Sunday, November 17, 2002

Well, my European wanderjahr is over and I fInally made back to Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia.

November is not a popular month to visit Mongolia. The once-weekly Mongolian Airlines Airbus 310-300 from Berlin to Ulaan Baatar, the capital of Mongolia, (with a stop in Moscow) was less than half full with only four people in the business section. I had bought my ticket from the checkout counter at the airport two hours before the scheduled departure. In summertime, the three weekly flights from Berlin to Ulaan Baatar are often booked weeks in advance. But I had checked the weather in Ulaan Baatar before leaving, and it was –5ยบ F., a tempature which tends to discourage casual tourism. The Mongolian Airlines web site has a special page touted “Mongolia in Winter (with various attractions listed), but this is a concept which has not yet quite caught on.

The big news in Mongolia, according to the two English-language newspapers handed out on the plane, was the recent (November 4 – 8) visit of the Dalai Lama. Had I known he was going to be in Mongolia at this time I would have came a week earlier and caught his visit. Actually, just three week before, I had been in Graz, Austria, where the Dalai Lama had given a Kalachakra Initiation and thus had an opportunity to see and hear him many times. Even in Graz there was a rumor that the Dalai Lama would be in Mongolia sometime in November, but no one knew exactly when. After leaving Graz I had checked the Dalai Lama’s schedule on his website several times and there had been no mention of any trip to Mongolia. Hoping to find reports of the Graz Kalachakra Initiation I had also googled the news with the words “Dalai Lama” and not seen any articles about the Mongolia trip until he was actually in Mongolia. Now I read in the Nov. 6 Mongol Messenger that officials at Gandan Monastery in Ulaan Baatar had held a news conference on October 30 announcing that the Dalai Lama was coming but did not reveal any of his travel plans.

There was a reason for the aura of secrecy around this visit by Dalai Lama. He had originally planned to come to Mongolia during the first week of September, before his trip to Graz, but this trip had been cancelled at the last moment. I myself had been in Mongolia at the time.

Problems had arisen. First the Russian government had refused to issue the Dalai Lama a visa either to visit the Buddhist regions of Russia, including Kalmykia in the west, along the Volga River, and Buryatia, just to the north of Mongolia itself, or to simply pass through Russia on his way to Ulaan Baatar. There was wide-spread speculation in the press that the Russian government had caved into pressure from the Chinese government, which did not want see the Dalai Lama, whom it of course views as a dangerous “splittist”, promoting his views on Tibetan independence just beyond its northern border. The Russian Ambassador to Mongolia, Oleg Derkvosky, didn’t help matters by comparing the Dalai Lama to Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov.” The situation is similar if A. Maskhadov was invited to Mongolia,” Derkovsky explained during a news conference in response to questons about why the Russian government had denied the Dalai Lama a visa.

Then the Dalai Lama had attempted to come to Mongolia through Seoul, Korea, which maintains airlinks with Ulaan Baatar. This plan was thwarted when Asiana Airlines refused to fly him from Delhi, India, to Seoul. “We had respectfully asked the Dalai Lama to take a route that doesn't stop in Seoul for his and other passengers' safety,'' said Kim Haeng-seok, an Asiana spokesman.” Asked to elaborate on the security concerns he said: ``Some people like the Dalai Lama. Some people don't.”

`We cannot understand the airline's refusal to allow an internationally recognized religious leader to make a transit flight, commented a spokesman for the Dalai Lama Visit Preparation Committee, a Buddhist group in Seoul who had invited the Dalai Lama to Korea, commented. ”We are curious how much pressure there was from China.” This sentiment was echoed the Korea Times. “The government should give higher priority to Korea‘s sovereignty than stronger trade with China,” fumed an editorial. Right up until two days before his expected arrival monks at Gandan Monastery told me he was still coming, by means uncertain, but at the last moment it was finally acknowledged that the trip had been cancelled. Later in September he was also banned from visiting South Africa for the Earth Summit meeting, again because of alleged Chinese pressure.

Now the Mongolians monks were understandably being cagy. At the October 30 press conference the deputy head of Gandan monastery, Yo. Amgalan, had declared “I think that there is no need to talk about the routes of a famous person. We have no problems about visas now. Thanks to huge efforts and many requests , he [the Dalai Lama} is able to visit Mongolia.”

This announcement did not make international news however, and few outside of Mongolia knew the Dalai Lama was on this way there. The first widely broadcast news report about the visit came on the day he flew from Japan to Mongolia: “China denounced the Dalai Lama's visit to neighbouring Mongolia on Monday, hours before the Tibetan spiritual leader was due to fly into the predominantly Buddhist country to meet followers. ‘The Dalai Lama is not simply a religious figure, but is a political exile who has engaged in activities to split the motherland,‘ the Chinese Foreign Ministry told Reuters in a faxed response to questions. ‘The Chinese side is resolutely opposed to him going to any country in whatever capacity to engage in political activities aimed at splitting China or damaging its ethnic unity,’ it said.”

When he finally arrived in Ulaan Baatar on the evening of November 4 the Dalai Lama was met by various Mongolian Buddhist leaders and the Indian Charge d’Affaire in Ulaan Baatar, Amur Sanathu. Mongolian government representatives were conspiciously absent. Over 200 policemen guarded at the airport and the twelve-mile route from the airport into the city was lined with more police. Thus began the Dalai Lama’s sixth visit to Mongolia. He had been here before in 1979, 1982, 1987, 1991, and most recently in 1995, when he gave a Kalachakra Initiation like the one he had just given in Graz, Austria.

On Tuesday he visited the Gandan Monastery and the Janraiseg Temple—home of a immense 27 meter-high copper statue of Janraisig (commonly transliterated as Chenresig in Tibetan, also known as Avaloshitevara in Sanscrit)—a Buddhisattva of whom the Dalai Lama is considered to be a reincarnation, and he spoke to the large crowd who had assembled for over half an hour. Later he gave an address on television and presented a teaching at the UB Palace, Ulaan Baatar’s largest concert venue.

About 90% of Mongolia’s 2.4 million people consider themselves at least nominally Buddhist, despite that fact that religion was violently proscribed during seven decades of communist rule, with over 700 monasteries destroyed and thousands of monks killed or imprisoned. Now thousands of people turned out to hear the Dalai Lama. Typical was B. Badamdorj, a sixty-five year-old retired army man, who told the Mongol Messenger, “It is right that the Buddhist head pays a visit to Mongolia . . . He is seen as a unique person in Mongolia . . . My mother is 92 years old and I will take my mother to the speech by his Holiness the Dalai Lama.” Even those who had fully embraced communism were attracted to the Dalai Lama. As sixty-year-old G. Tuya told the Messenger, “I am not a strong believer. I have worked in a kindergarten for many years. As a member of the MPRP [Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party], I was brought up with the ideology of communism . . . My son told me yesterday about the Dalai Lama’s visit to Mongolia. When I saw in TV how many people will go to the monasteries, I wanted to go but my feet are not well and I am afraid of the crowds.”

Meanwhile, the Chinese government was not at all happy that the Dalai Lama had managed to circumvent their determined attempts to keep him out of Mongolia. On Tuesday, November 5, all rail communications between Mongolia and China were suddenly stopped. Chinese railroad officials cited “technical reasons” for the stoppage, but financial news services soon reported that the traffic halt was “widely believed to be the result of opposition by the Chinese authorities to the current visit of the spiritual and temporal leader of the Tibetan people, the Dalai Lama, to Mongolia.” Hundreds of passengers were stranded at the border station of Erenhot and all freight trains halted. Most significantly, this included shipments of copper concentrates which make up 50% of Mongolia’s exports. Forseeing a copper shortage if the embargo continued traders at the London Metal Exchange quickly bid up copper prices to a sixteen-week high of $1607 a ton. While the Dalai Lama’s visit was of limited interest to non-Buddhists outside of Mongolia the resulting spike in copper prices was featured on the business pages of newspapers all over the world (“Dalai Lama’s Trip Tied to Copper Rise,” trumpeted a headline in the Toronto Star). After two days, however, their pique apparently having run its course, Chinese authorities finally backed down and allowed rail traffic to continue. The Dalai Lama left on November 8, apparently not having met with any Mongolian government official of significance. This much the Chinese opposition accomplished.