Friday, 25 May 2007

Manzushir Monastery, Highway Robbery

Yesterday I was finally able to get out of the city to breathe some clean air. Actually, as it was a windy day with clouds threatening rain, the air in the city felt cleaner than it has done over the past week, and noticeably less dusty. Nonetheless, I was extremely grateful that a Mongolian friend took a day off work and found a friend of hers with a car to drive us to Manzushir Monastery in the South of the Bogd Khan mountains - ie - on the opposite side from Ulaanbaatar, about an hour's drive away. A nice omen for any trip, heading out on to the airport road, is a billboard showing a merry, bearded actor on a horse representing the fearsome conqueror Chinggis Khan with the chilling message "Have a nice journey" scripted in English across it.

We skirted around the Holy mountain reserve counter-clockwise. Once the city and its power stations were out of sight, the scenery and the clean air are overwhelming. We passed numerous herds of horse, goats, sheep and cattle - many casually crossing the road (and for whom our driver only very marginally decelerated) and all with new-born young. The windows wound down and the cool air blowing fiercely, I found myself moved to tears.

The road to Manzushir is north out of Zuun Mod, the small capital of Tuv Aimag(province) - a town of mostly wooden houses and ger, with a few old soviet era buildings at the centre, including a couple of derelict factories - in other words, a town like most of the population centres outside of the capital.

The Bogd Khan mountains are not tall and imposing, but roll with many folds and spurs, the heights usually hidden from the low lands up in the forested tops. There are many changes of terrain and scenery - here North of Zuun Mod we found ourselves heading into a very Alpine valley. At the gates to the strictly protected area we paid our entrance fee (500T for the Mongolians, 2000T for me) and drove on up to a parking area. Manzushir is still in the process of being developed as a tourist destination. There are improved facilities being built at the ger camp, which, bearing in mind the proximity to the capital and the airport, ought to boost the number of visitors here, which in turn helps to pay for projects in the Strictly Protected Area. One hopes that a little would kick back to projects in the town, too.

As we drove I was very excited to see two almost golden-furred, big-headed rodents frolicking about in the sun - marmots, apparently. The beauty of the valley here is dazzling, and there were many falcons or hawks flying very low overhead, quite possibly on the lookout for marmots. The pine trees here seemed to be of substantial age, and now with fresh green needles. All around in the valley are scattered time-worn boulders of every shape and size, the heights they have come down from have fine cliffs and rocky pinnacles.

The Manzushir Monastery was founded in 1733, with many temples and a thriving community of monks: it was, of course, regrettably destroyed in the 1930s. There's now one wooden temple which has been restored as a museum, and the rest are picturesque ruins. I didn't spend much time in the museum here because I really wanted to climb up into the beautiful hills above, so I'm afraid I may well have missed out on some fascinating history to the place. I am sure that the valley is a location long-held to be particularly sacred, as the be`auty of the place seems to allow no other interpretation.

Above the monasteries are three main shrines in the rock face. In them are fine rock carvings of various buddhistic deities, some of which are painted. After paying mumbled respect at the shrines we carried on over fallen boulders, climbing slowly upwards. There is a strong feeling of having entered another world up there - again, it is so awe-inspiringly beautiful and, in the late spring at least, so fresh and revitalizing. Gradually, the temples below were lost to sight, and we were up in an entirely natural environment - but here, there are striking walls of rock, looking as though built carefully by giants. High above the valley, one such wall curves in a vast semi-cicle, towering maybe a hundred feet above, creating a natural enclosure, a fortress of rock.

The mysterious nature of the place was emphasised for us as the wind began to howl in the tree-tops, the sky blackened, and a fierce flurry of snow started to fall. We didn't dawdle too long, and took this as a sign to start heading back down. Perhaps unsurprisingly, once we had passed the shrines and were back down in the valley, the sky had completely cleared, we were back beneath the deep Mongolian blue sky of near summer.

We drove back to UB early in the evening, feeling very refreshed. Unfortunately, shortly before the city our driver committed a very minor traffic violation, for which he was stopped by a very smartly-uniformed and extremely serious-looking traffic police officer. His license was demanded and he was told to pull over off the road. Looking considerably apprehensive, our driver went back to speak with the police officer. Meanwhile, my companion expressed a fairly strong contempt for the nation's police force, which I have to say I have heard on any number of occasions before, and never heard contradicted. Finally our driver returned to rummage through his wallet. The situation was quite simple - he had been told "If you want your license back, pay me 4000T." This hadn't come as any kind of surprise. There wasn't even any discussion of the violation itself, nor any pretense that a fine was being paid, just a run-of-the-mill, petty extortion of slightly less than $4.