Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Dornogov, Danzan Ravjaa, Shambhala, Kharaa

Although I've been here in Mongolia for over four months now, I've only actually left Ulaanbaatar on a precious few occasions. I like it here in the city, and I've managed to keep myself occupied, but obviously I want to see more of this vast and wonderful country. So when I was told that a group of the teachers were planning a trip to visit holy sites in the Eastern Gobi, I was very keen to tag along. We would get the train down to Sainshand, the capital of Dornogov Aimag (province) on Friday afternoon and return on the Saturday night train back to UB: the journey being about 450km each way. A short visit, but at least it fitted-in with work. Plus, a third class ticket would cost less than $4 each way - ie, close to the bus fare in and out of Liverpool city centre from Sefton Park. I was extremely vague on what we would actually be doing in Dornogov, although I had been told we would be visiting a very holy site - the world's "second energy centre" - and I also had a hunch that consumption of vodka might also be somehow involved.

For more photos of this trip, please visit the Dornogov album on my Flickr page

Friday 20th April 2007
The train was due to leave from Ulaanbaatar station at 4.30pm, we arrived in taxis from the school at 4pm. I'd been hoping to get a first class ticket (for about $9) but there were none left, so I was stuck with the rest of my colleagues in coach. About a dozen of the teachers were on the trip, all women, and one of their husbands, Ganbold, who proved to speak excellent English and be extremely competent to answer my endless questions during the trip. The atmosphere at the somewhat surprisingly modern and clean station is exciting and uplifting - the long train of huge, dusty green carriages, neatly uniformed staff and milling crowds, smiles, shouting and joking.

The train left UB dead on time. Third class on the Trans-Mongolian is entirely comfortable enough for a day time journey - and there seemed to be enough space for the people who wanted to lie down in the overhead bunks to do so. It being the first time I had seen so much of the country not blanketed in snow, I noted how the low rolling hills and then undulating steppe were brown in colour: Ganbold told me that the green grass would not show through until June or even July. As the evening wore on the air inside the train got dustier and dustier; people muttered about the increasing problem of desertification and looked enviously at the few passengers who had brought face masks along with them. We arrived in Sainshand, on schedule, around 2am. We disembarked then were taken by a waiting micro-bus to the town theatre. The director is related, I think, to one of the teachers, and so we were let into the grand old building to sleep until the following morning, on the floors of the director's smart office, and the dressing room which had faded posters of Russian stars of the stage peeling from the walls.

Saturday 21st April 2007
We got up for breakfast at 8.30am. A fine sunny day out, of course, but with a chilly breeze. Sainshand seems fairly typical of what passes for a large town in Mongolia: wide streets, very empty-seeming after the hectic bustle of UB, square Soviet buildings scattered around and spacious play areas and public parks. Our first stop of the day was at a modest little building next door to the 'Missouri' bar: the Danzan Ravjaa museum.

It turned out that Danzan Ravjaa, the Lama of the Gobi as he is known, was very much the focus of our whole trip. I was entirely ignorant of this extremely important figure in Mongolian history before my trip - I have certainly learnt a lot about him through the course of my visit, but please excuse any errors that remain in my understanding. More about this truly fascinating man can be learned from this website.

The museum contains a collection of materials associated with the life of Danzan Ravjaa (1803 - 1856)- from the clothes he wore as a child and his toys, through materials he used to teach art and buddhist scripture, musical instruments he played and music he scored, costumes worn in sacred dance, his "ninja star" and samurai sword, to his ashes themselves, in a shrine at the building's centre. Furthermore, the building also contains some of the wooden chests and crates which were used to hide these relics during the bloody Communist suppression of Buddhism, which were finally dug up and reopened to allow the establishment of the museum in 1991. The preservation of these items means that the existence of the museum is in itself an intrinsic part of Danzan Ravjaa's story.

Danzan Ravjaa represents many things: he was a Buddhist, of course, but also in lay terms an educator, a proto-feminist, a playwright, a musician, an artist, a warrior (did he actually use his martial skills in battle? I don't yet know), a Mongolian, of course, and now representative of Mongolia's rediscovery of its past too. First the Manchu Chinese and then the Communists had attempted to obliterate his memory and the veneration with which he was held by his people - again, I would direct you to the website to read more of this fascinating story in an article there by the CEO of the Khan Bank, J. P. Morrow.

Waiting for one of the teachers to make an errand before we headed out to Danzan Ravjaa's birthplace, some young kids came over to practice their English on Julia - an American teacher, and also a Buddhist who kindly filled in some of the considerable gaps in my understanding - and myself. Their pronunciation was extremely good - a legacy, I like to think, of the Gobi Lama's mission to educate the Mongolian people. Danzan Ravjaa was born to a poor family, which distinguishes him from Zanabazar and the other noble descendents of Genghis who mostly seem prominent in the Mongolia's history.

Ganbold and I travelled by Russian jeep, along with the theatre director's husband - a large and merry man, dark-skinned, who was extremely knowledgeable and clearly proud of the heritage of his region's most famous son. On our journey down bumpy tracks through the Gobi, he explained the story behind the exhibit in the museum that had most caught my eye - Danzan Ravjaa's "ninja star" and Samurai sword. Danzan Ravjaa was a master of this peculiar-looking throwing knife - which was thrown to slash an enemies throat, and then returns to the thrower's hand. Unlike the more familiar shuriken of movies, comic books and martial arts stores, The Lama's knife is not symmetrical and has a bulbous handle. A Samurai came from Japan to study this art from Danzan Ravjaa - he spent three years training with him (at this point, I wonder exactly how someone can learn to throw and catch such a knife without losing their fingers in the process), after which, in gratitude, he presented the monk with his sword. Furthermore, in the desert gulley where Danzan Ravjaa would meditate the Samurai planted a Sakora tree or trees, more of which later.

The only camels I would see on this journey were a herd a kilometre or so off as we drove for 50 or 60km into the desert. This region isn't true desert - apparently none of the Gobi really qualifies as that - but is rather desert/steppe: some kind of Asian sagewood grows in most places and there are scattered clumps of grass. There is certainly the vastness of a desert - the spaces are wide and humbling. The richness in variety of earthy colours is the most striking feature, particularly beneath the luminescent blue sky: deep reds and browns and ochre shades.

These colours seemed to grow richer in contrast as we approached Danzan Ravjaa's birthplace, centred around rocky patches of various minerals, chief amongst which certainly appeared to be coal. Finally, and after my neck had nearly been broken a few times by sudden impact of my skull against the roof of the jeep, our drivers parked us alongside a few other micro-buses and jeeps, in a small levelled-off car park.

We stretched our legs. I could not help noticing that the party next to us were unloading a surprising number of vodka bottles from their jeep - even by Mongolian standards this seemed to be an odd time and place for such a party. Of course our guide had treated us to a shot or two of vodka to consecrate our drive across the desert, but this looked excessive.

A buddhist priest was waiting, possibly by arrangement, to greet our party: he addressed the crowd for a short time, and we then followed him along a path marked by large white ‘stupa’ (a Buddhist devotional marker - of which I am unsure of the doubtless many and intricate significances). I was unsure of our destination, but as the path crested a low rocky rise, it revealed itself.

Ahead of us, indeed like some kind of vision or materialization to which the correct response is “wow” was the Shambhala at the birthplace of Danzan Ravjaa. This was self-evidently the “second energy centre of the world” which had been somewhat unclearly spoken of before our trip started. If you will indulge me I will try and explain what I have come to understand the place to be.

As I understand it Shambhala is a kind of spiritual realm, a buddhist heaven of sorts, which has two physical parallels on Earth - this one in the Eastern Gobi, and one somewhere in the Himalaya. All three are in a metaphysical sense actually the same place. At this one, there are 108 (an Auspicious Number) Stupa in a rectanglular pattern - these represent 108 mountains in the spirit Shambhala. This Shambhala - apparently - was first built by Danzan Ravjaa and then destroyed during the Communist persecutions: it was rebuilt 3 years ago - apparently - on the same lines as the original. Or so I am told. All this goes somewhat beyond what I can verify on the much referred-to pages of Wikipedia, which refers only to the spiritual and mythical location.

Whatever the credentials are for this particular slice of heaven-on-earth, it certainly gives an extraordinarily powerful imprint on the visitor’s consciousness: if only for the sheer beauty of this particular stretch of desert, the blue sky, the red and brown earth, the white stupa. We followed the monk to the gateway.

Shambhala is entered by passing through the left hand side of the gateway. There is a gateway to Shambhala within each of us, supposedly, and perhaps the face on the physical gate here represents that self-knowledge - or perhaps not. Anyhow, I enjoyed the absence of a physical wall, and the speculation, later, that if one did not enter through the left hand side of the gateway, one wouldn't be in Shambhala at all, however much physically that appeared to be so.

In the grounds of Shambhala itself we were encouraged to feel the cosmic energy coursing around, to sit or lie in the warm sand, to meditate in whatever fashion we chose. The majority of pilgrims were clearly here to follow a particular ritual, one which is ascribed to Mr Ravjaa, and its formula was explained stage-by-stage by the monk. He spoke good-naturedly and at some length, and some of what he said was translated for my benefit.

The first stage was the purification of our sins. Each of us wrote down our sins on a piece of paper, to be burned in a special shrine. I noted that people were only writing on very small pieces of paper, so I assumed that we were either supposed to write just our biggest or our most recent sins: I opted to believe that the latter was intended, and restricted myself to humbly asking forgiveness for raising my voice to my students, and kicking the desk of a sleeping 10th-grader. The priest joked that we must run our sins by him before burning them, which provided much amusement to people presumably unfamiliar to the Roman practice of confession.

Having given up our trespasses, we were now green-flagged to participate in the main event. Here's where the vodka bottles made their appearance - as everybody produced from their bags a bottle of the good stuff - almost exclusively the 500ml bottles of Kharaa. I don't think I've mentioned before, but the 500ml bottle of Kharaa is pretty much the vodka of choice for those who don't want to splash out on Chinggis. It costs around $3, and is favoured primarily (so a teacher once told me) because of its tamper-proof seal. There isn't such a seal on the 750ml bottle - why this should be, I do not know, although as almost everybody swears by it, it's a pretty effective sales promotion, and they certainly shift a lot of units of the half-litre.

Anyhow, literally everybody on the trip from our party and the others we had joined had a bottle. By chance I had a bottle on me too, although I'd opened mine on the train for a night-cap. I asked a teacher and she didn't think it would matter that my bottle was already opened. One by one we were to proceed to the centre of Shambhala, where we should stand, facing West and the Himalayas I guess, and silently make our wishes. At the end of our wish we should toss a beaker of vodka into the air. Not only would our wishes be granted, but the vodka would become sanctified. From now on, if ever we were ill or in need of some divine assistance, a shot of our Kholy Kharaa would see us right. A few drops at the beginning of a day would be sure to make that day fortuitous. Furthermore, once the bottle begins to run empty, we could refill the bottle with some fresh vodka, which would likewise become sanctified, guaranteeing us, if we were careful, a lifetime supply. All in all, a pretty good deal. I patiently waited my turn.

People seemed to be taking a good long time with their wishes, so it seemed that there wasn't a limit to what could be asked for. My turn finally came - unfortunately, the terms of this particular enchantment prohibit my sharing the details until the wishes are granted. All I can say is that should any of my friends and family find themselves blessed by some piece of exceptional good fortune over the next 12 months, they might consider from whence it came, and send me some form of kickback: be that spiritual or monetary, whichever seems most appropriate. The droplets of Kharaa sparkled in the air as I tossed a cupful to the wind, and I let the next person take their place, while I returned to sit in the warm sand, feeling beneficient and blessed, and partaking of a small cupful of my now-miraculous beverage.

There was a final ritual at an ovoo (holy cairn) on the far side of Shambala. I can't quite remember what the significance of this ritual was, maybe a further chance to confirm our wishes. However, after people had made their offerings we all joined hands in a circle and a beautiful song was sung - one of Danzan Ravjaa's many compositions. It was a moving experience. Looking north from here we could see a small tree marking the spot where he was born. His mother died in child birth, he kept her memory sacred. I was told that the Lama of the Gobi was a proto-feminist: that he believed strongly in the education of women.

Finally, we made our way out through the left hand side of the gateway and returned to our transport. Speaking to the teachers I heard numerous testimonies from people who had previously undertaken the ritual here, and had had their very concrete wishes - for promotions, a child, a new refrigerator - granted.

We now drove to the Women's Ovoo - a twin cairn erected by Danzan Jarvaa himself in memory of his mother. Ganbold and I remained in the jeep while the women made a triple-circuit of the ovoo, scattering vodka and candies as an offering. I guess that they got another chance to reconfirm their wishes, but by no means the last of the day.

We made our way to a temple bell and rang it a few times, and then drove to the gulley where Danzan Ravjaa and later monks would meditate in caves. The colours of the desert were rich and beautiful here. In the bottom of the gulley grow Japanese Sakura trees - as mentioned earlier, the gift of the Lama's Samurai disciple. The trees are very popular with Japanese tourists today, particularly when their pink blossom blooms for ten days or so in June. It is considered remarkable to see such a sight in the Gobi. Clearly though, the earth here is rich in minerals and nutrients - walking down to the bottom of the gulley I noticed that a small bush had tiny green buds beginning to open on it - the first green plantlife I've so far seen in Mongolia.

Monks would meditate in the caves here for 108 days. Some did not make it to the end of their meditation, and their remains were sealed up in the rock. It proved that I had saved myself much time and effort with my rather scanty confession of wrongs in the Shambhala - for here there is the Womb Rock - a natural archway under which one crawls to be reborn, and in the process have all one's sins washed away.

Our guides took us over the soft undulations of earth for half a kilometre to show us some dinosaur fossils. The bones were very impressive - however, it was impossible to shake the suspicion that the majority had been carted to this convenient location from somewhere less accessible. Nonetheless, one sizeable leg bone certainly appeared to have been in the earth here for some time. The vertebrae our group eagerly picked up and examined, and then placed back roughly as found. We were told that there'd been some rib bones too, but "the Chinese stole them". The guides also said that there were people who knew the location of dinosaur eggs, but who were keeping that information secret to protect the Gobi's heritage. There are many dinosaur eggs from the Gobi in the Natural History Museum in UB, and however staged the appearance of the fossils at this location, it's clear that there's an absolute wealth of such remains hereabouts, and presumably plenty of scope for increased scientific surveys.

Next we drove to a small settlement and a rebuilt monastery founded by Danzan Jarvaa. On the way we passed by a marker showing the location of Mongolia's first theatre (founded by guess-who, the man of many parts). Outside the monastery was a young boy in traditional dress. Ganbold asked me how I would like teaching English for a year say in such a place and I replied I would like it very much, could I afford to forgo a salary for so long. I felt a considerable pang of envy for those volunteers who do make such a sacrifice, as the experience would clearly be deeply rewarding. Ganbold asked the boy if he goes to school: he replied no, that he was studying to be a monk, and reading the Sutras. Making our tour of the monastery temple, the young monk made certain that I bowed and showed my respect at all the appropriate places within.

We drove across the desert again. The director's husband impressed me by managing on this particularly bumpy stretch to lie back and snore contentedly, in spite of his fairly considerable bulk being thrown around like a ship on a stormy ocean. Our final stop of the day was at a holy mountain, possibly the Black Mountain, where I was told that for centuries monks were cremated. The dark ground is very gravelly and soft, conjuring an image that it is composed entirely of the burnt remains of endless aeons of holy men. Here only Ganbold and myself were allowed to proceed to the top, for, as is the case with a number of holy mountains in Mongolia, this one was for men only. The women waited at a temple at the bottom. Although the mountain isn't very high, it took a while to climb, as Ganbold had to alternately make a sprinkled offering of Kharaa and sip a small cupfull every three or so steps of his climb. I hasten to add in all seriousness here that Ganbold isn't a drinking man and was performing this act strinctly out of piety. At the summit was a large ovoo festooned in blue silk scarves and prayer-flags. There were also stupendous views of the surrounding Gobi - darkening now as the sun settled towards the horizon and clouds raced across the skies. Ganbold proceeded to tie prayer flags to the ovoo - on each was written a name which he called out to the wind - so as to be heard by the spirit of a partly deaf monk. The women had given us dozens and dozens such flags for us to take up and set flying in the winds there. Although he began the task alone, Ganbold eventually asked for my assistance otherwise it looked unlikely that we would make it back to Sainshand in time to catch the 9pm train. I figured that the mechanistic nature of prayer flags and prayer wheels indicated that there need be no particular piety from the person carrying out the task: however, one young Mongolian chap who had been taking his vodka imbibing duties very seriously did object to my presence there before "his country's gods" so I had to leave Ganbold to finish the job. In a somewhat conciliatory tone the young man asked me where I was from and (perhaps pointedly) when I'd be going home. There didn't seem to be any hard feelings.

After at least three quarters of an hour on the hill top we were able to descend, the flags all flying merrily, among the multitude of others. Many other pilgrims had come and gone in that time, some requiring a considerable degree of support to stay standing. Most were pouring libations rather than tying flags, some were also throwing candies and chocolate biscuits. Perhaps feeling a little high-and-mighty, I decided that, rather than by making an offering, I'd show my respect for the land and its spirits by taking away some of the litter abandoned here (silver paper wrappings from a biscuit packet and a few plastic bags) by the faithful.

The drive to Sainshand took about an hour. Our guide graciously made me a gift of a bottle of vodka - it was then indicated with a grim that the correct thing for me to do would be to invite my fellow travellers to join me in a drink. The driver and Ganbold accepted their cups but only dipped their fingers in their drinks, as is allowed. Naturally, it would have been deeply ungracious of me to follow this practice, however, and so leave the gift-giver alone drinking, so I proceeded to get rather merry. Of course, after somebody has dipped their ring finger in vodka you don't need to throw their cup away, but you do have to pour a little bit more into it before offering the cup to the next person. This can lead to some fairly stiff measures being poured. The drive became something of a blur - shortly before arriving back at Sainshand, though, my attention was drawn to a small pool of water in which three ducks stood. Their plumage seemed to be light brown on the body and white on the head. I'm sure that there was nothing unusual in the sight, just that it was unexpected to me. Probably there are larger bodies of water around in the region - but otherwise were the ducks migratory, did they stop off at this particular puddle every year en route to wetter climes?

We beat the sunset and so were able to stop off for (Inner-Mongolian) Chinese food and just enough further drink at a restaurant in town. The theatre director pl;ayed host - she got our table and the adjacent one singing a very rousing song - a Ravjaa composition? At this stage I'm afraid I didn't have the wits about me to ask. A good meal inside us we poured onto the train. Very happily, a sleeper ticket had been procured for me for the return journey - before the train had left the station i think I was up in my bunk and asleep. It was a very soothing journey - took 12 hours this time, but I was very happy for the delay as I spent almost all of this time fast asleep. There wasn't any dust in the train for the return - a glance out of the window in the morning showed snow on the ground, which is perhaps what made the difference.

Thursday 26th April
Back at home now and back into my routine. I was a bit surprised on Monday to learn that there are only four weeks or so of regular teaching left. There'll be exams and things through the end of May and June, but my full-time duties are drawing to an end. Summer is arriving - there was a fly in my bathroom this morning. It's warm out on my balcony, the mountains are clear and feel close. I pour out a very small shot of my sanctified Kharaa, and raise a silent toast, to Danzan Ravjaa, the "Terrible Noble Saint of the Gobi".