A surprise awaited me when I pulled the curtains on my second day in Ulaanbaatar (UB). It was snowing, light but enough to settle on cars, buildings, trees and grass.
I’d read that Ulaanbaatar is the coldest national capital in the world due to its high elevation, latitude and distance from any coast. (Latitude 47º 92′ N, Longitude 106º 91′ E, elevation 1350 m. (4430 ft.) It experiences a monsoon-influenced, cold and dry semi-arid climate. The city has a brief warm summer but long, bitterly cold and dry winters. The coldest January temperatures dip to as low as -40ºC (-40ºF). But this was still September… SNOW!
A warm up with a good breakfast would set me up for a stroll out there in the snow. And, as I expected, breakfast was up to the usual international standard for a 5 star hotel. However, my breakfast enjoyment was spoiled, greatly, by a wretched woman who just sidled up and took my ‘thrice through the toaster’ slice of toast. I had stepped aside for her to go past, expecting her to head for the coffee or sweet things, and what did I get, my toast pinched! I expressed my surprise and vented my feelings at which SHE looked peeved! Oh well! What could you expect? She had two obnoxious kids at heel and a husband who appears to have done nothing except help produce the monsters! I don’t blame the kids; they’ve just never been taught how to behave when out.
The first meeting for the group wasn’t to be until 14.00 in the lobby. Most of us had arrived but, due to the poor weather, there were about four who hadn’t yet made it to UB.
So, before I went exploring, I checked out some notes about Ulaanbaatar. It was founded way back in 1639 as a nomadic Buddhist monastic centre. It moved no less than 28 times until 1778 when it became permanently located at its present location. By 2014, it had a population of 1.3 million. As the largest city in Mongolia, it’s the cultural, industrial and financial hub of the country and the centre of Mongolia’s air, road and rail networks. The Trans-Siberian Railway links it with Russia, while it is also linked to the Chinese railway system.
The city is located at the confluence of the Tuul and Selenge rivers and at the base of Bogd Khan Uul mountain (2250m., 7380ft.). The mountain is a reserve that has been protected by law since the 18th Century. That makes it one of the oldest reserves in the world. But for now, we would take the afternoon to explore some of the city itself.
This was the first chance I had of getting to grips with the cold and I wasn’t half glad I’d brought a down jacket along with me as I joined the group to walk the couple of hundred metres from the hotel to Chinggis Khaan (Mongolian sp.) Square.
The most imposing building on this square is the Mongolian Parliament House. After the Soviet period of rule in Mongolia, a special facade was built in front of the older Stalinist Parliament Building. This now houses a grandiose statue of Chinggis Khaan’s statue.
During the era of Soviet rule in the 20th century, the very name Chinggis Khaan was banned and was removed from all school text books. But, since Mongolia won its independence from Russia in the early 1990’s, Chinggis Khaan has been revered as a national hero and founding father of Mongolia.
Known in English translation as Genghis Khan, he was an important conqueror in history. But his life didn’t start out very well. These notes come from the web site “ten things you may not know about Ghengis Khaan.” I’ll add the web site at the end of this post… its interesting.
“The man who would become the “Great Khan” of the Mongols was born along the banks of the Onon River sometime around 1162 and originally named Temujin, which means “of iron” or “blacksmith.” …. From an early age, Genghis was forced to contend with the brutality of life on the Mongolian Steppe. Rival Tatars poisoned his father when he was only nine, and his own tribe later expelled his family and left his mother to raise her seven children alone. Genghis grew up hunting and foraging to survive, and as an adolescent he may have even murdered his own half-brother in a dispute over food. During his teenage years, rival clans abducted both he and his young wife, and Genghis spent time as a slave before making a daring escape. Despite all these hardships, by his early 20s he had established himself as a formidable warrior and leader. After amassing an army of supporters, he began forging alliances with the heads of important tribes. By 1206, he had successfully consolidated the steppe confederations under his banner and began to turn his attention to outside conquest.”
It was then that he was given the honorific name “Genghis Kahn” and proclaimed leader of the Mongols at a tribal meeting known as a “kurultai.”
A simple man, Chinggis Khaan would probably not have approved of this huge sculpture. And whether this is a correct depiction is questionable because very little is known about Genghis Kahn’s physical appearance. No contemporary portraits or sculptures of him have survived. Some historians claim that he had flowing red hair and a long beard.
What is known is that “Between the years of 1206 and 1227, he lead his army to conquer nearly 12 million square miles of territory—more than any individual in history. Along the way, he cut a ruthless path through Asia and Europe that left untold millions dead, but he also modernised Mongolian culture, embraced religious freedom and helped open contact between East and West. Explore 10 facts about a great ruler who was equal parts military genius, political statesman and bloodthirsty terror.“
The web site continues with these amazing statistics: “While it’s impossible to know for sure how many people perished during the Mongol conquests, many historians put the number at somewhere around 40 million. Censuses from the Middle Ages show that the population of China plummeted by tens of millions during the Khan’s lifetime, and scholars estimate that he may have killed a full three-fourths of modern-day Iran’s population during his war with the Khwarezmid Empire. All told, the Mongols’ attacks may have reduced the entire world population by as much as 11 percent.”
Although the Khan rarely left a score unsettled, he was tolerant of the various religions and cultures of the people he conquered. He knew that happy subjects were less likely to rebel.
An impressive statue of a Mongolian rider rises from the centre of the square. This statue is very evocative of the way in which the great Chinggis Khaan won so many battles. The Mongolian horse was a very important part of his army… and it was essential in what may have been his most potent weapon – a vast communication network. In fact, he created one of the first international postal systems. “One of his earliest decrees as Khan involved the formation of a mounted courier service known as the “Yam.” This medieval express consisted of a well-organized series of post houses and way stations strung out across the whole of the Empire. By stopping to rest or take on a fresh mount every few miles, official riders could often travel as far as 200 miles a day. The system allowed goods and information to travel with unprecedented speed, but it also acted as the eyes and ears of the Khan. Thanks to the Yam, he could easily keep abreast of military and political developments and maintain contact with his extensive network of spies and scouts. The Yam also helped protect foreign dignitaries and merchants during their travels.”
[See at the end of this post for the web site that gives many more details about this man.]
This photo, taken in the square, is, I think, a great comment on three phases of Mongolian life; the statue of a Mongolian horseman; a representation of a Bactrian two hump camel, still most useful for the large numbers of nomadic Mongolians; and a new building that represents the modernisation of Mongolia, especially here in UB.
Another very modern building, known as ‘SKY BLUE’, was still being constructed when I was in UB in 2004. After exploring the square, we decided to get out of the cold and spend the rest of the afternoon inside the National Museum of Mongolia. I basically don’t like museums as you can’t touch anything! I’m a tactile person! And we spent 3.5hrs in this Museum looking at but NOT touching the exhibits. A record for me.
According to their notes, The National Museum of Mongolia is “an amalgamation of a number of other separate organisations including the departments of history, archaeology and ethnography. It is now located in a facility built in 1971 to house the Museum of the Revolution. It has the responsibility to look after preservation of Mongolian culture and artifacts. Importantly, it has a collection of the traditional costumes of the various ethnic groups who inhabit the country and a significant collection of snuff bottles which are part of the traditional greeting that takes place when people meet.“
After the museum visit, we walked to a concert hall where we sat through part of an ethnic concert. It was really good and very colourful but a pity we were late and didn’t see it all.
Then, it was time to eat… an Indian meal. Yes I know, we were in Mongolia but we were going to have enough mutton and grain later on the trek! And so to bed…. more anon.
All photographs copyright © JT and DY of jtdytravels
That web site about Ghengis Khan is:
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