(Continued from my last post.)
As usual, I was up early, so I grabbed my camera for a short morning walk. The morning light was as beautiful as the late afternoon light had been, and I loved the shadows of the trees extending across the meadow on the hillside behind our ger camp. The sky was already a brilliant blue, contrasting with the warm brown of the trees, grass, and rocks, and the dark gray shadows stretching across the land. One of the things I love photographing the most is textures, especially the natural textures made by color and shadow in a landscape. I remember first discovering that when I lived in Hokkaido, Japan, and saw the textures that the variety of trees there made on the mountainsides, especially in spring and autumn. Here, the texture of the hillside was complicated by a stand of birch trees amid the aspens, their smooth white trunks distinct from the still-golden aspens surrounding them and the shadow of the forest floor. Patches of snow glinted through the nearly bare branches of the trees, and the shadows of the trees followed the contours of the land along the edges of the woods in a gentle swoop. A beautiful scene to contemplate in the quiet of the early morning.
As I was looking at that patch of forest, I saw some movement. I zoomed in as far as I could with my camera and saw an animal, a small canid, moving with its nose to the ground. Eventually I realized it was a fox, as it came closer and out of the trees. I watched it cross the meadow, sniffing the ground and the air, looking for breakfast. (I also took about a dozen photos, and you can see the fox if you know what you’re looking for, but I was too far away.) It blended in well with the golden-brown grass. I called Emma out to see it, too.
Then it was time for breakfast and for leaving. We packed up the van and started the drive to the Chinggis Khan Statue Complex. I had seen photos of this, because my Mongolian language school at MIU, the Language Education Institute, was supposed to go on a day trip to see it the month before, but the trip had been postponed from a Friday to a Tuesday because of the weather, so I wasn’t able to attend. I was glad to get to see it, and to see it with Emma, because it seemed to be one of the most surreal tourist attractions in Mongolia, or perhaps anywhere.
The statue complex is only 10 years old, built in 2008 by a private company called Genco Tour Bureau (the founder of which is now President of Mongolia). The complex sits on the site where Temujin (Chinggis Khan’s birth name) found a golden whip, an auspicious sign for a future emperor. The site is skirted by the Tuul river, and there were high hopes for building a large tourism complex there when the statue was initially opened, though these hopes seem to have been tempered somewhat. Even so, the complex is a fascinating place to visit on a day trip from Ulaanbaatar or Terelj.
Standing at 40 meters, the statue itself has the distinction of being the tallest equestrian statue in the world. Chinggis Khan sits astride a horse, facing east towards his birthplace. He holds a golden whip, representing the one he found, and he himself gleams in the sun. He and his horse are made from stainless steel, 250 tons of it. I am fairly certain I’ve never seen that much stainless steel in one place before, and certainly not in such an impressive form. Unfortunately, the steps leading up to the base of the statue—a rotunda housing a museum, gift shops, and a restaurant—are already starting to crumble, after only 10 years in the harsh climate of the Mongolian steppe.
We made our way up the steps and into the rotunda, where the first thing we noticed was a giant leather boot. Buugii explained that, at over nine meters high, it was the largest leather boot in the world, made by Mongolian women for the Guinness World Record and also to highlight the Mongolian style of boot making, with its distinctive curved toe to facilitate slipping in and out of stirrups. Next to it, between two banners in traditional Mongolia script, was a giant-sized replica of the whip that young Chinggis Khan found. On the opposite wall, a series of panels explained The Secret History of the Mongols, an epic poem manuscript depicting life in the early days of the Mongolian Empire, dating from a few decades after the emperor’s death in 1227, and the oldest surviving literary work in Mongolian. Unfortunately, an English translation wasn’t available in the book shop, only Mandarin, Mongolian, and Russian.
We were early, so the hordes had not yet arrived from Ulaanbaatar. First, we went downstairs to the museum, where we saw artifacts from the Hunnu people, Bronze Age ancestors of the Mongols who rode the steppes over a thousand years before Chinggis Khan and founded the first steppe empire around 200 BC. The museum also had statues of Chinggis Khan’s four sons, his best friend, and the emperor himself seated beside his wife. Another room had replicas of different styles of ger from the different cultures in Mongolia, as well as people and their livestock, to give visitors an idea of the variety of Mongolian nomadic cultures.
Next, we rode up a tiny elevator and walked up a few flights of stairs to a door where you could step outside at the base of the horse’s neck. You can walk up to a platform at the top of its head to see the view. It was a clear day, so we could see snow-capped peaks beyond the forested banks of the Tuul River to the north, and far down the broad valley towards the east. The sun was blinding, as was the light gleaming off the stainless steel, but the view from the statue was amazing.
Next on the agenda was what is known as the Thirteenth Century Theme Park. I had been very intrigued by the brief descriptions I had read of this online (it hadn’t made it into my Lonely Planet guidebook to Mongolia), but I didn’t really know what to expect. We rattled across the steppe on a dirt road, past large herds of livestock. Buugii explained that in the last livestock census, there were over 70 million of the five types of livestock found in Mongolia: horses, cattle/yaks, goats, sheep, and camels. Compared with the population of Mongolia—3 million—this seems like a lot, especially given that less than half of Mongolians are now active herders. Livestock production has increased substantially in the nearly 30 years since the collapse of communism, and Mongolia now sells a large number of horses to the Chinese for meat.
After about an hour, we saw a sign for the theme park pointing off to the left, down another dirt road, while the one we were on continued straight. We drove through a large gate and came to the first of the theme park’s camps, the guard camp. The camp was deserted, except for a few crows and magpies. The cries of the birds and the wind snapping a banner that hung at the entrance to the camp, as well as the fabric of the ger, created a haunting effect, as if we were there after a battle or other disaster had wiped the camp out. We looked around a bit, and then headed for the King’s Palace, where we would have our lunch.
The Thirteenth Century Theme Park was created by the same company that built the Chinggis Khan Statue Complex to introduce visitors to life in the time of Chinggis Khan. There are five camps in all, plus the King’s Palace, spread over a large acreage (you need to drive from one camp to the next). Besides the guard camp, there are the crafts, herders, education, and shaman camps. Unfortunately, because we were there past the main tourist season, all the camps were closed to visitors except for the King’s Palace and the shaman camp. On the other hand, we had the place to ourselves. The day before (Saturday), there had been over 100 tourists, and I imagine the effect would have been very different. As it was, Emma and I felt we had walked onto a very elaborate film set, or even walked back in time. Between the brilliant blue sky, the ancient-looking construction, and the pennants snapping in the wind, I kept thinking of Rohan from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films. (In fact, I still get the Rohan theme from the soundtrack in me head when I look at my pictures from that day; it’s going through my head as I write this.) Horses grazed peacefully in the surrounding pasture, further evoking the horse-culture connection.
The King’s Palace actually consisted of six large ger flanking the central palace, surrounded by a wooden fence with guard towers in each corner and on either side of the entrance gate. Our first stop, though, was the Thirteenth Century Restroom, a squat toilet surrounded by a rustic wooden fence. Then we walked down the main path between 24 wooden staffs, each with a different symbol at the top, representing the 24 tribes united in the Mongolian Empire. The King’s Palace was on a two-tiered platform at the back of the compound, with stone and then wooden steps leading up to it.
The inside was set up as a restaurant, with low wooden tables and stools resting on woven mats. In the back of the palace was the throne, a carved wooden bench with a gilded and gem-encrusted eagle across the back. The seat was covered in wolf pelts, and more wolf pelts hung at either side of it. A matching table with the accoutrements of Mongolian statecraft stood in front of the throne, and overhead a woolen tapestry with gold thread flowed down from the center of the ger. There were colorful royal robes and a fur coat made from wolf pelts to try on for picture taking, but Emma and I opted to wear our own clothes.
Lunch was delicious—vegetarian versions of buuz (Mongolian steamed dumplings) and stuffed cabbage leaves, served with salad, pastries, and milk tea. Once again, I marveled at how a country known for its meat consumption also produced such wonderful vegetarian fare. The meal was served on old-fashioned wooden and dark red ceramic dishes, with wooden mugs for the tea. We were still the only ones there, but since the trip had been arranged ahead of time, they were ready to serve the food right away.
After lunch, we drove to the remaining camp that was open to visitors, the shaman camp. This was the one that had sounded the most interesting to me, so I was glad we were able to see it. Shamanism is a set of spiritual practices and beliefs extending back to the earliest recorded history in Mongolia. It is still practiced today; like Buddhism, it survived the religious suppression of the communist era. Shamanism is at once a medical practice, communication with the spirit world, and relationship with nature. The ovoo I described in my last post on Terelj is an example of a shamanistic practice. Over time, shamanism also became influenced by Buddhism, producing what is often called “yellow shamanism” to distinguish it from “black shamanism.” (The variant of Buddhism that became most common in Mongolia is the Gelug or yellow sect of Tibetan Buddhism; hence yellow shamanism as well.)
The shaman camp had a circle in the middle with a tree propped up by multi-colored khadag (scarf)-strewn poles. The twenty-four staffs of the united tribes were protected by a circle of out-ward pointing sharpened posts, placed to keep the evil spirits out. Along one side of this enclosure were six ger in different styles, representing six different kinds of shamanism practiced in Mongolia. We were able to go into five of them; the sixth was for men only, and I hope someday to run into someone who can tell me what’s inside. In each one, Buugii pointed out the different aspects of the shamanism represented, and it was striking how each had different symbolism for the connections between the human, animal, and spirit worlds. Each one contained examples of shamans’ clothing, masks, drums, and ceremonial objects, as well as a table for accepting offerings. Tapestries and other art showed the iconography of each kind of shamanism, and the connection to different animals such as reindeer and yaks. While each one was distinctive, after a while they all swam together in my head. I am looking for resources that will have more information about each one. In between telling us about the different types of shamanism, Buugii shared her own stories of encounters with shamanistic practices.
After we finished seeing the shaman camp, we were both exhausted and ready to head home. One thing I have noticed here more than I ever did before was how stupefying fresh air can be. It was wonderful to get out of the city, away from the constant noise and the pollution (which was only just starting to build), but Emma and I were both very sleepy after so much time outdoors (and a restless night’s sleep in the tourist camp). We arrived home at about 4:00 pm, with plenty of time for me to cook dinner and get ready for classes the next day. With all that we had done and learned in the previous 32 hours, it felt like much more than a weekend. I resolved to make sure that we would see much more of this amazing country that we had the great fortune to find ourselves living in.