Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Streets Of Ulaanbaatar, The Choijin Lama Temple, The Zanabazar Museum, The Museum of National History and Vegetarian Food In Ulaanbaatar

The country of Mongolia has been inhabited for over 850,000 years, and for more than the 2500 years of its recorded history, the Mongolian people have followed a nomadic, herding and hunting lifestyle. 

In order to raise the traditional herd animals of Mongolia - the "five snouts" - horses, camels, yaks/cows, sheep and goats - the people devised a way to move from place to place, following the best grazing land at different times of the year.  

They did this by living in circular Gers (yurts) made from wood poles covered with animal skins or nowadays canvas, with two warm layers of felt that they laboriously produced from yak or camel hair.  

These gers can be erected and taken down in less than an hour, and many Mongolians who no longer raise animals still live in gers today, as well as those who do follow a nomadic lifestyle.  

Even in the biggest city of Ulaanbaatar, the only permanent buildings were historically the many Buddhist monasteries with their beautiful structures and impressive gates.

Those glorious temple buildings feature awesome curved roofs with handmade tiles decorated with guardians and mythical animals.
The walls were constructed from wood, adobe or bricks, supported with huge wooden poles and beams, intricately carved with Buddhist symbols of abundance and harmony. 

Many of the old temples featured circular windows offering what was intended to be enlightened views of the surrounding landscape and gardens.

For those of you who plan to travel to Mongolia, and are thinking to skip the busy and gridlocked city of Ulaanbaatar, I would like to send a gentle reminder that it is still the capital city, housing many of the important cultural artifacts found in this land, well worth exploring and thoroughly enjoyable if done with patience and a sense of rejoicing in the otherness of this place and its people. 

We spent days walking around the city, admittedly on broken sidewalks and through many traffic crossings where no driver yields to pedestrians, and found that lingering here helped us better understand the culture, both past and present.

I believe that we are the authors of our own realities.
We see what is projected from within because that is what we focus on, and it is recognizable to us, because we hold similar beliefs.

We encounter the kind of experiences that we resonate with, complete with seemingly random events and meetings with apparently arbitrary people but who actually resonate on similar energy levels that we do at the moment.
We do all this mostly automatically and subconsciously, but as we grow in spiritual understanding and claim our birthright to create harmony and perfect joy for ourselves as our life's mission, we start creating our reality consciously.

And so listening to stories told by other travelers does not at all mean that you will encounter the same experiences when you happen to be in the same place.
Other travelers have told me that they had to eat mostly mutton, greasy dumplings filled with meat and loads of dairy products while traveling in Mongolia.
Since we are partial to a vegan diet, we braced ourselves for the worst and brought with us some zip-lock bags filled with freeze-dried fruit and vegetables mixed with nuts from the USA.

To my delight, the Kempinski hotel offered an impressive daily breakfast buffet brimming with many good healthy food choices.

We had freshly squeezed juices of carrots, apples, pineapples, lemons and oranges, big fresh vegetable salads and fresh fruits with seeds and nuts.
There were whole wheat artisan breads and black Mongolian honey, complete with green tea or herbal tea from herbs and flowers collected in the Mongolian Taiga, which borders the Siberian Taiga in the north, which we will visit later on our trip.

Jules told me that we might still encounter a lack of healthy food options outside of Ulaanbaatar....and that our packages of dried veg and fruit which are bulky and somewhat heavy, might still become handy later on during our trip in rural Mongolia.

He was somewhat right and we were happy to have healthy snacks with us, but we had no problem dining on vegetarian food while traveling throughout rural Mongolia.
Although we did not encounter again the flavors and quality of the food at the Kempinski, we never felt that we lacked freshly made veg food.

After breakfast, our friendly hotel concierge printed for us a Google map and circled on it the museums that we wanted to see, art galleries, cafés, shops, temples and vegan restaurants that serve veg versions of all the traditional Mongolian food.

Our hotel was located on the eastern end of Peace Avenue, the main artery of Ulaanbaatar.
The sidewalks were lined with vendors selling fresh fruit and bags of candy.
Some vendors sold umbrellas when the sky showed signs that rain was fast approaching.

Other vendors tied colorful balloons to a makeshift wooden board surrounded with cutesy bears and toys.
For a small amount of money, they handed people arrows to throw at the balloons, and if the arrows pierced a certain number of balloons, they would win a cutesy bear.

Many street vendors just sat on low stools by the side of the busy intersections, selling boiled eggs, cigarettes and Russian lollipops from a cardboard box. 
Many also had a cordless phone, charging people who wished to make phone calls, although it seems like every Mongolian, even penniless monks, carried smartphones with them.

A few shopping malls lined Peace Avenue catering to different budgets.
A fancy mall with a glass facade with Gucci and Louis Vuitton stores among other international high priced designers, was not as interesting or attractive to us.
They are a common fixture in every international city worldwide, selling identical goods at inflated prices for those who need a recognizable designer label to believe that they are buying quality or showing good taste.

We opted instead to explore the more interesting government department store when we did need something (mostly to pee in a nice air conditioned bathrooms....sorry but we did not come to Mongolia to shop, although we did end up getting a few souvenirs along the way.)

At the center of Peace Avenue, in the heart of the city, is Sukhbaatar Square, a large
plaza looking like a smaller version of Tiananmen Square in Beijing, where the main government buildings are located, where concerts take place on special days, and where other public events take place. The public demonstrations leading to the end of the communist dictatorship in Mongolia took place right in this square, in 1990, so it has a very special place in every Mongolian's heart.  

Most of the museums, shops, restaurants, hotels, temples and universities, are clustered around the center.

In a small park in front of square sat a few old fortune tellers with rheumatic eyes and wrinkly faces, dressed in traditional clothing, offering to read peoples' fortunes by tossing goats' ankle bones or coins into the air.  
Across from the fortune tellers sat a man with an old bathroom scale, for anyone who was willing to pay a few Tugriks to find out (more or less) what he weighs.

I wished our Mongolian guide was with us.  I love and wish to support fortune tellers and all sorts of Shamans and faith healers, whether they are charlatans or genuine.
But alas we were to meet our guide and driver who will be taking us into the heart of Mongolia, a few days later.

The traditional clothing of Mongolia is the Del, a full length robe designed for each season, still worn by many, especially in the countryside.

We saw many people congregate in Sukhbaatar square wearing those traditional Del garments. 
It was summertime, and so the Dels were made of silk and brocade, woven with beautiful patterns in gold or silver thread.
In the wintertime, the Dels are made of sheep skins, lined with the sheep wool on the inside.

Family reunions, celebrations, funerals and other gatherings, often start with the people meeting in Sukhbaatar Square, and end up with a group visit to Gandan Monastery, the biggest and most important monastery of Ulaanbaatar. 

On the first few days we spent alone in Ulaanbaatar, before getting together with Tuya, our guide, and Nasa, our driver, we walked the streets of the city.
We stopped in at the National Museum, where we saw an impressive collection of treasures and learned about the history of the country.

We visited the small and most beautiful Choijin Lama museum.

Once it was an ornate Buddhist temple that was built by the 8th Bogd Khaan Javzandamba, who dedicated the temple to his brother, Lama Choijin Luvsanhaidav. 
It has been converted into a museum and is no longer a practicing temple.

The museum houses a copy of the 108-volume Kangyur and a hand-printed 226-volume Tengyur, both containing the original versions of the Buddhist teachings brought over from Tibet.

In another ornate building, we walked around an impressive collection of Tsam dance masks made from papier-mâché that were traditionally used in festivals aimed to pass the teachings to the successive generations of people in the form of song and dance.
The main temple features three figures.
In the center there is an 18th-century gold gilded statue of Buddha Sakyamuni.
On the right of the Buddha stands a statue of Choijin Lama, and the preserved mummified corpse of his teacher Baldanchoimbal is on the left side of the Buddha.  

On the day we visited, a horse fiddle musician played some songs from the Mongolian highlands in the central courtyard.

We bought his CD and prepared to go, when he called us back and performed just for us a beautiful Tuvan throat song which the Mongolian musicians are so famous for.

The throat song, with its two notes at once clearly audible, vibrated straight into my heart and made me feel homesick, longing for an invisible non-earthly home...... Perhaps a heavenly home..... and tears collected in the corners of my eyes.
In another temple building we saw sculptures of the Buddha Shakyamuni of the past, present, and future, with 16 disciples along with four fiercely looking  Maharantsa protectors on either side of the door.

A small Ger served as the museum shop, and as we made our way out, a Mongolian woman came to me and asked that I do not forget to visit her Ger shop.

I bought a silk pouch filled with goats' ankle bones.
Later on our trip, we learned how to play the traditional games that use these bones, and we spent many enjoyable hours playing in our Ger to the light of a candle, where there was no other entertainment, no TV, and often no electricity.

In the amazing Zanabazar Museum, we learnt about this talented artist, the foremost secular and spiritual leader of his time, whom we were to encounter again and again on our Buddhist pilgrimage around Mongolia. 

Zanabazar also composed sacred music, and in a remote mountain monastery which we would hike to later on our trip, he mastered the art of bronze casting, and retreated to that serene mountain to focus on his writings, casting and paintings. 

He created a new design for monastic robes, and he invented the Soyombo script in 1686- based on the Lantsa script of India, which served as the alphabet for Mongolian Buddhism.

He also created the Quadratic Script, based on the Tibetan and Phagspa scripts. 

He intricately painted Thankas and bronze statues of the Buddha and the female manifestations of the Divine Mother, in the form of the white and green Tara.

In the museums that we visited in this city, we saw a superb collection of scroll Thangkas done in embroidery and stitching, by far the best I have ever seen around the world, including those in temples and museums around India, the Tibetan Autonomous regions of China, in Bhutan, Korea, Thailand and other Buddhist cultures.

Across from the Zanabazar museum we spotted a Loving Hut vegan restaurant.
At times when we encountered this spiritually based chain of vegan restaurants, we found the food to be a bit tasteless.
But in this busy branch in Ulaanbaatar, filled with locals, the food was fantastic, the best we had in Mongolia.

In fact, Ulaanbaatar has seen an amazing increase in vegetarian and healthy places to eat in the past few years, including a wave of dozens of Japanese restaurants, and Korean and Indian places opening all around the city.

Just to name a few, the 'Zest Bakery' offers fresh juices and organic vegan cakes.
At 'Luna Blanca' we can recommend the delicious vegan cakes and their endless pots of delicious tea.

The 'Bull Restaurant,' offers table-side cooking in your own individual soup pot, where you cook fresh mushrooms, fresh noodles and vegetables to taste.  

All the food in 'Loving Hut' across from the Zanabazar museum was very good (there are many other branches around the city, but we did not try them), including the traditional Mongolian dumplings in a vegan form, the veg Ragu, the seaweed soup, the potato and peppers stir fried with soy-meat and spices, and if you are lucky, their Borsht, which is always sold out early!

Arriving in Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia

We landed in Ulaanbaatar on a rainy grey evening, the tail end of several wet and stormy days. 
It had rained so much in the last few days that the streets and roads of this busy city, which are gridlocked in the best of conditions, were now completely flooded in many places.

Driving in Ulaanbaatar is a task reserved only for the bold or for those who can handle the constant stress, and the flooded roads made driving even more difficult.

Other travelers who had passed quickly through this city, suggested to us that we spend only the minimum amount of time necessary here, just what is absolutely needed to get our trip around Mongolia started.

The city is surrounded by green slopes, but it has become so overbuilt in recent years, that you can hardly see the green horizon beyond the sprawl of city and suburbs, which seems to stretch for miles and miles.

Until recently, Mongolia was a communist country.
This means that all the land was communal, which fit well with the nomadic traditions that have been cherished here for thousands of years.

Depending on the season and the condition of the pastures, all Mongolians can simply set up a Ger camp (yurt) anywhere they want and herd their animals, as well as selling their mares' fermented milk and other milk products anywhere in the country without prior permission from anyone.

But all this is changing nowadays.
Many Mongolians are not into being nomads any more.
They prefer steady city jobs or government jobs, or they want to set up their own small businesses in the cities, open car dealerships, restaurants, antique shops, grocery shops, etc.

This migration from the open land, and from the wholesome yet demanding nomadic life into the life of the crowded cities, requires that permanent housing be constructed in order to accommodate the many who wish to live in the city or own an apartment.

Rows and rows of new apartment buildings are being constructed all around Ulaanbaatar.
A grid of construction cranes and cement apartment buildings in various stages of completion, dominate the landscape, most selling for relatively very high prices.

The main streets of the city already feature many old crumbling apartment buildings, built by the Russians in the 1930's and 1940's.  
They are easy to spot, since none exceeded four stories in height, since there were no elevators in Ulaanbaatar at that time. 
Functionality and low cost were the key words of architecture during the Soviet era.
The old buildings look like airless sardine cans, not fit for human habitation with peeling paint, tiny windows and crumbling balconies.

The human spirit was never meant to live and thrive in small airless apartment blocks, and it is easy to see how squeezing into unwholesome living habitats, leads to anger and frustration in the human soul, and to senseless ambitions and meaningless pursuits.  

The new apartment buildings offer better living conditions with indoor plumbing, modern kitchens, big windows and a more efficient heating, but they are priced far too high for most people.

This led the government to draft new land laws.
It was decided to allot each adult citizen the ownership of a pice of land in the suburbs surrounding the city of their origin.

The size of the land allocated to each citizen varies by regions surrounding each city, but it is generally around 0.5 hectares per citizen (about 1.23 acres or 5000 square meters).

This new concept of land being privatized had an unfortunate effect on the landscape of the country and led to a psychological change in the people.

Having lived for many generations with no fences nor boundaries on the open land, the Mongolians now build tall ugly wooden fences around their allotted land, resulting in suburbs that look more like refugee camps or temporary tenements.

Many still erect gers inside their fences, but only because it is the cheapest way to build a home.
They confess that they prefer to have a wooden or brick home with running water and sewer.

In the Ger districts surrounding the cities, it is not permitted to be hooked up to running water.
The law says that only when you build a permanent house inside your fence, do you become entitled to connect to the water main lines.

This means that many residents in the Ger districts use composting outhouses for their toilets, and make twice daily trips to the nearby water wells, to gather water for their drinking, washing and cooking needs.

The streets of the Ger districts are narrow and unpaved, which is not unusual since most roads in Mongolia are unpaved dirt tracks, if they exist at all. 
But when it rains, the pathways in the Ger districts become a flood zone, and often huge puddles of muddy water block the entrances to the fenced properties.

While traveling through the rest of the countryside of Mongolia, we felt that the country seemed to transcend the concept of time.
The green steppes and the traditional ways of living in the land and herding their animals, as done here continually for thousands of years, seemed timeless.

Not so in Ulaanbaatar, the city is fast growing and rapidly changing.
It is today in a transitional phase and it will probably take awhile for it to develop a harmonized identity.
For now, it feels a bit disjointed.
A fancy and extremely high priced international designers mall stands next to small traditional shops where the concept of "window shopping" or attracting customers with aesthetic window displays, is not yet understood.

The old shops are set inside dark building complexes, with nothing but small signs in Mongolian pasted on the windows and doors to alert you as to what you might encounter inside.  

The city's electrical grid is run by three huge coal plants, and subsequently, the air is polluted year round.
It is worst in the wintertime, when more coal is burnt for heating in this northern, snow covered country.

We chose to stay in a five star hotel on Peace Avenue, one of the main avenues of the city.
Comfort does not translate to high prices in Ulaanbaatar, and our comfortable, spacious room at the Kempinski Hotel Khan Palace, came at a reasonable price.

We initially thought about upgrading to a suite, but it was one of those suites which we encountered often in rural China, where a card table complete with vodka stains and cigarette burns dominates the living room.
The whole place reeked of cigarette smoke, a trail of evidence pointing to the many nights people sat smoking and playing cards or ankle bone games deep into the wee hours.

Our hotel sent a uniformed driver to pick us from the airport.
He spoke good English and was holding a glowing iPad with our names on it.

Our hotel room was very comfortable and instead of braving the streets on our first night, tired and hungry, we ate a delicious meal in our hotel's restaurant.

A head chef from one of the Kempinski hotels in Turkey was in residence under an exchange program, and he made us a dish of roasted artichokes with sundried tomatoes, black olives and roasted root vegetables.

We also had a carrot ginger soup, a pumpkin soup garnished with coconut milk and a large salad with balsamic dressing.
A Mongolian dish of Tsuivan- handmade noodles with seasonal vegetables which later in rural Mongolia will become our food staple of choice, was prepared well at 
the Kempinski and it tasted light, fluffy and very yummy.

Our room was comfortable, the shower was marbled and hot, the air temperatures in late June felt pleasant and we slept like babes in the clean sheets.

Later, at the end of our trip, we would cherish those little comforts all the more, and returning to the Kempinski hotel would feel like real luxury.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

48 hours in Narita, Japan on our way to Mongolia

Our journey to Mongolia from Denver started with a last minute visit to the Denver REI sports and outdoors shop to buy a few more travel clothes.

Since Jules and I have lost so much weight on our recent juice fasting, we needed to buy a few more light, quick drying travel clothes.

It was Father's Day and a weekend, which meant that the shops and restaurants in Denver were packed with people. 

We had a lovely dinner at a healthy restaurant in Cherry Creek in Denver called "True Foods."
The restaurant belongs to Dr. Andrew Weil, who advocates a healthier way of eating.
Though not vegetarian, they offer some great vegan dining options, including a fresh squeezed apple-kale-ade which is wonderful, along with a delicious Banana coconut Chia seed pudding and some other food options.

In order to break the series of long flights which will take us to Mongolia, we decided to make a stop in Tokyo, before continuing on our journey to Seoul, Korea and farther, to Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia.

We only had twenty four hours in Tokyo, and since our main reason for breaking the flights was  to get over the jet lag caused by the time difference between Denver and Mongolia, we decided to stay near the Narita airport for two nights.

We chose a comfortable hotel and took their offer to upgrade to a spacious suite.

I did not know it, but Narita airport is located in a city called Naritasan, which is home to one of the biggest Edo Period Buddhist temples in Tokyo, visited by millions of pilgrims yearly.

Instead of taking the train to Tokyo, we decided to make a pilgrimage to this Buddhist temple, which is dedicated to Fudo Myoo, the god of FIRE.

The Main Street leading to the temple complex is called Omotosando.
It is lined with old wooden buildings with beautiful roofs, with many shops and little eateries.

If you slow down and explore the town at a snail's pace, you can savor the taste and beauty of this town.

One of the specialities of this area are rice crackers called Senbai.
They are made from rice locally grown in the Chiba Prefecture, which is pounded by hand into a paste, and grilled one by one over charcoal.

The handmade crackers are irregular in shape and are flavored with soy sauce, sesame seeds, or seaweed.
They are crunchy and delicious.

Another speciality is a pickle made from a small Jalapeño pepper which is stuffed into a bitter melon.
It is sold in a variety of gift boxes and vacuum sealed bags, and many of the shops offer free samples for tasting.

Another speciality is a sweet made from bean paste in many flavors, including peanuts which are also grown in this region.

All those items are also made in many other regions of Japan, but after traveling extensively around Japan, I can attest to the fact that the same looking items taste very different from place to place.

The Buddhist Temple in Naritasan (named Shinshoji) originated in this place around the year 900 AD.
A few of the buildings in the temple grounds were built around the 1700's, and some are much more recent.

In the olden days, when devotees made their pilgrimages to visit the temple and to pray to Fudomyoo, the god of fire, they usually made the long and arduous journey on foot or by rowboats.  

It was believed that the oily and delicious meat of the local eels was a most suitable food to refresh and nourish the pilgrims on their long journey back home.
And so the tradition of serving freshly skinned grilled eel started in Naritasan and is still going on to present times.

The streets of the city surrounding the temple are filled with over sixty small eateries specializing in grilled eel.

The most charming eatery is located across from the Visitor Center.
It is open only a few short hours per day and at the entrance sits an eel master with a few of his helpers whom he teaches how to efficiently skin, gut and clean an eel.

 The dining room in the back was crowded with people, and the menu was simple.
A small, medium or large portion of grilled eel is served with or without rice.
It came with a small amount of pickles and was moist and most delicious. 

We walked around tasting the local specialities until we reached the temple.

It is a beautiful temple with many buildings and pagodas, situated in a glorious wooded garden.

The drums called us to attend the fire ceremony inside the main hall of the temple. 
We felt fortunate to be there right at the time where the sacred Goma Fire rite began.

An assembly of monks in different colored robes based on their rank chanted prayers, played the drums and lit a fire at the center of the hall.
The ceremony included burning wooden sticks decorated with calligraphy (named Goma Sticks).
Goma sticks represent the earthly desires and passions, which are burnt in the purifying flames of the fire in order to free the disciples of their attachments to the world of illusions and it's many earthly cravings. 

Seated on the carpeted floor of the main hall, we bowed our heads and prayed to Fudomyoo, the god of fire.

Jules had some forgiving to do, since many years ago the god of fire burnt down the house that he meticulously built with his own hands and with all the money he could borrow.

Later Fudomyoo also burnt down his craft school which he also started and ran with almost no funds and lots of enthusiasm.

We both prayed to be released from any fears we might have that a future fire might burn down our homes, and to be released from our earthly attachments.

I could see that Jules made some peace with Fudomyoo, since his disposition seemed brighter.
Everything that has happened in the past has led us to the freedom and strength we have today.
The fire has released Jules to his highest good and to newer experiences.

We strolled the gardens and felt refreshed by the beauty of the Japanese garden.
We felt refreshed and happy that we had decided to break our flight with a stop in Narita.

When you stroll all day the hours seem to fly by so fast!
When we left the temple the shops around town were already closing down.
Pickles and cracker trays were pushed back inside and shopkeepers were rolling down the front iron curtain that covers their shops.

We ate a nice simple dinner at a Ramen Biashi eatery.
They offered a few vegetarian ramen soups with vegetables and noodles.
It was a light and tasty meal.

Back in our hotel we took showers and put on our robes and were asleep before you could turn off the light.
The next day will bring us an early Japanese breakfast and a shuttle bus to the airport for our flight to Seoul and Ulaanbaatar.