Gandan

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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!

Day Bag Packing Suggestions – City

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If you’re reading this post, I’m guessing you’re either interested in our lives or interested in visiting Ulaanbaatar or Mongolia at some point. We don’t spend all of our days either teaching or parenting, so we’ve had plenty of time to figure out what are some good items to keep on hand–or leave at home–whenever we go out. Without further ado, here are our recommendations.

DO Bring:

  • Water – It’s very dry in Mongolia most of the year, and it’s easy to get dehydrated. If you finish your water while out, there are convenience stores everywhere that sell bottled water.
  • Cash – You can use bank cards in UB, but cash is far easier. Think ahead to how much you might need during your outing and try to stick to that amount only.
  • Small packets of tissues – Public restrooms sometimes have toilet paper, but more often than not, you will wish that you had something along that you can use. Remember to toss used tissues into the garbage cans in the toilet stalls and not down the toilets themselves.
  • Photo-taking device – Whether it’s a camera or a cellphone (or tablet), you’ll probably want to take photos or videos while you’re exploring the city. If you want to take a photo of a person, however, ask if it’s ok first. (“Bowl-kho” is a rough phonetic transliteration of asking, “May I?” in Mongolian.)
  • Hat or sunscreen – UB has a relatively high elevation and also has pretty clear skies most of the year so sunburn and other invisible sun damage.
  • A form of ID – We’ve never been approached by police, but this is just a good rule of thumb wherever you travel.
  • An open mind – Be aware that you might not understand underlying motivations of actions around you. (This isn’t meant in a negative/cynical way, just a reminder that you’re no longer in the majority culture as a visitor.)
  • A sense of adventure – You never know what might happen!
  • Common sense – Is a shady dude trying to make you a shady deal in a shady alleyway? Use your noggin.

Suggested items:

  • Lip balm – Again, it’s dry here, especially with the wind. If your lips are prone to chapping, carry lip balm with you. Just be mindful of exceedingly dusty days as you may not want grit sticking to your lips.
  • Simple snacks – Ok, you can also get this in convenience stores when out, but especially if you have any particular dietary needs/preferences, it’s good to keep something quick on hand to tide you over until you can find something else.
  • Hand sanitizer or wet wipes – Public restrooms don’t always have soap so you might want hand san “handy”, especially if you’re germaphobic.
  • Light jacket/compact umbrella/hat – Weather can be unpredictable.

Do NOT Bring:

  • Wads of cash – Pickpocketing is too common. Don’t bring so much money with you that you’ll be in a bind if it gets stolen while you’re out.
  • Headphones – As mentioned a time or two above, pickpocketing is a problem in UB. Listening to music while you’re out and about will hinder your ability to notice if anyone is targeting you.
  • A bad attitude – Whether it’s a sense of superiority, entitlement, whatever, just leave it at home. πŸ˜‰