kagyupa and Yellow Hat Gelugpa sects were firmly ensconced in the culture, although the main form is that of the Gelugpas as its founder, Tsongkhapa, was of Mongolian descent. This is also the form from which the Dalai Lama tradition springs.  What was new to me was the extent to which the Uighurs influenced religious practice in what was to become Mongolia.  It seems that Bohuchir, who was Uighur, invited Buddhist lamas to the region in 746 so that they could educate the people on Buddhist doctrines and translate some of the texts into various local languages.  By the 8th C Xuan Zang, the famous Chinese scholar, mentioned a number of Buddhist temples throughout Mongol territory.  When Chinggis Khan conquered the entire region, he exempted Buddhist monasteries from paying numerous taxes, and his son, Ugedei Khan, founded a Buddhist monastery in the central capital city of the Mongolian Empire.

Perhaps the most influential of the Mongolian lamas was Undur Gegeen Zanabazar, who was said to have been able to recite the entire text of the Names of Manjushri by the time he was three and have learned both Indian and Tibetan scriptures by four.  When he was 5, the 5th Dalai Lama, the Panchen Lama and the Nechung Oracle (the highest ranking Tibetan Buddhist leaders) recognized him as the reincarnation of Jetsung Tarnatha, a renown 16th c Tibetan Buddhist monk/scholar, and he was named the first Bogd Jevzundamba (spiritual head) of Mongolia in 1649. Under his leadership he started founding monasteries, specifically Ikh Khuree in the remote Kheentii mountains in 1654 and Zuun Khuree in 1702. He also sent Mongolian monks to the leading Tibetan monasteries for training and advanced studies.  For Mongolian Buddhists he is considered a Living Buddha.

 The nomadic monastery Zanabazar founded at Ikh Khuree, or Great Camp, became the cultural/political center, i.e. the capital city/camp.  The city/camp moved about 28 times between 1640 and 1855 finally settling in the Tuul River valley amidst the Bogd Khan mountains.  Today the city, which is now called Ulan Baatar, is a major metropolis with horrendous traffic jams and new construction wherever one looks. It is home to about a million people in a country of 3.1 Million, which is basically equivalent to the population of Salt Lake and the state of Utah in a country the size of six Western U. S. states: California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Nevada and Utah. To make up for the rather modest human population, the country has about 63 million livestock animals.

 The original city center, Ikh Khuree, was laid out in the same pattern as the since defunct Nalanda Buddhist University in India, and was recognized as the main religious center of Mongolia. The Mongolian university offered the five minor and five major Buddhist sciences, including astronomy, poetry, drama, rhetoric, fine arts, medicine, linguistics, philosophy, and ‘inner sciences.’ When the Communists took over, Buddhism was banned and the scholars were exiled or executed. From 1931-1938 the monastery and university were almost completely destroyed, but the spirit didn’t die, and a temple of prayer reopened on the site in 1944. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the country’s independence in 1992 the religious center was officially approved as Gandan Tegchenling Monastery. Today, it maintains its scholarly reputation with seven temples, eight colleges, including one for Tibetan medicine, and a digital library.  The library houses over 50,000 scrolls and books, with complete sets of the Kangur in multiple languages, from the 1700s onward, written in fourteen different scripts, including Old Mongolian, Cyrillic, Roman, and Tibetan. The monks who staff the library are in the process of digitizing all the sacred texts and translating them so that they are accessible as teaching and research tools. It is an enormous task, but one that will aid scholarship of the region and of the religion.

The various temples in the monastery architecturally reflect different cultures and traditions, including Nomadic Mongolian, Tibetan and Chinese. The first building and the one that wasn’t totally demolished, is in the Tibetan style with a broad white base and painted upper floors and scalloped roofs.  It is the tallest building and the one that holds a 26.5 m Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Inside the statue are 108 books. The statue is constructed out of copper as there are three copper cities in Mongolia, the copper was then covered with gilded gold. Chenrezig’s crown is covered with Mongolian semi-precious stones. Our guide, Booloroo (Krystal), mentioned that the statue we were viewing was the second one; the first was sent to Russia and melted down during the Soviet period. She said they made weapons out of the original metal figure. If that is true, it demonstrates real cruelty.

Contrary to some other monasteries, at Ganden young monks receive both secular as well as religious secondary education. They graduate with a government approved secondary degree.  The government also helps support the monastery and the monks receive a governmental stipend, although it is fairly small. There are about a 1,000 monks at Ganden, 500 of which are students. Nuns live and study elsewhere in the Green and White Tara temples a ways away from Ganden.

The temples are each unique, but they all have barley cake and butter figure offerings.  These are made by the monks and some are really quite ornate.  The figures are on display for a year, during which time the prayers, requests, and wishes of the people are absorbed into the body of the figure. After a year, they are taken away and either left on a hill for the birds and animals to eat or dissolved in water.

Water is nearby as the Tuul River runs through the city.  A legend says that there were two Bogds/hills who were in love with Tuul and wanted to marry her.  They fought each other for her hand; Bogd Khan won and he is the most sacred of the hill sites. Bayan Duk lost and was fairly distressed. If he couldn’t live with her, he at least wanted to be able to see her so he cut off his head and moved it to the side of the river. This is the explanation for the table top hill. Bayan Duk means ‘full of hurt’ in Mongolian.

 Lunch was in a nice restaurant and the meal was extensive, salad, soup, a main meat course, and dessert.  This turned out to be the standard fare for both lunch and dinner, with meat served abundantly at each meal – including breakfast. After lunch we headed to the National Museum of Mongolian History.  The museum has ten exhibition halls, one of which is for a special collection, which at the moment is dedicated to spiritual icons and has some interesting shamanic artifacts. The other nine take the visitor chronologically through Mongolian history.  Neither China nor Russia came off particularly well in the English translations as they were both occupying countries. There were a few artifacts that were especially interesting to me, such as the Turkic human figured stone statues that look similar to the ca. 9500 BCE first statue of a human, which was found in Eastern Turkey during road construction for a new bank, some elaborate stringed instruments, and descriptions of the Uighur Empire’s influence in Mongolia. As we will be ending this trip in Urumqi, learning about the Mongolian perspective of Uighur history was educational.

For a bit of living history, after the museum we drove to the steps to the Zaisan Hill War Memorial, which has a large circular mosaic at the top depicting the friendship and help of the Mongolian and Russian peoples during WWII. I found it reminiscent of the mosaic circle in Georgia near the Russian border, although the one in the Caucasus was much brighter.  The mural here was in gold, copper and brown tones rather than the bright colors in the other. As with the Georgian example, the view over the valley is spectacular. One can see the entire city in 360 degree turns. The city seems to be one mass of development. New construction in all stages of completion fills the hills and valley. As with many cities, even from the top of the hill one can witness bumper to bumper traffic, which makes it very difficult to get from place to place.  Patience is definitely a virtue that is practiced here.

 Off to the Backcountry

Our first day of the country tour took us to the Mongol Nomadic Show about an hour outside of the capital city.  The show is also a guest ger/yurt camp and we spent the night there. It is located not far from where the Nadaam Horse Races take place in July and is backed by a small hill, which cuts down on the wind.  The show consisted of explanations of how the nomads use all of the animal they have as livestock: sheep, goats, camels, horses and yaks. They demonstrated how to make yak butter, yak and goat cheese, yoghurt, curd and alcohol, camel and horsehair ropes, and meat jerky. They let people ride a few yaks, camels, and horses while on an imitation nomadic migration and explained how to set up a ger. (I rode a camel and a horse, and Paul a yak.) They ended the demonstration with a few games and songs.  The games, particularly one with flicking a piece of bone at a line of bones about 3 meters away, was similar to ‘Buryat Bowling’ that we participated in at the Buryat Cultural Center not far from the Atsagat Monastery outside Ulan-Ude. There a piece of a horse, cattle, or camel’s hoof was thrown across a wooden platform to try to hit nine pieces of goat, camel, sheep, or horse knee joint bones. In both cases there were multiple games played with animal knee joint bones instead of what we would do with pick up sticks, marbles, dice, etc.

The family that presents the show does a good job with it.  Everyone in the family was involved, even the two 3-4 year old girls who sang for the group as the mother demonstrated how to thresh sheep wool.

After the show, there was lunch, which was another feast like the day before. The scheduled afternoon horseback ride had to be a bit postponed until the evening as a group of 120 Koreans had appeared and the family was going to do a new show just for them. They need to get in as many shows as possible as the tourist season only lasts from April to the beginning of October. The main industries in Mongolia are mining, followed by meat production, then tourism, so it is fairly important to have as many responsible tourists as possible to sustain the economy. We did get to ride a bit later on in the day and it was fun to canter across the steppes if only for a little bit. The Mongol Nomad Camp provided an excellent introduction to the culture of this fascinating and rapidly changing country.


 The road from the Mongol Nomad Camp to Kharakhorum was mostly on paved roads.  Our driver, Damba, needed to be careful even on these highways, however, as there are crater sized potholes that appear out of nowhere and livestock that freely cross the highway.  At one point there was a statue of a shaman and a small shamanic shrine by the side of the road as it was a section where a number of accidents have occurred. The shaman now protects both people and animals on both sides of the asphalt.  A bit further on a herd of horses crossed right in front of us, which, as it was in the morning, was said to bring good luck. We stopped for a short break at a friend of our guide, Krystal’s. They had a camel business and were busy with tourists riding the double humped Bactrian camelus. While Krystal was visiting, Paul and I were treated to a private concert by, Bat Erdene, the son of the family on his Morin Khuur, horsehead fiddle.  The young man had just graduated from high school, but played as if he were a professional.  It was a delightful musical surprise.

When we arrived in Kharakhorum our first stop was to the Erdene Zuu monastery museum, which used to be the main monastery in the country in the 19th C. . At that time it had 62 temples and over 1,500 monks. It was almost completely destroyed by the Soviets, but they did open a few of the temples as museums in 1965.  Since independence, many of the artifacts that had to be hidden from the former regime have found their way back into the temples and many of the current statues were brought from elsewhere.  The most prized possessions of the museum monastery are a model temple with a white sandalwood Gombogur Buddha statue. We were told that there are only three sandalwood figures like this, one in Russia, one in Tibet and the one at Erdene Zuu.  The other is a set of wall paintings with stories of the Buddha and Mongolian saints.  There are cute little yetis sticking their heads out from behind mountains on one of the walls. Behind the museum proper are a set of defunct temples, including the Chenrezig temple, and one active site for the remaining 11 monks at the complex. There is also a fairly sizable Stupa, that doesn’t compare to many in Nepal, India or Tibet, but is supposed to be the largest in Mongolia. There is a replica of the former famous Silver Tree just outside the Kharakhorum museum, which is just beyond the gate to Erdene Zuu. 

 The city museum is quite small, but tries to chronologically show the development of Mongol political and cultural life from the perspectives of the various empires and the former Kharakhorum capital city, which was built on the ruins of the first city-camp built by Chinggis Khan. In the main hall is a large model of the great Khan’s former city, which was encased in four walls with a gate in the center. The complex included residential and business areas for royalty, ministers, nobles, the military and craftsmen.  There were administrative sections as well as marketplaces and religious buildings.  It was a fairly ecumenical city as there were two Islamic mosques, a church, 12 temples from other nations and faiths in addition to the Buddhist sites. There used to be a Silver Tree in the front of the city that was created by the Frenchman Guillaume Boucher. It had four lions facing the four directions and four silver cups at the base, liquid would flow from the lions’ mouths to the cups during festivals and fill with airag/mare’s milk, grain-based beer, honey flavored drinks and wine, which would be served to guests who came to the monastery and to the entire population during festivals.  The figure at the top of the tree looked like a female angel blowing a horn, but it was supposed to have been a messenger of the sky god Lkha. Nonetheless, it reminded me of the Angel Moroni on top of the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake. The tree remains in cultural history as it is on the current 5000 MNT (ca. $2) note. The prominence of Chinggis Khan’s city, which was completed by his son, Ugedei, demonstrated how strongly the people here associate him, not with the terror he inflicted upon people, but rather with a sense of cultural pride in Mongol tradition.

This pride is also shown in the huge tripartite monument on a hill outside of town by the river.  The three sides show maps with the extent of the Hunnu Empire ca. 1st c BCE-2c CE, the Turks ca. 8-9th C, and the Mongol Empire 11-12th C.  Nearby the monument are a Buddhist stupa and a shamanic stone shrine overlooking the threaded river beds behind the hill.  The view from there was spectacular, with hills and the river valley extending seemingly forever, which seemed appropriate to the empire maps monument.

When we were in Kharakorum we stayed at the MunkhtengerTourist camp.  This was the best of all the camps we stayed in.  The food was excellent, the facilities clean and close by.  The second night we stayed there we even had an en suite bathroom, with hot water and a flushing toilet – real luxuries as we were soon to to find out.


Orkhon Waterfall and Valley

From Kharakhorum we headed to the Orkhon Valley and the famous waterfalls.  The road soon went from asphalt to dirt to muddy jeep tracks. It had rained a few days earlier and the creeks were overflowing, and the roads muddy and rocky.  The large Mitsubishi Delica van that were riding in was luckily a four wheel drive vehicle.  It became abundantly clear early on that unless one has four wheel drive, it is almost impossible to get around as there are only a very limited number of paved roads.  There are quite a few Prius hybrids around and a few tried to make it from village to village, but not all made it.  We came across one that was stuck trying to ford a stream, this was the main road after all. Fortunately, someone nearby had a truck and was able to tow them out, but I doubt the engine or the brakes were in very good condition afterwards.

On the way to the waterfall, we stopped a couple of times. The first was at a lookout over a bend in a river that was reminiscent of a section of the Green River in Utah. Much of the landscape we were driving through seemed oddly familiar – much like a bit greener Central Utah or Southwestern Wyoming. This became a theme as we progressed through the region.  The valleys are larger and the hills a bit higher, but in general the landscape in Central Mongolia is very similar to aspects of Northern Arizona, Central Utah, Southern Idaho and Southwestern Wyoming.  I wasn’t at all expecting this, so was doubly struck by the similarity. (Although the roads, even the back roads, tend to be better in the U.S.)

The next stop, however, did not compare with anything in the U.S., as it was a field filled with square Turkic gravesites and three deer stones. The Temeen Chuluu site has about 30 such graves of various sizes laid out in an east-west direction following the path of the valley between two hill ranges. According to a local guidebook on the region: “The three deer stones were used in making fences of the graves and the top of one of the monuments was placed upside down. One of the deer stones features a stylized deer, and a belt with zigzag patterns. Below the belt is a knife with a rounded loop, while above it was a five-cornered shield, bow and arrows, and a circle.  Excavations of several of these graves revealed the bones of sheep and cattle and pottery fragments bearing symbols and patterns dating from the Turkic and Uighur periods.” (Orkhon Valley Cultural Landscape, 68-69.) As I was later to find out this theme with the belt, the bow and arrows was common among deer stone design in differing regions. What I find personally fascinating about these stones and the bulbans, the human shaped stone figures dotting Central Asia to Mongolia, is the incredibly similarity with the first stone images ever created in Göbekli Tepe and Neveli Tepe in Turkey ca. 9500BCE.  How and why these images were transmitted remains a mystery, but it is clear that there was a transmission over millennia and huge tracts of the Eurasian landmass.

 As we moved past the Turkic gravesites, we saw increasingly more round stone burial sites of indiscriminate age. Some may well have been from the Turkic era, 8th-9th C or even the Bronze Age, but others could just as well have been from this or the last century.  Stone remains stone and a stone pile is difficult to date. A well cared for recent such gravesite was at our next location, the ger (yurt) at a nomadic family’s campsite, and the stone shrine was the final resting place of one of the relatives of the family. This gravesite had a double row of stones in a circle, forming a kora, around the stone mass built up to look like a stupa. At the other end of the family’s site by the first bend in ‘their’ river, were two stones with ancient petroglyph markings.  This location, with the winding river protecting the space on three sides and hills behind it, had obviously been important to many generations.

The family lives as their ancestors have done for centuries.  The milk their domesticated yaks twice a day, their sheep and goats once a day and their mares either every hour or four times a day. They make cheese, curd, yoghurt and a local schnaps from the various milks, and when an animal dies, they use every part of it in some way. Nothing goes to waste.

After getting somewhat settled in our ger, we continued on to the famous waterfall. This entailed recrossing the lava field Damba had to navigate through on the way in. The jeep track deteriorated so much that he had to maneuverbetween sharp tire shredding stones and rocks and muddy ledges that made the van stand almost on end. That he could manage to get us through this minefield without endangering either the vehicle or us is a testament to his skill. The guides are helpful for understanding, but in the backcountry it is the driver who keeps us safe. And he did.  We made it to the waterfall and were fortunate that the river was full creating a beautiful falls. On my walk down to the bottom I met a local Mongolian group consisting of a young man who spoke English, his mother and her friend.  They said that last year and early this year there had been no water, so the shamans were called and the shamanic shrines set up to pray for rain.  It worked. There is now sufficient water. The late rains, however, apparently do not help the grasses much though and I was told that the late rains mean that it will be an especially cold winter as the ground will freeze earlier. Spring time, May/June, rains are the most needed for the steppes to stay green and provide sufficient grass for livestock grazing.

 Tuvhan Monastery:

After leaving the nomadic family we headed further into Arkhangai province to the Tuvhan monastery.  This was the meditation site and workshop for Undar Gegeen Zanabazar, whose story we had heard at both Ganden and Erdene Zuu monasteries. It was here that he developed the Soyombo script and established the pattern for Mongolian images of many of the Buddhist deities including for Tara. He used a local girl as his model for Green Tara, who, in the Mongolian tradition, is much more buxom than her Tibetan/Nepali images. This site is on a hilltop about 2300 meters above sea level.  The trailhead is at the beginning of a forest and the moderate climb is about 3.5 km. The view from the temple complex is stunning as one can see waves of rolling green hills/mountains cascading into the horizon. The top of the mountain above the temple complex is reserved for men as it is a sacred site for Mongolian wrestlers. (I can’t say I understand this, but….) To get to the top one has to scale a steep cliffside, which Paul had no trouble doing.  I stayed under the cliff face with Krystal at the holy springs and was refreshed with the water.  The walk down was delightful as it reminded me of the forests around Flagstaff.

From the Monastery we headed back to Kharakhorum.  After a night with an outhouse and no running water, I was thrilled to be back at the Munkhtenger (Forever Sky)Camp. We were actually scheduled to be at a different camp, but it was flooded out in the rains, so the company, Discover Mongolia, provided us with better accommodations. 

 Arkhangai Province

From Kharakhorum we drove back to Arkhangai Province and to the Zaya Gegeen Arkhangai Provincial Museum, which, like Erdene Zuu, used to be part of a monastery.  The museum has an ethnological room in one temple, then in the large former temple building at the back, in three separate rooms with sections for religion, Soviet history, and Nadaam events.  The former temple opposite the ethnological section houses a collection of Mongolian family games, including knucklebone games. Behind the museum is the “Hill of God” with a recreated monastery. We never made it to the monastery as we didn’t have reservations and it wasn’t part of the museum. Instead we headed to a long awaited internet café in the hopes of getting some correspondence taken care of.  For some reason, it seemed to work for Paul, but my email just didn’t want to cooperate.  Yes, there are days like this…

From the internet café, we drove over more backroads to a camp by hot springs.  The drive took a long time and I was surprised when the Shiveet Mankhu tourist camp finally appeared out of nowhere. It was a large complex with permanent wooden buildings and no paved roads anywhere in sight.

 The next morning we headed toward the White Lake and the Khorgo extinct volcano.  White Lake is attached to the Serkhem River and there is a story about them.  It seems White Lake was a young girl who wanted to marry her boyfriend, Serkhem, but her father was against it as he wanted her to marry someone wealthy and powerful, which the young man was not.  The father tried to separate them, but the girl cried and cried and cried until she became the lake. Serkhem wanted to be with her so he transformed himself into the river. Today they are forever aligned. It seems this is a recurring story in many different regions and cultures.

We got to the volcano fairly late in the day and it was very windy and cold on top. The ca. 1.5 km walk up was easy as there were long sections of stairs through the lava rock. The crater isn’t anything particularly special as it looks like a big stoney bowl, which of course it is.  The view of the surrounding Khangai Mountians is what makes this excursion worthwhile. Similar to the view around the volcano tubes outside Flagstaff and the entrance to Sunset volcano, the green forest emerges from a black lava floor. Here, though, there is a river on the horizon, which is unfortunately not the case in Northern Arizona. 

The rainy windy night was spent in a different location, the Badmaareg camp, on a pretty riverfront far from any town or city.

 The next day was spent driving to another hot springs, Jargal Jiguur, which means ‘enjoyful.’ The hot springs were really just a small pool behind the shower/toilet cabin and while Paul went in the men’s side after running up the mountain behind the camp, I opted not too and instead decided to read “The Secret History of the Mongols,” an account of Chinggis Khan’s live written during his lifetime.  That evening we drove to a nomadic family, who was making a bbq for us. It turned out that we were visiting one of Damba’s uncles and his family’s summertime campsite. When we arrived at their ger by a river surrounded by some fairly stark mountains, the mother and her two teenaged girls had a huge spread of candy, cheese, curd, and yoghurt waiting for us along with the traditional milk tea with butter. The father, Damba’s uncle, greeted us with the traditional snuff bottle, from which we were to take a bit and then with the appropriate hand gestures return it to him rather than pass it along to the next person. The same procedure, without a greeting, was used for passing the schnaps cup around.  They make the schnaps themselves from yak milk. 

The way they cooked the meat for the bbq was very different from anything I’ve ever experiences.  They took smooth rounded river stones and first heated them in the wood fire.  Once some of them were hot, they placed them in the bottom of a large round pot, then they added a huge amount of meat, added more heated river rock, then potatoes, then more heated river rock. Finally the whole mix was covered and put on the wooden fire to cook for about an hour or so. When the meat and potatoes were cooked, the ingredients, now minus the river rocks, were served in a very large pan.  The father cut us some of the best pieces in his view, which included large slices of pure fat.  Given the amount of physical activity the nomads do each and every day, they need the fat, but I certainly don’t.  I was glad to learn that it is not impolite to leave what one doesn’t want as other uses can be found for anything that remains.  While we were there a neighbor saw our car and asked to come for a visit. He was a wizened elderly man in a traditional reddish brown belted coat that looked like it hadn’t been washed in years.  He had a classic nomad face that was full with well-lived wrinkles and a demeanor that was simply delightful, even if he didn’t speak to us at all. I had seen a horse come by the entrance to the ger as he came in, so I had assumed he’d ridden it.  When he left, he left on a brand new motorcycle, and the relative who looked like he’d be riding the cycle, rode up on another horse.  So much for preconceived notions…. Another notion that was thrown out the door of the ger, was what people associate with when they hear someone is from Austria. Normally, I hear Mozart, Vienna, or the “Sound of Music.”  None of these made any impression on this family, but they know of Austria as the country “Queen Sisi” moved to from her homeland.  Apparently the old Romi Schneider movie and recent remake of the Empress’ life is very popular here.

Another of their neighbors, i.e, those who have gers in the vast valley, have had their summer residence in the same place for five generations. They are said to be descendants of the Flying Lama.  This was a lama who wanted to fly, so he tied a rope from the top of one mountain, the one behind their camp to another across the valley. He made his wings out of sheepskin. His statue is at the entrance to the airport in Murun.  The first nomad family we stayed with was polite, generous and very hard-working.  This family was all that and more; we laughed more with them than we had with anyone else all trip.  They were simply happy and delightful people.


 Lake Khosvogol

Our last long drive was from Jargal Jiguur to Khosvgol Lake.  We had two stops on the way; the first to an internet café in Murun and the second to the deer stone field outside of that town.  There are fourteen more or less complete deer stones in the enclosed area and three mound gravesites.  These deer stones date to around 4500-3000 years ago. Most of them have engraved belts with bows and arrows or knives hanging from it as well as the zigzags from the other site.  Some of them are painted and the flying stylized deer seem to float on angles across the stone stele. The last one is especially unique as it has a human head at the top.  This head looks very much like some of the Bronze Age stone figures in Turkey.

 Towards evening we finally arrived at our last stop, Khosvgol Lake. This is a huge lake, almost as large as Baikal, its neighbor to the north. The Toilogt camp has both gers and reindeer clan tepees; as we had experienced enough gers, we tried the tepee, which inside was the same as the ger, only the outside shape was different. After it got dark, we heard music and Krystal stopped by the ger to invite us to the lakeside fire with some of the Korean guests.  One of the women had a trained operatic voice who sang a couple of arias and the group sang traditional songs from a number of countries. They asked Paul and me to sing, and even though neither of us can, we both made a valiant attempt at “Edelweiss” that the group wanted to sing and “Kumbaya.” It was actually quite embarrassing.

On the final full day in Mongolia, we visited Enkhtuya, a renown Reindeer clan shaman, in the morning.  It was a real treat to meet with her. She is my age and we laughed about having to color our hair to not look as old as we really are.  A young Frenchman who is just finishing spending a month learning from her added that at least we can do something, with some men, like him, there are only receding hairlines. I had a series of prepared questions that I wanted to ask her and she patiently answered them.  I also asked if she had any stories of the lake the World Tree or her clan.  She did and they are as follows:


Reindeer Shaman Stories - Enkhtuya

  1. Khosvogol Lake is the Mother Lake and Baikal Lake is the Father Lake.  In olden times a grandmother had five goats that left because her home area was too dusty and there was no water.  She needed water so she dug in the ground and dug and dug, but couldn’t get any water.  Finally, after eight days, she hit a spring flowing from Baikal in an area called Modon Khuu. With that she tried to get her goats back, but they had moved behind the water logged area. The spring wasn’t a gentle flow, rather more like a geyser that wouldn’t stop.  She tried to cover the top with animal skins, but that didn’t work. She tried to cover it with wood, but that didn’t work either. The geyser’s water flooded her ger and the entire area. In an attempt to find a way to protect her goats, she ran away to the mountains to look for stones so that she could create a corral for them.  She took the stone from the Uran Totogoo mountain in the Uran Dosh region. That mountain looked like pot, so she took off its head so the water could flow into it. The spring water between Father and Mother lakes is like an umbilical cord; the forest, the wooden Modon Khuu, and the stones, Thadan Khuu, are the sons of the parent waterways.  The river owner is Lus (water river owner, the land owner is Savdag.

FYI, There is a stone cliff promontory in lake called Thadan Khuu and the forest surrounds the lake.

 2.Trees are often inhibited by female spirits.  A long time ago, maybe 800 years ago, one of the most famous female shamans was living close to the river.  A male shaman lived not too far away and they quarreled often about the land. The male shaman sent water into the female shaman’s region, flooding her ger. The rains brought a rainbow, and the blue color fell on her ger.  They used their magic to throw stones at each other, they used drums to ask for the spirits to help them defeat the other. The male shaman beat the drums so much that lots of dust spread across his ger and homestead. The next morning the male shaman came out of the ger, pushed up his sleeves to show his biceps and said that he was stronger than her. She used her powers to create a protective shield, and then told him to try to kill her. He said that he would curse her for 7 generations. She then sent 7 days of rain so that his area was completely flooded, and the man had to concede that her power was greater than his. He gave her 9 rites of Black magic, which makes female shaman the most powerful of all shaman.

 3. Enkhtuya has lived a life taking care of reindeer all of her 65 years; she says she is like Santa Claus giving gifts to the people.  Reindeer shaman are especially connected with rivers and waters, which each has its own spirit, and have to wear appropriate clothing to connect with the spirits they call.

 I am grateful for her time and her sharing the stories.


On our last afternoon, Paul and I went for a horse ride around a little bay which was the home of a swan couple and their ‘teenaged’ children, and then I went for a glorious kayak paddle on this clear blue pure Mother Lake. While I was paddling near the shore a group of domestic yaks decided to go for a swim in the cold waters near me.  Paddling with swimming yaks was a new experience in this mystical country filled with new experiences. 

 On the way to the Murun airport we stopped at a reindeer farm to pet the huge racked deer. The itinerary had said we would ride reindeer, but those we saw were really too small for adults to sit on.  The final stop before the airport was a short detour to the Murun monastery, whose official name translates to ‘Eternal Success.’  It is in a fairly spacious complex, although there are only a few buildings, only one of which is a prayer hall. A small, perhaps 10x12 ft. temple is at the back of the row of buildings.  Both temples had newly constructed butter offerings and impressive old thangkas of various protector deities.  There was also a large bronze Mongolian Green Tara statue in the left corner of the main hall. The outsides of the buildings clearly showed their wear and tear, but the insides had been freshly painted.  About 30 monks live in this monastery, only five of who were present during our visit; the others were off in the hills meditating or in India for further study.  There is a Mongolian monastery in India with about 300 monks and this small monastery regularly sends their people to it.

 I want to thank Discover Mongolia and Oyuna for their help; Booloroo/Krystal for her explanations and translations and especially Damba for skillfully managing unmanageable jeep tracks, rocks, gullies, and cliffs in a rather large van.

 Life in Mongolia appears to be changing as it is elsewhere. Modern technology comes even to the back country through solar and wind power, yet, the lifestyle of the nomads hasn’t changed.  The broad sweeping steeps and barren hillsides are the way they were when Chinggis Khan ruled.  Old and new, time moves on in a timeless country.




Tags: cities, landscapes, off road, religious sites


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