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.
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.
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.