Tag Archives: Buddha

Eternal Blue Sky Country

18 Dec

In anticipation of my flight (2017)

In August 2017, I was headed to a destination that had always been the stuff of legend to me: Mongolia. Years earlier, I had read a book called “Genghis Khan and The Making of the Modern World” by Jack Weatherford which had inverted many of my presumptions about the history and legacy of the Mongols. So, I was eager to see the country and experience the people and culture myself. There were only a few options to fly into the capital, Ulaan Baatar. I chose to take a Mongolian Airlines flight from Hong Kong which was a bonus [anytime you have the chance to bookend a trip to/from Asia via Hong Kong take it]. I always try to explore another layer of Hong Kong whenever possible and each visit feels like an entirely new experience. On this particular transfer through Hong Kong, I had a day and a half layover, so I chose to travel further out of the city on its Kowloon (mainland) side than on any previous trip. I took the subway out to a district called Pai Tau where I was looking for the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery. Since I had read that this complex was perched atop a hill, I climbed up the first large hill I saw when I exited the subway thinking it would lead me to the monastery. Instead, I found myself in an enormous hillside cemetery that was an engineering marvel of cascading walls where thousands upon thousands of funeral urns were housed.


Pagoda of the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery – Hong Kong (2017)

As I meandered through this labyrinth, I came to a clearing where through a fence I could see the unmistakable shape of a Chinese-style pagoda on the adjacent hill. After a sweaty climb down and then back up the other hill, I finally reached the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery. Along the curved path up to the monastery, there were many signs warning visitors: “Fake Monks Seeking Alms. Do Not Give Them Money!”  I had to laugh. A couple of years before while visiting Chicago, I had fallen for a similar scam. But, that’s another story.


Central Chamber of the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery

The Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery probably has seen better days and it was more concrete than soulful. Despite its industrial modern vintage (it was built in the 1950s), I have to say that its central temple had a mesmerizing altar area with a luminous Buddha surrounded by thousands of small Buddha statues. These tiny figures were the Ten Thousand Buddhas. So, the complex definitely lived up to its name and I was glad that I made the trek out to this area of Hong Kong to see it. In less than 10 hours’ time, the humid hilltop of the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery would be a distant memory as the trees, trade-winds, and semi-tropical climate of Hong Kong would be swept aside by the treeless plains, aridity, and lofty mountains of Mongolia.


Flying over the steppes and approaching Ulaan Baatar (2017)

As my airplane to Ulaan Baatar began its descent, I looked down and saw green flat lands and a stark absence of any trees or forests whatsoever. These treeless grasslands are known as the steppes. I immediately envisioned what these plains must have witnessed in the late 12th Century after the man born as Temujin Borjigin (1158 A.D. to 1227 A.D.) methodically unified the various Mongol clans and led them onwards with a blitzkrieg of quick-release arrows and sophisticated military tactics that resulted in the conquest of nearly two-thirds of the known world of that time.  I was arriving in the land of the Mongols 800 years later, but now, it was the Mongolian people themselves who were attempting to reclaim their nationhood and carve out a stake in the new digital world as a result of being subjugated under the thumb of the Soviets and a puppet communist regime for most of the 20th Century.


Genghis Khan holding court at Genghis Khan (Sukhbaatar) Square – Ulaan Baatar

During the 1920s when the Soviets began their occupation of Mongolia, Buddhist monasteries were completely razed to the ground or converted to agrarian uses such as horse stables. Monks were ordered to renounce their faith, or thrown into the gulag or shot. As a result of the purge of Mongolia’s religious and cultural traditions, most Mongolian historical relics, artifacts, and other treasures were destroyed or lost. One story I heard from a young Buddhist Monk at the Shankh Monastery (one of the oldest surviving monasteries in Mongolia) was that many monks quickly collected all important Buddhist relics and treasures as soon as they received news that the Mongolian communists and their Soviet minders were coming. The monks squirreled all these items out of their monasteries and buried them in the steppes. Most of these monks were killed, so the majority of these relics were never found. Once the Soviets withdrew their financial support and military presence in Mongolia in 1992, the few remaining monks who had survived and now returned to their former monastic lives could no longer remember where they had buried these treasures. I would hear many stories like this while in Mongolia — most of which demonstrated the resiliency and fierceness of the Mongolian people who refused to be pitied or viewed as victims. Mongolians are a people determined to return onto the world stage. It is a country of bountiful resources, ultra-pure bodies of water, and has limitless potential to control its own economic destiny.  But, because only 25 years have passed since Mongolia has emerged as a fledgling parliamentary republic, it has some catching up to do with the rest of the world while at the same time fending off the greedy advances of its historical nemeses — Russia and China.

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The standing Buddha (18m/60ft) at Buddha Park – Ulaan Baatar

As I planned my trip there, I had to figure out how to best navigate such a huge country in little less than 2-weeks. Mongolia is roughly three times the size of France, yet it is also the least densely populated country in the world. Only about 2,000,000 people live in Mongolia and two-thirds of that population live in Ulaan Baatar.  Additionally, English is not widely spoken in the country and is a distant third behind Russian and Chinese. So, because of the challenges I would face in trying to get around the country, I had no choice but to connect with a Mongolian travel company which allowed me to create my own itinerary centering on key Buddhist and related cultural sights. They provided me with a guide and driver who would take me by car and train to each location and also booked my accommodations.  It was one of the best decisions I made. I would have been lost getting around the country otherwise.


Genghis Khan (Sukhbaatar) Square

Although the exploits of Genghis Khan and his progeny engender visions of outrageous plunder and merciless destruction, there were no magnificent palaces or grandiose monuments erected by Genghis Khan or the Mongols to commemorate either themselves or their victories. While Genghis Khan and his successors did create something like a capital city in Kharkhorin (Kharakhorum), these buildings were very modest constructions given what otherwise may have been expected because of the incredible feats the Mongols had accomplished. In fact, all the larger-than-life monuments dedicated to Genghis Khan that are found in Mongolia have only been built within the last 15 years. All the sights I would be seeing were remnants of Mongolia’s cultural and religious past which had barely managed to survive to the present day. There are simply no significant archaeological or historical relics belonging to Genghis Khan or his inner circle that are to be seen in the country today including the still undiscovered tomb of the Khan himself.

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Between modernity and the steppes: Ulaan Baatar

When I landed in Ulaan Baatar, I was met at the airport by my guide who whisked me away to the south-end of the city to see the Zaisan Memorial (a Soviet WWII memorial) and Buddha Park (a tall standing Buddha statue built in 2007). To get to the Zaisan Memorial itself, I had to walk up a mid-sized hill that provided a sweeping vista of the sprawl of Ulaan Baatar. The view of the modern steel and glass city buildings as juxtaposed with the Soviet-designed mosaics and sculptural work was incongruous: a vivid clash between ideologies — one from the rusted past and the other from the gleaming future.  Around the grounds of the memorial, there were people posing for selfies and men with enormous golden eagles hoping to have visitors pay for photos with the huge raptors. I was lucky to gaze at the capital on a clear, late summer day and this was in dramatic contrast to the winter where a red cloud of pollution caused by all the coal-burning and unfiltered heaters hangs above the city like a stain. Unfortunately, the horrible air quality in the winter months has given Ulaan Baatar the dubious distinction of ranking amongst the world’s most polluted cities.

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Zaisan Memorial

After I finished my walk through Buddha Park, I was taken to my hotel. While en route, my guide mentioned that someone else would be joining me on my tour. Because I had customized my itinerary based on my own interests, I was skeptical someone else would enjoy the same exact trip details. Sensing this, my guide assured me that this person was also interested in seeing Mongolia’s important Buddhist sites. My new companion would be arriving in Ulaan Baatar the next day by way of the Trans-Siberian railroad because he had spent the summer working in a Siberian town. The three of us would leave Ulaan Baatar the next day and drive first to Kharkhorin. After this briefing from my guide, I was dropped off at my hotel and unpacked. I went for a walk that night and explored the central city district around Genghis Khan (Sukhbaatar) Square. I also tried to get a look at the Choijin Lama Temple Museum. This intricately designed monastery was originally built in the early 1900s right in the center of the city and was the seat of the state Oracle. It was thereafter closed and converted to a museum by the communist regime. It was too dark to get a good look at the Choijin, so I turned around and headed back to my hotel. Most of the city felt deserted as if there was a curfew (I learned later that no drinking was allowed in the city after 10:00pm, so that likely explained the empty streets). I would be coming back to Ulaan Baatar at the end of my trip to see the Gandan Monastery, so I made a mental note to see the Choijin when I returned.

Where the eagles soar — the road through the steppes

The next day – Borja – my fellow traveler arrived in the wee hours of the morning and we met for breakfast at the hotel. He could barely open his eyes, but we hit it off. Within a few hours, we piled into a Subaru 4×4 and maneuvered through the traffic snarl of the morning commute to leave Ulaan Baatar. As we finally left the city limits, the paved roads disappeared and were replaced with packed sand. There were no highway signs or markers on these off-roads which were carved into the treeless landscape that stretched out to the horizon. The crush of noisy, guzzling cars in the city that we had bypassed was now replaced by streaming herds of cows, goats, sheep, and yaks being shepherded though wide open spaces by men on horseback. It was a jarring transition in less than only an hour’s time after leaving Ulaan Baatar. As our car bumped and bounced off the steppes, a funny image popped up in my mind of driving alongside the thundering hooves of the Mongol armies of long ago — galloping hard and unflinchingly towards the West. I was heading in the same direction although the mighty Mongol horde atop their sure-footed steeds did not have to worry about hitting their heads on the car roof. 

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