Around Ulaan Baatar

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We were quite exhausted after our ten day tour, and needed a day to relax. And then a couple of nights in a luxurious little cabin in Terelj National Park to wind down, before heading back to Ulaan Baatar to explore the city.

One of the first stops was the ‘Black Market’, which we’d been warned was rife with pickpockets and bag-slashers and so we shouldn’t take anything valuable with us. So we went with basically nothing other than a little bit of money – I even left my camera behind! The market is huge and apparently you can buy just about anything there. Anything, that is, except anything we might have been interested in. It was a huge letdown. We’d decided we couldn’t be bothered walking there and so, after picking up our train tickets out of UB and dropping them back at the hostel we thought we’d try to take a taxi. We tried from a few spots with no luck. Waiting on the side of the road we ran into two girls we’d met earlier when getting our train tickets – they had the same idea, so we figured we could share a taxi. Plenty of taxis went by but they all had passengers. Eventually a car stopped and agreed to take us there for 4000 tugrik, which was what the hostel had said it would cost. It wasn’t a taxi, just some guy – it’s pretty common in Mongolia to travel that way so we happily hopped in. We soon lost the girls at the market and despite extensive searching failed to find anything that either of us wanted. The prices were quite expensive and there isn’t much in the way of bargaining. I did find a nice fake-leather jacket I liked, but unfortunately the 3XL was too tight and they didn’t come in 4XL. I was almost relieved, as while I’m not skinny I’m definitely not generally in the XL territory, let alone one with multiple X’s! It was depressing. We found another car willing to take us back to Sukhbaatar Square.

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Fortunately there was something pretty exciting at Sukhbaatar Square – a very new, very little dinosaur museum. The Gobi Desert, in particular around Bayanzag, has given up more than its fair share of dinosaur fossils and the museum was set up to house, and commemorate the recovery, of a largely complete fossil of Tyrannosaurus Baatar. Related to the somewhat better-known Tyrannosaurus Rex, the particular skeleton now residing in this little box museum has had a controversial recent history. Put up for sale at auction in America, scientists around the world identified it as having come from the Gobi Desert in Mongolia. Mongolia had no record of any legal export of such a fossil, and so it was believed to have been excavated and smuggled out of the country in the 1980s. Apparently things in Mongolia were a little lawless back in the Soviet days. Being a 70 million-year-old national treasure of significant historical value that was illegally taken, the Mongolian government attempted  but failed to stop the sale. However, with support from the international academic community and a lawsuit the Mongolian government successfully gained ownership of the skeleton, and a fancy repatriation ceremony was celebrated on 6 May 2013. T-Baatar’s official certificate of repatriation hangs in pride of place behind the skeleton itself.

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The museum was actually quite interesting, as it told the story of Mongolia’s fight to regain possession of the invaluable skeleton. Information was all in English as well as Mongolian, and I found the story quite moving. I was really happy that they got their skeleton back – and I find it funny but also sad that the government now employs people to search the internet for notices of sale of anything else that might be stolen cultural property of Mongolia. It’s a small country population wise, but it’s clear that they’re willing to fight for what is theirs. Also, it’s cool they have an awesome dinosaur skeleton!

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We also visited the Chojin Lama Temple Museum, which while not being quite as old as the tyrannosaurus baatar was nonetheless fascinating. Built in the early 20th century the monastery now acts as a museum and houses an impressive collection of painted wooden masks, beautiful Buddhist art as well as some erotic statues. It also happens to hold the mummified body of the respected teacher of Choijin Lama Lubsankhaidav. The body, in a seated pose, is covered with cloth and the head is covered with a mask so while we were told the mummified teacher is there we couldn’t actually see him. It was a little creepy though, that behind the mask is a mummified person.

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The temple complex has five separate temples, and I have no photos to share because while entry was 7000 tugrik, they asked a further 25,000 tugrik for photographs. I didn’t feel like paying $17 to take photos. It was well worth visiting though.

The last ‘sight’ we visited in Ulaan Baatar was the National Museum. This was fantastic, despite the intermittent English. They had sections dedicated to whole periods of history from the earliest evidence of neolithic inhabitants through the glory of the Mongol empire to recent years and the Mongolian progress towards democracy in the last twenty years. To my delight they also had an excellent ethnographic section dedicated to traditional costumes of the multitude of ethnic groups within Mongolia.
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Our last night in Mongolia we decided to go and see one of the cultural shows advertised around Ulaan Baatar. We’d been strongly recommended to go by the other three guys on our tour, and it certainly sounded like they’d enjoyed it. So we bought tickets in the afternoon and at 6.30 were waiting to be let into the theatre.

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Photography during the show wasn’t allowed, and I was a little disappointed as the show was incredible. We both absolutely loved it. It was a combination of dancing, singing, theatre and music and it was brilliant. It cost 25,000 tugrik each [about $17] and was worth every cent. The show started with a huge dance ensemble featuring different styles of dance and costume from various ethnic groups across Mongolia. Both men and women danced, and they were gorgeous.  A later dance, apparently traditional to a group I unfortunately don’t remember, featured ladies only dancing in blue and white dresses while balancing five bowls, one full of milk, on their heads. And they proved there was milk in the bowl at the end – I’d kind of been doubting it, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in the audience. Another girl in a sparkly unitard performed contortion, which apparently is a traditional Mongolian skill, and had the audience in awe as she balanced on a pole with only a grip in her mouth.

The second half of the show was primarily orchestral with a number of traditional instruments, and traditional folk songs sung by both men and women. And, of course, there was throat singing – an incredible technique which I believe is unique to Mongolia whereby the singer makes multiple sounds at the same time. It’s hard to describe, but there are a few videos on youtube if you’re interested! Overall, the show was spectacular and though obviously quite a tourist attraction it’s one that is so absolutely worth seeing.

Soon it was our last morning in Ulaan Baatar and Mongolia. It was time for our next leg to begin: onwards to Russia!

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