Our arrival into the Mongolian capital was of stark contrast to our drive from the border with its rolling green hills, peaceful Gers and scenic steppe dotted with grazing animals. The suburban sprawl of the city creeps up the surrounding mountainsides as we approach to see the haphazard concrete urban jungle before us. We were able to get an extremely close look at the city centre as it took us two hours to cross it; gridlocked, noisy traffic, dust, fumes, aggressive driving and people attempting to dodge the bumper to bumper vehicles… on the main street ironically named ‘Peace Avenue’.
Staying slightly out of the centre we decided to attack the city in a full-on tourist onslaught in one day and set off early to Gandan Khidd, our timely arrival rewarded with the morning ceremonial chantings. Monks gathered within one of the few remaining temples, almost all of the original 100 temples were destroyed in the Stalinist purges of 1937. Sitting amongst the hypnotic chants amidst brightly painted thangka paintings and hundreds of ornate statues it is hard to believe that Buddhism was only openly practised here again since 1990. A magnificent 26m high copper and gold statue of the Buddha of compassion stands majestically in the main temple; the original statue was melted down and rumoured to be made into bullets for the Russian army. A huge pair of golden feet stand defiantly amidst hundreds of spinning prayer wheels.
Despite several spins, the weather had now taken a turn for the worse and grey clouds gathered over the city, producing a relentless drizzle. We braved the backstreets, dodging muddy puddles, motorbikes and disgruntled dogs until we reached the Natural History Museum, an impressive building with a maze of exhibition halls containing everything from giant stuffed bears, reptiles in formaldehyde, glassed dioramas of various Mongolian habitats, numerous impressive dinosaur skeletons from the Gobi Desert and a marine display of over 40 inflated puffer fish complete with stick-on googly eyes. One room was a proud display of Mongolian human achievements, including the spacesuit and personal effects of Mongolia’s first man in space, first to summit Mount Everest and first to the South Pole.
Balancing precariously along kerb edges and flooding streets we navigated a main road (being splashed by less than considerate drivers) until we reached the main Sukhbaatar square, flanked by impressive government buildings, stock exchange and ballet and opera theatre. The square was the location of the violent protests in 1990 which eventually led to the fall of communism, but today presents a peaceful scene with a scattering of waterproof-clad tourists and groups of locals in traditional, brightly embellished, Del dress, all overlooked by (a rather obese-looking) Genghis Khaan statue. We sidestepped into the cultural palace and stopped for a much-needed lunch at a North Korean restaurant (a culinary first for both of us). A slight over-ordering brought a delicious array of spicy noodle soup, stir-fried chicken and beef, marinated potatoes and aromatic salads- a welcome change from greasy mutton and heavy dumplings.
Re-fuelled, we hit the Mongolian National Art gallery, a beautiful fusion of traditional and contemporary art, both clearly influenced by cultural heritage of traditional nomadic ways of life. Braving a heaving mass of traffic, with seemingly no rules, we crossed Peace Avenue and in true British style stopped for tea and cake at the Grand Khan Irish pub, conveniently located next to the National Academic Drama Theatre. We bought two tickets for the evenings ‘Mongolian Culture’ performance and, after a slight seating confusion, found ourselves centre stage in the front row. The show exceeded all expectations; an entire dance troupe in the most amazing colourful costumes, folk singers accompanied by strange, traditional flute, harp and Surnai and a contortionist who could literally wrap her legs around her head whilst spinning round on one hand. No Mongolian performance would be complete without the deep, haunting, reverberating throat singing, which was followed by a Tsam dance of monks and huge mask-clad depictions of Buddhist protectors. The Mongolian State Orchestra produced an awesome finale, a powerful, moving ensemble of only Mongolian instruments.
Time for a quick nip back into the Grand Khan pub for a couple of opportune pints of Chinggis Beer and then a late stop to the Mongolian Barbeque (sightseeing is hungry work). An entire sheep’s head (complete with teeth and all skull contents) and an assortment of customary meat/flour combos, washed down with Mongol Ale rounded the day off perfectly. All the stray dogs, beeping horns and clattering trucks in the entire city could not have woken us from our rooftent slumber that night.