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July 17. DAY THREE: KHARKORIN "Touring Erdene Zuu Monastery" During the night it rained and rained.  We were very happy that we had opted to go with a ger camp instead of camping. For only $5 it was money well spent!  The center and sides of our ger had some seepage from the rain.  The center of a ger had a wood burning stove with a chimney that extended through the opening in the roof.  The opening could be covered with a flat that is pulled across from the outside.  Ours never got pulled over so some rain made it onto the floor.  These were pretty sturdy gers though. They even had linoleum laid out over the wooden floors and were resting on concrete foundations. The bottom of our ger wall had been pulled up a bit to allow for ventilation and that allowed some water to leak in from the sides as well.  But our beds were up off of the ground and we stayed perfectly dry all night long.  We actually slept pretty well.  Only the bottom of my pack and the wool area rug had gotten very wet.

By the time we arrived at the gates to Erdene Zuu the weather was looking worse.  Amara stayed with the car while we took a tour of the museum/monastery.  Like the other religious sites in Mongolia, Erdene Zuu was closed as a site of worship during the Soviet period and converted into a museum.  Today the complex is split between the museum section, which is housed in the Chinese style temples, and an active monastery, which uses the Tibetan style temple for religious activity.  Our tour guide was excellent and one of the chief benefits of visiting the "museum" as most monasteries don't have knowledgeable guides available for visitors.  

The Chinese buildings consisted mainly of three temples with some smaller side buildings.  The temples each housed a different Buddhist trinity but the center figure in all was the Sakyamuni Buddha.  In the eastern temple the image represented in the middle of the trinity was the old Buddha.  On his left sat a statue of Kasyapa, the Past Buddha, and to his right sat Maitreya, the Future Buddha.  The ceiling was adorned with small images of Amitayus, the Buddha of Longevity.  

In the middle temple the center figure was Buddha in his midlife.  He was flanked by Amitabha, on the left or eastern side, and Manal on the right or western side.  Amitabha is the Buddha of the Eastern Paradise responsible for curing mental illness while Manal is more commonly referred to as the Medicine Buddha and is the Buddha of the Western Paradise, responsible for curing physical illness.  To the front and sides of the main Buddha were smaller statues of his disciples and along the walls were statues of the 12 apostles or  arhats.  At the entrance of the temple there were two protector deities.  One was Shri Devi, the only female protector deity, and the other was Vajrapani.  The legend of Shri Devi tells that she married a demon and in order to protect the world from him she killed her husband and their child.  The horse she rides has his skin for a saddle and the body of her baby sits in her mouth.  

In the third temple the middle figure was a young Buddha and on his left was Janrasig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, and on his right was Tsong Khapa, the father of Yellow Hat Buddhism.  The ceiling on of this hall was also covered with images of Amitayus.   

Our guide went into a fair amount of detail in each of the temples and the surrounding buildings.  One of the smaller buildings was built for visits by the Dalai Lama, one of whom sought refuge in Mongolia during a time of war in Tibet.  These smaller halls looked more like museums than temples today but housed a nice collection of thangkas and religious objects.  We noticed some ceremonial objects made of a human skull and a human leg bone.  We had seen the skulls at Taer Si in Xining (Qinghai, China) as well and were very curious about their use.  Our guide explained that they were used in rituals and the skulls came from people who were supposed to have been enlightened beings.  The leg bone was from an 18 year old girl that died of natural causes.  The age was apparently auspicious to the Buddhists.  Other ceremonial objects included the dorje or lightening bolt (representing the male aspect) and the bell (representing the female aspect).  Two scepter-like objects featured three points on their ends. One was like a fork and was meant to be an instrument against passion, aggression and stupidity, a prong for each.  The other object was shaped more like a long cross made of two lightening bolt symbols (dorje) and was an instrument against lust, hate, and delusion (sibling qualities to the first three evils, I would say). 

Throughout our tour we encountered the various forms of Buddhist symbolism found in the colorful artwork.  There were images of the Five Senses (smell, touch, listen, taste and see).  Each sense was represented by a different symbol - for example, smell was incense, touch was silk, and listen was a lute.  There were also painted images and small statues of the Seven Celestial Symbols of Buddhism, representing different aspects of the religion.  The two fish, their heads facing the opposite fish's tails, were one symbol and have taken on a meaning similar to that of the yin and yang of Taoism.  The umbrella was another symbol that represented protection.  The worldly elements were another recurring theme.  The Five Elements of earth, fire, water, air and plant life each had its own symbol in the artwork.  

All of the colors were vivid and used the same mineral paints that we had seen in the thangkas of Tongren (Gansu, China) and sold at the markets on the Silk Road.  However, in the Tibetan regions of the world the most revered color is white and white prayers scarves are used for blessings and to adorn sacred objects.  In Mongolia the most important color was blue and blue prayer scarves were seen on the many ovoos and religious objects.  In terms of meaning the white color represents purity, like a mother's milk, and blue represents consistency, like the sky.  The other colors were red (joy), green (eternity like the grasslands), and yellow (Love like the sunshine).

There was so much information in our tour that it was difficult to digest it all.  Our guide spent a long time with us and was very patient with all of our questions.  She couldn't tour us around the Tibetan buildings because it was an active monastery.  The whole of the complex was surrounded by a wall of 108 white stupas.  In front of the temple complexes there was still a large indentation where an enormous ger once stood.  As Kharkorin was the capitol of Mongolia's great empire Erdene Zuu also housed a ger for government meetings.  The various heads of each province would enter the giant ger from their respective sides of the country.  

We made a quick visit of the Tibetan temple as well.  Monks were chanting on practitioners quietly walked around the walls of the main hall to pray at the alter.  Apparently there was some tension between the monastery and the museum as the monks maintained that the whole area should be returned to religious use and the museum closed.  However, they made good use of their proximity to the museum and had three gift shops of their own to raise money so I would say it was somewhat of a symbiotic relationship.

After our tour I went back to photograph some of the statues in the Chinese temples.  With the heavy rain there weren't as many visitors so I had the temples to myself.  Getting to them was another matter.  The rain was so heavy and I was soaked to my thighs after dashing across the courtyard.  By the time we finished it must have been mid afternoon.  We had taken our time but the weather still hadn't let up very much.  The downpours came in spurts but it never stopped raining.  It was tricky to find a way back to the entrance around the big puddles that had formed in the courtyard grass.  

Amara honked his horn as we came out to distinguish himself from the other gray Russian vans.  Once we got into the van we all quickly agreed that driving on towards Tsetserleg wouldn't be a good idea, not to mention the off road trip to the ruins of the old Uigher capital. Just getting back to our ger camp was a challenge.  The rains had formed a river between the monastery and the camp.  Amara tried to go back up to the main road but water was rushing down from the hillside on the other side and had it completely washed out.  One car was stuck in gushing water.  He eventually found a way through the water and back to the ger camp.  We later found out that a bridge in Kharkorin town had actually washed out.  It was unusually harsh weather for this time of year. 

Our ger camp had been a comfortable place and the food was pretty good so we were happy to stay another night.  We were already a day ahead on our itinerary anyway.  We even took part in the evening entertainment and ate in the big ger.  It was mutton goulash again but still good.  The talents were two older men performing traditional songs.  One played the horse head fiddle and the other had a sort of duck shaped fiddle and specialized in the throat singing.  The throat singing was unlike anything that I have ever seen and wasn't what I expected.  Through using his throat muscles he made instrument like sounds, even creating simultaneous different pitches.  It looked like it too a great deal of effort as well.  The man told us that he began practicing at the age of 10.  We bought his CD since describing the sound is impossible.  People will have to hear it for themselves when we get home.

After the dinner and entertainment we had more cards with Amara.  He had his same ger and we had ours.  They had to mop of the rain a few times and the wool floor rug was smelling pretty woolly, but the rain lessened in the evening.  We installed our chimney pipe and fired up the stove.  It made for a cozy if somewhat damp night.


ULAAN BAATAR July 2-3 July 4-5 July 6 July 7-8

NAADAM July 9-10 July 11 July 12 July 13

COUNTRYSIDE July 14 July 15 July 16 July 17 July 18 July 19 July 20-21


BALDAN BARAIVAN July 25-30 Intro About Baldan Baraivan Mani Buteel Buddhist Festival The Restoration Work Another Naadam & About CRTP

ULAAN BAATAR July 31-Aug 1