So before I write about Amarbayasgalant, I just wanted to let you all know that I am in UB right now for 3 days getting familiar with the city. We finished up practice teaching on Friday, and had a community activity day which was a lot of fun and will write about next week and publish to the blog when I get to darkhan next week. Tues to Sat I will be in Bayangol, but I move out on Sat, go to Darkhan for a few days and then will leave for my permanent site. I find out where I'll be going the first day in Darkhan, and I am very excited for this. So yea, the summer is basically wrapped up and I will be a full Peace Corps Volunteer in just a few days. Depending on where they are sending me, I will either be talking to you a lot more or a lot less than I get to now. Let's all hope for more. Now about my Amarbayasgalant trip...
Amarbayasgalant and Adventure
Amarbayasgalant is one of the most beautiful and well preserved monasteries in Mongolia. Buddhism was once extremely prevalent in Mongolia, but during and since the Soviet occupancy, the numbers of devout followers and monks has dwindled. However, Buddhist traditions are still widespread, and many Mongolians practice infrequently. For example, my house has a small shrine in my room. There are several offerings on the shelf, such as a picture of a Buddhist scene with a prayer cloth wrapped around it, a tea pot, my sister’s diploma, a bunch of prayers in a bag. There is also some incense, vodka, snuff, and candles; these seem to be not as much offerings but rather items that they use that could be used as offerings and are simply placed on the shelf for that reason. There is also a prayer wheel that they turn roughly once a day. The prayer wheel contains prayers that are supposed to be activated with motion, which is also why they put prayer clothes on top of mountains or other windy areas. They spin it for various reasons: I have seen them spin the wheel for prayer’s sake but they have also gotten up and spun the wheel during an intense card game, hoping for a good hand next round. So, although they do practice this one Buddhist ritual, I would by no means call them religious people, and I think most people around are the same way. I also believe that the situation is similar to America, where the further into the country you get the more religious the people are, and the urban people are less religious.
So, Amarbayasgalant is one of what used to be hundreds of monasteries throughout Mongolia. However, the Russians destroyed most of them when they occupied the country, but fortunately left most of this one intact. We decided to go Sunday, the 31st, because a very famous llama was going to be there, the highest after the dalai llama. 10 of the 11 of us went, along with the driver (who was the host father of the PCV who left), his son and a friend, our two Mongolian teachers, and one of their husbands. Luckily, we went in a Mikr and a car, although it would not have surprised anyone if we all fit into the Mikr, as that’s kind of how they do things here. We left at 6 in the morning Mongol time, or about 6:45, and after stopping for a quick breakfast, we got there at about 10:30. The architecture is beautiful: many stupas, Buddhas, player cloths, prayer wheels, other decorations. There were also many tourists because of the llama’s being there. As we got there the llama was leaving in a helicopter; everyone was crowded around it bowing out of respect.
We walked around the monastery for a while, but I will spare you all my attempt to use descriptive language and instead recommend that you spend a minute looking through pictures of a few of them online to get the idea of what it would look like. The highlight, however, was the birthstone which you are supposed to crawl through and be reborn. Its funny because it’s a tight fit, and everyone laughs at the people struggling to get through. You are supposed to crawl into it, look though a small hole at a sun statue, spin around three times and then crawl out the other side. Well, I am a little bit taller than your average visitor to this location, and I had a bit of trouble with the whole process. I could not physically spin around in the thing three times, so I decided to just crawl out, but that didn’t prove to be too easy either. I was in the thing long enough for the other volunteers to ask me if I was alright in there and if I needed any help. I eventually wormed my way out, to be caught on video and cheered on by the crowd of people watching the silly Americans try to be Mongolian. Fun stuff.
After the monastery and a lunch of xiam and rice, we went to a natural spring in the area. It is supposed to bring good luck so there were a lot of people there filling water bottles or just putting some on their head. We stayed there for a couple hours picking some tiny little Mongolian strawberries and being frustrated with how many more berries the Mongolians with us could find them than we could. But it was a lot of fun being out in the sun in a field picking berries in Mongolia… you know, not something that you would expect me to be doing normally. Afterwards we went down to a river. Three of us decided to get down to our underwear to be able to cross, and the others stayed behind and just hung out. On the other side were some more stupas that we visited, 8 all connected together, 2 separated, and 1 way up on a hill above. Very beautiful: very much worth the extremely cold water and underwear crossing. On the way back we were stopped by some vacationing Mongols to have some tea and candy. We stayed briefly to be polite, talked a bit about the differences between America, Mongolia, and Russia, and we went on our way. More and more I am realizing that the hospitality that I read about before coming here is in fact the case. And when you add the fact that we are Americans, we will always have someone taking us in to feed us or give us tea, which is a really nice way to spend two years.
The road to Amarbayasgalant is about 30 km of dirt road off of a paved road that is about an hour to Darkhan. About half a km from the paved road, we heard something that you don’t want to hear while riding in a car in Mongolia. The car that was luckily with us towed us to the street, and when we all got out, the back left wheel was on fire (in the inside, I’m not good with cars so I don’t know exactly what was wrong). After taking off the wheel and axel and realizing that this wasn’t a problem that we could fix immediately, the car left with the driver to get some parts. So make a long story short- the mosquitoes were extremely bad. There was some miscommunication, so one of our Mongolian teachers left by herself in a car and went home to Bayangol, rather than stopping to try to get us another car in the next town. After about 4 hours we decided to try to get rides ourselves, and send 4 volunteers in a Mikr to Darkhan to get a hotel, and we were going to follow as we found cars. Unfortunately, finding cars after 11 is harder than during the day, so we didn’t have any luck getting cars. As we decided that the next car was going to be the last and we would try to go to sleep after it past, it turned out to be the car that we were with, back from getting parts from Bayangol. So at 2 in the morning, they spent about an hour fixing this Mikr which is something I am pretty confident saying that an American mechanic would take a week and $1,000 dollars fixing. So, we drove to Darkhan, picked up the people in the hotel there and got home by 6. All in all, not terrible from our first Mongolia breakdown story. I’m sure you will here of many more over the next two years from me. Volunteers I have talked to have been able to tell a few each, after having been here only a year, and I doubt my luck will be any better. Life got back to normal later that day though. We missed language class in the morning, but still made practice teaching in the afternoon. Just another road trip.