Two Swiss in Mongolia – discovering folktales and legends

A camel with horns? Why? – Have you not read my folktales, asks Jacqui

In the Gobi camp I notice the statue of a camel with horns. I have never seen a camel with horns before.

“Jacqui, why does this camel wear horns?” I ask. Jacqui frowns at me: “Have you not read my folktales?  Have you not seen “camel, deer and horse”? Well, a long long time ago the camel had wonderful horns. At the water hole, the deer asked the camel: “please lend me your horns – I will bring them back later”. The camel was generous, lent out the horns and never got them back. This is why the camel has no horns today. Later the horse asked for the fluffy tail of the camel. The camel lent out his tail and never got it back. Ever since the camel has looked sadly into the water regretting the loss of his horns and his tail. And to remind the deer to bring back the horns, he loses them once per year.”


About Jacqui’s folktales

Jacqui is called Batochirun Jagdal. The tourists just call him Jacqui. He loves to share Mongolian wisdom and culture with the visitors. Jacqui also welcomed that I blog about the folktales that he has translated to German with Sara Hellmuller. The booklet is called “Mongolische Märchen” and contains about  25 Mongolian folktales. “Camel, deer and horse” is one of them.


The title page shows a dreadful monster. Next to that monster is a boy that looks perfectly happy. Why is this boy not afraid of the monster? Well, the boy knows that this monster is protecting him against any evil demons – and being close to the monster the boy feels safe. The monster looks so scary, because he has to fight the demons that might be dangerous. Such monsters also appear on the paintings (thangkas) in the monasteries of Mongolia  and they protect us and our temples.

Here are three more examples from the “Mongolische Märchen”

Gold and silver are metals and wheat is life

A king collects what he thinks is valuable, namely gold and silver. But when famine hits his country and the people and the animals die from hunger, he tries to sell his gold and silver for food – but nobody buys his metals and he dies. Now this is written on the castle gate: “Gold and silver are metals and wheat is life”.

The fox, the hedgehog and the wolf

The fox, the hedgehog and the wolf found butter and debated who should eat it. Eventually they agreed that he who runs fastest, shall eat it. The hedgehog climbed on the tail of the fox, the fox ran as fast as he could – but when he arrived at the target line, the hedgehog asked: “Do you arrive here only now?” And the hedgehog ate the butter… It is interesting that a German folktale is about the race between a hare and a hedgehog. The hedgehog wins, because he and his wife wait at the target lines, and the hare can run as fast as he can – the hedgehog is always first…

The clever hare

Two horses that had been sold to a place far away decided to return home. On their way home one of them felt that he will die soon. To the younger horse he gave the advice not to pick up any bundle that he will come across. The young horse continued alone, found a bundle, opened it – and a wolf left the sack. “I am hungry”, the wolf said, “and now I am, going to eat you, stupid horse.” A hare comes along. He thinks about how to rescue the horse and teases the wolf. “Is it true, you were in this sack?, the hare  asks, “I cannot believe this, can you prove it to me?” The vain wolf returns into the sack – and the hare immediately cords it up again…

Another folktale: The horsehead fiddle or Morin khuur (German: Pferdekopfgeige)

The horsehead fiddle or Morin Khuur is the national instrument of Mongolia (see entry of Wikipedia).


In the Zanabazar museum I found the book of Ч. Баярмаа telling us “the legend of Khokhoo Namjil” (2010). This is the legend about the origin of the horsehead fiddle. Khokhoo Namjil was a handsome man and a famous singer. After having founded his first family, he had to go to the army, where he met a wonderful woman in a green deel. He married her as well and commuted back and forth between her and his first family sitting on a yellow horse with wings that the lady in the green deel had given to him. Before getting to his old home he just had to let the horse breathe.


Once he was late and did not let the horse breathe. An evil woman cut away the wings and the horse died. Khokhoo Namjil was very sad and did not drink or eat for three months. Then he carved the head of his horse into wood, built a wooden sound box, covered the box with the skin of his horse and used the tail of the horse to make strings and a bow. And ever since the horsehead fiddle has been one of the main music instruments of Mongolia.

Two more sources of Mongolian folktales

The following book by D. Altangerel is on sale in museums and souvenir shops:


On the Internet I found the TaleTellerin that blogs about Mongolian tales.

TaleTellerin’s blog telling Mongolian tales

Two Swiss in Mongolia – Enjoying the food

The Lonely Planet warns that food is “more for survival than taste”

The authors of our guide books were not enthusiastic about the Mongolian food. Mutton, dairy products and nothing else. This might become boring when traveling for four weeks in Mongolia. Also, salted milk tea is something I cannot imagine to drink. Ursula and I decided to pack some crackers, some chocolate, some tea bags and some bouillon cubes to add a bit of variety to our diet. But… we did not need all this and we gave it away almost untouched, before returning home. We found the food not bad at all.

Yes – there IS a lot of mutton (and it is mutton, not lamb)

Mongolians love their animals though they eat a lot of meat. They try not to waste their lives and do not kill young lambs. They only slaughter older animals, and they do it very gently, as we could watch once. The man stroke the animal, cut into the abdominal wall (Bauchdecke) and then severed the artery to interrupt the blood supply to the brain. The mutton passed out within seconds (for a description in German see “wie ein Schaf in die Milchkanne kommt“).



The Mongolians prepare tasty meals with mutton like Khorkhog or various varieties of Ravioli

The most tasty mutton meal is Khorkhog. One of the two best Khorkhog meals was served to us at the Khövsgöl lake in the Deltur camp. The mutton simmered between hot stones in a metallic pot behind the house, while the gifted cooks prepared the side dishes on the small wooden oven in the kitchen.



The second great Khorkhog was served by the Hoyor Zagal camp – it was a luxury picknick in the Khögnö Khpaan mountains – a real surprise. We felt like Chinggis Khan (the name of the camp reminds of his two white horses – “the two white ones”).




Another tasty mutton meal are dumplings: Bansh and buuz are small and steamed (they are of different shape), while Khushuur are bigger and fried (we had them sometimes for our picknicks). See Mongolian recipes.


Besides mutton, we had beef (I believe, sometimes from Yak) and chicken (which is perhaps more a compromise for the tourists).

For four weeks, we had meat twice every day. After having returned to Switzerland, I did not eat any meat for about a week, and then I turned back to normal.

Dairy products

Dairy products are the second component of the Mongolian diet. We had yoghurt from Yak milk for breakfast and dessert. The nomadic families would always offer their cream and dried cheese made from Yak milk, when being visited.


Airag is fermented milk of the female horse. We were told that in summer the nomads almost exclusively live on Airag which contains vitamins. Some of us liked the fermented milk that we were offered by one of the nomadic families we visited. It is in the big white pot and has to be stirred regularly with the wooden muddler.


We also watched how the mares are milked: One person has to hold the foal back and the second person is milking the mare.


Breakfast with bortzig and salted milk tea

Breakfast was often a hot meal. Most of the tourist camps we stayed in served eggs which are not part of the traditional Mongolian diet. What we liked most was the mutton noodle soup (shölte khool) – it warmed us up after a chilly morning in the ger. The salted milk tea tasted much better than I expected, but we were thankful that we tourists also had the choice of black tea. The absolute breakfast hit were the bortzig. They are fried unleavened bread cookies and reminded us of our Schänggeli (a Swiss cooky).

Mushrooms and vegetables are not for human beings

At the start of each meal, our Mongolian guide Jacqui would walk around with the salad plate asking “who can help me.” He had grown up in a nomadic family that had to withstand minus 40 degrees centograde in their ger in winter. All beyond meat and dairy products is just not nourishing enough to be efficient in that situation. Salad or vegetables are served to animals or to tourists and they are now on the menus of the restaurants in Ulan Baator. But a nomad guy simply cannot waste any energy to eat vegetables – this is food for the animals.

On the Khövsgöl lake my eyes would flow over from all the mushrooms there – I had to be careful not to step on to them. I could have collected mushrooms without having to search for them. It was the first time in my life that I saw the boletus with the red hat – and of course many more boletus. I could have cooked a tasty Risotto for an army every day. But the Mongolians do not bother to eat mushrooms. Not enough nutritive value. They dry some of them as a medicine for animals.




Well, once I saw Pudje frown at a white mushroom on a meadow. And he was right. It was a death cap with the white lamellas. The Mongolians know their mushrooms, but they do not eat them.

Agile Mongolia

So, meat (above all mutton) and dairy products, this is the diet of the Mongolians. And it made them very agile fighters, when gathered by Chinggis Khan to conquer the world around 1200. They had the dried meat under their saddles and the mares’ milk was also with them. They had the basic food with them to nourish themselves while conquering the world. A mobile solution. The big baggage could follow later.

Experience gastronomy in Ulan Baator

Ulan Baator is becoming a world city with a lively restaurant culture.

With Aika, we had a Mongolian firepot in the Bull. We cooked the meat and vegetables in our personal cauldron of boiling broth.

Matthias and Jacqui took us into a castle in Ulan Baator’s small Disney Land, where we could dream of princesses and princes.


And for lunch they selected this restaurant full of activity, where the guests have to select the ingredients and then watch, how the cooks prepare them on the cookig stove – acting a real performance.


Yes, Mongolia is changing quickly. Already half of the population is no longer agile nomads, but people living in cities.

Two Swiss in Mongolia – trying to learn some Mongolian

We two Swiss like to contact people in their own language, when traveling, also in Mongolia

To learn some of the most important Mongolian words like “thank you” and “good-bye” and to acquire a basic understanding of the Mongolian language, Ursula acquires the “Kauderwelschführer” and loads their audit guide on to her iPod. After having browsed the appstore, I select the app “uTalk Mongolian” and I also find a PONS  dictionnary “German to Mongolian” (sorely Mongolian to German seems not to be available). We both dive into our material… and are soon confused, as…

Mongolian is spoken differently than it is written – and we can hardly discern the sounds

As I scan through the words, I expect to remember them easily, because Mongolian uses the cyrillic alphabet. Well, I experience an easy start – тийм (tijm) means “yes” and угуй (uguj) means “no”. It is exactly spoken as it is written. I move on to баярлалла (bajarlalla) – and the Mongolian voice of “uTalk Mongolian” says something like “bajrsa”. Hm… What about “good-bye”?  Again I am confused – баяртай (bajartaj) is pronounced something like “baijsta”. Some other words are again easier such as yc (us – Wasser), утас (utas – telephone), суу (su – milk) and шар арайг (schar ajrag – beer, whereby I learn later that people say пив or “piv”). I also find a word for “please” – ажаммуу (adjamy).

Aika, please explain this to us…

On the lake Khögsvöl, we share our language guidebooks with Aika, our local Mongolian guide and translator: “How can it be that “thank you” is written so differently from what it is pronounced.” Aika confirms that the pronounciation is correct and gently practices “thank you” over and over again with us: “Bajrla, bairla.” The “l/л” sounds almost like an “s”: Our tongues have to move forward and touch the teeth both for the “r” as well as for the “l-s”. Ursula with her language background from the Swiss canton of Berne soon gets this right, but my language background from Basel (with the French “r”) makes it hard on me. I think I never got it fully right, but I reached the level, where Mongolians gently understood me, when I was trying to say “bajrla” or “thank you”. They even answered, when I said өглөөний мэнд or “öglönij mend” for “good morning” and удшийн мэнд  or “udschijn mend” for “good evening”.

Then Aika tells us: Watch out the Mongolian word “us” is not equal to “us”!

More hurdles. I was so proud to be able to ask for water or “us”. Aika laughs: “Careful, you have just asked for “hair” and not for “water”. “Us” with a short and closed “u” is “hair”. To ask for water, you have to say “uos”. This is one of the two vowels that do not exist in the Russian alphabet. The second one is “ө”.” Okay, I will remember the “uo” and the “ө”. This “ө” seems to be close to our German “ö” which makes it easier to be pronounced by us.

And… frustration… “please” does not exist as a separate word in Mongolian

Aika frowns at my App uTalk: “Nobody says “adjamu” for “please” in Mongolian, this is old fashioned. “Please” is part of the verb that we ask for – we add “yy” (uu).” I give up on “please”, as I will never be able to learn so many verbs to be able to politely express “please” with each of them. I hope the Mongolians will forgive me for that. And why is this App “uTalk Mongolian” getting this wrong? I am disappointed about its wrong teachings.

Mongolian is very different – and more related with Hungarian/Finnish than with Turkish

On our Wikinger group tour, Matthias gives us an excellent introduction into Mongolian. He is our German guide with Mongolian roots and he is kindly assisted by Jacqui, our engaged and lively Mongolian guide.

Like Hungarian and Finnish, Matthias explains, Mongolian is an agglutinative language applying the harmony of vowels (only “harmonious” vowels are combined in one word… I remember the words with many “ö”and “ä” in Hungarian and Finnish). Also the grammar is related: Prepositions such as “with” are embedded into the noun. Verbs have an ending that makes them more or less “polite”. Mongolians even have a word for the question mark and say it explicitly.

By having been in touch with the Turkish culture, Mongolians also use some words related with Turkish, but Mongolian and Turkish grammar are different.

My Swiss newspaper NZZ (October 8th) underlines the relation between Finns and Mongolians from the opposite angle: In the 19th century, the German philosopher Ernst Häckel spread the stereotype that the Finns are Mongolians and differ from the Aryan race that the Swedes belong to and some Swedish researchers followed him. Racism is a sad background, but this fact shows that also the Finns (and their neighbors) are aware of their relation with the Mongolians.

Here is a list of bread and butter words – Matthias recommended: “Write them down, as you hear them!”

Matthias procedes with a list of the most important words that we might want to surprise Mongolians with. He asks us to write them down, as we hear them… and not to try to spell them correctly. I think, this is an excellent list:

Sain ban u = how are you? (сайн байна уу)
bajrla = thank you (баярлалла)
bairtä = good bye (баяртай)
saikhan holoroj = good evening
saikhan amraraj = good night
otschlarjai = sorry (уучлаарай)
bäkhguj = does not exist
tiim = yes (тийм)
uguj = no (угуй)
za = okay (за)
dzugerj = you are welcome
irul mindin tulo = cheers (эруул энхийн төлөө)

zaj = tea (цай)
kofe = coffee (кофе)
su = milk (суу)
uos = water (ус)
(us = hair)
piv = beer (schar ajrag proposed by my App seems not to be in use; piv comes from Russian “pivo/пивo”)
arkh = wodka (арх)
sachar = sugar (сахар)
zugin bal = honey (зөгийн бал)
talkh = bread (талх)
hool = meal (хоол)

haluon = hot (халоон)
khuiten = cold (хуйтэн)

nolinj zas = toilet paper (цаас=paper)
jamer untä vä = how much does it cost? (энэ ямер унэтэй вэ)
un = price (унэ)
tä (appended) = with
vä = question mark (вэ)

nolj = 0
nig  = 1 (нэг)
heuor = 2 (хоер (jo))
gurow = 3 (гурав)
duroe = 4 (дөрөв)
taov = 5 (тав)
dzuorgaa = 6 (зургаа)
dolloo = 7 (долоо)
fnaim = 8 (найм)
jüs = 9 (ес (jo))
arav = 10 (арав)
arav nig = 11 etc (арван нэг)
zoo = 100 (heuor zoo – зуу)
miang = 1000 (мянг)

nig zar = it is one o’clock (нэг цаг)

Bajrla – this is how we said farewell after two weeks of traveling with you, Matthias and Jacqui

Masch sakhen bailaa (it was great).
Ikh bajrla (thank you very much).
Darajil masch sain tschultschen ultschlere (have more nice tourists).

Matthias and Jacqui, why do you not create an App for tablets that has no mistakes, gives some background information and focuses on what is important? And, PONS, would you not also offer a dictionnary Mongolian to German (to English would also be okay) and sell it as an App?

In my blog I might not get everything right when trying to make some steps into Mongolian – I will be happy to learn and improve. Matthias told us that many who visited Mongolia came back again… and perhaps I will do so as well!

Two Swiss in Mongolia – wondering why there are 700 monasteries in this country of warriors and conquerors

Our collective memory: Peoples from the steppes are conquerors
From history we remember that peoples came from the east (Asia) to conquer the world. And they were often cruel with those that opposed to them. We remember the Huns and Turkish tribes. We remember the huge wall that the Chinese built, because they were afraid of the Mongolians… We remember the golden circle of fortified monasteries that the Russians built around Moscow as a protection against the golden hordes. Yes, the peoples from the steppes came to conquer the world. And Chinggis Khan is present in Mongolia’s memory today, as here in front of the Parliament House in Ulan Baator.


But there are more secrets hidden in the steppes…

Buddhism came to Mongolia in the 16th century
In 1578 Buddhism came to Mongolia, influenced by the Tibetan monk Sonam Gyatso. It was the Tibetan Mahayana tradition, the so-called Yellow Hats. Two Mongolian leaders took the initiative, Altan Khan and Abtai Sain Khan. The tradition of Lamas started with Sonam Gyatso.

Zanabazar, the first theocratic leader and also the Leonardo da Vinci of Mongolia gave Buddhism the twist in Mongolia – it became the most religious country in the world
Yes, the conquerors became the most religious people in the world: Eventually 50% of the male population in Mongolia were monks living in about 700 monasteries. This is thought to be largely the impact of Zanabazar (1635-1723, see also my blog about Zanabazar). He became the first religious and political leader of Mongolia, called Bogd Ghan (or Gepan).  He was not only a leader, but also an admired artist and a scientist – some call him the Leonardo da Vinci of the steppes. This is his self portrait exhibited in the Zanabazar museum.


Zanabazar had serious political challenges: The Oirats (his enemies in Western Mongolia) conquered Eastern Mongolia and the Khalk tribes. Zanabazar fled to China and then defeated (and extinguished) the Oriats with the support of China. Under Chinese rule Mongolia lived a period of relative peace. It was then that the Mongolians became religious with 700 monasteries. In the 1930-ies, this was a no-go for Stalin… and he destroyed most of the monasteries and murdered many, many monks, with the support of Choibalsan, the Mongolian leader that was loyal to him.

Now the ruins tell us about Mongolia’s religious past, and after 1990 many of them are reviving. We visited eight Mongolian monasteries or khiids

Erdene Zuu
Erdene Zuu was the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Eastern Mongolia (see wikipedia). It was built in 1586, reusing the remains of the destroyed old Mongolian capital Kharkhorin. Up to 1000 monks lived here. After the 1930 purges, the wall with 108 stupas has been protecting a largely empty area. Three temples remain within an enclosure. One temple is for the young, one for the adult and one for the old Buddha. The wheel with the gazelles remind us of the grove, where Buddha revealed his cognition to his disciples and the animals. There is also a white stupa inside the stupa wall.  Today Erdene Zuu is reviving: Monks are again singing their morning prayers in a newer temple.  We met some monks in the area – also a young monk on his bicycle.







Gandan Khiid in Ulan Baator
The Gandan monastery on a hill west of the Ulan Baator city center was built in the first half of the 19th century. It was a learning center for Buddha’s teaching and has mostly escaped the purges under Stalin, because it is said to have proved the diversity of the Soviet Union (see wikipedia). There is a large temple with a huge Janraisig statue (26m, rebuilt in 1996) and there is an inner circle wall with smaller temples, where the monks are singing their morning prayers, directed by the vashra (thunder bolt) and the bell in the hands of one monk, and from time to time accompanied by the gong. We attended the solemnel prayers for some time. And then joined the pilgrims rotating the prayer wheels.




The Choijin Lama Temple in Ulan Baator
The Choijin Lama Temple was built in 1904. It had been saved from the Stalin purges, as already then it was a museum (see wikipedia). It is a peaceful oasis surrounded by sky scrapers. Five temples show statues of the historical Buddha (Sakyamuni) and of religious leaders (also a self portrait by Zanabazar) as well as thangkas (religious paintings on cloth; here is Shakyamuni from the Zanabazar museum) and tsam masks (used for dancing during religious ceremonies). My head turns, as the charming museum leader explains all the symbolism that supports the Buddhists to reach the state of enlightment. I now understand that the nasty looking guards are in charge of protecting the holy temple and keep all bad demons outside of it. Sadly, inside the temples we are not allowed to take fotos.





Mandshir/Manzushiryn Khiid (Khiid=Monastery)
In the mountains about 30km south of Ulan Baator, on 1645m, the Mandshir/Manzushiryn Monastery – built in 1733 – once hosted 300 monks (see wikipedia). The site is gorgeous – pine forest and pastures that remind us of our Pre-Alps in Switzerland.

The main temple has been restored as a museum – again we find the thangkas (silk cloth) and the tsam masks. In detail we study Shri Devi, the guard who became female to marry the demon she wanted to fight. She sits on a mule, the skin of her husband-enemy is her saddle and she is killing her baby. This is a very gloomy story.
Behind the museum are buddhist rock paintings. In front of the old man representing the mountain north of Ulan Baator, we Westerns want to eat our picknick, but Aika pulls us away – this is a holy site and not a picknick place…
Shamanism meets Buddhism… With Aika we climb the rock above the monastery, say hello to the Ovoo on top of the rock and enjoy the view. Aika sings a song – it is the first time that she climbed this rock.








Two monasteries known under the name of Övgön Khiid in the Khögnö Khpaan mountains
On our way to Kharkhorin, we take a break to walk in the Khögnö Khpaan Mountains.


There are two monasteries here, known under the name of Övgön (see Trescher Verlag and Lonely Planet). The first and older monastery is nicely hidden away in the mountains. Only ruins are left. It has been destroyed in the 17th century during the turbulences between the Oirats and the Khalk Mongolians. It is controversial, when this first monastery has been built. Some sources say – in the 14th century by the red hats, others say – in the 17th century (then already by yellow hats).



The second Övgön monastery is at the foot of the Khögnö Khpaan Mountain range. It has been destroyed during the Stalin purges, and now it is reviving with female monks.




Two monasteries called Ongiin Khiid on the Ongi Gol (Ongi River)

Ongi Gol allows for a ribbon of fertility in the desert of Gobi. We visit two monasteries here. They have been destroyed in the 1930-ies. The southern monastery has now partially been rebuilt and is reviving (see wikipedia about this khiid and the nearby ovoo). There is a museum hosted in a ger that shows religios artifacts and tools supporting the life of the nomads. The site provides holy water – Matthias pulls up some of it from the underground well for us. Refreshed we start a long walk through the hills from here.





Oh yes, we discovered hidden treasures in the Mongolian steppes and desert. There is more to Mongolia beyond warriors.

Sources: Internet, Marion Wisotzki et alii, “Mongolei”, Trescher Verlag 2010; Michael Kohn et alii, “Mongolia”, Lonely Planet; information given by Matthias, the Wikinger guide; various Internet sources.

Two Swiss in Mongolia – discovering Zanabazar and more artefacts

Zanabazar – who is he?

Ursula intended to visit the Zanabazar museum for fine arts. Zanabazar – who is he? I started to read about him and discovered an impressive leader.

Zanabazar was the first Bogd Gegen or spiritual head of buddhism of Mongolia. He lived from 1675-1723. His name means thunderbolt. He was a pioneer of medicine, literature, art, astronomy, language, music, architecture. He is the Leonardo da Vinci of Mongolia, Jacqui confirms proudly.  Zanabazar composed music, and mastering bronze casting, he created sculptures. He founded a school to hand over his art to talented monks. In addition he invented a script; the first letter is part of the Mongolian flag and this letter is full of symbolism. For instance the yingyang stands for equilibrium inside the country or the bars on the sides mean good relations with the neighbors, this is what we heard from one guide.


As the political leader, Zanabazar cooperated with the Chinese. The Oirats from West Mongolia had overrun the central Khalk Mongolians. Zanabazar managed to defeat the Oriats with the support of the Chinese, but for the price of becoming part of China. Some say that Zanabazar has sold Mongolia to China. Others value that he might not have had a choice and that under the Chinese rule, Mongolia lived a period pf peace.

Visiting the Zanabazar museum

Some of Zanabar’s sculptures are on display in the Zanabazar museum.  We pay the entrance fee, stay some time in the great museum shop (buying fairy tales) and then head right to his room. We admire the “real” Buddha (Shakiamuni), his five Buddhas, the wives, the Boddhisatvas and the guards, all with their special attributes.




There are more Buddhist treasures in the Zanabazar museum

We continue with the Tankras (some painted on silk, some wonderfully patchworked, enhanced by stitching), mandalas (one is also patchwork and one is a three dimensional mandala) and the tsam masks.






And there is ancient and more recent folk art on the first floor, even Infographs

On the first floor, we find the remians from 3000 AD ( rock paintings), from 2000 AD (deer stones) and from the Turks (stone sculptures – busts). There is also folk art such as the horse head guitar (a traditional music instrument).




Infographs must have been invented by the Mongolians. Infographs display various scenes to explain a story. One infograph on display here shows the preparation and celebration of the feast of airak (airak is an acoholic drink made out of milk from a female horse) and a second shows a day in Mongolia ( life in all its aspects from moving a ger to giving birth to a child).





This was a wonderful afternoon in the museum, and I enjoyed that I could share this experience with Ursula and that we like the same level of detail. I  just need to read more to understand the symbolism of the Buddhist art.

Two Swiss in Mongolia – discovering the vene of the peoples from the steppes

Mountains and steppes – how could peoples assemble their forces to build empires?
Mongolia is the least densely populated country in the world. Nomads in the steppes. For me it has always been an enigm, how peoples could organize themselves here to conquer empires, and this happened three times in history: The huns, the turkish-uigurs and the Mongolians with Chinggis Khan. Later research suggests that there was a fourth people, the Skythes, that went west and settled around the Black Sea.

Join us in the Orkhon valley. I believe, here we found the vene of the peoples of the steppes
The Orkhon river forms a vast fertile plane in the center of Mongolia north of the central Khangai mountain range. The river gives water to this fertile plane of about 40kmx40km, after having demonstrated its strength in a much praised waterfall, after having cut its way through the lava stream, and after having meandered through the Khangai mountain range.


This vast plane was the place where the armies from the steppes congregated. While getting ready, they could be fed, because this plane allowed for agriculture. It is here, where the Turkish tribes had their center in the 6/7th century. It is in this plane, where Chinggis Khan formed his army of a 100’000 soldiers (grouped in 10’000s) and where he founded Kharkhorin as a fort (the name is related with the Russian word  “Kreml”). It is here where decisions about Khan successorship were taken. It was here, where the great capital of Kharkorin existed for about 140 years, later their ruins were reused to build the first tibetan buddhist temple, Erdene Zuu. And it was also here, where the later city of Ulan Baator is said to have had its first location; it then moved several times and settled eventually at the Tul river.

Kharkorin – the sprawling town of diversity in the steppes
The son of Chinggis Khan, Ögedei, completed the capital of the Mongolian empire. The grand-son of Chinggis Khan, Kublai Khan, then moved the capital to Beijing, after having become emperor of China. The Ming, the dynasty that followed the Mongolian emperors completely destroyed Kharkorin.
Traders that traveled along the silk road wrote about this cosmopolitan capital of the thirtteenth century. A jeweller deported to this place, Bouche, built a fountain that spilled beverages. The Mongolians tolerated all religions, and there were mosques, Christian churches, Jewish synagogues – in all about twelve religions coexisted here.
Today, Kharkorin is just a district (sum) town with a lively market for the citizens and nomads. They find all they need for their daily live: Kitchen and sleeping equipment, tools and parts to build a ger (such as the roof, the door, the floor or carpets), clothing, shoes and cloth, food, drinking water and meat. Ursula and I most enjoy the shop with the cloth. Here I buy a new belt and Gisela found cloth in red and black to sew a jacket.


Erdene Zuu, the reincarnation of Kharkorin
The ruins of Kharkorin reincarnated in Erdene Zuu, the first tibetan buddhist monastery built in 1585. It was the most important monastery of Mongolia, until it was destroyed in the 1930-ies during the purges of Stalin. Three main temples remained wthin an enclosure, one for the young Buddha, one for the adult Buddha and one for the old Buddha. There is also a white Stupa (the biggest in Mongolia) and a temple, where monks are praying again.





The German excavations of Kharkorin
Behind the monastery, Germans are working to excavate the old Kharkorin, but there is nothing to see for us, except for the stone turtle with its blue scarf.


I think that the travel reports of the missionary William of Rubruck and an envoy sent by the Pope (Giovanni de Piano Carpine) give some insight into this mysterious town that was primarily inhabited by foreigners. It is said that the Mongolians preferd to live in their gers, as the Lonely Planet tells us.

Two Swiss in Mongolia – looking for dinosaurs

A raped raptor or Tarbosauros Bataar now on Sükhbaatar square

Somewhere a Tarbosauros Bataar appeared at an auction. Wait a minute, the Mongolians said, these raptor dinosaurs have only been found in our country! They managed to retrieve their Tarbosauros and now it is shown in an exhibition on Sükhbataar square, in a metallic box. We visit the museum box. There the raptor stands on his hind legs, with his short forearms (not used to capture his prey), with his long head and strong neck (used to tear apart his prey) and with his small brain (used to smell where the prey is, this part of the brain was well developed – and, says Ursula, beings with smaller brains might not be more stupid… women also have smaller brains than men).  The exhibition is well curated.




The flaming cliffs in the Gobi desert – Indiana Jones found dinosaurs here

Later in the south, near Bayanzag, we walk through the flaming cliffs. They are made from sandstone and are exposed to constant erosion. In the 1920’s Roy Chapman Andrews came here and found bones and eggs of dinosaurs.  Roy loved adventures and science and it is said that Indiana Jones has been modeled after him.



The erosion discloses dinosaur bones and eggs until today. We walk around in the cliffs. Matthias keeps hs eyes open… and he ends up finding some bones in the sand.


Some dino bones in the museum of the Gurvan Saikhan National Park

The bones and eggs found in the Gobi desert are now on display in the museum of Natural History  in Ulan Baator which is currently closed due to renovation. We found this bone in the museum at the entrance to the Gurvan Saikhan National Park.


Two Swiss in Mongolia – joining the Ulanbaators for a weekend in Terelj

Terelj is about 50km from Ulanbaator and it is weekend

Our first excursion with Vikinger takes us to Terelj, a resort which is at the entrance to Gorkhi Terelj national park. It is weekend and the Ulanbaators also head there.

Our small bus fights its way through the Saturday traffic jam in Ulan Baator, passes by the Russian orthodox church built in the traditional style with ognion shaped cupolas, passes by the catholic church which looks like a stone model of a ger, follows the railway up to the mining town Nalaikh (many Kasachs live and work here), turns north into the mountains and drops us in the Guru camp that is owned by Julchin tours, the local tour operator of Wikinger.

Walking and observing the locals from town

After lunch, our small group starts for a three hours walk, up and down through the hills. Our target is the Aryapala initiaton and meditation center.

Ursula sings this tune: “S’goot es Schnäggli s’Bärgli uff, s’Bärgli uff, äne wyder aabe , äne wyyder aabe, uff em Buuch, uff em Buuch.” (A small snail goes uphill, goes uphill, then again down, then again down, on its belly, on its belly).

We stroll through meadows abundant with edelweiss, gentiane, astera and we even find a yellow puppy flower – next to a tin. The rocks stimulate my phantasy, there are frogs, horses and faces around us. Matthias explains, this is granit that is breaking easily and has been formed by erosion (not by glaciers, as there have never been glaciers here… the area is too dry). Well, all guide books proudly announce the turtle rock… but the turtle rock does not resemble a turtle at all, by my opinion. Below is a rock that to my opinion looks more like it…




We share this beautiful landscape with Ulanbaators

We come across a large family that performs a wrestling contest. The winner, a strong young man of about twenty years is honored. Then he offers us (the unexpected spectators) milk and bortzig (fried unleaved bread). The five year old upspring is wrestling outside the circle and has a lot of fun.


We come across families sitting at the border of the lark tree forest. They are pick-nicking and singing joyfully.

And when we reach the ground of the meditation center, we share the hanging bridge and the many stairs leading up to the balcony with families that carry their young offspring, sweating and breathing. And we share the magnificent view across two mountain ridges with them.



The sun is setting and our bus picks us up.

Our camp has now more guests

In our Guru camp there are now more guests that share their weekend with us. They enjoy the camp, lightly dressed and in high heals. They seem to be happy to be together, as they chat in the night.

A second walk on Sunday

On Sunday we walk up to a hill across the valley. A great area to hike. The rocks stimulate my phantasy. I see animals and people in them. When I share my imagination with Matthias, he asks me to give him from the same stuff that I smoke. Well, some people keep their phantasy, even as they grow older and do not need to smoke for that. On the way, we meet grand’pa with his grandson on their Sunday ride solemnly circumambulating each ovoo they come across.




Two Swiss in Mongolia – the boat ride on the Khövsgöl lake

Joining the group from Stuttgart for a boat ride
During breakfast, Aika organizes that we can join the boat tour with the group from Stuttgart, three men and two children. One of them is a Mongolian living in Germany. He is showing his country to his daughter and to some friends. Costs: 90’000 Törgöt or about 45 Dollars each for four hours.
The wish rock – do I have a wish?
The manager of the camp drives the boat to the wish rock
High above the lake there is an ovoo.
We climb the small path to the ridge, find a great view of this large lake disappearing in the horizon.
We circle the ovoo three times – clockwise.
What about my wish on this wish rock? I have Ernst in my heart and I am happy to have lived with him. I do not know what else to wish, except that I want to enjoy looking back, while sharing my live with friends – give and take. And, Ernst, forgive me for having let your son join you too early.
The manager points out some wild garlic (лук) to me. It is a green stem with the fluffy violett flower reminding me of the chive in my garden.
Berries and birds
Next stop is a stony shore with some blue berries. They are blackcurrant (черная смородина). The children love to eat from the bushes in the wild.
Next stop is at the birds’ rock. Our boat rund so fast that most seagulls and cormorans leave the island and wait outside on the water.
We stroll along the island, plough our way through swarms of small flies, hold our breath, when the smell around us gets to strong (on Galapagos they make dung out of this), sadly look at the dead birds lying around, as young seagulls risk being eaten by adults.
Fishing for the children
Our boat takes us back to a bay, where the children unpack angling rods for a short fishing session. We climb up the cliff and find a beautiful forest clearing with a burbling creek and a carpet of mushrooms, all relatives of the boletus.
After that we return to our Döltur camp for lunch and for another stroll along the lake, enjoying the cristal clear water.
Dinner – simmered ham with many delicacies
At 6:30 the camp restaurant is still closed; dinner is not ready. This camp has a very gifted lady cook, and today she is preparig a specialty: Ham that isnsimmering in an oven behind the kitchen (хорхог).
She serves it with rice, steamed bread (мантуу), mushrooms, cabbage in the form of salad and various vegetables, rice, potato and pickled cucumber. We take the bones into our hands and gnaw on them like real Mongolians. It is a delicious meal. As we come down to our ger, the oven has been heated so well that we feel like in a sauna.

Two Swiss in Mongolia – visiting the shaman lady

The interview with the shaman lady

Pudje drives our car to the Shaman lady he knows. She lives in a wooden house that has the shape of a ger. Other than a ger it has windows. The kitchen and the bed as well as the altar (in this case an owl on a blue flag) are at the usual places,
but other than a nomadic ger, the walls are full with the “tools” she needs as a shaman and with souvenirs (I assume given by visitors) such as bottles of vodka or portwine).
The ger is almost overloaded and dirty. In the kitchen corner there are still bones from one of the last meals. Some ladies come and start to clean up the kitchen.
The shaman lady immediately offers us to show how she performs her cult and this would cost 250’000 Tögröt or about 150 dollars. No, we do not want a show for tourists. We just want to talk to her about her art. Ursula leads the interview – I can tell that she has a lot of practice at this (doctors practice “anamnese”). Aika translates and the shaman answers reluctantly first. At the age of thirteen she decided to become a shaman, and she is the 14th shaman in her family. No, she does not want to say, why she made this decision (which we of course respect, because the reason may be very personal, an illness or a stroke of fate). Her mum taught her the practice. She mainly tries to help people with psychic or health problems or she forecasts their future. She uses her mental abilities to cure people, she does not use medical plants. After a ceremony it takes her two days to recover. She is a Tuva and can speak Tuva and Mongolian. She has five children.
Whether she would show us her drum, we ask. No, she would do so only for 250000 Tögrök, she answers.
Then she switches and starts to ask questions. Your names? Your country? Your age? Children? And then a few compliments such as “you look younger than your age” and “your skin is still beautiful”. We return the compliments: “You look wise and you have charisma”. She starts to thaw up a bit. She invites us to join a ceremony that is planned in the forest in about an hour. Her husband comes and pulls a foto album from under her bed. In 2010 they traveled through Europe and also came to Switzerland. They met European shamans, and some of them also had visited them in Mongolia.
The room is now full with people. Three ladies and a young man from Ulanbatoor want to explore shamanism, and a man in his fifties admires her; he has already attended various sessions and has often been the only person to see the fire in front of the practicing shaman lady – and he could even take a foto of what he saw and the others could not see. He shows us the foto…
The group of people now takes their cars to get to the shaman place about five to ten kilometers north. It is on a hill in the forest. The sacred area is surrounded by a fence covered with ribbons in all colors.
 A hut made of branches. A bench in front of the house. The guests put their gifts on to that bench: Bisquits, milk tea, vodka, cigarettes, toffees and more. A mat on the ground and a fireplace nearby. The husband tunes the drum over the fire, carefully testing it from time to time. Supported by the guests the shaman lady dresses up for her performance. She puts on a coat made of fur pieces (fox), a grim mask with feathers on top and big shoes. The guests write their wishes on white ribbons and add them to her coat. She sits down and her husband sits next to her. She starts to hit the drum with a decorated drum stick while turning her upper body. Sometimes her husband supports her carefully. Her coat must be heavy – I think what she performs requires a huge physical effort.
After some time the man in his fifties kneels and bends down in front of her. He has problems with his eyes, but wants to open up a new business. The shaman lady continues to play the drum and turn her upper body, while murmuring her advice. Her husband translates her words. The future does not look good for this man and the shaman asks him to take care for his health.
The three ladies bend down one after the other. They mostly have problems with men and also ask about the future of their families. When translating, the husband sometimes smiles or lights a cigarette; then he speaks with the cigarette in the edge of his mouth. From time to time the shaman lady needs a bowl of milk tea or wodka. One of the ladies has just been divorced, has a son, and would like to find a new husband. The shaman lady shows compassion by dropping the drum on her back. She foresees that this lady will find a new husband in two years. This young lady takes notes, while the shaman speaks to her.
In the background, Kleiber and squirrels enjoy the bisquits – a second performance is going on here. From time to time the guests and the husband sprinkle milk tea around or throw toffees into the air.
Last it is the turn of the young man from Ulanbatoor. Then the husband helps the shaman lady to get up and undress. She sits down again and immediately is back in this world and wants to know, whether we liked it. We leave a gift between the bisquits and the wodka and say good-bye.
Lunch in the camp
We are frozen – the ceremony had lasted about one and a half hours in the cold forest. We take our box lunch in the camp.
Siesta and a walk
To digest our experience with shamanism, we need a rest and free Aika and Pudje for the remaining afternoon. They visit relatives of Pudje and we meet them later laying hearts for their partners. Aika takes a foto of me with her heart that says “I love you”. Yes, I do… today it is exactly two years ago that you became a star watching over me.