National Geographic Trip to Mongolia, Day 1 Sunday June 11, 2017

Arriving in Mongolia

The journey I have been dreaming about for years is finally upon me.

We got to the airport a bit early for our noon flight from Hong Kong to Ulaanbaatar (the locals pronounce it Ulan Baa [like a lamb] tar or UB). I was excited and wanted to be sure to get a window seat (usually, on domestic flights, I’ll fight for an aisle seat, but when traveling abroad I love seeing the country from the sky). This was the trip I have most wanted to take for years. And we were finally on our way to Mongolia.

The check-in counter was not yet open, so I sat just watching the board waiting for the flight number to appear. Finally, there it was – Miat (the Mongolian airline) flight 298, check in counter D. So off we went to aisle D, counter 26-28. Two young women were sitting behind the counters, and several men were standing off to the side. And we waited, and we waited, and we waited. Finally, the counter opened. We walked up to check in and what did we hear? “Your flight is delayed 12 hours.” A traveler’s second worse nightmare is hearing the words, “Your flight is delayed” (second after, “your flight is canceled”). I’ve had many flights delayed. But 12 hours?! There were high winds in UB and our plane couldn’t take off. So we waited. And we waited. And we waited. 12 hours.

So instead of leaving at noon, we left at midnight. And instead of landing at 4:30 in the afternoon, we landed at 4:30 in the morning. The good news is we only missed the unofficial group welcome dinner, but made it in time for the official start of our trip.

We were traveling with National Geographic on their Photography Expedition to Mongolia. This would be 10 days of traveling around Mongolia with 15 other people and a professional National Geographic photographer, Michael Medford. And our wonderful local guide, Azaa (Azjargal Choijoo). While all guides in Mongolia are licensed, many train for only a few months. Azaa has been a guide for 14 years.

The plane finally took off. I did have my window seat, in the next to the last row!  Oh well, I knew that at midnight I would likely fall asleep anyway. And since we were traveling at night, there wasn’t much to see. And yet, about 3 hours later, I woke up, looked out the window and saw the sun rising turning the blue sky into a stripe of red. I was mesmerized as I watched the sun rise over Mongolia, from the air. The sky turned a lighter blue as the sun continued to rise and the clouds around it began turning pinks and oranges. It was a beautiful way to start the morning, albeit before 5:00AM. And as the plane turned to approach the landing, we saw the almost full moon on the other side. Sunrise and a large moon all at once. Little did I know that I would be seeing many beautiful sunrises on this trip.

And I did get to see some of Mongolia from the plane. I saw a circle of gers, looking like mushrooms from the sky. I saw two very large doughnut shaped circles which I later learned were part of the horse racing track of the Nadaam festival. I saw a few green fields, but mostly I saw brown. Brown, dry land. Mongolia is in a serious drought.

And then we landed in a rather modern airport, with hallways of wood (reminiscent of Oslo). We stood on line for passport control and noticed that the woman agent was letting people by-pass the line. We realized she was allowing those with Mongolian passports to go first. She saw us watching and signaled to us to by-pass the line too. She must have sensed how excited we were to finally be in Mongolia. So we got our Mongolia stamp in our passports and out we went.

Just outside of baggage we were met by Azaa, our guide for the next 10 days. We climbed into the van and headed to our hotel, the Tushin. Azaa handed us some gifts as we are National Geographic Explorers (which means we have traveled with them more than 3 times). We received some postcards with a stamp on them so we could mail them home and the traditional deep blue silk scarf, a Badag, that the Mongolians wear to worship nature and particularly the eternal sky as a part of themselves.

A bit of Mongolian background

Mongolia is the second largest land-locked country in the world (after Kazakhstan). It is also the 18th largest country in the world, not by population but by land mass with about 604,000 square miles. It is bordered by China and Russia, but these are all open borders. 80% of Mongolia’s gasoline comes from Russia. Mongolia is best known for its vast, rugged expanses and nomadic culture. And although it is land-locked, it is full of lakes and rivers. Ulaanbaatar is the capital and is built around Chinggis Khaan (Genghis Khan) Square, named of course for the notorious founder of the 13th- and 14th-century Mongol Empire (more on him in a later blog). The population of Mongolia is about 3 million and 50% of those live in UB. There are about 400,000-450,000 tourists a year primarily from Europe with America and Korea running second and third. But while Mongolia is so large, very little of the land is useable. Most is covered by grassy steppes, mountains in the north and west, and the Gobi Desert in the south stretching about 1240 miles across the bottom third of Mongolia. But it is that expanse of nature that makes it so beautiful and that is what we come to see. That and the people. The mountains around UB are supposed to be protected from being built upon, but we could see houses going up and Azaa, our fearless leader, explained that there was corruption and therefore developers were being allowed to build. There is about to be a presidential election so time will shortly tell what happens to the development of this country (good and bad).

Between 25-40% of the population are nomadic or semi-nomadic and their lives center around horses. Fifty percent of the population are Buddhist, 3% are Muslim, and the rest are non-religious, but Mongolians respect all religions. While religion may not be ubiquitous, ethnicity is. There are 26 different ethnic groups in Mongolia. The language is the same throughout the country. The original Mongolian language, Uiger Jin, part of the Altaic language, from the 9th century until 1942, was read from top down and from left to right. But in 1942 the language was switched to the Cyrillic alphabet. Similar to Russian (although it is not the Russian language). The original Uiger Jin language is now taught in schools so that it is not totally forgotten and lost.


As we drove through the city of UB, we could see house after house in the old Soviet style. But we were particularly impressed with the size, the tall, modern buildings and sculptures everywhere. There was one sculpture of a caravan of bronze camels heading into the city. This was built in honor of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM). And the amount of new building going on is overwhelming. Everywhere you look there are cranes and tall buildings going up. Andy joked that the crane is UB’s city bird. Most apartment buildings are 22 stores high and the hotels are even taller. This is earthquake country so they are careful in how tall and how sturdy they build. In a few years, UB will be overpopulated and over built. The traffic here is already unbearable (mostly with Toyotas), so it is hard to imagine what will happen as all these apartment and offices buildings are completed. To try to decongest, even number license plates are allowed to drive some days, and odd %the other days. Just like Bhutan and China. And the drivers here are unbelievably aggressive, pushing their way from one lane into the other.

We noticed that every few blocks, there are buildings labeled City Toilets. And the city is also full of karaoke bars. Everywhere you look there is another one. Azaa told us that in the 1990s many of the teens and young adults went to South Korea and they brought Karaoke back with them.

This will be a recurring theme on this trip. Progress. Is it good to become more capitalistic, to build better infrastructure and taller buildings and roads?  Or does it spoil the quiet, nomadic life that has survived for centuries with no problems and which is what us tourists come to see and love about Mongolia?  I know it is not about the us, the tourists. But I always worry that the local culture will slowly be lost as the Western world infringes on these places. There is no easy answer.

On the way to the hotel we passed a coal mine and discussed with Azaa the problem of pollution, but she told us that they are working on that issue. There are 4 coal power plants. Wind mill power is starting in the Gobi, but there is currently only one with one additional in the planning stages. There are large (LARGE) pipes running through the city which deliver the hot water. If they were put underground, they would likely freeze in the winter. Later on, as we traveled through the steppes and the Gobi desert, we saw that the nomads are all using solar power.

Tuushin Hotel

We arrived at the Best Western Premier Tuushin Hotel, about 30 minutes after leaving the airport as it was still early and there was no traffic yet. At the hotel we dropped off our luggage, showered (we had been traveling a long time), found some clean clothes and headed down to breakfast to eat and to meet our new traveling companions.

Our room was on the 12th floor facing Genghis Khan square and the Parliament building. From here we could see tall buildings and then at the edge of the city, mountains covered in homes (and gers) with different colored metal roofs, imported from China. Red, green, blue, orange. Like a city of rainbows.

Breakfast at the Tushin was primarily a western buffet with one dish labeled “Mongolian food.” That was a dumpling filled with beef. The main foods here in Mongolia are beef, lamb and a little bit of chicken. There is little pork as only a few pigs are grown in one part of the country. There was the ubiquitous omelet bar, cheeses (not yak cheese as I was expecting), breads, meats, fresh fruit and cereal. Standard.

We sat down with a couple from Santa Barbara, Sue and Gary. And we began meeting all the others that would be on our trip. The group is somewhat diverse, but with more similarities than differences. It is not the naïve traveler that comes to Mongolia. Everyone on the group has traveled and seen much of the world. We were four couples and 5 singles (not necessarily not married, but traveling alone). And this was a photography trip so the amount of photographic equipment was staggering. I opted to bring just one camera and one lens (16-300mm). That more than sufficed. But as the trip progressed, I wished I had brought a tripod.

And the day begins

And then it was time to begin the tour. We all met in the lobby with not a single person being late. Some of us were even early. As we waited, we admired the very large painting in the lobby, which looked like an abstract painting, but in fact was made up of thousands of horses.

We loaded into a small bus which was to be our mode of transportation while in UB.

Gandan Monastery

Our first stop was the Gandan (Gandantegchinlen) Monastery (which means Great Place of Complete Joy). Generally, one is not allowed to photograph inside a monastery or Buddhist temple, but a special photo shoot was arranged for us. In the 19th century there were about 900 temples and monasteries serving a population of about 50,000 living in UB (then called Urga). By 1920 the number of monks decreased as did the entire population of Mongolia since monks are celibate and not enough babies were born. But that wasn’t the real issue. The real problem was that the Russians, during the Stalinist purges, closed the monasteries and arrested and killed the monks (and nuns). In 1944, when US Vice President Henry Wallace asked to see a monastery during his visit to Mongolia, then prime minister Choibalsan guiltily scrambled to open this one to cover up the fact that he had recently laid waste to Mongolia’s religious heritage. It remained a ‘show monastery’ for other foreign visitors until 1990 when full religious ceremonies commenced and the Mongolians began to openly practice Buddhism again. So the Gandan Monastary is Mongolia’s largest functioning Buddhist monastery—one of the few to survive the Stalinist purges during the 1930s.

As we left our bus, our first sight was a series of large prayer wheels, in bright red covered in multicolored symbols. And then we proceeded into the campus of the monastery with its buildings in yellow and red and orange.

Megjid Janraisig

We arrived in time to listen to two young novice monks standing on what looked like a guard tower, blowing horns to call the lamas and monks to worship.

We were given some history and then we visited the two temples that adjoin the monastery. Megjid Janraisig, the monastery’s main attraction, is a symbol of independence for the Mongolians. The walls are lined with hundreds of images of Ayush, the Buddha of Longevity, which stare through the darkness to the magnificent Migjid Janraisig statue. The real reason for this temple is to honor Jenraisig (also called Avalokitesvara), the Bodhisattva of Compassion (a person who is able to reach nirvana but delays doing so out of compassion in order to save suffering beings). The original stature was built in 1911 but the Russians carted it away in 1937 and the story goes that it was melted down to make bullets. The new statue was dedicated in 1996 with donations from Japan and Nepal. It is 85 feet high and is covered in gold, silver, copper, and 2100 precious stones. It is said that the hollow statue contains 27 ton of medicinal herbs, 334 Sutras (texts or manuals), two million bundles of mantras, plus an entire ger with furniture!

Kalachakra Temple

The second temple was the Kalachakra Temple that adjoined the monastery. There were prayer wheels everywhere in all sizes from almost life-size to very small. And we walked by along with the local Mongolians, spinning one after the other, in a clockwise direction, sending our prayers up to the winds which would carry them to the heavens.

We entered the main monastery where the monks, wearing orange robes with blue or green silk cuffs, were chanting. We mostly saw the young novices. There were four of them sitting cross-legged in the front row of the red wood benches. When they thought we weren’t looking, they would stare at us, these strangers from America. And if we caught their eyes, they would give us these wonderful smiles. But as we all pointed our cameras at them, the smiles would disappear and they would become serious, chanting the entire time. One young boy was reading his chants from a book shaped like a check book, but a bit longer. The rest seemed to know the chants by heart. Another was hiding a red round-ball lollipop which every once in a while he would bend down and lick. These are young boys after all.

The smell of incense permeated everything. The walls were covered in multi-colored tapestries, the monks were in red or orange. There was a large green drum. The air was filled with the music of the chants. And of our cameras clicking. It was a cacophony of colors and sounds.



And then a senior monk appeared, set up a table with Tupperware containers filled different colored sand that had been pound from marble, set a small stand about 12 inches x 12 inches square on four legs on the table, and began to create a mandala. Just for us.


He had two long silver cones, about a foot long and would rub one against the other, causing a small sliver of sand to drop upon the stand. He would fill the cones with different colors and slowly, carefully, meticulously rub the silver cones together and create a multi-colored flower, the flower often seen in the very center of a mandala.

The flower was outlined in white, and had 8 green petals, two with yellow in their centers, two with red, two with black and two with white. And the petals faced two x two in each direction of north, east, south and west. It was breathtaking to watch this creation. From a bit of colored sand, he was able to create this delicate piece of art. And as with all mandalas, once created, the sand is blown away. Isn’t that life?

What is a mandala? It is a spiritual and ritual symbol in Buddhism which represents the universe. The basic form of most mandalas is a square with four gates containing a circle with a center point. Our mandala was just that center circle. The purpose of the mandala is to focus the attention, establish a sacred space and aid in meditation. It is made of sand, a tradition that came from the Tibetans, and it is always destroyed, with the destruction also being highly ceremonial. It is not just brushed away, but rather each segment is removed in a specific order until the whole mandala has been dismantled. The sand is collected in a jar, wrapped in silk and transported to a river (or any moving water), where it is released back into nature. This symbolizes the ephemeral quality of life and the world. This reminded me of our Jewish tradition of throwing bread crumbs into moving water to cast away our sins on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

On our way back to our bus we were accosted by men selling Mongolian art, paintings of the desert and camels or horses “they had painted themselves.” This so reminded me of Cusco, Peru where we saw the same thing – men claiming to have painted all the same pictures, but really just trying to make some money to support themselves and likely their families. We walked through a park with children playing on playground equipment, enjoying the spray of the fountain and just enjoying the beautiful day.


As we drove to our next stop, the Mongolia National Museum, we passed children feeding pigeons, we saw alone monk in his red robe walking by a pink wall, followed by a woman in blue against that same pink wall. This is Mongolia. Color.

Mongolia National Museum

Mongolia’s National Museum reviews everything from the Neolithic era up to the present day. The 1st floor has some interesting exhibits on Stone Age sites in Mongolia, as well as petroglyphs, deer stones (stone sculptures of reindeer and other animals) and burial sites from the Hun and Uighur eras. But we headed up the grand, two-story carpeted staircase, topped with a large (VERY large) portrait of Genghis Khan, to begin on the second floor. This was my favorite part as it showcased the collection of indigenous garb, hats and jewelry, representing most of Mongolia’s ethnic groups. Many of the headdresses were covered in jewels and beads. There were furnished gers, saddles and musical instruments (more on the musical instruments of Mongolia later). We learned about a game played by the nomads called ankle bone or ankle bone shooting, or in Mongolian, Shagai. But my favorite, after the national costumes, were the stone sculptures of faces, centuries old, with expressions full of emotions.


Shagai, pronounced chuko, refers to the ankle bone of a sheep or goat (of which there are plenty here). The bones are used for games and for fortune telling. This may have been the first form of dice. The ankle bones have four sides, representing horse, camel, sheep or goat. There are four ankle bones and the resulting combination, once thrown, determines your fortune. This game is especially popular during the Naadam festival and Mongolians will exchange shagai as tokens of friendship.

Victims of the Political Purges

And on our way out of the museum, we stopped at the sculpture that looked like a man trying to force his way out of box. As described in the signage, this is the memorial, designed by L. Bold in the 1990’s after the end of Stalinist period, to the Victims of the Political Purges. “The black cube structure symbolizes oppression and grief, and the figure of the broken human torso with the head soaring upward, reflects the tragic fate of the condemned, yet their resolve and hope to seek the truth in light. Empty space between the frame and human figure reflects the idea that this historic tragedy shall never be erased or faded from our memory.” Never again. That theme repeats all over the world.

Time to eat

And then it was time to eat again. One thing about Nat Geo (which everyone seems to call National Geographic) is that you never go hungry. On our way to the restaurant, we couldn’t help but notice the interesting architecture of UB. Many of the houses are very colorful, either in multiple colors, or just painted green or pink or yellow. This is contrasted by the more modern glass buildings reflecting everything around them. It is especially pleasing to see this juxtaposition of the old and the new. And then there are sculptures everywhere which just adds to the beauty of UB.

Lunch at the Veranda Food and Wine Lounge

Lunch was at the Veranda Food Wine and Lounge at the Silk Road Bazaar. This is an Italian restaurant that was a sparsely decorated with a clean, modern look. We were served a salad followed by noodles with what looked and tasted like chicken schnitzel. Followed by ice cream. All our meals on this trip were pre-set. But the best part of this restaurant was the view outside our window of the Blue Sky building, a very colorful building juxtaposed with the Lama Choisin Temple Museum (which unfortunately we never got to visit).

Genghis Khan Square

Our afternoon was free so Andy and I walked through Genghis Khan Square taking pictures of the faces of the children who were running around everywhere. There was a little girl all dressed up with three medals around her neck. Her father was taking her picture and so did I.

There were a group of young adults all dressed up taking group pictures and we guessed that it was a graduation.

There were great views of The Blue Sky (a large, blue glass building in the shape of a sail). And of course, the large statue of Genghis Khan sitting at the top of the stairs.

Chinggis Square (Chinggis is the Mongolian for Genghis), is the central square of UB. The name was changed from Sukhbaatar Square in 2013, to honor Mongolia’s founding father. But most locals still call it by its original name. The square is dominated by a large colonnade monument to Genghis Khan and his son Ogedei Khan and grandson, Kublai Khan who also ruled Mongolia. In the center of the square is an equestrian statue of Damdin Sukhbaatar (thus the original name of the square) who was one of the leaders of the 1921 Mongolia revolution. The square was originally the site of a monastery but today is the site were people congregate for demonstrations, revolutions, fireworks on holidays and just hanging out with family.

The square is surrounded by the Parliament House, the 1970s Soviet-style Cultural Palace (which houses the Mongolian National Modern Art Gallery), the State Opera and Ballet Theater (which is a beautiful salmon-pinkish building which we would visit on our last night in Mongolia), the Central Tower (which houses luxury shops including Louis Vuitton and Armani and where we had our farewell dinner), and the Mongolian Stock Exchange.

Mongolian Deels and Hats

We kept walking. I saw an older man selling newspapers on the corner, wearing a deel and a traditional Mongolian hat. A deel is the traditional robe worn by the Mongols and nomads (men and women) for centuries. It looks a bit like a robe or caftan and generally reaches below the knees, fanning out at the bottom. Deels can be any color, but traditionally are blue, olive or burgundy.

A side note here on Mongolian hats. I love hats. I collect hats and headdresses from around the world. Mongolia is a cornucopia for hats. Part of the most colorful parts of the Mongolian national dress is the hat. There is a different hat for every occasion. For summer. For winter. For men. For women. Archers wear one hat. Wrestlers wear another. The social position, the gender, and the tribe all determine the type of hat worn. The higher the hat, the higher the class of that individual. There are 400 different styles of hats. 400! Many of the hats, particularly those of the athletes, have a fancy knot on top which symbolizes power capable of frightening enemies. Copies of many of these hats are available at all the souvenir shops. But I wanted an original.

But I didn’t take a picture of this man in his deel and hat and I didn’t stop. We kept walking, our destination the Beatles Monument.

Beatles Monument

Yes, in Ulaanbaatar there is a Beatles Monument. It is the only monument to the Beatles in all of Asia and was built entirely by donations from Beatles’ fans. On the back side is a Mongolian man playing a guitar with the word “Imagine” written in large letters. At the 2008 dedication, on John Lennon’s birthday, one young man said that during the Stalinist period, the Beatles’ songs made them aware of the dictatorship society they were living in. Therefore, he felt that the Beatles played a large role in bringing democracy to Mongolia.

We took pictures with Paul, John, George and Ringo and then made our way half a block to the State Department Store.

State Department Store

The State Department Store, known as “the big shop,” is a tourist attraction in itself as it has all the best products from Mongolia. The sixth floor is dedicated just to tourists with all the souvenirs tourists would want to bring home, including cashmere everything, musical instruments, hats, t-shirts, models of gers and camels and horses, jewelry and anything else you can imagine.  We checked it out, knowing that we would be back at the end of the trip if there was still anything we wanted to buy.

Mongolian Musical Instruments

In front of the store were two older men playing Mongolian string instruments. During our trip we would have several opportunities to hear Mongolian concerts, but this was our first, impromptu one. One man was playing the traditional Morin khuur, a string instrument also known as the horse-head-violin as it sounds like a violin or cello. This is a typical Mongolian two-stringed instrument carved from wood. The end of the neck is formed into a horse’s head. The strings are dried deer or sheep sinews. The bow is made of willow and is stringed with horsetail hair.


As with everything there is a legend surrounding the Morin Khuur. A Mongol missed his dead horse so much that he used its head, its bones and its hair to build an instrument on which he could play the familiar noises of his beloved horse. But of course there are additional legends. A shepherd’s beloved mistress gave him a magical horse that could fly. He used the horse at night to fly to meet his beloved. But his jealous wife cut the horse’s wings off and the horse fell from the sky and died. The grieving shepherd made a horse-head fiddle from his beloved horse. Or perhaps you prefer the legend of the boy named Sükhe (or Suho). After a wicked Lord (Pagan God) slaughtered the boy’s prized white horse, the horse’s spirit came back to Sükhe in a dream and instructed him to make an instrument from the horse’s body, so that the two could still be together and neither of them would have to be alone. You get to choose which legend you like best.

The second man was playing a khuuchir. The khuuchir is a small, cylindrical, square of cup-like resonator (a device that naturally oscillates at some frequencies) made of bamboo, wood or copper, and often covered with snake skin. The neck is inserted into the body, and usually has four silk strings, the first and third of which are always played together.

Mongolian hats – part 2

On the way back to the hotel, I decided to stop to talk to the newspaper man. We approached, I smiled, and I hand-signaled that I wanted to buy his hat. He gave me a toothless smile and shook his head no. But, he said, “Come tomorrow and I bring you a hat.”  I motioned no, as we would be leaving early in the morning, pulled out my calendar and showed him the date I would be back. And I said, “Old hat?”  And he replied, ‘New hat.”

I walked away, hopeful that I would indeed get an authentic Mongolian hat. [You will have to read a few blogs ahead to find out what happened….]

Dinner at Mongolian’s Restaurant and Pub

Tonight was our official welcome dinner at Mongolian’s. This restaurant is part museum and part restaurant. It is filled with display cases with Mongolian antiques and old photographs. artifacts. And no pictures were allowed! Our meal was again preset, but we did have a change to look at the menu which was contemporary Mongolian food with a strong Russian influence. The food was delicious. I really had thought that I would lose weight in Mongolia, but so far the food has been great.

Genghis Khan Square – part 2

In the evening we walked back to the square to take more pictures at sunset. The square was again filled with families with children riding scooters and bikes and little peddle cars.

The building was slowly being lit with a blue light. Great place to take pictures. And a lovely end to our first day in Mongolia.