Ulanbataar Inside And Out

November 9, 2013

To European eyes, Mongolia's culture, food, fashion, landscapes and even sports are so far removed from any found in Europe that they might as well come from the time of Genghis Khan. Mongolia’s people have been able to maintain their culture and traditions as the industrial and technological revolutions have largely passed them by. 

60km outside Ulaanbaatar an old man walks his granddaughter up to a 40 metre high statue of Ghengis Khan. In the distance, small figures can be seen on horse’s mane where there is a viewing platform. 

Erdene Zuu Monastery is perhaps the most ancient surviving Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. It was built in 1585 by Abtai Sain Khan, at the time of the  introduction of Tibetan Buddhism into Mongolia. It is surrounded by a wall featuring 100 stupas. Under communist rule, Erdene Zuu, worship ceased and it became a “museum of religion”. But  with the communists long gone, it has  again become a holy place.

Traffic in central Ulaanbaatar is awful, as there are few roads, and fewer good ones. Peace Avenue, the main street in the capital, is often congested and badly maintained vehicles and smoke from the many thousands of gers that surround the city create an unhealthy smog that becomes especially bad over the winter months. 

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On a hill south of Ulaanbaatar a communist era monument reflects the links with the USSR and the victory in the “Great Patriotic War” over Japan and Germany. 

Wrestling, known as Bökh, is a popular Mongolian pastime. Normally played outside where the protagonists can salute the eagle god, in the winter, they compete indoors in the Palace of Wrestling in Central Ulanbataar. Bökh means "durability". 

Wrestling is the most popular national sport and a vital cultural element for Mongols around the world. When a male child is born in a family, the traditional good luck wish is that he become a wrestler.

Each wrestler is led into competition by his trainer. Both before and after the match, each wrestler does the traditional "Eagle Dance", based on the flight of the mythical Garuda bird, which symbolizes power, bravery, grace and invincibility. The object of a match is to get an opponent to touch his back, knee or elbow to the ground. They slap their thighs to show they are ready to begin the match. A variety of throws, trips and lifts are used to topple the opponent.

On the outskirts of the city, are clusters of gers, traditional Mongolian tents. Inside, most are two intricately decorated support posts. It is said that one post represents the man who owns the ger and the other his wife. And it is still believed today that if a person outside of this family should walk between the two posts they mean to come between the couple. 

To see more photos of Mongolia check out the photo essay In Xanadu: A Mongolian Adventure.