A path snakes its way through scrub and sparse trees over a rickety wooden footbridge and upwards to a trunk of steep steps. The tranquil, gaudily painted Aryapala Initiation and Meditation Center perches on a hillside backed by a rock face, overlooking a valley and gently undulating hills draped with conifers and rocky outcrops. Turtle Rock or Melkhi Khad as the locals call it, crouches in the distance.
We headed there while staying in a ger camp in the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, about 55 km from Mongolia‘s capital Ulaanbaatar known affectionately as UB, for a couple of days relaxation after my younger brother’s wedding in the city.
After visiting Turtle Rock, we bumped along a dirt road (the norm in Mongolia) to the entrance gates of the meditation center and strolled along a path to its hilltop lookout. The hills of central Mongolia swept out to the horizon, greenness sloshing against the shore of blue sky.
From the arrival of Soviet communist rule in the 1920s until the 1990 democratic revolution, when freedom of religion was restored, the official “religion” in Mongolia was atheism.
During this time, particularly during the purges of the 1930s, communists destroyed most of the nation’s temples banning and almost wiping out Buddhism in Mongolia. Nowadays between 50-80% (depending on sources) of Mongolian people are Mahayana Buddhist.
Established in 1998 the Aryapala Initiation and Meditation Center is now visited by Buddhists worldwide.
Prayer wheels line the sides and rear of the center. According to Buddhist custom, to gain merit believers spin prayer wheels clockwise to follow the sun while rotating the syllables of the mantra in the direction they should be read.
The Buddhist mantra Om Mani Padme Hum written in Tibetan script (considered the classical language of Buddhism) adorns the outside of prayer wheels and prayers penned on pieces of paper fill the hollow interior.
Four different alphabets cover this sign. Along the left and right reading from top to bottom swirls the Classical Mongol Script. Abolished by the Mongolian government in 1941 due to Soviet pressure, since 1994 it’s been making a comeback although mostly for artistic decoration. The average modern-day Mongol has little knowledge of this beautiful script.
In the center is the now commonly used Russian Cyrillic alphabet. Adopted in 1937, there is a high literacy rate throughout the country.
Throughout Mongolia, Buddhist traditional ceremonial scarves known as khadag hang inside temples or flap in the wind on ovoos (stone shrines). Each color holds a different meaning but the use of blue khadag is very particular to Mongolian Buddhism. The color of respect, it symbolizes the sky, its roots dating back to the Mongol ancient shamanic worship of the Eternal Blue Sky (Tenger). Present day Mongolian life combines both shamanistic and Buddhist beliefs.
Inside the meditation centre, paintings and wall hangings portraying Buddhist teachings, painted sacred symbols and shelves containing money offerings and prayers wrapped in orange cloth smother the walls in splashes of color.
Intricate paintings decorate the exterior roof eaves on three levels. Scenes from everyday Mongolian nomadic life lie below heavenly flowers while on the belly side rage gory depictions from hell.
During our short stay in Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, not far from the Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar, we visited Turtle Rock, named for its resemblance to a turtle when viewed from a certain angle. Known locally as Melkhi Khad, this giant rock formation is a popular spot for visitors to the area.
Here are some photos I shot of scenes around Turtle Rock and the surrounding landscape.
Some shots of a friendly camel for hire near Turtle Rock
Close ups of the friendly camel
Mongolian ger camps are like campsites with gers instead of tents and the quality of amenities vary from camp to camp. Both local and foreign tourists visit them for a night or a few days.
After my younger brother Mike’s wedding in Ulaanbaatar, family and friends, a mixed Anglo/Mongolian group, all piled into vehicles and headed out of the capital to Gorkhi-Terelj National Park for a couple of days relaxation together.
We stayed at the serene Terelj Lodge 55 km northeast of the city. This was the first time that some of us, including my older brother Matt and our friends from England (all still in our first week in Mongolia) had stayed in a ger and was an experience we’d all been looking forward to. It was the most upscale of any ger camp I stayed at during my travels in Mongolia.
After relaxing, walking and eating lunch we all headed to a few local sights including Turtle Rock (Melkhi Khad) and the Aryapala Initiation and Meditation Centre which I’ll post about next. Later we returned to the ger camp for dinner and at night we sat around chatting while some downed beer or the traditional Mongolian shots of vodka.
Following are a few images of the ger camp.
As we headed out into the Mongolian countryside from the capital Ulaanbaatar we passed by modern colorful houses clashing against simple traditional gers in a landscape of sun splashed undulating hills and open steppe.
Not far from the city we stopped on the roadside for a close up look at a majestic golden eagle with its Kazakh eagle hunter.
Kazakh Eagle Hunters
Many Kazakhs fled over the border to western Mongolia several hundred years ago during the advance of the Russian empire into Kazakhstan bringing with them the ancient tradition of eagle hunting.
These eagle hunters usually train the larger, more aggressive female golden eagles, hunting with them from horseback during the extreme winter months, when the pelts of rabbit, marmot, fox and wolf are most luxuriant, before turning their prey into the famous Kazakh fur hats.
During summer, some offer passing tourists the chance to hold these giant weighty yet noble birds for a fee.
Throughout our travels in the countryside we passed ovoos. At crossroads, mountaintops and other high places, these piles of rocks and stones crowned with prayer flags fluttering in the wind color the landscape.
Mongolians customarily stop at ovoos during their travels, circling clockwise three times on foot and adding a rock to the pile believing this ritual would grant them a safe onward journey. Hasty travelers on four wheels suffice with a passing honk on the horn.
Ovoos are spiritual sites for worshiping the mountains, the sky and the revered sky deity Khokh Tenger (translating to “Blue Sky”). They’re also used for Buddhist ceremonies and act as landmarks in a terrain with almost no signposts. Worshipers insert sticks tied with traditional ceremonial blue (symbolizing the revered sky) silk scarves called khadag into the ovoo, chant prayers and leave food offerings.
Suburbia in Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar is like no other. Bleak Russian-style apartment blocks give way to a patchwork of modern, red brick, matchbox-like houses.
Tidy lines of vivid crimson, azure and jade roofs contrast starkly against the chalky curves of Mongolian traditional gers. Intermingling, they compete for space tucked away behind wooden and rusty tin fences splashed with painted symbols.
Driving out of the city, I captured a few images from the window of our moving van.
The art of contortion is a path taken by many young girls in Mongolia, offering a global lifestyle and an income to help support their families back home. A tough and disciplined life, training rigorously every day from an early age to achieve extreme flexibility and balance, contortionists perform solo, duo or in group acts.
I have been very fortunate to have a close up view of the incredible world of contortion artists through my talented sister-in-law.
Anna started training as a contortionist when she was seven years old. She traveled around the world with the Mongolian State Circus then worked for Cirque du Soleil’s Las Vegas productions “O” and “Zumanity”. In the latter show, she was part of a “Water Bowl Contortion” act performing inside a water-filled giant glass bowl and on its rim.
Anna met my brother Mike in Cirque du Soleil’s “O” show where he was performing as a fire artist. Since becoming freelancers they’ve both toiled to create a nine-girl contortion team called “The Blue Sky Girls“, named after the revered Mongolian deity Khokh Tenger translating to ¨Blue Sky¨.
Sourcing the best young talent from Mongolia, together they coach, create fresh, original acts and negotiate international contracts for the girls to perform worldwide.
In 2010, the team won the coveted Bronze Clown trophy (there are Gold, Silver and Bronze “Clowns”) and a special prize, the Prix Du Kobsov Circus, at the annual International Monte-Carlo Circus Festival (Festival International du Cirque de Monte-Carlo) in Monaco.
The Academy Awards of the circus world and the most prestigious circus festival on the planet, it’s one of the glitziest events in Europe, attended by international celebrities and royalty. A Monte-Carlo “Clown” is the dream prize among circus performers and to them is like winning an Oscar!
The team also won a bronze cup and special prize at the 2010 Wuhan International Acrobatic Art Festival of China then landed a winter contract in the captivating “Salto Natale” show in Switzerland.
Two of the contortion artists from ”The Blue Sky Girls“, Gerlee and Tsetse, performed at Anna and Mike’s wedding reception in Mongolia’s capital city Ulaanbaatar. Following are some of those moments captured.
Check out Anna’s performance photos and videos on her website.
Horse-head fiddle or morin khuur
Varied local legends tell of a man’s love for his dead horse breathing life into Mongolia’s national musical instrument, the morin khuur or horse-head fiddle. Now its distinctive violin-like sounds permeate Mongolian culture and resonate throughout the country.
Historically a nomadic nation, the horse still plays a beloved and integral role in life on the steppe and many Mongolian songs and poems extol its virtues. (See Nadaam Festival – Horse Racing on the Steppe.)
The scroll of this prized, traditional instrument is carved into the shape of a horse’s head while the bow and two strings are made from horsetail hair.
More than a musical instrument to the nomads, the morin khuur remains an intrinsic part of everyday life and rituals, accompanying songs, dances, ceremonies, folkloric tales and daily tasks including the taming of animals.
“Weeping Camel” is an insightful documentary into the nomadic world, showing Mongolian herders playing the morin khuur whilst serenading a mother camel to entice her back to her rejected foal.
Last year my brother Mike married his bride Anna in her motherland, Mongolia and during the traditional part of the wedding ceremony, a musician played the morin khuur. (See Getting Hitched in Mongolia – Local Flavor.)
During the wedding reception, Anna’s cousin Khongor Khuurch gave an extraordinary performance of throat singing known as khoomei while playing the morin khuur. A famous musician in Mongolia, his music videos air on national TV channels. (See also here.)
After Khongor finished performing, his father, Anna’s uncle Toroo, presented an honored Mike and Anna with the morin khuur as a very special and prestigious wedding gift.
Sacred in every Mongolian home, the people believe a ger with a morin khuur is complete whereas one without is like a widow. A ger is a traditional Mongolian felt, tent-like dwelling that is home to a huge part of the nation’s population both in the countryside and the city.
Throat singing or khoomei
Mongolia is the most renowned country for khoomei (can be spelt differently), the ancient and otherworldly art of throat singing, although it is an esteemed musical tradition in neighboring areas too.
While in Kharkhorin, now a ramshackle town but once the ancient capital of the Mongol empire, an old musician called B. Baasandorj visited our ger camp bringing with him an array of traditional instruments.
He indulged us to a mellow evening of melodious playing and khoomei, a welcome treat after spending two weeks of long days on the road out on the Mongolian steppe, or more accurately on bumpy tracks and completely off-road.
To hear the unique sounds of khoomei and learn more check out the following:
- video of a Mongolian musician’s explanation and performance of morin khuur and khoomei.
- short video demonstrating and explaining the origins of the different khoomei tones.
- the documentary “Genghis Blues”.
Zither or yatga
Another traditional Mongolian instrument is the yatga, a kind of zither with a wooden body and strings played by finger plucking.
Check out B. Baasandorj playing the yatga and singing with some khoomei here.
Flute or limbe
The Mongolian flute, called the limbe, was traditionally made from bamboo and is a very popular folk musical instrument. It produces a delicate sound in stark contrast to the gruff tones of throat singing and flautists use a form of circular breathing to play it.
Horse racing was the Three Manly Games event of the Nadaam competition that I had most looked forward to since arriving in Mongolia and it proved to be the most raw and authentic.
It took place on the steppe a few kilometers out of the capital Ulaanbaatar and to get there two uncles of my newly wed sister-in-law Anna drove us in 4WDs. The roads were so congested, as this was a national holiday and such a popular event, that we cut across country which was an adventure in itself.
A muddle of unmarked dirt tracks crisscross this barren, open landscape, splitting off in various directions and enough to confuse the most skilled orienteer. We weren’t the only ones out there. Lines of cars streamed along behind each other but everyone seemed to know where they were headed.
We were tossed around in the back seat over ruts and potholes until we almost reached a traffic choked, paved road where police forced us to turn back. Then it was mayhem for a while as all the cars tried to maneuver out of a tight dead-end while still more arrived.
We cut back across the steppe partly on dirt tracks and the rest of the time off-road. Finally we reached our journey’s end, the race finish line, which was a flurry of activity with droves of people walking or riding around on horseback, many in traditional Mongolian costumes. There was an excited buzz in the air as they waited for the race finale.
In Mongolia, horses far outnumber the human population and, despite their small size, are horses not ponies. Mongolians are so deeply proud of them that a traditional gift to a three-year old male child is a horse. They are extremely tough, surviving out on the steppe during the harsh winters and are an essential part of daily life. Nomads use them to herd their huge flocks, sometimes they eat the meat and they use the mare’s milk to drink or ferment it to make airag, the national alcoholic beverage. The best they train to race and winners are highly prized.
Everyone lounging around on horseback waiting for the race to come in.
This kind man let me sit on his Russian horse which is bigger than the Mongolian. It was the first time I sat on a horse in Mongolia but not the last.
Exquisite saddle on the Russian horse.
Nadaam horse races are long distance, cross-country events held on the open steppe with no set track or course, ranging usually from an exhausting 15-30 kilometers long depending on the age class of the horse. Up to 1000 horses compete from all over Mongolia.
Jockeys are from 5-13 years old as the main purpose of the race is to test the speed and endurance of the horse and not the rider’s skill.
Before the race starts spectators sing traditional songs and jockeys sing a special song called a gingo. As the winning horse crosses the finish line, everyone dashes to touch its lucky sweat and they sing to the last horse in the two-year old class wishing him luck. Prizes are awarded to both horses and jockeys.
The race coming in fast across the steppe.
Everyone cheering and standing up on their horses to get a good view.
Standing up on their horses to get a view of the race.
Unusual attire for riding but here there was a mix of everything.
Closing in fast almost at the end of the race.
A view of the race trailing across the vast steppe.
Horseman wearing a brightly colored deel, the national costume. This robe-like garment is daily wear for many Mongolians. Here there was a real mix of traditional Mongolian and western style clothing.
Selling Mongolian flags.
Climbing for a better view.
Everyone gets around on horseback.
Selling drinks out of a shopping cart.
Taking a break.
Watching the screen on horseback.
Gers in the background.
The two uncles waiting for lunch.
Mongolian flag. The yellow symbol on the left is the national emblem or the Soyombo seen everywhere. It has representations of fire, sun, moon, earth, water and the Taijitu or Yin-Yang symbol.
Nadaam poster showing the Three Manly Games of archery, wrestling and horse racing.
Stopping by at the store.
Billiards on the steppe.
Also check out my blog post Nadaam Festival: Mongolian Wrestling.
When in Mongolia someone told me an old tale about a woman who disguised as a man, competed in the wrestling competitions, thrashed all the male competitors and became the champion, disgracing them all. Since then the tight vest or Zodog purposefully exposes the chest avoiding another impostor repeating this shameful event.
Traditional Mongolian wrestling competitions are all male and are full of ancient rituals. There are no separate weight classes and no time limits and the wrestler whose knee or elbow touches the ground loses the match.
After the opening ceremony for Nadaam the wrestling contests began.
National Sports Stadium, Ulaanbaatar
Wrestlers psyching themselves up while waiting to compete.
Before and after each match the wrestlers perform the Eagle Dance or Devekh, a ritual symbolizing power and invincibility.
Several fights occur at the same time.
Judges and assistants watch the competitors.
Also check out my blog post on Nadaam horse racing on the steppe.
Nadaam or the “Three Manly Games” is the most important festival of the year in Mongolia and is held throughout the country during the national holiday from 11-13 July. Its roots lie in Mongolian warrior traditions and includes competitions in wrestling, horse racing and archery.
The National Sports Stadium in the capital Ulaanbaatar holds the biggest celebrations and opens with an extravagant ceremony of horsemen, athletes, musicians, dancers and the military. Then the contests begin.
My brother Mike planned his wedding in Mongolia to coincide with Nadaam, giving guests visiting from other countries the chance to see this unique festival too.
National Sports Stadium, Ulaanbaatar
Officials in the stadium dressed in the national costume. This robe-like garment called a deel is daily wear for many people in the city and out on the steppe.
Old woman in national costume arrived before the crowds.
Beautiful costumes everywhere.
The President of Mongolia, Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, gave a speech during the ceremony which broadcasted to everyone on the big screen.
Spectators sheltering from the harsh sun under umbrellas.
Archers gallop on horseback.
Archery display. Both men and women compete in Mongolian archery and wear traditional costumes.
A multitude of film crew and photographers record the event.
Horsemen show their skill galloping into the stadium in a cloud of dust.
Synchronized military display.
Parachutists landed in the stadium closely missing dancers. It was mayhem.
A full stadium.
Horseman carrying the Mongolian flag. The yellow symbol on the left is the national emblem or the Soyombo seen everywhere. It has representations of fire, sun, moon, earth, water and the Taijitu or Yin-Yang symbol.
One of the stops on our wedding party city tour was the Sukhbaatar Square named after Damdin Sukhbaatar who led the Mongolians to independence from the Chinese in the 1921 revolution.
Walking across Sukhbaatar Square. My older brother Matt is on the left.
Here Mike and Anna came face to face with the immense bronze statue of Chinggis Khaan (pronounced Chinggis Han in Mongolia and known as Genghis Khaan in the West) commanding a view of the square from the top of the steps of Government House.
Chinggis Khan united many of the nomadic tribes of northeast Asia, founded the Mongol Empire and conquered most of Eurasia in the 1100 and 1200s. Nowadays this Mongol warlord is a source of great national pride. They have written songs about him, named hotels, restaurants and the international airport after him and his image appears everywhere from money to vodka and beer bottles.
English friends Kerry, Mark and Andy and my older brother Matt with Chinggis Khaan peering out between their heads.
Entrance to Choijin Lama Temple Museum.
After the two ceremonies we had a photo shoot in the Wedding Palace then piled into the cars to go just around the corner to a temple for more photos.
Wedding Palace Photo Shoot
With Anna’s parents.
Anna’s sister Boroo and her daughters.
After the official service we all followed the bride and groom out to another room for the traditional ceremony. This part was totally unexpected.
Traditional Mongolian Ceremony
Listening to the toast. Of course the foreigners in the group didn’t understand anything except for Mike who is learning Mongolian. At 11.00 am it was a bit early to down shots of vodka, especially cups of it. Culturally it’s considered polite to accept the cup then take a sip or just a sniff of it before passing it back to the host.
The musician played the morin khuur or horse-head fiddle during the entire length of the ceremony. This is one of the most important traditional musical instruments of the country. The strings are made from horse-tail hair and the top of the neck is carved into the shape of a horse’s head. Empty vodka cups litter the trays on the table in front of him.
When we entered the Wedding Palace I had no idea that there would be two ceremonies. Firstly the official tying of the knot, plush western registry office style, then a traditional Mongolian ceremony.
Official Wedding Service
Listening to their vows in Mongolian which Anna translated to Mike. A few words directed at Mike were in English but the lady’s accent was so thick it was hard to recognize she was speaking English. I understood only a few words from the ceremony.
The bride’s family and friends stood on one side of the room and the groom’s on the other. As there were so few of us on Mike’s side, some of Anna’s family and friends stood with us. Not many could make the long trip from England and Las Vegas to Mongolia. Matt my older brother and best man stands on the far right.
Anna has two wedding rings. On her left hand is the western style ring and on her right hand a traditional Mongolian ring. Her parents presented both of them with rings on the morning of their wedding. Anna’s has the female symbol and Mike’s the male symbol.
Cirque du Soleil’s mind-blowing show “O” at Bellagio in Las Vegas set the stage for their romance. Once ignited there was no dousing it. An Englishman and a Mongolian. A fire artist and a contortionist.
Now that would’ve aroused my interest under any circumstances but this was my brother getting hitched. Location Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. There’s no way in the world I would’ve missed that wedding.
The following posts are a photo documentary of the day.
The Bride’s Family Apartment – The Morning Before the Wedding
We arrived to collect the bride, Anna. Her parents greeted us with traditional Mongolian milk tea and breakfast while her sisters helped her get ready in the next room. Mike my younger brother is the groom (right) and Matt my older brother is the best man (left).
The bride appears and Anna’s father offers the groom Mongolian milk tea according to tradition. During formal occasions food, tea or vodka is given and received with the right hand extended and the left hand supporting the right elbow. Also they roll down the sleeves first to show respect.
Outside The Wedding Palace
A photo shoot outside the Wedding Palace while waiting for their allotted time. Each couple has half an hour for the ceremony so punctuality is crucial. That day the traffic was worse than usual and we thought we weren’t going to arrive on time but there were still a few minutes spare to take photos.
Mongolian registration plate on the wedding car. The red symbol on the left is the national emblem or the Soyombo seen everywhere including on the Mongolian flag. It has representations of fire, sun, moon, earth, water and the Taijitu or Yin-Yang symbol.