Sunday, September 4, 2022

Mongolia | End of the Rainbow

(Click on photo for enlargement)

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Mongolia | Khentii Aimag | Burkhan Khaldun Khora

In 1997 I did a ten-day horse trip to the beginning of the Onon River and the Onon Hot Springs in Khentii Aimag, northeast of Ulaanbaatar, as described in my book Wanders in Northern Mongolia. On the return leg of the trip I ascended 8,040-foot Burkhan Khaldun, also known as Khentii Khan Uul, arguably the most sacred mountain in Mongolia. The mountain is mentioned in the Secret History of the Mongols, a thirteenth-century account of the rise of the Mongols under Chingis Khan, and it was here, many believe, that Temüjin—the future Chingis Khan—hid from the Merkit tribesmen who had kidnapped his wife and wanted to capture him.  According to legend, Chingis Khan also came here to pray before embarking on his military campaigns. Later the mountain would be inextricably bound up in the cult of Chingis Khan and also become a pilgrimage site for Buddhists. Still later some would claim that Chingis Khan was born near Burkhan Khaldun and was buried on its summit.

Not long after my trip two Mongolian historians, D. Bazargür and D. Enkhbayar, published a book entitled Chinggis Khaan Atlas. The Atlas contained thirty-seven maps (including insets) depicting in great detail the locations of many of the places and events mentioned in the Secret History of the Mongols. After I had studied the Atlas in detail and interviewed Bazargür and Enkhbayar I decided that I would return to the Burkhan Khaldun area and investigate the places shown on the maps. 

In the meantime, however, I had made a pilgrimage to 21,778' Mount Kailash, the sacred mountain in Tibet worshipped by Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, Bönpos (followers of the Bön religion), shamans, and others,  and by then also a favorite destination for adventure tourism. No one is allow to climb to the summit of Mount Kailash, but thousands of people a year circumambulate the mountain via a thirty-two mile-long path. A pilgrimage circuit of a sacred place like Kailash is known as a khora. Khoras are always done clockwise around the sacred place or object, unless of course you are a contrarian Bönpo, who do khoras counter-clockwise (I encountered several Bönpos walking counter-clockwise around Mount Kailash). The Kailash Khora, the high point of which is the 18,200-foot Drölma Pass, is a strenuous endeavor. The week I was in the Kailash area at least ten people perished while circumambulating the mountain. Several, reportedly, were elderly Hindus from India who may have come here, consciously or unconsciously, to transmigrate at this sacred place. Some hardy Tibetans, however, do the khora in one day. Most people take two or three days (I made it in two and a half days). 

Mount Kailash in Tibet (click on photos for enlargements)

After returning from Kailash I got the idea of doing a khora around Burkhan Khaldun, which could be considered Mongolia’s equivalent of Mount Kailash . . . Continued.

Approaching the Black Crown of Burkhan Khaldun

Monday, April 18, 2022

Zanabazar | First Bogd Gegeen of Mongolia


Zanabazar (1635–1723) was, according to most reckonings, the sixteenth incarnation of Javsandamba. The first incarnation is believed to have appeared around the time of the Buddha. As a small boy he was recognized as the spiritual leader of Mongolia and awarded the title of Bogd Gegeen. He would go on to play a role in the religious and political life of Mongolia analogous to that of the Dalai Lamas of Tibet. Zanabazar built temples and established monasteries, including one at what is now the site of Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, and was a polymath who invented new scripts for writing the Mongolian language, designed new clothes for monks, studied the medical properties of hot springs, and much else. He is most famous for his bronze statues which are now the centerpieces of three museums in Ulaanbaatar. “During his lifetime, he was the greatest Buddhist sculptor in Asia,” opines art historian K. Youso about Zanabazar.” Indeed, he is often called the Michelangelo of Mongolia. Zanabazar was the first of Mongolia’s nine Bogd Gegeens. The Ninth Bogd Gegeen transmigrated on March 1, 2012. During a visit to Mongolia on November 23, 2016, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama announced that the 10th Bogd Gegeen had been born in Mongolia and that attempts were being made to identify him. As of early 2022 he has not yet been named. 

See The Life of Zanabazar

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Mongolia | False Lama of Mongolia: The Life and Death of Dambijantsan

Who was Dambijantsan?

A Buddhist monk; a freedom fighter for Mongolian independence; the descendant of Amursanaa (1723–1757), the Western Mongol who led the last great uprising against the Qing Dynasty of China; the incarnation of Mahakala, the Buddhist god of war; bandit, torturer, murderer, or evil incarnate? During his lifetime no one was sure who he really was, and even today the controversy about his life continues.

Born in what is now the Republic of Kalmykia, part of the Russian Federation, Dambijantsen traveled throughout Tibet, India, and China before arriving in Mongolia in 1890 where he tossed gold coins to bystanders and announced to one and all that he had come to free Mongolia from the yoke of the Qing Dynasty of China. After disappearing almost twenty years he returned to lead the attack on Khovd City, the last Chinese outpost in Mongolia. Honored by the Eighth Bogd Gegeen, the theocratic leader of Mongolia, for his efforts in achieving Mongolian independence, he went on to establish his own mini-state in western Mongolia, which he hoped to use as a base for establishing a Mongol-led Buddhist khanate in Inner Asia. His dictatorial nature and unbridled sadism soon came to the fore and he was finally arrested and imprisoned in Russia. After the Russian Revolution he returned to Mongolia, gathered new followers around him, and established a stronghold at the nexus of old caravan routes in Gansu Province, China. He robbed caravans, grew opium, and once again dreamed of creating a new Mongolian khanate in Inner Asia. Finally the new Bolshevik government in Mongolia, fearful of his rising power, issued orders for his assassination. Dambijantsan died in 1922, but in Mongolia legends persist to this day that his spirit still rides on the winds of the Gobi and continues to haunt his former lairs.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Mongolia | Wanders in Northern Mongolia

Excerpts from Wanders in Northern Mongolia:

Zagastai Pass is also of some geographical interest, marking as it does the Continental Divide of Inner Asia. Little Khatarch Creek, which we had followed toward the pass, flows into a river system draining westward into one of the salt lakes of the Great Lakes Depression, none of which have an outlet to the ocean. On the north side of the pass begins Zagastai Creek which flows into the river systems eventually draining into the Arctic Ocean thousands of miles to the north. To find the source of the greatest of these river systems, the Yenisei-Angara-Selenge-Ider, is of course the raison d’être of this trip.
from Part 1, The Source of the Ider

The little boy born here in 1635 on the steppe of this broad valley bottom would later be named the Bogd Gegeen at Shireet Tsagaan Nuur; he would travel to Tibet and study with the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama; he would become the most revered leader in all of Khalkh Mongolia, founding many monasteries and creating great works of art; he would spend over a decade of his life in the Chinese capital of Beijing as a guest of the great Kangxi emperor of the Qing Dynasty, and his fame as miracle worker would spread throughout China; he would eventually die in Beijing and later the magnificent monastery of Amarbayasgalant would be built in his honor and serve as the final resting place of his remains; and in 1937 those remains would be destroyed in a bonfire by Mongolian and Soviet soldiers under the orders of a communist government goaded on by Joseph Stalin.
from Part 11, In Search of Zanabazar

According to the thirteenth-century chronicle entitled The Secret History of the Mongols the people now known as Mongols first appeared at the headwaters of the Onon River just north of a mountain called Burkhan Khaldun in the latter half of the eighth century. These people, then still just one tribe among the many which inhabited what is now Mongolia, soon expanded into the valleys of the nearly Kherlen and Tuul rivers. The upper basins of these three rivers—the Onon, the Kherlen, and the Tuul—make up the so-called Three Rivers Region considered to be the traditional homeland of the Mongols. Also, the mountain known as Burkhan Khaldun, located between the headwaters of the Onon and Kherlen, figured in several episodes recounted in the Secret History and was the scene of a crucial event in the life of Chingis Khan himself. As a result he worshipped this mountain, and he gave specific instructions that it should be honored by his descendants’ descendants forever. As I would learn, modern-day Mongolians have not forgotten this injunction.
from Part 111, The Birthplace of the Mongols

Mongolia | Chingis Khan Rides West

Since the time of the Xiongnu two thousand years ago the nomads of the Mongolian Plateau traditionally looked south toward China for both plunder and trade. In 1215 Chingis Khan turned his attention westward and by 1219 he had decided to invade the Islamic realms of Inner Asia, unleashing a sequence of events that would result in the sack of Baghdad in 1258 by his grandson Khülegü and the fall of the 508 year-old Abbasid Caliphate. The dissolution of the Caliphate by Khülegü dealt a blow to the Islamic world from which some might argue it has never fully recovered. We are still to this day living with the consequences of the Mongol invasion.  
Chingis Khan Rides West examines the motivation behind Chingis Khan’s ride westward to attack the Islamic world and recounts the fall of the great Silk Road cities of Bukhara, Samarkand, Termez, Gurganj, and others.

Uzbekistan | Seven Saints of Bukhara

According to the thirteen-century Persian historian Ata-Malik Juvaini, Bukhara, the city in what is now the country of Uzbekistan, “is the cupola of Islam and is in those regions like unto the City of Peace [Baghdad] . . . Since ancient times it has in every age been the place of assembly of the great savants of every religion.”

In the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries seven remarkable men lived in Bukhara and the surrounding Bukhara Oasis. These men were known as the Khwajagan, or Masters of Wisdom. The Seven Khwajagan are: Abd al-Khaliq al-Ghujdawani (1103–1179); Arif ar-Riwakri (1136-1239); Mahmud al-Injir al-Faghnawi (d.1317);Ali ar-Ramitani (d.1315/1321); Muhammad Baba as-Sammasi (d.1354); Sayyid Amir Kulal (1287?–d.1370); Bahauddin Shah Naqshband (1318–1388?)

The Khwajagan remain to this day revered as the Seven Saints of Bukhara, and their mausoleum complexes continue to be visited by pilgrims and travelers from all over the world.

Uzbekistan | Khorezm | Nukus | Fifty Forts Region

From Khiva I wandered on down the Amu Darya River (also known as the Oxus)  to the city of Nukus. Actually I did not want to go to Nukus. I was much more interesting in the ruins of the old Silk Road cities and fortresses scattered along the north bank of the Amu Darya, but my driver insisted that all tourists who come this way go to Nukus to visit the Karakalpakstan State Museum of Art. Unfortunately he did not point out why all tourists go to the Karakalpakstan State Museum. It turns out, according to A Recent Story In The New York Times, that this “museum in the parched hinterland of Uzbekistan . . . is home to one of the world’s largest collections of Russian avant-garde art.”

I did not know this at the time. I did peek through a few doorways into galleries containing what looked like avant-garde art, but of course I did not go in, since I have not the slightest interest in anything avant-garde and indeed little interest in any art created since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. I did spend an enjoyable couple of hours examining the museum’s fair to middling collection of Zoroastrian Ossuaries, which were especially interesting to me since I had just recently visited a Zoroastrian Tower of Silence, also on the banks of the Amu Darya, where human corpses were stripped of their flesh so their bones could be collected and placed in funeral urns like these. I also drooled over the museum’s small but mouth-wateringly delectable collection of antique Turkmen Carpets.  

But enough of that. From Nukus we proceeded eastward along the northern bank of the Amu Darya through what is known as the Ellik Kala, or Fifty Forts Region. The area is dotted with ruins of cities and forts dating from perhaps the third or fourth century BC to the seventh century AD. At one time many of these settlements would have served as important way-stations on the Silk Road between Bukhara and Samarkand to the east and Kunya Urgench, farther on down the Amu Darya. 
 Kyzyl Kala (Fortress)
 Ruins of Toprak Kala, dating to about 2000 years ago
  Ruins of Toprak Kala
  Ruins of Toprak Kala
  Ruins of Toprak Kala
  Ruins of Toprak Kala
Aerial view of the ruins of the lower fortress of Ayaz Kala. Built sometime in the 4th–7th centuries AD, the fortress may have been destroyed during the Mongol Invasion of Khorezm in the 1220s (see Enlargement). The ruins of the old city can be seen to the left of the fortress. 
Ruins of the lower fortress of Ayaz Kala
Ruins of the lower fortress of Ayaz Kala
 Ruins of the lower fortress of Ayaz Kala
Just north of the Lower Fortress on a higher summit is another larger fortress dating back to the 4th century BCE.

Aerial View of Upper Fortress (see Enlargement)
 Ruins of the upper fortress of Ayaz Kala
 Ruins of the upper fortress of Ayaz Kala
Ruins of the upper fortress of Ayaz Kala

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Uzbekistan | Khwarezm | Mizdakhan | City of the Dead

From Janpiq Qala we proceeded forty-eight miles as the crow flies downstream to the no-account city of Nukus, which I had visited before and certainly did not want to visit again. Hurrying through Nukus we crossed the Amu Darya River and drove about twenty-five miles southwest to the immense burial grounds of Mizdakhan. Apparently there was a settlement on this site as far back as the fourth century b.c. when Khwarezm was freeing itself from the Persian Achaemenid Empire. This original settlement was destroyed by fire around the end of the second century b.c. Another settlement existed here between the first and fourth centuries a.d. but it too was eventually destroyed by agents unclear. Around the second century b.c. a cemetery was established here and after the settlements disappeared the area eventually became devoted to burials. Between the fifth and eight centuries it became an important Zoroastrian burial site with many ossuaries containing bones which had been had stripped of their flesh at places like the Tower of Silence which I had visited earlier. There are also some Christian burials here dating to the seventh century. These probably involve members of the Melkite sect who had settled in Khwarezm. Interestingly they had apparently adopted Zoroastrian burial customs and interred the bones of their dead in ossuaries. 

In 712 a.d. the Islamic Arabs conquered the area, destroying many of the local Zoroastrian fire  temples and killing Zoroastrian priests. Zoroastrian burials continued until about the ninth century, however, indicating that the Arabs had not been able to immediately stamp out Zoroastrianism.  The first Muslim burials date to around the ninth century. From then on the necropolis grew exponentially. I have not seen any figures on how many tombs are in the necropolis, but there are certainly thousands and perhaps tens of thousands. Many people with the means to do so built mausoleums the size of houses.

Among the notables is the tomb of Shamun Nabi. According to legend the tomb of this well-known local holy man, like the Tomb of Khizr in Samarkand, continues to get longer each year. It is already over 50 feet long and supposedly still growing!
The seven-domed mausoleum of Shamun Nabi (click on photos for enlargements)
The ever-growing tomb of Shamun Nabi
Not far from the tomb of Shamun Nabi is the Mazlum Sulu Khan Mausoleum. This is especially interesting since it dates back to the time of the last Khwarezmshahs, either Tekesh (r. 1172–1200) or his son Mohammed (r. 1200–1220), at the end of the twelfth century or the beginning of the thirteenth. Thus it was quite new when the Mongols arrived in the area in the winter of 1220–1221. It is usually kept locked, but an old caretaker appeared out of nowhere and offered to open it up for my inspection. He did not speak English but we were able to communicate in Russian.  

The mausoleum is fairly unusual in that it is underground. It was a blistering 85º F outside but walking down the steps into the main room of the mausoleum was like entering an air-conditioned hotel room. The caretaker said it stays cool throughout even the hottest days of summer. The cupola over the underground room may have been destroyed during the Mongol invasion but it was later rebuilt and the mausoleum eventually became an important pilgrimage site. Still later it became a hangout for shamans. According to a legend retold by Khwarezm Qala Cognoscente David Richardson, the mausoleum is named after the daughter of an important local official, apparently back when the mausoleum was built: 
Mazlum Sulu Khan was supposedly the beautiful daughter of the governor of Mizdahkan. Despite being desired by all of the local eligible bachelors, Mazlum Sulu Khan was in love with a poor builder. Frustrated by the lack of a suitable groom, the governor foolishly announced that he would give his daughter’s hand to the young man who could build a minaret as tall as the sky in the space of one night. Naturally the poor builder succeeded in constructing the minaret, but when he came to the palace for the hand of his bride the following morning, the governor refused. The dejected young man jumped from the top of the minaret only to be followed by the beautiful and distraught Mazlum Sulu Khan. The heartbroken governor ordered that the minaret be destroyed. The young lovers were buried together and a mausoleum was constructed above their grave using the bricks from the ruins of the minaret.   
This, however, is supposedly only a legend, and it remains unclear for whom the mausoleum was actually built. But if it is just a legend then who is buried in the small tombs on which someone has placed artificial flowers? I tried to get more information from the caretaker, but bizarrely enough as soon as he found out I was an American he launched into a long monologue about the ex-boxer Mike Tyson. Unfortunately, my Russian was not up to grasping his point. This is the fifth or sixth time I have heard about Mike Tyson in Uzbekistan. Next to Obama he appears to be the best known American in the country. The only other person who comes close is Beyoncé. 
Entrance to the underground chamber
Underground chamber with a tomb decorated with flowers
Underground chamber with a tomb decorated with flowers
View of the dome over the underground chamber
Another tomb with flowers. Who is actually buried here is unknown.
Madrassa destroyed by Amir Timur when he swept through Khwarezm in1388. The bricks stacked in what looks like tiny ovoos adds a peculiarly Mongolian touch to the scene. 
City of the Dead:These are all tombs
City of the Dead
City of the Dead
City of the Dead
City of the Dead
Just a mile or so from the necropolis are the ruins of Gyaur Qala, not to be confused with the Gyaur Qala farther upstream on the Amu Darya. It was destroyed by Chingis Khan’s sons Ögedei and Chagatai in the winter of 1220-1221 either before or after they sacked the Khwarezm capital of Urgench, fifteen miles or so to the southwest. I would of course love to visit Urgench (now Konye Urgench) but it is on the other side of the border in Turkmenistan and I do not have a visa for Turkmenistan. 
Ruins of Gyaur Qala

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Iran | Esfahan | Abbasi Hotel

Wandered down to Esfahan, south of Tehran. I was especially looking forward to visiting Esfahan since I had booked a room at the legendary Abassi Hotel, which if not the city’s best hotel is certainly the most historic and picturesque.
Location of Esfahan (click on photos for enlargements).
The Abbasi Hotel was originally a caravanserai built during the time the the Safavid Sultan Husayn (1668—1726). It was restored and remodeled in the 1950s into an upscale hotel. Film buffs may recognize the hotel as the set for the 1974 movie Ten Little Indians starring Oliver Reed and German bombshell Elke Sommer. I had read some on-line reviews that groused about the small size of some of the rooms at the hotel. This was certainly not the case with my first floor room, which opened directly onto the courtyard. A troop of dancers, had one been available, could have bivouacked in the room with space left over for a camel or two. 
This etching was made in 1840. 
The basic layout of the building itself has changed very little since 1840. The two-story arched alcove near the right edge of the etching now hosts a charming little snack shop. The dome and minaret of the mosque seen looming over the top of the building are unchanged. Oh how I would have loved to have been in that courtyard when it still hosted camels! Note that the camels shown are Two-Humped Bactrians, the most noble of the world’s four-legged creatures, and not one-humped dromedaries. I would have had second thoughts about staying at the caravanserai if they had allowed in dromedaries, unless, of course, dromedaries were restricted to their own watering troughs.
Lobby of hotel. I took this photo at five o’clock in the morning. During the day and evening the lobby was a madhouse of milling tourists from England, Germany, Italy, Spain, China, and elsewhere. As far as I could tell I was the only American. 
Courtyard of hotel
Courtyard of hotel
Courtyard of hotel
Courtyard of hotel
Courtyard of hotel
Courtyard of hotel
Courtyard of hotel
I spent my late afternoons in the courtyard enjoying glasses of refreshing hibiscus tisane with rock sugar. Clinically proven to lower your blood pressure!
Hotel lobby coffee shop where I got my morning caffeine fix. In the afternoons it was jammed with Chinese tour groups.