11-18 July 2023
Ulaanbaatar is host to excellent museums
They are a mix of modern and out-dated. Entrance is reasonable but taking photos requires substantial fees sometimes as high as 30-50,000 Tugrik. Choices for a few hours include:
The Mongolian National Museum focuses on artifacts & antiquities tracing Mongolia’s history, ethnography & culture. Modern and well laid out. Some English explanations.
Instead of the Natural History Museum, we went to the dinosaur exhibits at Hunnu Mall. Sounded strange to go to a mall but there is a mini dinosaur exhibition with dinosaur eggs and giant skeletons among which are a nearly complete skeleton of a Tabosaurus and nests of Protoceratops eggs found in the Flaming Cliffs of the Gobi Desert. Pretty good preservation for what were soft-shelled eggs.
The multistory Chinggis Khaan Museum is excellent and filled with artifacts about the Mongol people and their dynastic rulers over the centuries. Excellent maps, artifacts and costumes.
The Artistic and Cultural Center on Sukhbaatar Square stages a wonderful show with traditional costumes, music, singing and dance of Mongolia. The National Orchestra also preformed using the traditional instruments of the country.
For another music and design show, there is a “gala dinner” at Bayangol Hotel. Food, drinks and dinner show is presented. The show consists of traditional instruments and music, an exhibition of contortionists which is really painful to watch, and a high fashion show that Lady Gaga would love. Evidently Mongolia produces a large number of tne world’s contortionists. All suffer from a form of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome which can be a severe connective tissue disorder. All that bending just seems painful. The show and food is pure tourist.
Zanabazar Museum of Fine Arts is dedicated to the “Michelangelo of Asia.” Zanabazar (1635-1723) was the first High Saint of Mongolia and instrumental in popularizing Buddhism in Mongolia. He was also a painter, sculptor, architect and costume designer. The dance festival of Naadam is dedicated to Zanabazar. The museum exhibits Mongolian masters of the arts with extensive collections of paintings, gilded bronze statues, masks, costumes and Tibetan Buddhist paintings called thangkas. UNESCO is instrumental in assisting with the ongoing expansion and improvement of the museum.
Bogd Khan Palace is part of the larger Green Palace of Bogd Khan, the 8th Lama below only the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama. He ruled from 1911 to 1924, following the independence from the Qing dynasty when he became the spiritual leader of Outer Mongolia’s Tibetan Buddhism. This is the only palace left from his original four.
The Bogd imperial residence is modest as palaces go, but contains his throne, bed, his collection of art and stuffed animals including his ornate ceremonial ger made out of snow leopard skins, jeweled regalia worn by the Bogd Khan’s pet elephant, and a pair of ceremonial boots given to the Khan by Russian Tsar Nicholas II.
Spending time in the Gobi Desert is magical. The Gobi, ranging from a cold desert to grassy steppes, comprises over 500,000 square miles, most of which lies in China. The Gobi is more than three times the size of California! Within its borders are unique, dramatic scenery, and animals like the desert bear and Bactrian camel. The sparse desert grasses and water support huge herds of horses, goats, sheep and camels. Many nomads will have over a thousand sheep grazing “over there 50 km.”
Yolyn Am (Vultures’s Mouth) Valley lies between the peaks of Gurvansaikhan (Three Beauties). Established to conserve birdlife, which includes the bearded vulture and white vulture, nature can be experienced by a quiet but challenging hike through Shivertam Valley and Mukhar Shiver. The wide entrance narrows into a remarkable gorge where an ice glacier is visible even in summer and one might be lucky to spot the mountain sheep and goats on the almost vertical slopes. We spotted a few people and a few horses.
A small museum is nearby and has a collection of stuffed mammals and birds and a snow leopard, also stuffed. They are all rather tired and dusty looking but a fascinating mix of the rich diversity of animals found in the Gobi.
The Gobi is high desert and we hike at an altitude of 5400’. Intermittent rain showers, a deep blue sky, puffy clouds, sheets of rain racing along the horizons, and blazing sun can all be experienced within an hour.
The Altai Mountains and wide open desert surrounds us. Altitude is over 5500 feet. Looking across this expanse, there is a green tinge to the desert indicating edibles for the nomadic life in this harsh environment. Large goat herds, horses, Bacinal camels, wild asses and a few timid and very fast gazelles are spotted. Occasional vultures are spotted shopping for dinner. Nomad wells and travelers’ rocky piles of Ovoo dot our paths. Shockingly, there is a road sign occasionally, unreadable and useless to anyone but maybe a nomad.
Khongoryn Els is known as the Duut Mankhan or “Singing Sands” and covers a 370 sq. mi. area. They are not easy to reach as our 4-wheel Lexus bouncing over about 130 miles of desert tracks and paths proves. The beautiful undulating patterns of the dunes stretch for over 100 miles and dunes can be as high as 950 ft. Continually changing shape due to wind, the dunes do not sing but do produce a sound due to their small avalanches and shifting. The dunes are not difficult to climb but it is hot. A nearby camel breeding farm makes an interesting stop and an opportunity for more Mare’s Milk and a camel ride. All camels are the two-hump Bacinal species.
Bayanzag was first excavated in 1922 and is known as the “Cemetery of Dinosaurs.” The Flaming Cliffs is a rugged landscape of sculpted rocks, red sands and hearty endemic vegetation. The shapes and dramatic lighting create a memorable landscape, glowing red in the setting sun. It was here that the first dinosaur eggs were discovered (that Protoceratops in Ulaanbaatar). Bayanzag means “rich in saxaul” which is one of the few plants that survive in the Gobi; thorny to me, delicious to camels. Reaching the cliffs is another rough dirt track but worth the drive. It is very hot and the sun is brutal.
So much more to appreciate about Mongolia and its peoples. Transportation and roads, living and sleeping in a ger, and celebrating the festival of Naadam inspire all their own examination. All this best done in person.