The Urban Heart of the Nomad’s Land-Capital City of Mongolia

Ulaanbaatar picture

The history of Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of modern Mongolia, begins long after the collapse of the Mongolian Great Empire founded by Chinggis (Genghis) khan. In 17th century, when Mongolia lost its power and considerably weakened due to continuous civil wars between local Khans of small tribes.

Meanwhile, a strong, centralized Manchu kingdom arose in the east of Mongolia, which had already seized China and even southern Mongolia (now the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region of China) and threatened Mongolia to conquer all parts of it.

At that alarming time, noyons or lords of central Mongolia gathered in the assembly-Khuraldai. Khuraldai took place, according to historical chronicles, in yellow rabbit year of 11th jaran (sixty years circle) by lunar calendar in 1639.

Noyons proclaimed five-year-old Zanabazar, the son of Chingis khan’s descendant Tusheet khan Gombojav, as the head of all Mongolian Buddhists with the title of “Bogd khan”. In today’s perspective, we could say that it was an unsuccessful attempt to unite Mongolia, facing foreign intervention under the name of Chingis khan and Buddhism.

Noyons also decided to establish a settlement for infantile khan and named it… no, not Ulaanbaatar. But Urgoo, which means a Palace.

Thus, Ulaanbaatar had another name in its early days. Moreover, the place Shireet Tsagaan Nuur, where Urgoo was established, as far as 250 kilometers (155 miles) away from the modern Ulaanbaatar.

Image 1. Gandantegchinlen monastery

Gandantegchinlen monastery

In its history, Ulaanbaatar has changed location 22 times and was known as Urgoo, Nomyn Khuree, Ikh Khuree, Niislel Khuree in different historical periods. Even foreigners called the city in different names. Russians and Europeans – Urga, Chinese – Kunlun, Tibetans – Chonmo, Manchurians – Da Khuree.

Perhaps, there is no other city in the world that has changed its name and location so many times. With such amazing indices, Ulaanbaatar may even could appear on the pages of the Guinness book of records.

Urgoo governors constantly moved the city not only to follow traditional nomadic lifestyle, but also because of the bloody civil war between Oirad (Western) and Khalkh (Central) Mongolia and the expansionist policy of Manchu kingdom.

Khalkh Mongolian noyons decided to stop the hundred years of war and agreed with Manchurian domination and held a ceremony of unification of Khalkh Mongolia to Manchu Kingdom as vassal state in 1691.

The architecture of the moving city with hundreds of white gers (Mongolian traditional portable round felt dwellings) was unique. All of the big buildings of Urgoo such as a palace of first Bogd khan Zanabazar, monasteries and temples were made of wood with carcass structures, easy to dismantle and re-build like gers.

Image 2. Winter Palace of the Bogd Khan

Winter Palace of the Bogd Khan

Some of samples of such mobilized architecture remained until 1930’s, when pro-Soviet communists began to destroy Buddhist monasteries and temples. You can imagine how Urga looked like at that time if you visit the Dashchoilin monastery. There are preserved ger shaped wooden temples 20 meters in diameter.

At the end of 17th century Urgoo have changed its name into Nomyn Khuree (Holy book sphere). The new name suited well to the activity of the multi-talented first Bogd khan and the city became the biggest centre, Mecca of Mongolian Buddhism.

In 1706, after building Batsagaan temple, the city got its third name – Ikh Khuree (Great sphere). From this time, the city became not only religious but also commercial and political center of Khalkh Mongolia. After that, Ikh Khuree began to be the main arena of trade between Mongolian, Russian and Chinese merchants.

Image 3. Choijin Lama Temple

Choijin Lama Temple

Only in 1778, the travelling city come to rest in its present location under the Bogd Khan Mountain in the Valley of Tuul River. Chronicles stated that when the city moved last time, almost 94 temples were transported. It is difficult to imagine that the great move with caravans of 20500 Bactrian camels.

In the same year, the beautiful Bogd khan mountain received its designation of the protected area; reputed to be the first in the world. By the way, the symbol of modern Ulaanbaatar is mythological bird Khangarid – host of the Bogd khan mountain.

Soon, the first buildings settled in the city were made by wood, stone and bricks and built as an original mixture of Mongolian, Tibetan and Chinese architecture of Ikh Khuree, which was so attractive.

The most beautiful building of Ikh Khuree was richly decorated Dechingalav temple with a golden roof. Unfortunately, we cannot see this temple today. The temple was destroyed by fire in 1892.

There were also original Batsagaan temple with 108 columns and Maidar temple containined golden statue of Maidar god 16 meters in height. The Gandan monastery with the territory of 700×680 meters was the place where two thousand lamas (Buddhist monks) could gather in a religious assembly at one time. We can see the remains of this giant monastery in the north-west from the center of Ulaanbaatar.

Image 4. Gandantegchinlen monastery

Gandantegchinlen monastery

From about 800 monasteries of Mongolia Gandan was the only one that survived the Soviet’s destroying machine between 1920’s to 1940’s. Gandan was a Buddhist oasis of Mongolia within the atheistic, communist surrounding for more than half a century. In Gandan, there is a majestic Migjid Janraisig god statue 32 meters in height, which was re-built by public donations during the early 1990’s.

Image 5. Migjid Janraisig statue

Image 5. Migjid Janraisig statue

In December 29, 1911, Ikh Khuree with the population reached fifty thousand people, became the place of proclaiming the independence of Mongolia from Manchu Qing dynasty and changed its name into the Niislel Khuree (Capital sphere).

8th Bogd khan Javzundamba was enthroned as a religious and political leader of Mongolia. He was Tibetan but fully supported the desire of the Mongolians to restore their independent state after more than 200 years of Manchurian domination.

But Chinese and Russian rulers didn’t want to accept Mongolian de facto independence. In 1918, Chinese troops occupied Niislel Khuree. But three years later they were defeated by the Russian White army unit lead by General Baron von Ungern Sternberg, who entered Mongolian steppes escaping from the onslaught of the Soviet’s Red army in Siberia.

In 1921, there was one more significant event in the history of Ulaanbaatar. On July 11 of this year, soldiers of Mongolian People’s Pary liberated Niislel Khuree from troops of General Baron von Ungern Sternberg with support of Soviet’s Red army.

It was a victory for the democratic revolution aimed to establish an independent Mongolian Republic. On October 29, 1924 the delegates of parliament Ikh Khural accepted a constitution of Mongolian People’s Republic and the city with its new name Ulaanbaatar (Red Hero) was approved to become the capital of the newly established state.

Image 6. Ulaanbaatar city in 1950s

Image 6. Ulaanbaatar city in 1950s

However, even from the beginning the desire of Mongolians to develop independent and democratic state meets some pressure from Moscow, which increased year after year. The 1930’s were black period for Mongolia with mass repressions, arrests and executions initiated by Soviet’s advisers. Most of all, Mongolian intellectuals were killed during that time. Mongolia became a satellite, puppet in the hand of the Soviet Union leadership.

Buddhism was prohibited and was regarded as dangerous opium. As mentioned before; more than 800 monasteries were destroyed. Many priceless samples of Mongolian cultural legacy were exterminated. Unfortunately, Mongolians had no other way to preserve their delicate de jure independence.

After the World War II, in which Mongolia was an ally of the Soviet Union, the peaceful period of Ulaanbaatar’s development began with the support of the Soviet Union and other socialist countries. Ulaanbaatar rapidly turned into a modern city with all the necessary infrastructures, power stations, industrial zone, universities, high schools, theaters, hospitals, and micro districts with apartment buildings. In the 1980’s, the population of Ulaanbaatar reached to 500 thousands.

Image 7. Opera and Ballet Theatre of Mongolia

Opera and Ballet Theatre of Mongolia

During this period, the Governmental palace, the Sukhbaatar square, the Opera and ballet theater, the Central cultural palace, the Central stadium, the Natural history museum, the International airport of Chingis (Genghis) Khan and many other buildings were built. Some of them are interesting mixture of Mongolian traditions and the monumental style of architecture of the USSR.

In 1989 and 1990 Ulaanbaatar was the main arena of the democratic revolution demanding from the communist leadership of Mongolia political and economic reforms, independent policy apart from Moscow, renaissance of traditional culture and art. After series of demonstrations and hunger strike initiated by newly established political parties, all the members of Political Bureau of Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party which ruled the country for almost seven decades, resigned.

Having chosen a political democracy and a free market economy, Mongolia faced a painful transition period. Residents of Ulaanbaatar remember the time, when stores and supermarkets were empty with nothing on the counters. Only salt, and other minimum necessary food for residents was rationed with special coupons. The construction business was agonizing, like all other sectors of the economy.

Image 8. Night vision of Blue Sky Tower

Night vision of Blue Sky Tower

Only in the late 1990s and the beginning of the new millennium, Mongolian economy began to recover with the help of international organizations and investment foreign countries.

Construction was booming and cranes and other construction techniks were everywhere. In downtown, modern high buildings of banks and corporations were built. In all corners of UB (this is how foreigners for convenience call the long name of the Mongolian capital), cafes and restaurants offering Mongolian, Chinese, Russian, French, Italian, Turkish, Korean, Japanese, even Ethiopian cuisine suddenly appeared.

Ulaanbaatar is the starting point for all tourists coming to see Mongolia. Foreign tourists visit the city usually in the warm months from April to September. Ulaanbaatar is the coldest capital city of the world with a drop in temperature to minus 30 degrees Celsius in January.

Image 9. A statue of the Beatles in the center of Ulaanbaatar

A statue of the Beatles in the center of Ulaanbaatar

In the mid of July, the city holds Mongolian national festival Naadam. The long distance horse racing, national wrestling and archery competitions, and various art performances captivate the tourists’ attention. That’s why July is the busiest month for tour operators and hotels in Mongolia.

Museums, concert halls, theaters, art galleries, temples, restaurants, night clubs – there are many places in UB where tourists satisfy their curiosities meeting unusual mixture of nomadic culture in the urban area.

Foreigners also notice that Ulaanbaatar is a quiet city, and there is no fear of terrorist attacks or other threats. Therefore, the 379-year-old sunny city of Ulaanbaatar-the urban heart of the nomad’s land, welcomes everyone all year round.

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