We’re off to Ger camp today! But first, we stopped at a Buddhist temple. Buddhists here are of the Tibetan variety. During the soviet era, around 20,000 monks were killed and many of the temples torn down. The one we visited was a conglomeration of old and new buildings. The faith itself is being rebuilt after all of the years when it was illegal to practice. Now, a concerted effort is being made to train many young monks to go out and teach others in the outlying areas.
When Buddhists enter, they begin by spinning a prayer wheel. Inside the wheel are scrolls of mantras. The exterior has been defaced by younger people (that hopefully didn’t know any better) writing prayer requests (I want an A on the test I am taking, and the like). The prayer wheel is spun in a clockwise direction an odd number of times. Most spin once or three times, but the elderly may spin as many as 21 times.
Inside the temple were chanting monks (no pictures allowed). Some had receipts in front of them; the younger monks had the chants written out on cards. People pay to have monks chant for them. They are given a receipt and take it in to give to a chanting monk. The monks here have a different system than is seen in some other Asian countries. There is no “monk for a week” system like we saw in Thailand, nor do monks carry begging bowls and collect alms. At age 6, children are sent to learn how to become monks. Not all are fit for the life; about half drop out and return to public school before the year is out. Some monks marry, but some go on to the upper levels of monk hood and remain single. They cannot quit and must become vegan as well as follow a strict set of rules. Education is a large part of being a Tibetan monk; monks attend classes in the afternoon.
Nemo pointed out a post and told us of its importance. During the soviet era, it was to be torn down. The Russians attached heavy wires to it but instead of pulling it down, the wires broke. Next, they tried a chain saw. Legend has it that when they tried to cut the pole, first milk, and then blood started to run out. It is the belief of the people here that the pole contains the spirits of those 20,000 murdered monks and it was their blood running out. No further attempts were made to cut down the pole, and now people comets the pole to pray for their fondest wishes.
Tibetan Buddhists believe that when you die, your spirit remains in limbo for 49 days. Candles are lit (108 of them; the same number as the number of main gods in Buddhism) and kept burning for 49 days until the person’s spirit passes to the next life.
Inside the final building we visited was the world’s tallest standing Buddha. It took a mere 30 tons of copper to build! Inside the statue are holy items; all Buddha statues contain them. The Buddha is surrounded by 4,000 smaller Buddha statues. Eventually there will be 10,000; the number of them that existed before the soviets destroyed the original. The original statue was melted down and turned into bullets. Technically, no photos are allowed of the statue, but Nemo told me I could sneak one anyhow. Who am I to say no?
Finally, it was time to start the drive to the Ger camp. Tomorrow afternoon, we board the train for a 24-hour ride, so we were dropped off at a grocery store to stock up on food. This train will not have a dining car, unfortunately. On the upside, the store sold “cup ‘o mutton” so no one would starve!
We left the store at 11:30 am and didn’t get to our next stop until 1:10. It was a fascinating drive. Nemo gave us tons of information about the nomadic people of Mongolia. We passed by so many herds of horses, cows, sheep and goats. And, of course, plenty of carcasses.
It turns out that Nemo used to be a doctor. Doctors, lawyers, and teachers only earn about $500 per month here. Wages for all professions are quite low. He earns more as a tour guide than he did as a doctor.
As we got further outside the city, he pointed out piles of stones with flags on them. Local people walk around these clockwise three times and throw flags on them to make wishes to the mountain gods. We started to see some motorcycles. Nomadic people use bikes for transportation.
I was fascinated to hear about the yearly horse races here. They are distance races, not track races. The youngest jockeys ride 12 km races. How young? Eight years old! The oldest jockeys are only 12. In years past, the jockeys were 3 to 5 years old! Another tradition is wrestling. What makes this unique is that there are no weight classes. I imagine that there are some pretty uneven bouts. Archery is the other competition that takes place in July. We will have the chance to try our hands at archery at camp.
When young couples get married, their families pitch in to buy them a Ger. City Gers have wood floors, but wood floors are too heavy for the nomadic people to haul around. They move as often as every three months so nomadic Gers have dirt floors. The dirt is covered with carpets. It only takes an hour or two to raise a Ger. The door to a Ger will open to the south since winds come from the north.
It can be a challenge to locate nomadic family members, as you can well imagine. Nemo said they use GPS: Ger positioning system! It involves finding a family living in a Ger and asking if they know where your relatives might be. You continue doing this until you track them down. This can be quite time consuming! People here always travel with spare tires and extra gas because you can travel for very long distances with no help around if something goes wrong.
Nomadic people now use solar power to provide electricity to their portable homes. Starting in first grade, their children must attend boarding school from September 1st to June 1st. Can you imagine how difficult that must be for their children? To go from a nomadic lifestyle to living in a dorm? Some run away, trying to find their families. Sadly, some that do die. They either freeze to death at night or are killed by gray wolves.
Gray wolves are the apex predator here. Families keep three Mongolian mastiffs outside their Gers to warn them if wolves are near. Dung is collected to burn to keep warm. They go out with plastic bags to collect dung. It is flipped over. If it is still wet, they leave it another day to dry further. Dung is stockpiled during the summer for use over the winter. With all of the free range animals around here, there is no shortage!
Like other Asian cultures, Mongolian people care for their elderly relatives. There is only one nursing home here; it is for those that do not have children to care for them.
Our next stop before reaching camp was the ginormous statue of Chinggis Khan. Yes, it is Chinggis, not Ghengis. Chinggis had a dream about a golden rein. His shamans told him that this was a positive sign; that he would go on to conquer many lands. They certainly nailed that prediction! We passed by some statues of horses right before reaching the big statue. There were always horse guards surrounding him in real life as well.
I don’t know if you can tell from the pictures just how massive this statue is. We were able to climb up inside to a viewing platform and take more pictures.
When we left, Nemo told us more about the Khan clan, including Kublai, probably the most famous of his grandsons. We learned about the word kamikaze has its origins from when Kublai Khan tried to invade Japan. A divine wind (the literal meaning of kamikaze) arose and sunk his ships. We can also thank the Mongols for bringing Asian products to Europe; they conquered as far north as Poland. Mongols kept trade routes safe so that products could be traded. No Mongols, no Silk Road. Khan’s grandchildren’s inability to get along eventually caused the end of the empire.
The drive to Ger camp took us from the steppes of Mongolia to a rocky, forested area inside Gorkhi Terelj National Park. It was an unexpectedly beautiful drive. We arrived at 3 pm and were treated to a late lunch. After lunch, many in the group went for a nice long hike. I chose to stay behind to get caught up on my writing. I am laying in my bed typing right now, while enjoying the spectacular view.
When everyone returned from their hike, it was time to try our hands at archery. Our guide, Nemo, is an expert archer and showed us how it was done. We each had 4 or 5 tries to hit the target. I believe I was 0 for 4! But, it was fun to try. At least the arrows all went either under or over the target rather than just hitting the ground directly in front of me!
We had an excellent dinner at 8 pm. We did not leave hungry! By then, we were ready to head back to our Ger for bed. Since the sun had gone down, there was a definite chill to the air. Clayton was able to sleep despite the frigid temperatures (below freezing); I was not able to. Come to find out, Nemo built fires for some. I guess we were not among the chosen. This was the best day of the trip by far!