Known as “The Land of Blue Sky” in ancient east-Asian lore, Mongolia spread culture and language westward, creating the legends and allure that brought Marco Polo to the Far East, inspired the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Dinosaur hunters to the Gobi desert. For my own part, it was continued exploration of the effects of Soviet-era occupation in Asian lands that drew me to this faraway nation, a newer democracy.
Indeed, when one explores Mongolia’s capital Ulaan Bataar, the Cold War spy photos of Eastern Europe seem to be juxtaposed with the ‘tintypes’ of the Old West. Block like concrete structures straddle semi paved streets where donkeys and primitive vehicles carry goods and natives to and fro.
is the center of the city’s life, with new businesses and older residential high-rises occupying the surrounding streets. On the very outskirts of the city one can find the traditional gers or yurts; felt tents that have been stalwarts of Mongol life for all recorded history.
Virtually every sign in Ulaan Bataar is written in the Russian Cyrillic alphabet, though the Russian and Mongol languages have nothing in common. Mongolian, the official language, is a member of the Ural-Altaic family of languages, which includes Finnish, Turkish, Hungarian, Kazak, Uzbek and Korean. Named for the area between the Ural Mountains of Russia and the Altai Mountains in Mongolia, the language was spread throughout the Eurasian landmass by Mongol horsemen, nomadic warriors who sought riches from western lands. The most famous of these, Genghis Khan, conquered most of interior Asia (from Beijing to the Caspian Sea) between 1189 and 1227 AD.
Genghis’ grandson, Kublai Khan (1216-94), completed the conquests envisioned by his predecessor: during his reign the Mongol Empire stretched from Korea to Hungary and as far south as Vietnam, making it the largest empire the world has ever known.
Tibetan Buddhism (Lamaism) is the dominant faith in Mongolia, and one can find evidence of the religious past within very old and very new temples. From the 1930s until 1990, religious practice was officially outlawed under the communist regimes of Soviet puppet governments. Since then, there has been an amazing revival of Buddhist worship, leading to the restoration of old temples (that had been ransacked or vandalized) and creation of newer ones for the increasingly urban population. Just as Muslims seek to travel to Mecca once in their lifetime, Buddhists in Mongolia feel a pilgrimage to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet (now under Chinese rule) is a tenet of their faith.
It is possible to fly into Ulaan Bataar from Moscow, Osaka, Beijing or Seoul, but flights are infrequent and frequently delayed during bad weather, which can materialize instantaneously between October and June. The Trans-Mongolian railway links Beijing and Moscow, but it is a highly capricious and corrupt system of travel; foreigners are often “delayed” while officials stall for bribe money. Entry and exit visas are required for all foreigners, and you should be ready to expect delays while your passport and visa are scrutinized.