Monday 25th December
Yesterday I met a young American doctor whilst getting a meal at a Korean restaurant. He’s over here as part of an exchange program, working in Accident & Emergency for a few weeks. He had a piece of advice for me: “Whatever you do in Mongolia, don’t get sick. There’s a reason you don’t see old people here.”
Managed to get myself up, fed and out at a reasonable hour of the morning today. It was snowing when I left the house, which was very apt and seasonal, although the sun was shining brightly too: looking around, there did not seem to be any clouds in the sky. Quite possibly, as part of the seasonal celebrations, the city had a giant snow making machine hid behind one of the tower blocks, bellowing out chemically manufactured flakes.
Crossing Sukhbaatar Square I noticed that they were still putting up decorations around the tree that was erected yesterday: it has miniature Santas crawling up it, and a big red soviet star on the top. I guess the decorations may actually be getting put up for New Year’s Eve, but possibly they are just being erected on an unfathomable Mongolian schedule.
After a long visit to the Zanabazar Fine Art Museum (on which more later in this post) I started to walk south out of the city , heading for the War Memorial, with the intention of taking the day-time photographs I had promised after my previous night-time visit to the spectacular location. Outside a restaurant near the centre I was very impressed to see a bunch of guys putting finishing touches to a splendid ice sculpture of four life-sized horsemen, leading the way for a bronze sculpture of Genghis behind them. I got a couple of decent photographs, and a laconic sculptor taking a cigarette break took one of me pretending to carve the ice, before the battery failed on my camera.
Crossed the Peace Bridge out of the city: it takes four lanes of traffic over a wide valley of railway tracks (including the Trans Mongolian), concrete-clad pipes, and a sorry-looking frozen river. The view to the west is dominated by the city’s two monstrous, smoke-belching power stations. Half way over the bridge, eight fully battle-dressed Mongolian horsemen came charging from the other direction into the city. Behind them followed a cart pulled by two horses, containing a somewhat slim, but doubtless merry, white-bearded and crimson-clad fellow. Now that is Christmas, Mongolian style! I carried on walking in the direction of the looming mountains.
It doesn’t take long to walk out of the city and reach the Bronze Buddha park at the foot of the 'Zaysan Tolgoy', War Memorial’s hill. On the way I passed a lot of construction sites where, to judge from the completed sites, ‘luxury’ apartments in the shape (very approximately) of Bavarian castles, garishly painted, will be built. Otherwise, the usual mysterious pipes and broken concrete structures abound. Managed the few hundred steps up the monument without too great difficulty; passed an empty plastic ‘Vodka Blackcurrant’ drink cup near the bottom - further up, a mysterious splash of frozen purple fluid in the centre of the steps. The view, climbing and from the top, is splendid. The mountains look very Scottish, are dappled with snow, and forested with firs. Beyond the Monument there are a few old soviet buildings and a few ger encampments. Was very drawn to make my way up the encircling ridge of hills - if I can get out there earlier in the day maybe next weekend I could give it a try. Looking back at Ulaanbaatar, it is at least more visible than at night. Unbelievable that these hundreds upon hundreds of apartment blocks are barely lit after dark. It is a smoggy and scrappy sight: a considerable contrast with the beauty of the mountains.
Walked back into the city, deciding to treat myself to another restaurant meal. Unfortunately, the American Ger’ll Bar was closed for a private function, so I had very good Indian food at Los Bandidos Indian & Mexican Restaurant - indeed, Los Bandidos is Mongolia’s Only Indian & Mexican Restaurant - fancy that!
So, the Zanabazar Fine Art Museum. At the Choijin Lama Temple the other day none of the guides spoke English, but the lady who ran the gift shop spoke very fluent English indeed. She was reading a copy of ‘The Beautiful and the Damned’, although was reluctant to be drawn into conversation on it. “Ah,” I said, “’The Beautiful and the Damned’: one of my favourite novels.” “Yes,” she replied neutrally. “F Scott Fitzgerald is a really fine writer,” I ventured. “Yes.” It didn’t look as though we’d be starting a book club, so I had a look at the odds and ends on display. She was much more vocal on the merits of various pieces of tat (and otherwise - there was plenty of interesting stuff in the shop too, to be fair) for sale. Because I was a volunteer in Mongolia (I didn’t hasten to disabuse her of this notion) I would be entitled to a special rate and not have to pay “tourist prices.” Wow. Of course, as everything in the shop was labelled but nothing was priced, I had no way of ascertaining the veracity of this statement and - call me a cynic - I suspect that the T1000 I paid for a Mongolia sticker for the old banjer case was the same amount a mere tourist would have to shell out. I said that I was particularly taken with the Temple’s collection of traditional Mongolian devotional art, and enquired whether there were any other collections on display in Ulaanbaatar. “No,” shopkeep answered very vaguely, “well, some of the other Temples have some art, but our collection is the best.” She would be very surprised, then, to learn that in the centre of UB I found, with the help of my Bradt guide, the Zanabazar Museum of Fine Art - a museum entirely devoted to Buddhist devotional art.
Arrived at the Zanabazar Museum at 11am this morning. It’s a fine old dour soviet era building. The ground floor seems to be being prepared for an exhibit of some sort, but I was allowed upstairs to view the main collection. Again, I was the only visitor, but was allowed to view without a curator “tsk”ing at my heels. As I left each room, however, the lights were turned out, in what may have been something of a hint.
There’s some interesting Bronze Age pieces in the museum: I am assuming that I’ll find more at the Museum of Mongolian History so will pass over these for now. The centre of the collection is a room of bronze work by the master of the Mongolian Renaissance, Zanabazar (1635 - 1724). I took some notes from the decently labelled displays.
Zanabazar was the grandson of a Khan and so a direct descendant of the great Chinngis - always a good pedigree for a Mongolian national hero. He was born on the 25th day of the 9th month of the year of the Wooden Boar, which I don’t need to tell you is “the best day for the meeting of fairy goddesses between the autumn & winter.” As a young child he studied in Tibet as a disciple of the 5th Dalai Lama and was proclaimed to be the first reincarnation of the Bogd Jivzundamba. He received the title of Khalkun Gegeenten, or “Holy Saint.” He founded numerous monasteries and temples in Mongolia (his first when he was just 13).
He “created an ideogram and derived script in 1686 which he named ‘Svayambu” meaning ‘self-enlightening’; the ideogram, today the state symbol of Mongolia, was intended to express the idea ‘May the Mongol nation exist by its own right.’”
Zanabar’s bronze castings of buddhist deities are the work for which he was best known. The pieces in the museum are very fine, and about a foot and a half in height. The main pieces at the Fine Arts Museum are the five Buddhas, representing the defeat of “the five evils: anger, ignorance, pride and greed.” I am assuming that this list is a sort of buddhist mystery or joke, something like the painting of ‘The Three Asses.” The five appear alike, but “every detail of each differs.”
Zanabazar’s works “embody the 32 and 80 features (32 inner content, 80 iconographic[?]) for depiction of the beautiful human body, which include proportionality of the body and its various parts, strength, youthful muscles, straight and shapely shoulders and limbs, rounded waist and so on; so Zanabazar’s works were the Mongolian mode of Mankind’s dream of aesthetics.”
There is an excellent collection of Mongolian Thangka paintings, Mandalas and applique (embroidered silk) wall-hangings. The Thangka and Mandalas are basically of the Tibetan school of devotional art - which Liverpool residents can see an extremely good collection of at the World Museum. Thangka painting came to Mongolia in the early 19th Century and reached its artistic peak in the early 20th century. These portraits of deities are characterised by “precise anatomical proportion, the incorporation of symbolism from religious parables and artistic amplification.” They’re very trippy. The ‘Ten Wrathful Deities’ - the protecting demons of Buddhism of which our pal in coral Jamsran seems to be chief - are a favourite subject.
Mandalas, the museum informs, serve to invoke ”the Holy Force within the contemplator... not communion outside oneself with the Divin Power, but an ecstasy or invocation whose purpose is to find and realise the... Divine Power in one’s own heart.” The Mandalas are designed to suit “all levels of consciousness... for the spiritually highly developed, for average people and for the people not yet developed... who are politely referred to as children.” The Mandalas will typically incorporate into their design the Eight Auspicious Symbols: The White Conch, The Wheel, The Lotus Flower, The Auspicious Drawing, The Golden Fish, The Vase of Treasure, The Victory Banner and The Precious Umbrella. My favourite is The Precious Umbrella.
The final section of the museum is mostly devoted to the art of Marzan Sharav - and features his most famous work ‘A Day in the Life of Mongolia’: a large traditional zurag painting on cloth - which depicts many colourful incidents typical of Mongolian nomad life (and with a great deal of humour). I spent a good while absorbing some of the details: wool and hides are prepared; a blacksmith’s privates are exposed when his pants catch fire: an old man points and his wife covers her eyes; sheep are butchered, and someone throws a boot at a dog escaping with a sheep’s head - it jumps over a roll of wool, beneath which a man and woman secretly embrace; a priest says rites over a dead body in the desert while dogs (or wolves) watch - other dogs meanwhile devour a fresh corpse, while vultures pick at the remains of another; men brawl in various encampments; at the top of the picture trees are felled and carpenters work the wood at the edge of the forest; there feasts, traders, ger being assembled, women attacked by snakes that have hidden in their baskets; farmers tend fields and scrubland is burned; at an encampment of camels a man and wife make love, and a midwife assists at the birth of a child.