Gandantegchinlen Monastery, Gandan Khiid, or simply Gandan, is a large complex on the north side of UB that consists of several temples, a monastery, and a few Buddhist educational centers. The two links above provide a decent rundown of the history of Gandan, so I will simply write here about my own experiences in this place.
When I first visited Gandan in August 2014, I was struck by the abundant art and architecture throughout the complex. Gateways and buildings, especially under the eaves, are particularly detailed. What stood out to me the most about that first visit were the copious amounts of pigeons everywhere and the smell of juniper as incense smoke wafted from ornate metal containers. Nowadays, the pigeons are still a large part of Gandan, but they remain primarily outside of the complex walls as their proliferation was beginning to be viewed as a health hazard. People sell birdseed outside Gandan’s front gate to feed the pigeons with the hopes that said birds will bring prayers up to heaven.
In the subsequent years, we have visited Gandan a number of times–with newly arrived foreign teachers, with students, and with visiting family members. Each new visit reveals new knowledge and a deeper understanding of Mongolians’ practice of Buddhism and its influence on the nation. One time, we visited the attached college where would-be monks can study in preparation for their futures. Another time, we encountered a class of young boys in training for future lives in the monastery. The youngest boy was only six years old, and one of the older boys said that they wouldn’t graduate, per se, but that their education was for life. On yet another visit, I encountered a Buddhist nun* in an otherwise unopened temple, which is the only time that I’ve seen a Buddhist nun in Mongolia.
Many people go to Gandan. Of course, there are the tourists like us, some of whom are curious about the place for its historic value while others are keen on exploring its spiritual roots. However, the vast majority of those who visit the complex are Mongolian. They go to pray, to meditate, to find peace. Wealthy and poor, old and young, you will see a bit of every strata in the country here–except, perhaps, the Kazakh minority who are by and large Muslim practitioners. Even some of our students who wouldn’t consider themselves Buddhist still visit Gandan from time to time.
If you visit Mongolia, Gandan is worth a trip if you are interested in the country’s religious heritage. Whereas Mongolians visit the site for free, foreigners must pay for admission. Inside the largest temple (with the notable statues), picture takers must pay an additional fee, but otherwise there is no photography charge (as of now–that could change in the future). Find a guide if you can, but otherwise, take the time to observe, be respectful, and learn what you can.
*I’m not sure if this is the correct term, actually, but I haven’t found a term specific to Buddhism that differentiates between male and female devotees in this way. If you know a different and/or correct term, please let me know in the comments!