Saturday, February 15, 2003

It’s hard to believe it has been over three weeks since I last posted. Well, I have been traveling, and not always where it was easy to find internet access. I left Ulaan Baatar on Feb 2, which is the day Mongolians celebrate the New Year, according to the Mongol-Tibetan calendar. Not only did I have an compartment on the train to myself, I had a whole car to myself. Not many Mongolian choose to travel on this day, most preferring to stay by the hearth. Of course I was traveling in one of the Luxe cars.

It was a grueling thirty-six hour train ride down to Hohhot in Inner Mongolia, part of China. This included a four hour layover at the border to clear the Mongolian border checkpoint and customs, then Chinese border checkpoint and customs. As usual the Chinese border police were extremely friendly, declaring, “Welcome to China and Happy New Year!” I think these guys must be under orders to put their best foot forward when greeting foreigners. Then of course we had to change the “boogies” on the cars, which means all the cars had to be lifted up on hydraulic jacks and the wheels removed and new wheels place under them, since the tracks in Mongolia are of different width than the tracks in China. This is supposedly a hold over of the Cold War days intended to keep trains from being used for military invasions. Whoever came up with this cockamamie idea of changing the boogies should be horse-whipped. It would be much easier and faster just to get off the Mongolian train at the border and get on a Chinese one.

Anyhow, after interminable delays we were on our way to the city of Hohhot. Just before I left I read in the paper that in Baotou, a big city near Hohhot, a new Wal-Mart-type store had a grand opening with lots of promised bargains. 50,000 people stormed the store on the opening morning and eleven were crushed to death in the resulting frenzy. This makes the Day-After Thanksgiving Shopping Frenzy in American stores look like tea at Tiffanies.

I arrived in Hohhot late on the evening of Feb. 3 and checked into a flea bin near the railroad station. Hohhot itself is a city of a million or so. It was founded by the Mongolian Altan Khan in the mid-sixteenth century, one of the first permanent Mongolian cities to be built after the collapse of the Yuan Dynasty in China. The next morning I went to the Old Town, which is supposedly where the remaining Mongolians in the city now live - the majority are now Han Chinese – to see the Dazhao Temple founded by Altan Khan in 1579. Altan Khan, you will recall, was converted to Buddhism in 1578 by the Tibetan lama Sonam Gyatso. In appreciation Altan Khan gave Sonam Gyatso the title of Dalai Lama, which of course is still in use today, notably by the 14th bearer of this title. Dalai is Mongolian word meaning roughly “oceanic” (there is a Dalai Eej [Oceanic Mother] Grocery Store next to where I live in Ulaan Baatar).They were still celebrating New Year and the air in the courtyard of the temple was heavy with the smoke of firecrackers.

One of the Dazhao Temples

Abudai Khan, who introduced Buddhism to Outer Mongolia, supposedly got the idea for the first Buddhist temple in post-Yuan Dynasty Outer Mongolia (the current country of Mongolia) from this temple here in Hohhot. This first temple in Outer Mongolia, a quite modest affair, Can Still be Seen at Erdene Zuu Monastery near Kharkhorin.

Then I popped across the street to visit the Xilituzhao Temple, built in the 1580s. The blue grazed bricks used in this temple are quite unusual . . .

As soon as I was able to make transportation arrangements I moved on to the city of Xining, in Qinghai province, on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau.

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