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.