Tag Archives: Mongolia

Mongolian Beasts

This post is about two beasts that I encountered in Mongolia.   The first is the rare Przewalski’s horse.  When we think of wild horses, we might often think of the American Mustang or other such horses.   However, these are really just domesticated horses that have gone feral.  The Przewalski’s Horse is the only surviving true wild horse.   It is a possible ancestor of the modern domesticated horse.

It has 68 choromosones whereas the modern horse has only 66 chromosomes.  It also has faint striping on its legs which is a sign that it is a more ancient species.  Scientists believe that it and the modern horse diverged from each other some 160,000 years ago.

The horse is named after the Russian geographer and explorer Nikolai Przhevalsky; hence its unusual name.  However, the Mongolians call it the Takhi.     The Takhi disappeared from its home range in the Mongolian Steppes in the 1960’s but since 1998 an international effort has successfully introduced takhi taken from zoo populations and reintroduced them into three Mongolian  protected areas.  This is a rare example of a successful reintroduction of a species into the wild and the Mongolians are rightly proud of this.

One of the places to see the takhi is in Hustai National Park near Ulaanbaatar.  However, you still need a bit of luck to see them.

We first saw the Takhi against this spectacular backdrop.
Rubbing It's Behind on the Rough Rock
The Herd


My blogging friend  Geewits always speaks of “synchronicity”.  By this she means, the strange phenomena when suddenly a topic or an item keeps appearing in a short period from different sources.  Well, this second beast of this post is an example of synchronicity.

Just before going to Mongolia, I did my Halloween post which was about the Beast of Gevaudan.  While researching for the post, I discovered that some cryptozoologists proposed that the animal may be a surviving member of a group of wolf-like animals called Mesonychids which were believed to have gone extinct 32 million years ago.

When I was in Ulaanbaatar, I had the opportunity to visit the Mongolian Natural History Museum and guess what I saw there?  The top part of a skull of the Andrewsarchus mongoliensis.  This animal is known from fossils dug up from the Mongolian Gobi Desert and is thought to be the largest of the Mesonychids.  What would be the odds about posting about this and then coming face to face with its fossil within a week in a foreign land?  That’s synchronicity.

Hopefully I will now not meet one of these creatures alive and biting.  That would not be synchronicity.  That would be a story from the Twilight Zone.

Andrewsarchus mongoliensis skull

Carolina Squirrel – Tomb Raider

The Carolina Squirrel may not be as pleasant to the eye as Lara Croft (or Angeline Jolie as Lara Croft) but he still risked life and limb by first traveling by China Airlines where the toilets are as gross as any gross scene from Indiana Jones movies (like the cave floor full of squirming insects), and the airline food is highly toxic.   Having arrived in exotic Mongolia, he had to negotiate life threatening traffic,  choking “poisonous” fumes ( I am sure of this!), shaky pavement stones, a four wheel drive adventure into the Mongolian Steppes and an encounter with ferocious local animals (like grumpy camels) to get to the Ongot Archaeology Site in Hustai National Park.

Mongolian Camel - Alternative Transport and Food

Located in the plains between the mountains and the Tuul River, the Ongot site contains a tomb of a ruler or king from the Ruan-Ruan Khanate from about 742 – 552 BC.  At this time, a turkic speaking tribe had gained influence over the Mongolian steppes.  The Ruan-Ruan people liked to bury their leaders in carved stone tombs and then erect stones carved to represent lions, birds and people.  The man-shaped stones were erected facing the fallen king and were arranged and carved to look like they are mourning the king and holding their hands against their chest in respect.  There are over 30 of these carved standing stones at Ongot.

The Tomb of a Turkic Leader of the Ruan-Ruan Khanate (742 - 552 BC)
The Lion Guardian - Represents Safety and Peace
The Sheep Guardian - Represents the Offering of Sacrifice
Man Statues of Ongot Burial Site

As if having so many carved stones at the site is not enough, the Carolina Squirrel throws in for no extra charge,  a fine young Mongolian explorer with finely chiseled features amongst another 552 balbal or standing stones which stretch in a curved line into the horizon.  The meaning of these stones are not clear, although local legends give two possible explanations.  In the first explanation, the balbal stones represent the number of enemy killed or battles won by the deceased king.  In the second explanation,  the stones are supposed to help guide the spirit of the deceased king along its journey into the afterlife.

Mongolian Eye Candy for the Ladies
The 552 Standing Stones Stretching into the Distance.

The Carolina Squirrel was impressed with the location of the site that seemed to be the centre of the plain no matter which direction one comes from.  There is a real sense of the vast expanse of space and infinity there.

Ulaanbaatar Walkabout

Here is a slice of life from Ulaanbaatar.

The Fashion Savvy Modern UB-ite
Modern UB
World Peace Bell
Let it Toll for Peace
The Lack of Paved Sidewalks
The State Department Store from the Soviet Era
Along One of UB's Main Commercial Streets
A Supermarket in an Outer Suburb
Street Vendor Selling Pine Nuts
The Ger - the Traditional Moveable Home of the Nomads Can Still Be Found in Outer UB


Heroes of Sukhbaatar Square

Mongolian history is very interesting; all the more because most of us have only heard a one-sided view of their history. For example, Europe teaches that Mongols were raiding savages from the East that raped and plundered the poor European serfs.   The Chinese tell of the building of  the Great Wall to keep out the Mongol barbarians from despoiling the cities of the great civilization of the Middle Kingdom.  However, as in all things, there are two sides to the stories and people are usually more complicated than the one-dimensional labels that we give them.

The centre of Ulaanbaatar is where one will find Sukhbaatar Square; a focal point for the people to gather and a place to give tribute to the heroes of Mongolian history.

Downtown Ulaanbaatar and Sukhbaatar Square From My Hotel Room
Government House from across Sukhbaatar Square

At the northern end of Sukhbaatar Square is the impressively modern Government House (the Mongolian Parliament) where a statue of Chinggis Khaan holds court, flanked by statues of two of his famous light horse-archers.

Chinggis Khaan Oversees the Square

The world often remembers Ghengis Khan as a vicious and merciless leader of an army of nomadic warriors bent on destroying civilization.  The Mongolians know him as Chinggis Khaan or Qagan who united their warring tribes, put an end to their internecine fights, brought them to greatness and forged an empire stretching from northern China to the gates of Europe by the early 13th century.  His military achievements were truly amazing. Considering that he led a nation of less than one million people and mustered an army of just 100,000, he subdued many larger armies and several hundred million people.

However, it may be less well known that the Mongolians consider him the Great Law-Giver.  He outlawed the kidnapping of brides and the stealing of livestock which was a common cause of inter-tribal fighting.  At the same time he declared religious freedom since religious differences were another source of conflict.  He standardised the taxing of goods throughout the empire, eliminating multiple taxes, thereby creating the world’s first international free trade zone.  He also set up an international chain of post offices which also doubled as hostels for traveling merchant.   He was also the first leader to assure the protection of ambassadors saying that they were messengers of peace, thereby establishing the concept of diplomatic immunity and international law.  Until then, ambassadors were often sacrificial lambs that were held as hostages and often executed.

The Rapid Light Calvary Archer that Shook the World

The Mongols success on the battle field  was not only due to great leaders but the Mongol light horseman with his unique bow design made him the high tech weapon of his time.  Their enemies could not counter their effectiveness.

Sukhbaatar - Hero of the 1921 Revolution

After many centuries under Chinese control, the Mongols once again became independent in 1911 under the rule of their national Buddhist leader, the Bogd Khan.  However, their independence was assured primarily because Russia and China faced off against each other.  The Chinese took advantage of the 1917 Communist Revolution which put Russia in turmoil to invade and cruelly subjugate the Mongolians.  The hero of the day was Damdin Sukhbaatar who smuggled out a letter from the Bogd Khan asking Bolshevik Russians for help.  It was hidden in his hollowed out horsewhip.  He returned at the head of the Mongolian Army with Bolshevik Russian allies to liberate Mongolia in July 1921.

Mongolia's Future Heroes

Mongolia then went through a very rough period during the Stalinist purges in which many tens of thousands were killed, especially Buddhist monks.  However, the Soviet Union did give substantial financial support to their communist satellite state.  When the Soviet Union began to disintegrate, the Mongolian people turned to democracy following protests in 1990-1991 .  Without Soviet support,the country’s economic situation took a frightening free-fall and many people could not even afford basic necessities.

Today, Mongolia is on the verge of a new economic boom fueled by coal and copper mining.  The financial situation for many will greatly improve.  However, many fear that with this wealth comes the specters of corruption and environmental damage.  Mongolia’s leaders today and the children of their future has a chance to be the new heroes of the nation.


Mongolian Cyrillic – a Bolshevik Legacy
Mongolian Script

This post is being crafted on a cold October night in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

Before going to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, I read a number of posts on the internet by travelers who had been there.  Most enjoyed their time in Ulaanbaatar but there were also warnings about the food, the traffic, the road conditions, the pickpockets, the air pollution etc., which made me a little anxious.  Some of those warnings were indeed true but others may have been a bit exaggerated by the travelers in the same way that some women like to exaggerate how long they were in labor to deliver their kids ( I hope this comment will not stir up a hornets’ nest).

Anyway, here are  10 things  that I have learned;

  1. Locals call it UB
  2. The air is visibly brown, full of dust and smells like petrol (that’s gas for all you Americans) fumes.  My hotel forbids the opening of windows because smokers complain about the smoke from outside.
  3. Meat looms big in Mongolian diets.  At restaurants, you are usually given a choice of what meat to accompany your order of meat.  In one place, there was a platter where you could eat beef, mutton, camel and horse meat all on one large plate.  All this meat is making me constipated.  It’s a wonder that Mongolians don’t all suffer from gout.
  4. I have seen the madness that is the traffic in places like Mumbai and Bangkok but I crown UB as the King (or Khan) of mad road behaviour.   If in Mumbai and Bangkok, they frequently break traffic rules (like going the wrong way round a roundabout or traffic circle), in UB, it seems they have never heard of traffic rules.  There are few traffic lights but even when they are there, neither pedestrian or car pays any heed.  The number of people weaving their way through speeding traffic is the same no matter what color the traffic light is.  Vehicles stop wherever they want including in the middle of busy roads.  Somewhat surprisingly, everyone seems to survive.
  5. Some say that it is faster to walk in UB than drive because of the traffic but it isn’t easy walking either (see point 4 above about crossing roads).  Only the main roads have pavements and most of those are full of cracked paving stones and the occasional missing manhole covers.  Mostly there is just uneven ground instead of sidewalks and this must become a muddy quagmire if it rains or snows.
  6. UB is very good at conserving energy.  They fail to have streetlights on most streets and they see no need to light up the stairs in buildings.
  7. The lack of lights in the stairwells is a very pertinent point as most buildings do not have lifts.  Although there is a boom going on now with many new buildings being constructed, the majority of UB consists of rundown, soulless Soviet style buildings from the 1970s.
  8. I also learned that it is very hard to find toilets if you don’t read Mongolian Cyrillic.
  9. Speaking of Mongolian Cyrillic, I am so impressed that many Mongolians can converse in Mongolian, Russian and English.  It’s not just that they know three languages but they have to know three different scripts (as demonstrated in the photos above – Ulaanbaatar as it is written in each of the three scripts).
  10. Mongolians are ever so very, very, very super friendly people.  They are great.

French Toast

Even the Band Does the Haka

Well, this is a post on the run.  Having  just recently nervously survived watching the Rugby World Cup final in which the team I was supporting, the New Zealand All Blacks hung on to beat France 8 points to 7 points, I am now at the airport awaiting my flight to Mongolia.

Already the celebrations are going on all over New Zealand and amongst their fans around the world.  Apparently, one newspaper headlines reads, “French Toast”. Hahaha.  Although that is not really fair cause the French team played really well and looked liked they could have stolen the game but the All Blacks will savour the victory even if it is by one point.

All Blacks - Celebrate as World Champions 2011

Observant readers will have noted that the Lone Grey Squirrel is in transit to the land of Genghis Khan where the men are tough, the women tough and the food tougher.  All Blacks beware, there is great potential for a Mongolian rugby team.

Future World Rugby Champions?