One full day in Ulaanbaatar was more than enough so, on my second day, I hired a car and went out to the countryside. Before we left the city, we stopped off at the Gandan Buddhist monastery. Built throughout the 19th Century, it is one of the oldest monasteries remaining in Mongolia. During Mongolia’s Communist era, hundreds of Buddhist sites were destroyed; Gandan, however, survived and was revitalized during the 1990’s.
Mongolia’s dominant religion is Tibetan-style Buddhism, and the Gandan monastery includes several temple buildings and a very tall (some say the tallest indoor) statue of Buddha. The statue was dismantled by overzealous Communists in the 1930’s but was rebuilt in the early 2000s.
We arrived just in time for the morning prayers that my guide told me can last all the way to Noon every day. As we stood in the vestibule, people from the neighborhood cycled in and out, grabbing on to the large, interconnected prayer flags and leaving an offering for the monks. We watched for about 30 minutes while the monks continued their near non-stop chanting and intervals of short horn and drum break that resembled, to me, like the trumpeting of elephants.
It would seem that Gandan is also benefitting from Mongolia’s improved economic situation as brand new monastery dormitories are being built in the neighborhood.
Next stop on my day tour was to the Chinggis (Ghengis) Khaan Equestrian Statue. About an hour outside of Ulaanbaatar, this statue was completed in 2008 and is 130 feet tall. Made of stainless steel, you can see the statue from miles around. At the statue’s pedestal is a small museum that contains quite a few artifacts from the Bronze era, as well as a run-down of the many Khans that ruled the area. There is a small viewing platform on top of the horse’s head that affords spectacular views of the surrounding countryside.
After the statue, we continued further east into Gorkhi Terelj National Park. First stop was a look at Turtle Rock and then on to the Aryabal Buddhist monastery. The national park was virtually empty during my mid-November visit except for the occasional nomad with his herd of goats or sheep.
The entrance to the monastery is at the foot of a hill and it is a somewhat steep walk up to the meditation temple. Along the path are about 200 signs of Buddhist sayings. The main temple is designed to look like an elephant and the steps leading to the entrance resemble an elephant’s trunk. The views from the top were spectacular, the landscape had turned brown in the drier autumn months and there were patches of snow in the surrounding mountains. The quiet was only occasionally interrupted by the barking of a distant puppy. The area around the monastery contains a couple dozen semi-feral dogs that the monks look after.
On the way back to Ulaanbaatar, we stopped by a large cairn (or Ovoo in Mongolian). These are piles of rock and wood with prayer flags attached that are found everywhere. My guide insisted that I circle the Ovoo three times clockwise to ensure a safe journey through the rest of Mongolia and China. I must have looked silly doing this alone so this black puppy accompanied me. I almost scooped him up and took him with me.