Ulaan Baatar – ‘Red Hero’

The Parliament building on Sukhbaatar Square

A huge statue of Ghinggis Khaan in front of the Parliament building on Sukhbaatar Square

After two flights from Hanoi via Seoul we finally landed in Ulaan Baatar where we would meet up with friends to continue our journey to the remote far west of Mongolia (next post).

Ulaan Baatar is the capital of Mongolia, the most sparsely populated country in the world. Almost half of Mongolia’s population live here. Located 1310 meters above sea level, it is the coldest capital city in the world. We drove  from the airport along a heavily pot holed, partially paved road with some crazy over taking, almost hitting a few wandering cows and goats as we went. First impressions to the west of the city were not particularly attractive, with coal fired power stations belching out smoke and partially completed buildings  everywhere. After crossing the Tuul river, rows of incredibly thick walled four story European style buildings from the beginning of the century crumble away followed by more Soviet style block buildings along wide boulevards where electric buses still run. There is a distinct lack of large trees, presumably because of the climate, and this along with hidden cafes and shops gives a rather austere look to the city.

A map of Ulaan Baatar from 1913

A map of Ulaan Baatar from 1913 (at the gate of the Choijin Lama Temple Museum)

The city began nearly 350 years ago as a moveable Buddhist monastery which shifted over the years along the river. In 1778, it settled in its present location and became the country’s capital – a centre of spiritual learning and destination for pilgrimages similar to Tibet’s Lhasa. With the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 Mongolia finally became independent, albeit briefly, and the Bogd Khan (a spiritual leader similar to the Dalai Lama)  became Mongolia’s theocratic ruler. Over the next ten years there was instability as the Mongolian nobility, Chinese warlords, White Russians, and Red Russians fought to control Mongolia. In 1924 the city was renamed Ulaan Baatar or ‘Red Hero’ in honor of the communist triumph. Mongolia had finally become independent from China but was now effectively a satellite state of the Soviet Union. During the 1930s, Khorloogiin Choibalsan, known as the ‘Stalin of Mongolia’ carried out disastrous collectivization projects and huge purges effectively decimating Buddhism and with it a large part of the traditional cultural landscape in Mongolia. Up to 30, 000 people (primarily monks) were murdered or sent to labour camps and around 700 monasteries were destroyed. In 1990 Mongolia held its first free elections and while we were in Mongolia, the fourth president Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj was re-elected for a second term.

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Old and new. Modern buildings are starting to dominate the skyline. The Choijin Lama Temple (1904) museum in the foreground.

IMG_1159The Zaisan memorial to soldiers and heroes, built by the Russians in 1971 on a hill to the South of Ulaan Baatar.IMG_1227

Great views over Ulaan Baatar from the Zaisan Memorial

Great views over Ulaan Baatar. Mongolian girls enjoying their Sunday afternoon.

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The Bogd Khan's leopard skin ger located in his Winter Palace museum along with a stunning collection of silk robes and his poorly stuffed zoo

The Bogd Khan’s leopard skin ger located in his former home, now the Winter Palace museum along with a stunning set of silk robes and his faded and moth eaten zoological collection.

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A monk feeding pigeons at the Gandan Khiid Monastery

Around the city there are pubs everywhere and the Mongolians, both men and women, seemed to enjoy drinking pints of cool Grand Khaan and Ghinggis Beer, named like many things in Mongolia after the most famous Mongolian who built one of the largest empires in history and is seen as the founding father of Mongolia.

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After our flight to Ulgii in the west was delayed for over 24 hours, we had a bit more time than expected to explore Ulaan Baatar, but we were soon ready to move on to a less urban environment. Photos of the Altai Tavan Bogd National Park to follow in my next post.

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